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Friday, February 8, 2008

Understanding the transgender community

Understanding the our community and its place in the larger community is no small task. It's a complicated landscape. And yet, in order to make a positive difference for transgender people, whether in the workplace world or in the personal environment, it is imperative to map this terrain.

When I wrote my last blog and left for school vacation in December, I was hoping that the GLBT community would begin to address the rift that occurred during the ENDA debacle. Personally, I was very hurt by Rep. Frank’s decision to remove gender identity protection from ENDA, and the support he received from HRC in so doing. Most transgender advocates and many gay, lesbian and bisexual allies felt the same. Political lobbying, writing and research on the issue took a great deal of time away from my personal and professional life, and made my partner question seriously whether I was striking the proper work-life balance. It also left me feeling that my work was not only futile, but worse, that few outside the transgender community were truly interested in equality for trans people. While I was heartened by the stand taken by United ENDA, in some ways it brought home the terrible truth that 350 GLBT organizations had no say in the law that was introduced. The brave stand of Rep. Tammy Baldwin in introducing an amendment to add gender identity or expression back into the bill, as well as the five members of Congress that voted against the non-inclusive ENDA, let me know that our community had not entirely been abandoned. Yet, I was not comforted by this desperate stand.

I was not surprised when I heard that Donna Rose and Jamison Green, two staunch advocates for the trans community who volunteered with HRC, had resigned from HRC’s Business Council when their requests for a meeting with Joe Solmonese, the Executive Director of HRC, to discuss their concerns, were ignored for weeks. (I wrote an article about those resignations for Echelon Magazine, suggesting that recent events showed a more conservative turn in the GLBT community.) I recognized “burn-out” setting in, and I was happy to take a break from blogging during the school vacation and to spend some time with my partner. I hoped that, when I returned to begin the new semester in January, that something positive would come out of the ashes of ENDA.

When I returned from school vacation and sat down at my computer to catch up on the blogosphere, I was disheartened to learn that things had gone from bad to worse. There were a few positive developments, such as the passage of a trans-inclusive ordinance in Miami-Dade County and Gainsville, Florida, and Senator Clinton's statement about commitment to a fully inclusive ENDA and hate crimes bill. However, I also learned that there were rumors that Senator Kennedy planned to introduce ENDA this year in the Senate without gender identity. I heard rumors that HRC was going to support re-introduction of ENDA in 2009, also without gender identity. Then, Meredith Bacon, Board Chair of NCTE, sent an email that later became public, which, among other things, stated that the National Center for Transgender Equality (for which I serve on the Board of Advisors) would not work with the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay advocacy organization, until the current Boards and staff resigned. She also noted her observation that HRC is dominated by “white, rich, professional gay men.” This sparked a public controversy in the pages of the Washington Blade, which demanded a retraction from NCTE. Next, Susan Stanton, the former city manager of Largo, Florida, whose transition last year made headlines around the world, was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times as suggesting that she sees herself as different from some other trans people, viewing some as “men in dresses,” and stating that the U.S. is not ready for transgender inclusion. She said the article misrepresented her views, but the resulting backlash from angry community members, who questioned her right to represent the transgender community as a leader, led Ms. Stanton to back away from working with HRC to publicize trans issues. Lastly, there are heated arguments in the blogosphere over the meaning of transgender and transsexual, and who is entitled to legal protection. This public mud-fight includes vituperative epithets on both sides, with some transsexual bloggers angrily protesting that they do not want to be part of a transgender community that includes crossdressers, and some transgender bloggers just as angrily suggesting that there is little difference between a transsexual and a crossdresser. (See "Transbigotry" and "Advocates And Insults")

These latest developments gave me pause, and I have taken the last few weeks to think about the direction of the transgender community and transgender advocacy before sitting down to resume my blogging on transgender workplace issues. One of the facts that struck me with great force during the ENDA battle was that, while these events have consumed my personal world, I find that very few of my friends outside of the advocacy community were even aware of what was and is happening on these issues. I have spoken to many different friends outside of the advocacy community, and whether straight, gay, lesbian, transsexual or transgender, almost all of them are at most dimly aware of the existence of ENDA (with or without gender identity), HRC, Barney Frank or United ENDA. This surprised me because I had spent a great deal of time sending out emails and making telephone calls to friends to support an inclusive ENDA. At the same time, I was also struck by the fact that these controversies, while hardly new, are being played out over and over again in the GLBT community as if completely novel, reinventing the wheel each time. These disagreements over who represents the transgender community, its relationship to the gay community, and who properly comprises the transgender community have been around since transsexuals began to emerge as a population in the 1960s. As Santayana said so famously, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. I have considered this past in detail before in a more scholarly venue, the Journal of Bisexuality, in a 2004 article entitled “GL vs. BT: The Archaeology of Biphobia and Transphobia in the U.S. Gay and Lesbian Community.” We face these questions anew, but the past has unfortunately been repeated in most personal, unsettling, and divisive way possible.

I think it is imperative to consider why our community is where it is, what our community is, and review its past as well as its future. I will consider these questions in upcoming blogs.

Understanding the transgender community, Part 2

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