Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.
I’ve been seeing a lot of social media attention today to the release of The Trans 100, a list which I’m honored to be a part of along with many friends, colleagues, and personal heroes. Much of the attention is congratulatory and positive, some is focused more on who’s not on the list. And I think that both of those things are great. The spirit of the list, as I understand it, is to highlight all the amazing work that is done in our community: to use the 100 people on the list not as an exclusive club but as one handful of examples of people who have done great work in the past year to support trans lives in the US in myriad ways. The idea is to shift the conversation from focusing only on deaths and violence to adding a sense of celebration to our need to mourn those lost. Working in “transland,” as I sometimes call the movement, can be a paradox, as we are so often simultaneously trying to promote and celebrate the work we do as proud trans people while at the same time realizing that the work we do is focused on eliminating huge discrepancies and barriers, on reducing tremendous hate and violence. It can be an odd intersection at which to work sometimes (how do we get excited about a victory that means we are simply more likely to be alive, employed, or healthy at a baseline?), and I believe that it is crucial we never lose sight of both sides of that story–and of the other discrepancies that too often divide success from discrimination and violence along race, class, and ability lines.
I am happy about this list because it wide-ranging and it shows our collective power and ability to do great things in the face of adversity. I’m glad to see many POC on the list, a nice range of local activists, to see those doing cultural work alongside those doing legal and political advocacy. I’m glad that there are many lesser-known names, and that online activists have been included alongside on-the-ground grassrootsers. Though I’m thrilled to see my NCTE colleagues Mara and Harper Jean recognized, I’m also cheering hardcore for those who work with such amazing small radical projects as the Brown Boi Project, the Audre Lorde Project, Planet DeafQueer, and Transformative Justice Law Project. There are too many of my own heroes to name here, and also too many whose work I must. research. NOW. So while I’d like to see even more underrecognized folks on the list, more people of color, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc., I’m applying my critiques to a tone of celebration today. We have this list and it has some attention and hopefully that attention will lead to what we really need–more people nominating next year, more people volunteering to work on the project, an even more diverse and inclusive list. I’m excited to see who made the various breakout groups that will be released in coming months, and I look forward to working with this great big kickass community to achieve things that are bigger and better every year. I’m glad that my friends and colleagues are the kinds of people who recognize gaps in such a list and will bring them to light, because it makes us all better.
¡Viva la revolución trans!
As organizers, sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in law, policy, and discrimination and forget about the importance of culture. As I follow the #cc13 hashtag today, I’m reminded of how powerful diasporas can be and how strong my sense of Southern self is.
I grew up in North Carolina, and a big part of my identity formation as a queer teenager rested in opposition to my location as a Southerner. It was easy to dislike the South while imagining the big queer meccas awaiting me over the Yankee rainbow. But as a trans queer adult, I’ve learned that Southern culture has a profound and often positive effect on who I am.
Being a Southerner means instant nostalgic connection as you wax rhapsodic with others in the Southern diaspora about grits and sweet tea, biscuits and cream gravy, even those awful “salad molds” of Jello and pineapple and whipped cream. It means a shared language of “bless her heart” and “come to Jesus meetings.” It means ingrained traditions around generosity and creating family wherever you go. Being a queer Southerner means forging tighter bonds with members of this diasporic niche, and examining the relationship between queer and Southern identity.
As I read the Tweets from North Carolinians in Atlanta this weekend I feel a sort of hometown tug, and look forward to visiting my high school in a few weeks, where I’ll be doing a trans 101 program. Though I often feel envy for those who grew up in liberal areas with many resources, and thus learned how to describe their own genders and sexualities long before I did, I also often think about the surprising openness of conservative straight white parents who approached me after graduation and said they’d learned something from my speech on how discrimination forms and leads to anti-gay bullying. That moment is a touchstone that reminds me something very important: every group on this planet is made up of individual people. The power of a diaspora is both to spread culture outward and to return with new perspectives that might change individual minds. Queer Southerners are living examples of our region’s diversity and potential, as are those conservative parents who cast aside prejudice and upbringing for a moment and were willing to listen to a 17 year old who had something to say.
Anti-Trans Hate from Suzanne Moore and Julie Birchill Isn’t the Point–Using Feminism to Push Transmisogyny Is
If you haven’t been following #trans Twitter in the UK lately, let me briefly bring you up to speed. First, UK journalist Suzanne Moore published a piece in the New Statesman about women’s anger, which included a throwaway line that justifiably got a lot of trans activists pissed off: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape – that of a Brazilian transsexual.” Moore defended herself by saying that trans issues were not the point of the article and published a piece in the Guardian where she called intersectionality “its own rectum” and attempted to sound like the sane, logical one focused on women’s issues while implicitly casting the trans Twitterati as narcissistic and irrational. Julie Birchill then shored this opinion up in a more openly vitriolic way when she wrote the Guardian follow-up piece, Transsexuals should cut it out.
Here’s the thing: the Burchill piece clearly has one aim. It’s there to stir people up. It’s there to get the Guardian clicks (which is why I haven’t linked the article; you can Google). It’s there to sell ads. And while it pisses me off that the Guardian would publish such a thing, I also know what their business is. The thing that really gets me riled up is slightly different, and that’s the fact that these arguments seem rational to some people—that this hate speech is being put out there, on its own, without any kind of warning or counterpoint, and left to sit and seep into the brains of folks who really haven’t thought about trans issues.
Blah blah, transsexual lobby, blah blah. Burchill openly insults us for funsies, but at the same time she and Moore are pushing an insidious, dangerous argument. The argument is that trans people don’t care about women, that we are getting in the way of women’s rights, that we are anti-feminist. The argument is that trans women, in particular, are so concerned about penises that they can’t focus on the important issues of domestic violence, human trafficking, and women’s rights generally. And it’s important that we stand up and loudly proclaim that this argument is bullshit.
The scary thing is that to many, it will sound logical. And of course, it sounds terrible. To someone who’s never interacted with a trans woman on a friendly basis, it’s probably not so hard to jump to “oh my God, they’re so selfish that they’re ignoring domestic violence in favor of lobbying for sex change surgeries!” We need to directly attack this strawman argument. We need to point out that many trans women are in fact actively engaged in women’s rights issues that have nothing to do with trans identity. It isn’t our fault that anti-trans feminists only notice trans women when they’re talking about trans stuff, because that’s what they want to pick on. A trans woman working against trafficking or DV doesn’t make the news when the news is all about making fun of “those silly transsexuals.”
But even more importantly, we need to make it clear that transmisogyny is anti-feminist. And this has nothing to do with penises, honestly. It’s about human rights, it’s about casting trans women as less than human and how that is a patriarchal act. It’s about issues that cis feminists talk about all the time: body image, gender stereotyping, women’s dignity. Why do these arguments disappear when an anti-trans feminist is presented with a trans woman’s body? We need to stand up in the media and shout about these hypocrisies. When someone starts dividing “real” women’s rights from the “trivial” ones, we have a big fucking problem.
Say it with me, now. As a favorite Facebook group of mine proclaims, Transmisogyny Is A Women’s Issue! Moore, Birchill, and their anti-trans feminist buddies are simply on the wrong side of history.
One thing I’ve learned over the past year is the value of not only goal-setting, but keeping a goal list short and simple. I’ve trimmed down a lot in 2012–Gender Across Borders closed in the spring, and I’m stepping down as Managing Editor at Girl w/ Pen at the end of the year. I took a break from #transchat (which I’m back to coordinating in 2013!) and only did a few fall speaking gigs. This year, I want to focus on the following for this blog:
1. Consistency, including shorter posts rather than queuing ideas for months and months.
2. Journalism! I’m going to stick my toe in the waters here and indulge in one of my passions–research. When I can, I’ll bring you event coverage, interviews, and investigative reporting on topics of interest to a radically queer audience.
3. Finally, I’ll be starting a project that’s long been a future plan for this blog (I think I came up with the idea 2+ years ago.) The Radically Fabulous interview column will focus on fabulous people of all kinds, with an emphasis on their passion projects and topics that might not always come up in the media.
I look forward to bringing you new content in 2013 and hope to meet many of you soon! I’ll be at IvyQ and UNC Law school in February, as well as at CatalystCon in DC in March. If you’d like me to speak or teach a workshop on your campus or for your organization, I’m still booking for March-May 2013. You can find more details at my speaking page.
The principles of universal design revolve around a simple concept: design a space, an event, or a program from the ground up in a way that provides access to everyone. Rather than looking at people with disabilities as a special case that requires unusual accommodation, universal design takes for granted that users will have varying needs including physical, mental, emotional, social, cognitive, and sensory, and builds a project with that in mind. No one has to present a diagnosis, argue that their needs matter, or be called out as “special” in a space that fully integrates universal design.
Though these principles most frequently come up in areas such as building design, event planning, and website/technology design, I’ve been thinking about how they might apply to the workplace, and specifically to smaller offices. My experience is in small non-profits, an area that presents some interesting challenges. While many non-profits are built around social justice principles and the leaders may be more enthusiastic than most about providing equal opportunities to potential employees with disabilities, small non-profit leaders often assume that their capacity to provide “reasonable accommodation” will make it impossible for many PWD to work there.
Small non-profits tend to work on a very limited budget, often in shared space or whatever discounted space they can find. Redesigning work space, providing assistive technology, etc. may just not seem feasible for many non-profit leaders. But non-profits are normally masters at getting things done on a shoestring and going up against ridiculous odds to do the right thing. Why should this be any different?
I would suggest a few basic principles, borrowing from universal design, to non-profits looking to provide employment opportunities to all qualified candidates:
1. Incorporate access when making changes. Any time your organization makes a major change, it’s a great time to improve access. Don’t think about your current employees only, but consider diverse access needs and how to make your office, website, or event friendly to everyone. For example, I know of one non-profit that, when switching offices, put the refrigerator in a place that would make it physically impossible for anyone in a chair or anyone over about 250 pounds to access. Though it wasn’t a problem for any employees working at that organization at that moment, it could mean major inconvenience, making a fat person or a person with disabilities feel burdensome, in the future when already-installed furniture needs to be shifted. Similarly, a website redesign is a great time to consider accessibility. When seeking quotes from developers and designers, the organization should specify that the site must follow universal design principles. Building a site that’s accessible from the ground up is much easier than trying to implement ad-hoc changes later.
2. Write accessibility into funding. When you write a grant proposal, make sure you include line items in your budget for all access needs that will cost money. For example, a conference grant proposal should be based on the cost of space that is already accessible and should include things like ASL interpreters and printing cost for Braille and/or large-print materials. Similarly, a proposal for a technology grant should include accessible hardware and software. Even if it doesn’t seem feasible to buy specialized technology that wouldn’t be useful for someone without disabilities, think about future needs and purchase computers that will support that technology as an add-on. This practice normalizes access both within the organization and among funders. As funders see more and more proposals that include accessibility line items as a standard practice, they’ll come to expect these line items and question proposals that don’t include them.
3. Don’t assume that you can’t accommodate a potential employee. I’ve seen organizations miss out on talent several times due to simple ignorance. Don’t be that organization–ask appropriate questions and look into resources that will allow your organization to carry out its EEO policy in a genuine fashion. Though every employer can’t be fully accessible, too many non-profit leaders get an idea of what access means for a particular person in their head and then automatically assume that they can’t provide that access. I know of several DC non-profits, for example, that don’t advertise internships at Gallaudet University, though they list internships at every other area school. At least one of these non-profits’ leader doesn’t advertise at Gallaudet because that leader assumes that a Deaf or HH student wouldn’t be able to communicate with the staff and the organization couldn’t afford an interpreter. In fact, Deaf and HH students’ needs vary greatly, free technology can address many communication gaps, and Gallaudet provides interpreters for at least some of a student’s intern hours free of charge to the non-profit. It’s much easier for a Deaf Gallaudet student to access internships in mainstream organizations than it is for a Deaf student at almost any other school, yet local organizations often don’t bother to look into it, letting assumptions rule the day. The same is true of other disabilities–there might be free community resources, a candidate might already own assistive technology or be able to suggest free or low-cost access solutions, or there might be a remote work solution available. It’s not the employee’s responsibility to know every answer, of course, but it does a disservice when employers just assume that access is impossible.
Universal design seems like a daunting concept to many, but it’s not that complicated. We can look at simple principles used by small convention planners, for example, who set aside a self-care space or set a scent-free policy at the first stage of planning. Though the budget may be shoestring, when these considerations are made early on, as part of the entire planning process, they’re not that hard to implement and the benefits go far beyond people with disabilities.
TW: brief mention of a suicidal thought
That gentleman to your left is Benedict Cumberbatch, an English actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock series, and he’s at least in part to blame for inspiring this post. I’ve written before about shame in girlish pursuits, and how we’re taught to push down artistic expression as we age to avoid being considered arrogant. I want to look at a similar phenomenon today, one that revolves around fandom and excitement about male bodies and celebrities.
First, a confession. I am active in fandom. That includes fanfiction, the phenomenon that more and more mainstream writers are starting to touch upon, and it also includes good old fashioned squeeing about actors and characters and musicians. These other writers have already covered the importance of fannish community and fanfiction’s power as an outlet for sexual desire, but I want to talk about excitement over male characters and celebrities more broadly, and how misogyny fits in.
A few facts: I’ve been involved in fandom to some extent, mostly secretly, since I was quite young. Through various stages of sexual orientation and gender exploration, I’ve found certain male characters and celebrities attractive. Under a pseudonym, I’ve “squeed” with friends over these characters and celebrities, often for no reason more intellectual than “oh my God look at how well he wears a suit.” When I have let fandom seep into “real life,” I’ve usually tempered the interest by focusing on a more acceptable element of my fannishness, whether that be a literary interest in Tolkien’s works or a geeky sci fi love for Star Trek. I haven’t found that being a fan, in and of itself, is necessarily embarrassing. But the idea of people in my personal and professional life finding out about this girlish “squeeing” was intensely frightening, to the point that as a lesbian-identified college student I assumed that I would have to consider suicide as an option were I found out.
Why so ashamed, you ask?
Those not in the know tend to substitute the word “gay” in for queer. Self-defined queers might be described as gay or lesbian in media profiles, for example, and queer struggles are often re-framed as “gay” or “LGBT.” This pisses me right off.
What’s the relationship between gay identity and the queer movement? Well, I would argue that the queer movement isn’t really about being gay anymore. In a lot of places gay people are fairly accepted these days. The degree to which this is true, of course, varies, and I don’t intend to downplay the seriousness of sodomy laws carrying death sentences, of homophobia in many cultures and communities, or of bullying in schools. But to some extent, at least, there is an understanding that a certain segment of gay people–generally upper-to-middle class white men with traditional family structures and a dollar to burn in some Global North economy–are “just like you and me.” Mainstream media outlets employ at least some respect when talking about the gays, and policy changes at every level make it easier and easier to be gay in this country.
Where, then, does queerness come in? In my observations, I’ve found that the queerness is about something other than being gay, and that many queers have little in common with your average gay person. Now, in some cases, a queer person comes to the queer movement because of same-sex attraction, but the impact of that attraction for a queer in the way I’m using the word is very different from the impact on a relatively privileged gay person. Many queers are drawn to the movement, and to the term as an identity marker, because it emphasizes the role that privilege plays when we look at how being out as gay affects an individual’s life. The queer movement tends to emphasize the role of family in the lives of queers of color, the intersection between the prison-industrial complex and the specific experiences of (usually) young trans women of color, the role economic advantage plays in whether a queer person has access to needed government services, etc. Claiming “queer” is an act of defiance that says “this is about more than gay or straight, this is about the fucked up system and where I reside within it.”
I don’t mean to give queers a pass here. A lot of people surely just like the word. A lot of queers do fucked up racist, ableist, imperialist, classist shit. The way I’m talking about “gay” and “queer” here doesn’t necessarily line up with how the words are used in mainstream parlance. But I think there is something going on that’s worth looking into.
Last week, a friend of mine put up a solid piece on the Huffington Post, providing some historical and literary context around Barney Frank’s use of the word “Uncle Tom” to describe gay republicans. Maya’s piece was straightforward and honestly shouldn’t have generated that much criticism. Frank was wrong. Slavery was a specific fucked-up thing that happened to a specific population, and no one else has the right to appropriate it. Move on.
But, as is the case when it comes to the Internet, HuffPo readers were not inclined to move on. They were inclined to comment, and comment they did, masquerading as reasonable rhetoricians but making disturbing arguments in fact that reveal a lot about what’s wrong with certain privileged gay folk. In a word: entitlement.
Raise your hand all African Americans living in slavery nowadays:
Now, raise your hand all LGBT people being discriminated thanks to the GOP:
The idea that comparing the gay experience to the black experience is somehow “inappropriate” is true, but not in the way the author thinks: Gays have it worse:
You don’t have to come out to your parents as black.
You don’t get kicked out of the house when they find out you’re black.
You don’t have the school telling you to “act less black” when you’re bullied for being black.
You don’t have your children taken away from you for being black (anymore).
Nobody will try to “pray the black away.”
“But…but SLAVERY!” Yes, slavery was very bad. But let’s not forget that gays used to be summarily executed. Yes, slaves were killed all the time, but people had a use for them. Up until recently, gay people were simply killed outright.
And let us not forget, when we rescued the people in the concentration camps in the aftermath of World War II, the gays were sent to prison. After all, it was still illegal to be gay.
we get it African Americans were the only ones struggling for equal rights in america…will that make you happy?….now can you get out of the way?
“…the fact that the experience of slaves and the experience of gay and lesbian people in this country are not comparable”
True, at least slaves got to live. LGBT people were often just killed, and in many other countries we still are.
“Precious few things come close to matching the horrors and indignities of the practice of slavery”
What about torture and wrongful execution?
I agree with most of the article, but the old “black people had it worse than LGBT people” thing is bogus. We’ve all faced the same hatred from the same groups of people for the same old reasons. We’re on the same team in my book regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or whatever as we’re all part of the oppressed segment of humans.
Maya, it is almost as if you have not once stopped to consider that there are forms of slavery besides the African-American experience.
This piece is disappointing at best.
LGBT citizens do not have the freedom to live their lives with the full liberty of every other American citizen.
If I am not free, I am a slave. There is no in between.
Barney Frank, while I am loathe to admit it, was right on this one.
This is why I want the media, and society in general, to understand the difference between “gay culture” and the queer movement. Because the queer movement cannot be reduced to gayness alone. Because we have to wake up to the myriad of oppressions that are going on simultaneously all around us, or we’ll lose the bigger fight. Because sometimes the “gay struggle” isn’t the only struggle, and our humanity demands that we recognize that. Because queer people of color exist, goddamnit. End of story.