Category Archives: law & politics

I’m Queer, Trans, and Liberal and I’m Just as Much a North Carolinian as Pat McCrory

carolinatheatreticket

Yes, North Carolina has a Gay & Lesbian Film Festival.

I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina. I lived in the same house for 18 years of my life and went to Wake County Public Schools throughout my formative years. My parents voted in local elections. A lot of my friends were conservative and religious, and some weren’t. A lot of my friends were white, and others were black, Latino/a, or API. I was a bit homophobic and pro-life as a pre-teen, and later came to my more liberal views in the process of coming out as bisexual at 16 and learning to read critically. My grandfather was the rector (head minister) of the oldest church in Raleigh, and I grew up going to Episcopalian Sunday school. Several of my friends as a child were immigrants. At 17 I protested the Iraq War outside of the building that housed Senator Elizabeth Dole’s offices. I was happy when John Edwards was elected and couldn’t stand Jesse Helms. I drink sweet tea and eat hush puppies. I still don’t understand Yankees.

This is all to say that being a North Carolinian is complicated. Our political views are diverse and vary widely throughout the regions of the state. Those of us who grew up in the cities experienced liberalism and conservatism in nearly-equal doses. Many of us changed our minds on political issues several times while growing up. Many of us have had to think about what our families’ pasts mean as we’ve become adults. Some of my ancestors likely owned slaves. My great-grandfather was a bootlegger. My great-grandmother was married to an abusive alcoholic. My grandparents called black people “colored” until they died and my great aunt thinks I’d be pretty if I just “did something” about my hair. My mother is a proud former flower child, a socialist, and a prison reform advocate.

Being a North Carolinian does not, contrary to the actions of our General Assembly, mean being a jackass, a sexist, a racist, a homophobe, a bigot, or a crusader against reproductive rights. Those people exist in our state. They have always existed in our state. And they exist up North and in the Midwest, too. I’ve met them everywhere I’ve travelled. I’ve also met amazing people all over the South, from fireball activists to unassuming Christians who accept all people because they believe that to be Christian is to live as Jesus lived.

If Pat McCrory had offered me those cookies, I might have thrown them in his face. I praise the woman who did receive the Governor’s offering for her restraint. But I also know that McCrory could be my grandfather or great-grandfather. Being a North Carolinian, again, is complicated.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that people change. Deeply-held beliefs can be altered when you meet someone who doesn’t fit into your worldview, when you’re forced to consider the impact of your bigotry. You might be persuaded by a logical argument, or it might simply be the kindness of someone who isn’t like you that sways you to change your tune. Maybe you come around through prayer, or discussion, or reading. Maybe the simple passage of time has an effect. I don’t excuse the actions of the bigots in my state, nor do I accept their simple apologies. Actions speak louder than words. But I am hopeful, perhaps more so than most, that there will eventually be positive actions. Because I am a North Carolinian, and that is something anyone who stands against us will have to accept.

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What Does the 2012 Election Mean for a Burgeoning Queer Movement?

Tammy Baldwin celebrates 2012 victory with a big grinAs I read some of the big “LGBT” movement voices celebrating their victories for marriage equality last night, and talking about how much easier the road ahead will be, I want to encourage my peers to refocus our energies for the next four years on sustainable radical change that is beneficial to queer and trans people–not only the gays and lesbians in traditional families.
I’m glad that we’re pushing ahead on certain grounds.  I have many friends in Maryland who are extra-legally married or plan to marry now that Question 6 has passed, and I’m happy for them.  I’m glad that we have a lesbian Senator, and more pro-equality representatives at different levels around the country.  But since I’m pretty sure the marriage equality has its feet and its dollars and will push on no matter what, I want to make sure we use this momentum to also push forward goals that benefit a broader queer constituency.
Race & Immigration: The more research we see on LGBT populations, the more we learn about the needs and barriers of LGBT people of color.  People are certainly talking about this–one example is the ARC’s Better Together initiative.  But I want to make sure that racial justice is seen as an inherent part of the queer movement, not a fringe issue.  I want to make sure that we’re more nuanced in how we think about identity and also that we practice what we preach on the ground.  I want to see queer people fighting the concentration of environmental toxins in low-income neighborhoods and on reservations, and I want to see us putting our best foot forward on immigration.  I want those of us who call ourselves queer activists and are white to do more work on racial justice and to ask ourselves hard questions.  I was inspired by Ignacio Rivera’s speech at Transcending Boundaries two weeks ago to think hard about what being an ally means–as they explained, it’s not just the big pushes or the little things you do but it’s about consistency over a lifetime, and this is what we need to do as white queer individuals and as a multiracial queer movement.
 
Prisons: We’ve been talking a lot about prisons lately, since the release of the PREA final rule in May.  I’m glad to see that a number of groups are gearing up for training and education around LGBT prison populations, and especially trans populations.  I want us to also keep doing work around prison abolition, and to work in coalition with other movements to revolutionize how we treat crime in this country.  We need to look at the school to prison pipeline and also at how trans people of color and other homeless queer youth are fed into the system.  We need to look critically at policies on sex work.  One of the saddest things for me this election was that Californians did not vote in solidarity with sex workers, but I’m hoping we can move the ball on that issue.  If you’re curious about what stake the queer movement has in prison abolition, check out the newest and final book in the Against Equality series, Prisons Will Not Protect You.
 
Trans Rights:  I’m relatively optimistic about the work that will be possible in the next four years around trans rights with the Obama administration still in power.  I’ve been impressed by how quickly the ball is rolling on administrative victories that may seem small, but in fact have a significant impact on trans people’s rights to privacy, housing, and health care.  But these are still not central issues, and one of the big things a queer/trans movement can do right now is push hard on making trans rights a central plank of both liberal politics and American values.  We also need to do the dirty work of implementing federal policies in our local communities, and of pushing for more local ordinances and state laws that protect trans people.  There’s also plenty of work to be done on awareness of trans people and the range of trans identities, whether you’re a blogger or a journalist or simply someone who can sit down and have a conversation on the topic.  The goal is not only to pass laws and regulations, but to shift the conversation so that anti-trans discrimination isn’t something you can argue for in polite conversation anymore.  Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet.
 
Local Organizing:  At Transcending Boundaries I presented a workshop with Stephen Ira called “Marriage Is Not the Movement,” where we discussed the potential of a queer/trans youth movement and talked about alternatives to the heavily funded national marriage movement with local organizers and ordinary queer folks.  I was struck by a point that V, a trans person living in Boston, brought up about micro-local organizing and institutions.  V’s experience is that Boston itself actually has a lot of really good institutions for, say, homeless trans youth, but one or two towns away it will be a vastly different picture.  I’ve also noticed that a lot of the really fabulous, radical organizations with amazing models for leadership and sustainability are tiny and micro-local, maybe five volunteers serving 100 people in a given neighborhood.  I don’t think this is a bad thing.  Perhaps a successful queer/trans movement strategy necessarily combines these tiny efforts with innovative ways to share resources and network online, rather than working from the top down.
 
Sustainability: Finally, I think we have to consider the big green elephant in the room.  Any movement needs money.  All the energy, creativity, and innovation and the world can’t make change out of absolutely nothing, though a lot of us are wizards at doing it dirt cheap.  The problem as I see it is that this is a fractious movement.  We have people in national offices who know about traditional non-profit organizations and development, and we have a lot of people at the local level who don’t have those skills and are disillusioned with the big organizations for good reason.  There are a lot of ways to fund a queer/trans movement, and I think we can do it in a diversified way.  Those with skills can lend them to their local communities, whether it’s a knack for moving money through building relationships or writing small grants to get projects done.  Creative people can work on new ways to fund and sustain work that don’t rely on big money.  One thing I’m personally working on is getting together a queer/trans resource wiki, where people can advertise the skills/space/stuff/time they have available to other members of the queer/trans community and avail themselves of the resources others have to offer.  If you want to get involved with outreach on this, just let me know!

This Isn’t About Michelle Kosilek or Trans Murderers, It’s About Human Rights

It’s a blessing and a curse.

One of the issues I’m most passionate about–the rights of trans people in prisons and detention facilities–has been in the news lately.  It should be a chance to raise awareness around this important issue and to use media to push forward the tide of increasing respect for prisoners’ fundamental rights that was evidenced in several recent events, including successful lawsuits in Wisconsin and Massachusetts around transition-related care in prison and the issuance of a final ruling on the Prison Rape Elimination Act that incorporates many of trans advocates’ recommendations regarding trans prisoners.  But it was evident from the start that this would be a tricky story to bend in the direction of education and advocacy on the issues, because this is a story that most people just can’t pull past Us vs. Them.

The headlines that started rolling in last week range from more-or-less balanced to fear-mongering on the conservative opinion side:

  • Judge rules in favor for inmate’s sex change operation (Boston Globe, Sep 4)
  • Judge orders Mass. to pay for inmate’s sex change surgery (Boston Globe, Sep 5)
  • Ruling on prisoner’s sex-change a matter of principle (Boston Globe, Sep 6)
  • Judge goes too far in sex change ruling (Boston Globe, Sep 7)
  • Is denying treatment to transsexual inmates “cruel and unusual?” (The Atlantic, Sep 7)
  • Free sex change for prisoner is distasteful, but justified (Boston Globe, Sep 10)
  • The real war on women–rewarded for killing his wife (BernardGoldberg.com, Sep 10)
  • Inmate’s sex change: humane or insane? (Santa Maria Times, Sep 11)

The facts of the case make it tempting, even for transgender people and those engaged in trans rights work, to focus on the individual involved and how heinous it seems that the state would give someone convicted of killing her wife a “free sex change.”  It’s entirely understandable that those who can’t access necessary transition-related health care due to the cost of that care and the lack of insurance coverage would find it frustrating when a prisoner is allowed access to the same care on the state’s dime.  But to focus on Kosilek’s crime, or on the idea of “free benefits” for prisoners, is entirely missing the point.

Yes, it’s strange that someone in prison would have better access to healthcare than someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but the problem here isn’t that a prisoner does have access, it’s that many others don’t.  Prisoners should have access to healthcare as a fundamental human right, and so should everyone else.  True, many people don’t have that access right now, but access to human rights isn’t about ranking people by how much we think they deserve a right and doling it out accordingly.  Healthcare access in this country depends on a lot of things–structural inequality, economic opportunity, whether you can get insurance coverage, and whether your insurance covers the treatment you need, to name a few.  The Kosilek case was about a specific legal determination under one specific standard that gives prisoners in a particular jurisdiction access to health care.  The judge made the right call in this case.  There are many other cases, many other standards, that impact trans people’s right to transition-related care in different situations, and many people don’t have care yet.  That sucks, but it doesn’t mean we should wait until all those cases are solved before we provide healthcare to trans prisoners.  It means that we need to hold our country to a standard of basic human rights in all areas.

I also want to remind folks in general, but particularly some of the commenters on Lesley’s xoJane piece who are heavily focusing on the idea of “free surgery” or “rewarding prisoners,” that it’s the prison system itself that leads to this situation.  When people commit crimes in the United States, we handle it through incarceration.  We incarcerate people in facilities where if they are allowed to work, they can’t make very much money and they certainly can’t afford to pay for their own healthcare.  One of the consequences of that system is an enormous burden on the state, but that has nothing to do with the question of what necessary healthcare is.  There are other solutions to criminality, solutions that experts on prison abolition and reform can speak to far better than me.  If we provided some means for criminals to work and pay to access rights such as healthcare, then the argument might fly.  But we don’t, and so it’s the state’s responsibility to pay for care.  The state is failing in other areas–we don’t provide adequate health care for the young, the old, the sick, non-citizens, or those with disabilities–but again, the answer to failure in one area is not to fail in another.

If this case pisses you off, if you’re outraged, then great.  Excellent!  Join the fight for rights to transition-related care through Medicaid, Medicare, the VA, private insurance, and other programs.  Fight for expansion of the Affordable Care Act.  But don’t spend your time arguing about this one trans woman who did a terrible thing and later won a petition for her human rights.  Frankly, it’s a waste.

An Open Letter to Legislators on “Small” Bureaucratic Barriers

I want lawmakers to stop thinking in terms of a small amount of money, a small hassle, a small barrier to a Constitutional or human right.

Lawmakers, you represent the people, but you are not The People.  You are the privileged few.  Some of you are more aware of this than others, certainly.  I’ve been moved in particular by several recent videos from the House floor, where women of color Representatives have used their own experiences as narratives to illustrate their arguments on social issues.  But as a group, you are the privileged few, and I need you to stop thinking of barriers to rights as “small.”

An additional identification requirement at the voting both may seem simple to a lifelong citizen whose birth certificate, passport, social security records, and medical history have always lived in a metal filing cabinet in the office of a mid-sized suburban home, but it is not the case for those whom these laws affect.

A 24-hour waiting period for an abortion may seem small to someone who drives a car that gets 34 miles to the gallon and has always had an employer that allows for at least ten vacation days a year, but it is not the case for those whom these laws affect.

A $100 filing fee for a name change petition may seem small for someone who has always had at least a few thousand in the bank, someone whose very humanity, dignity, and ability to get through life without a constant fear of harassment has never been in question because a name is just something given by parents that sticks to your identity over time, but it is not the case for those whom these laws affect.

I need lawmakers to start thinking seriously about the impact of fees, waiting periods, documentation requirements, and other “little” bureaucratic considerations on the actual people who are affected by these laws.  And I need you to start thinking about the kinds of fundamental rights these people are trying to access, and I need you to sit with that for a minute.

Thank you.

Gendering Humanity with the French Concept of Etat Civil

Recently, I read a news story (I can’t even remember what it was, to be honest) that got me thinking about the concept of etat civil.  Etat civil is a French legal concept that, roughly translated, means “civil status” or your legal state of being.  The French Wikipedia describes it as “a person’s position in the family and society, resulting from a written procedure of administrative identification.”  It comes up in the contexts of births, marriages, and deaths, pretty much, but it also encompasses things like your name and gender, so it’s relevant in transgender identity context.

The idea bothers me because although the practical meaning of the term is more like what we call “vital statistics” in the United States, and is dry and deals with demographic data, the actual French term implies much more.  It bothers me that one’s very being, one’s “state” or existence in the public arena is gendered.  Not only is it impossible to escape the gender binary in France due to the gendering of nouns and adjectives in the language, but your being in the eyes of the state must be either male or female (and is exceedingly difficult to change).

Sadly, this is not surprising.  I am not surprised that discrimination is so important to us as a society that it bothers us not to be able to gender someone, because I live this every day.  Nor am I surprised that we aren’t sure how to treat someone “as a human being” with no other data.  We’re obsessed with gender as a framework to tell us how to behave, and many among us are deeply bothered when we get gender “wrong,” are confused about someone’s gender, or find that someone’s gender is changing.

I would be curious to know if anyone’s done a study on human interaction in online spaces where gender is not known, though I imagine it would be difficult to find many where gender isn’t stated fairly early on in an interaction.  I do find it interesting that among queer and trans Twitter friends, I often don’t know someone’s gender, and am sometimes surprised when I learn it.  I imagine that some assumptions are made based on the online space–gaming, for example, being principally male; Pinterest being principally female–but it’d be interesting to know how many spaces there are where that isn’t the case.  I would love to learn that, even in tiny niches, human beings are simply taken as that, end of discussion.

Why You Should Loudly Support Westboro Baptist’s Free Speech Rights

I support the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket funerals and just generally be douchebags.

When I was a junior in high school, I had a math teacher who was a brilliant woman and taught me a lot of what I needed to know about life, if not much about math.  The thing she said that stuck with me the most was about free speech–she told me that she, a very liberal Jewish woman, strongly supports a Nazi’s right to stand on a hilltop shouting at the top of his lungs, because that is absolutely the only way she can defend her own rights with a clear conscience.

And let’s face it–this case is free speech gold.  These are the most disgusting, reprehensible people you can imagine, people who picket funerals, who absolutely loathe me and want me to die in the most gruesome possible ways, who firmly believe that I deserve to rot in hell for all eternity.  This is why queers, liberals, and human rights activists need to stand up and cheer for the Supreme Court on this ruling, and defend Westboro Baptist’s right to tell everyone that God hates fags.  If we don’t jump on this case, we have no credibility.

Of course, at the same time, we should absolutely condemn Westboro Baptist’s actions, beliefs, and thoughts using our own free speech right.  But you have to pick the right enemy.

I believe that there is a war on free speech in this country, and it’s not being fought in the courts.  Initially, it was, but the obscenity laws are in place.  The Puritanical, stigmatizing laws, rules, ordinances, and regulations that supposedly are designed to keep children away from sex, drugs, and rock and roll are the real problem.  This is how cultural shifts happen, and look where we are now.  We’re afraid to say “fuck” in public.  We’re afraid to say lesbian in public.  Sexual expression is reduced to obscenity, and people who raise children in queer, kinky, polyamorous, sex positive, or radical households are condemned as unfit parents.  That’s where we need to turn our energies.

Is Voting a Responsibility?

Readers, I am sick and I am tired.

I’m sick and tired of people shaming those who don’t vote in this country, attacking young people for failure to get involved in politics, and saying that a decision not to vote is a vote for the “other side.”  For many of us, there is no “other side.”  The political atmosphere in the United States doesn’t offer truly opposing viewpoints on many issues, and hasn’t for a long time.  Politics is not a sphere of creativity, activism, and problem-solving.  It’s a charade.  And I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that a vote for a Republican necessarily is worse than a vote for a Democrat who will do nothing.  I believe that both choices are appalling.

In school, we’re all indoctrinated into the ideal of “democracy.”  In a democracy, we’re told, political participation is the right and the duty of every citizen.  Political participation includes voting, campaigning, and writing letters to our Congressperson.  Those are the boundaries of participation, and if we do not choose to exercise our rights in these neatly delineated ways, we are not participants and we have no right to object to what happens in our nation.

I call bullshit. Read the rest of this entry

2010 Elections and the Need for Radical Social Action

I never get all that excited about national elections, to be honest.  I’ve worked on some specific issue campaigns related to abortion and gay marriage, but I tend to have difficulties with politics because my stances are significantly more radical than those of the available candidates.  If I had to select a party, I would go with the socialists.  I’m more interested in policy than in candidates, and so I’d like to use this post-election-day period as an opportunity to highlight the need for social action.

Politics has its uses.  Government cooperation is necessary for many causes.  But we can’t underestimate the power of social awareness for social change.  A coworker and I were just talking about the election and she mentioned that she doesn’t actually know that many Republicans.  I shared my theory that most Republicans our age probably come to the party based on economic issues, not social ones.  Many Republicans I’ve known have softened their stance or even switched parties after becoming aware of the importance of social issues such as gay rights, feminism, etc.

Most young Republicans I know, particularly those who are not evangelical Christians, consider social issues secondary and take a relatively weak stance on those issues.  I’ve known many young Republicans who weren’t active homophobes, pro-lifers, or anti-feminists, but simply didn’t consider these issues important in their own lives.  A lot of these friends had never met a queer person before me, or a person who’s had an abortion, or had never really thought about feminist issues.  Just talking about these things, or simply being aware of a friend or friends who are directly and substantially affected by these issues, led to a shift in these young people’s stances on social issues.

Remember this when you’re rallying for social change.  Visibility is important.  One-on-one conversations are very important.  It’s easy to consider an issue secondary when it doesn’t directly affect you, or to view a minority group as “other” when you think you don’t know any members of that group, and only recognize the group based on televised portrayals.  But a dinner table chat can break down barriers.  In the periods between elections, we should concentrate on these conversations and how to bring activism down to a person-to-person level.  Radical change starts at home.

Senate Subcommittee Hearing on Rape in the United States

I’ve been watching the webcast of a Senate subcommittee hearing on rape in the United States, and though I’m not able to watch the last panel, I wanted to note a couple of things.  One is that I’m actually encouraged by what I’ve heard, especially about the need to have better definitions of sexual crimes and the need for better reporting and police support.  Then again, the Senators present were Specter, Cardin, and Franken, so maybe that’s to be expected.

One thing, though, that bothered me, was that Specter seemed surprised that a public education and awareness campaign would be needed–what is to me one of the most important elements of eradicating rape culture.  He stated that “people are aware of what rape means […] that it is violent and anti-social.”  Seems to be missing the point a bit.  There was some back-and-forth in this hearing between recognizing and seeming to gloss over acquaintance rape.  The problem isn’t that people don’t know what rape is, but that sexual crimes aren’t culturally stigmatized and survivors don’t get social support.  So yes, a public education campaign is vitally important, to change the way people think about sex and to prevent rape before it happens.

On the other hand, I was encouraged that particularly vulnerable populations were at least mentioned: indigenous people, immigrants, people with disabilities, people in institutions, LGBT people, the homeless, etc.  I don’t know how much hope I have for things improving, but this hearing has shown that journalism, and just talking about it, does mean something.

September 11th: Defining the Terrorized and the Terrorist

Here we are, nine years out from September 11, 2001.  Obviously, the acts that took place on that day were terrible acts of violence committed by desperate men carrying out a perverted form of religious belief.  But the terrible acts that get carried out in the name of patriotism are also deserving of some questioning.

Apparently, the burning of Qu’arans isn’t going to happen after all, but that doesn’t mean that things like that don’t happen everyday, in America and elsewhere.  The thing we have to realize is that we’re dealing with structural issues.  Imperialism, colonialism, war, corporate greed, capitalism… it’s a very thick net that many have woven, and it’s strangling us.

My mom is a very talented musician, and she put out an album years before September 11  was more than just a random date on the calendar, with a song called “Terrorist.”  There’s a line in that song that I think sums this point up very well: “Powerless gain power, and the power stays the same.”  And the song, as a whole, makes another important point: it’s not about good and evil people, and when we think of the world in good and evil sides, well, we miss that choking net entirely.

You can listen to “Terrorist,” by Mean Mad Momma, here.  The lyrics are below the cut.

Read the rest of this entry