Transgender people are not beggars at the civil rights table set by gay and lesbian activists. They are integral to the struggle for gender freedom for all.
Pity poor John Aravosis, the gay rights crusader from AmericaBlog whose “How Did the T Get in LGBT?” essay, in reference to the controversy over gender identity protections in the pending Employment Non-Discrimination Act, was published on Salon a few days ago.
To hear Aravosis tell it, he and multitudes of like-minded gay souls have been sitting at the civil rights table for more than 30 years, waiting to be served. Now, after many years of blood, sweat, toil and tears, a feast in the form of federal protection against sexual orientation discrimination in the workplace has finally been prepared. Lips are being licked, chops smacked, saliva salivated, when — WTF!?! — a gaunt figure lurches through the door.
It is a transgender person, cupped hands extended, begging for food. Seems somebody on the guest list — maybe a lot of somebodies — let this stranger in off the streets without consulting everyone else beforehand, claiming he-she-it-or-whatever was a relative of some sort. Suddenly, what was supposed to be a fabulous dinner party starts surreally morphing into one of those OxFam fundraisers dramatizing third-world hunger whose sole function is to make the “haves” feel guilty for the plight of the “have-nots.”
Maitre d’ Barney Frank offers an elegant pretext for throwing the bum out. The establishment’s new management, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is caught off-guard by the awkward turn of events, but deftly shuffles the hubbub into the wings and starts working the room, all smiles, to reassure the assembled guests that a somber and long-sought civil rights victory will be celebrated in short order.
Aravosis and those who share his me-first perspective are not so sure. Seeing half a loaf of civil rights protection on the table before them, and sensing that the soirée might come to a premature and unexpected denouement, they make a grab, elbows akimbo, for said truncated loaf. This is, after all, their party.
In my line of work — teaching history and theory of sexuality and gender — we’ve invented a polysyllabic technical term applicable to Aravosis & Co., which is homocentric, whose definition Aravosis supplies when he asserts, as he did in his recent essay, that gay is the term around which the GLBT universe revolves. By gay he means gay men like himself, to which is added (in descending order of importance), lesbian, bisexual and transgender, beyond which lies an even more obscure region of poorly understood and infrequently observed identities.
Aravosis isn’t questioning the place of the T in the GLBT batting order; he’s just concerned with properly marking the distinction between “enough like me” and “too different from me” to merit inclusion in the categories with which he identifies. His position is a bit like those kerfuffled astronomers not too long ago, scratching their noggins over how to define Pluto’s place in the conceptual scheme of the solar system. Sure, we’ve been calling it a planet for a good number of years because it’s round and orbits the sun just like our Earth, but now it appears that if we keep doing so we’ll have to let a bunch of the bigger asteroids into the planet category, as well as some other weird faraway stuff we only recently learned about, which stretches the definition of “planet” into a name for things we don’t really think of as being much like good ol’ Earth, so let’s just demote Pluto instead. In Aravosis’ homocentric cosmology, men may not be from Mars, nor women from Venus, but transgender people are definitely from Pluto.
Transgender people have become this political season’s version of the unisex-toilet issue that helped scuttle passage of the Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s, of Willie Horton’s role in bringing the first Bush presidency to the White House in the 1980s, and of the “Don’t bend over to pick up the soap in the barracks shower room” argument against gays in the military in the 1990s — a false issue that panders to the basest and most ignorant of fears. This is unfortunate because protecting the rights of transgender people specifically is just one welcome byproduct of the version of ENDA that forbids discrimination based on both sexual orientation and gender expression or identity. This full version of ENDA, rather than the nearly introduced one that stripped away previously agreed-upon protections against gender-based discrimination and would protect only sexual orientation, is the one that is of potential benefit to all Americans, and not just to a narrow demographic slice of straight-looking, straight-acting gays and lesbians. It doesn’t really even do that much good for this group, as Lambda Legal points out, because of a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.
Aravosis, not being one to mince words when it comes to mincing meat, wants to know what he, as a gay man, has “in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman.” The answer is “gender.” The last time I checked my dictionary, homosexuality had something to do with people of one gender tending to fall in love with people of the same gender. The meaning of homosexuality thus depends on the definition of gender. However much Aravosis might wish to cut the trannies away from the rest of his herd, thereby preserving a place free of gender trouble for just plain gay guys such as himself, that operation isn’t conceptually possible. Gender and sexuality are like two lines intersecting on a graph, and trying to make them parallel undoes the very notion of homo-, hetero- or bisexuality.
Now here’s the rub — but it requires another of those fancy words my academic colleagues and I like to throw around: heteronormativity, the idea that whatever straight people do is really what’s what, and that whatever anybody else does is deviant to some degree. To want to have sex with somebody of the same gender violates heteronormative expectations of gender behavior as much as it does heteronormative expectations of sexual behavior. Simply put: Real men don’t suck cock. Nor do they use the word “fabulous” when describing a pair of women’s shoes. Nor do they keep a picture of their husband pinned to the wall of their office cubicle. All of the above violates conventional or stereotypical expectations of proper masculine gender, and as Lambda Legal’s preliminary analysis of ENDA makes clear, none would be protected under the rubric of sexual orientation alone. It’s OK to be gay, in other words, just so long as you don’t act like a fag.
Without solid theoretical ground to stand on, Aravosis resorts to flights of rhetorical fancy in lieu of an argument against gender protections. He characterizes the more than 300 GLBT organizations nationwide now on record as supporting a gender-inclusive ENDA, which collectively speak on behalf of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, as plotting something of a palace coup. They attempt, he claims, to force the gay movement — along with the country that is poised to embrace them — to crawl unwillingly into bed with a big bunch of tranny whatevers. Aravosis positions himself as a man giving voice to an oppressed silent majority, a majority too cowed by their fear of appearing “politically incorrect” to express their true feelings, in order to proclaim “that over the past decade the trans revolution was imposed on the gay community from outside, or at least above.”
This coming from an ex-Republican, former congressional aide, Georgetown-educated, inside-the-Beltway lawyer who studied under Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and who has spent the past decade working his political connections in order to hold corporate America’s feet to the fire on gay rights? Puh. Leeze. John Aravosis is in the nosebleed section of the social hierarchy; if he gets any higher up the food chain he should be issued an oxygen mask. Where, pray tell, is this “above” whereof he speaks, peopled with radical transgender revolutionaries? Somewhere in the vicinity of the Jewish international bankers, or the Trilateral Commission?
Aravosis wants to know how the T came to be added to GLB. Here’s how: It started happening in the mid-1990s, in response to the queer movement of the early 1990s, and in response to a decade of radical AIDS activism. Fighting to end the epidemic required, from a public health point of view, getting past the squabbles of homosexual identity politics left over from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The Reaganite right wanted to label AIDS “gay-related immune deficiency,” even though viruses are no respecters of identity. AIDS was not a gay disease, but convincing others of that fact required a transformation of sexual politics. It fostered political alliances between lots of different kinds of people who all shared the common goal of ending the epidemic — and sometimes precious little else.
What does Aravosis, as a gay man, have in common with a little girl whose mother gave her HIV in utero, or a heterosexual African man who contracted HIV from a female prostitute, or a junkie living on the streets of Bangkok, Thailand? Presumably, a common interest in ending AIDS. And what might he have in common with transgender people? Some sense that a person’s suitability for employment had something to do with their ability to do the job?
Transgender people have their own history of civil rights activism in the United States, one that is in fact older, though smaller and less consequential, than the gay civil rights movement. In 1895, a group of self-described “androgynes” in New York organized a “little club” called the Cercle Hermaphroditos, based on their self-perceived need “to unite for defense against the world’s bitter persecution.” Half a century later, at the same time some gay and lesbian people were forming the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, transgender people were forming the Society for Equality in Dress. When gay and lesbian people were fighting for social justice in the militant heyday of the 1960s, transgender people were conducting sit-in protests at Dewey’s lunch counter in Philadelphia, fighting in the streets with cops from hell outside Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, and mixing it up at Stonewall along with lots of other folks.
There was a vibrant history of transgender activism and movement building through the 1970s, when it suddenly became fashionable on the left to think of transgender people as antigay and antifeminist. Gay people were seen as freeing themselves from the straitjacket of psychopathology, while transgender people were clamoring to get into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association; feminists were seen as freeing themselves from the oppressiveness of patriarchal gender, while transgender people were perpetuating worn-out stereotypes of men and women. It’s a familiar refrain, even now. Transgender arguments for access to appropriate healthcare, or observations that no one is ever free from being gendered, fell on deaf ears.
Until the early 1990s, that is, when a new generation of queer kids, the post-baby boomers whose political sensibilities had been forged in the context of the AIDS crisis, started coming into adulthood. They were receptive to transgender issues in a new way — and that more-inclusive understanding has been steadily building for nearly two decades.
Aravosis and those who agree with him think that the “trans revolution” has come from outside, or from above, the rank-and-file gay movement. No — it comes from below, and from within. The outrage that many people in the queer, trans, LGBT or whatever-you-want-to-call-it community feel over how a gender-inclusive ENDA has been torpedoed from within is directed at so-called leaders who are out of touch with social reality. It has to do with a generation of effort directed toward building an inclusive movement being pissed away by the clueless and the phobic. That’s why every single GLBT organization of any size at the national and state levels — with the sole exception of the spineless Human Rights Campaign — has unequivocally come out in support of gender protections within ENDA, and has opposed the effort to pass legislation protecting only sexual orientation.
What happens in Congress in the weeks ahead on this historic issue is anybody’s guess. I urge all of you who support the vision of an inclusive ENDA to contact your representatives in government and let your views be known.
Susan Stryker currently holds the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair of Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She is former Executive Director of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, co-director of the Emmy-winning film "Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton's Cafeteria," and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award-winning "Transgender Studies Reader." More Susan Stryker.
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