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Equality Forum 2011: Transgender Panel

April 27th, 2011 2 comments

Tuesday’s National Transgender Panel at Equality Forum was predictably excellent. This is my third year blogging the event, and the first two panels were just as information-packed, thought-provoking, and moving. (Here are my accounts of the panels from 2010 (second part here) and 2009.)

Moderator Heath Fogg Davis, a Temple University Associate Professor of Political Science, presided over the proceedings lightly, giving each panelist just a few minutes to speak before offering a follow-up question and then turning most of the session over to questions and answers – and the fifty-plus person audience indeed had questions and comments in abundance, drawing the panelists into some interesting and mostly open-ended discussions.

The panelists, in order, were:

Qui Alexander, a community health educator at the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia; Gabriel Arkes, Acting Assistant Professor of Lawyering at NYU Law School (and a staff attorney with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project); and Lorenzo Triburgo, a photographer who lives in Portland.

Each speaker was given just a few minutes to offer a few remarks (hardly as formal, it turned out, as the “opening statements” description suggested they might be).

Leading off was Qui Alexander, who teaches sex education to high school and middle school kids (as well as to adults) said that the most imperative task is to focus on youth. Too many – especially trans-yough, are homeless and depend on sex work to survive.

In this regard, Alexander brought up a simple point that had somehow eluded me until now. Although I’ve thought and written about the bullying of LGBT youth (and the ways I think it should be combated), I’d not stopped to realize that this only became a high-profile issue after white gay and lesbian kids started to die. This fate, he noted, is common to trans-youth – and generally unremarked in the mainstream media.

Alexander then concluded by saying that we need to talk about what gender is and what it means. By the end of the session, I’d become convinced that resolving what gender “is” is probably a doomed effort at creating a static definition from a complex process of constantly reimagined definition. Focusing on what it means – as contingent as that project will be – seems a much more fruitful undertaking.

Gabriel Arkes followed. He discussed two illustrative cases from his work on the Sylvia Rivera Project. That initiative, founded nine years ago, takes as its animating principle the insight that injustices aren’t separate, but linked, and then carries that insight into its legal work on behalf of those who are often multi-victimized. The two stories showcase that reality.

One was a young woman – a girl, really – named Elisa Rodriguez. She had grown up in the projects and was doing sex work in order to earn enough money for her sex change hormones. For this, she spent two years – starting at age 15! – in the juvenile detention center where she was imprisoned with boys, and tormented. (As Arkes pointed out later, under the law she would have been considered too young to consent to sex, and therefore been theoretically protected under the statutory rape law.  But never mind justice – or even following the law – when it comes to treatment of the trans-community.)

She sued, and settled for less than she might have in order to bring about policy changes to the juvenile justice system, which have since been implemented.

The second woman (whose name, unfortunately, I didn’t get) was in detention pending deportation because she was born in Mexico. Because of a serious medical condition she required antibiotic treatment, but her medications were taken away when she was in confinement.

Many of her fellow detainees were outraged, and demanded that this woman receive proper treatment. At long last, she was taken to the hospital – too late. Denied the life-saving treatment she needed, she died.

Arkles used these stories to illustrate three basic imperatives for the trans-community.

First, look at health care and ways to improve both its delivery and its quality.

Second, examine and challenge the mass incarceration of transpeople.

Third, stand in solidarity even when doing so courts real risks.

Lorenzo Triburgo then supplied an artist’s perspective on trans-issues, and asked more questions than he answered. He began by describing his work as photographic “representations of trans-masculinities.”

Part of his goal is to make visible female masculinity. (In various forms, each of the panelists made or agreed with the point that some trans-men try to bury their femaleness by creating a hyper-masculine image that, at times, incorporates misogyny.) Triburgo tries to create images of trans-men that depict a certain pride and that play with the idea that a photo can ever be more than a photo – not a representation.

What is at stake, he asked, when we have images created by others that we consume and that others consume?

He’ll be talking about his work today at 2:30 pm. If you want to get a better sense of his art than my poor description can provide, get yourself to his lecture. He’s an engaging and charismatic speaker, and deeply insightful about his work and its cultural context. And by all means, check out his show, which runs all week in connection with Equality Forum.

The rest of the session was taken up with a fascinating exchange between Davis, the panelists, and the audience, mostly about what I’d loosely describe as identity and coming out issues.  A few highlights from this colloquy will have to suffice.

Gabriel Arkles noted that it is unusual to be on a panel of all trans-people. This raises questions about what it means to be connected and represent instead of speaking for other people. (It was also noted, more than once, that the panel was all trans-men; the lone trans-woman who was to have participated had to withdraw at the last minute).

He also spoke to the prevalent conception that trans women are predators, and commented that this view is one of those profoundly damaging stereotypes that’s not based in reality but is instead a way to avoid talking about serious issues. As a pointed example, he discussed the case of young women on a college campus being sexually assaulted in bathrooms, and the diverting response of school officials: Worrying about whether trans-women should be permitted to use women’s bathrooms, given their (wholly unsupported) “safety concerns” —  while doing precisely nothing to combat the actual violence that was going on.

Qui Alexander followed this with the observation that many people would remark that he wasn’t a “real man.” But since he can “pass” as a (non trans-)man, he has the privilege of keeping his identity in reserve, and telling his story when he hears kids disparage the trans-community. He concluded that it’s important to put ourselves out there for others.

Triburgo had a slightly different take, asking these questions:  What are the pros and cons to our community in coming out? Should we make it into an issue? How do we create a space for gender variance?

Perhaps typically for a lawyer, Arkles expressed a more utilitarian view of how disclosive to be of trans-identity. Describing his strategy as “mercenary,” he decides whether to come out as a transperson according to the needs of his clients. (On the other hand, he always comes out as queer. This led me to think about the meaning of queer – isn’t the strength of the term that it takes in all kinds of consciously non-conforming behaviors and identities? – and about levels of societal comfort with these various types of non-conformity.)

Arkles also pointed to safety issues: There are many times when one shouldn’t come out (even less, out someone else) because the result could be their death.

Triburgo then added to the storehouse of things I’d not sufficiently considered before last night’s panel, by asking whether trans-people should use the “natural” argument – to gain legitimacy, and perhaps access to medical and social services they might otherwise be denied. Or should they accept agency for their trans-status, which is the position more in line with the reality of Triburgo’s own political life and identity.

That this had never really occurred to me is just embarrassing. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that homosexuality was “officially” considered a disorder. Getting ourselves “unmedicalized” was a vital step in our continuing battle for complete acceptance into the human community. So let’s start talking about the political and social costs and benefits of terms like “gender dysphoria.”

Let me close with a few observations about mortal matters. All this violence against trans-people – tolerated and even justified by many straight people, as this story about the beating of a trans-woman at a McDonald’s shows – made me think that, for some of them, “every third thought [is their] grave.” (Prospero, from “The Tempest.”)

Why should anyone have to live like this? Arkles spoke with passion in encouraging the more mainstream gay community to get involved in trans-issues.  The violence isn’t the only reason, but it’s reason enough.

I write with more passion and emotion than usual. I’m in the middle of a serious family health emergency, electrically aware of how all of our candles flicker and die. Mostly, we keep these thoughts at bay, but many trans-people don’t have that option, and too many can recognize themselves in Prospero’s chilling line. I wish only that the humanity that we often suppress would flash into the minds of those who would inflict, or stand by and watch, injuries to other human beings.

I won’t be able to deliver on my plan to blog the rest of Equality Forum. I need to attend to this emergency. Life has its own dictates.

Pushed Beyond the Margin, and Silence is the Response

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In today’s 365gay.com column, I dig (not as deeply as I’d like) into an issue that often paralyzes the gay and lesbian community as often as it does straight folks: the massive inequalities and injustices that transgendered and other gender-non-conforming people must live with each day.

Posted early this morning, it drew an unprecedented number of comments: zero. (That changed within the past hour.) Write about marriage equality, or religious accommodations, or any of the mainstream gay and lesbian community and expect many thoughtful and animated responses. Write about the trans-community and….

Why?

The Long View on the Malawi Pardon

May 31st, 2010 No comments

My instinctive reaction on hearing about the pardoning of the two men (one of whom identified as a woman) sentenced to fourteen years of hard labor for having the temerity to hold a public commitment ceremony was the obvious one: Thank God.

And when it comes to those two men themselves, that’s still my reaction. The thought of them spending the most vigorous years of their lives at hard labor, separated, was too much to bear. But there’s another, more sober way to look at this.

Although President Mutharika succumbed to pressure this time, there’s no guarantee that he, or any successors, will do so in the future. The law stands and can be enforced arbitrarily. Gay men and women and — perhaps especially — transgendered people will continue to fear the harsh application of this colonial law, thereby potentially setting back the whole movement. (There’s evidence to the contrary, it should be said.)

What might have happened without the pardon? The couple were going to appeal. Knowing precisely nothing about the Malawi judiciary, it’s  hard for me to conjecture about what would have happened, but one possibility is that the law would have been thrown out, or that at least the state’s method of producing “evidence” of the couple’s homosexuality — requiring them to submit to a physical examination — went too far. In either case, some good, pro-LGBT law would have been made.

And had the appeal failed, the pardon might still have issued. So what looks like unalloyed good news turns out to be more complicated.

Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part Two)

April 28th, 2010 No comments

2010 John Culhane blogs from Equality Forum,  Mara Keisling: A Panel of OneIMG_1780 by Widener Law.

Mara Keisling and Stephen Glassman (facilitator) at Equality Forum (4/27/10). Courtesy of Cassandra King.

For me, the most compelling part of Mara Keisling’s one-woman show last night at Equality Forum was her rare foray into the personal. Typically, she doesn’t share this story with media (am I media? discuss!), because she’d rather leave that to other trans-people who otherwise don’t have a forum. This generosity and emotional maturity seemed to me a natural outgrowth of her personal journey.

I was glad to have heard about that journey, because it placed into helpful context what she’d said earlier. When asked to assess the struggle for LGBT rights from an historical perspective, Keisling said that the movement had “started out much more privileged” than others — notably, we weren’t property and we could vote. From my perspective, the transgender community has been one of the most vilified, marginalized and just plain loathed groups in our history. Look no further than the long-standing reluctance by many in the mainstream gay rights movement to embrace our trans brothers and sisters for the underlining to this point.

Why isn’t Keisling…angrier? It’s risky (and negative comment-inviting) to do too much psychoanalyzing based on the few snapshots of the transitioning process that she described, but it’s too much fun to resist trying. On the “what’s in a name?” front, Keisling said that she couldn’t settle on in her new life as a female. At one point, after she’d nervously consumed “76 rum and Cokes” — taking the Andrew Sisters’ invitation too far — she sat at a table filled with trans luminaries,1 and those present voted from a list of ten names she’d been considering. But her parents, in a moving show of support that many of us can only envy, got together with her and said that they wanted to name her.

If that’s not moving enough, consider this story, which Keisling guaranteed would bring us all to tears. It didn’t, stony asses that we were; but it is very moving. At her place of employment, the principals of her company gathered everyone together for a lunch at which the topic of her transitioning would be discussed. Understandably, she was nervous — especially about one “demographic”, a middle-aged white guy who had “a family and a mustache.” Before she got too far into her presentation, the guy stopped her to ask a question. She feared the question, but took it nonetheless. Here it is, in dramatic block quote style:

“Are you going to be OK?”

How could anyone not come out of such shows of support without charity of spirit? That, Keisling has in florid abundance. Perhaps because of that, she understands the frustration of those who want to scream and march in the street even though she’s not one of them. Sometimes, she allowed, that’s what you have to do.

  1. A great band name if ever there was one.

Mara Keisling: A Panel of One (Part One)

April 28th, 2010 1 comment

It’s good to be back blogging about the many events at Equality Forum again this year. Honestly, with my life much busier than at this time last year, part of me was wondering whether I’d made a good decision to re-up. But last night’s transgender panel was just what I needed.

Prompted by “conversation facilitator” and good friend Stephen Glassman of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, featured speaker Mara Keisling held forth for well over an hour on a range of issues relating to the legal and social status of the TG community. Keisling, who is the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) is amusing,1 self-deprecating,2 and insightful3 – but perhaps a bit too gracious.

The fifty or so folks in the rapt audience were treated a variety of topics, well-guided and supported by Glassman’s deft but low-key questioning. Much of the discussion, of course, focused on the role of her organization and other LGBT lobbying groups, none of which she spoke disparagingly of (and where’s the fun in that?) Without naming organizational names, she did acknowledge that not all of these groups were on board with the importance of equality and justice for the TG community at first, but said that by now “almost everyone has been won over.”

And things are further along in Congress than most of us realize. The votes are already there, she said, for ENDA, the repeal of DADT, and something called the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, which would extend benefits to the spouses of federal employees. So Keisling, who referred to several bills by the acronym “MARA” (example: ENDA should be called the “Marginalized Americans Rights Act”), has reason to be gracious and optimistic, despite recognizing the truth of this pithy aphorism attributed (but apparently erroneously) to Eric Hoffer:

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Upon hearing that, I thought: “Well, enough about the HRC.” But Keisling, who did state a willingness to slam the group, did so only in the spirit of fun; in substance, she avoided criticizing any of the groups, probably because, as she flatly declared: “We’re winning. Sometimes I forget that, and I think we’ve already won.” Keisling, who founded NCTE and brought her background in public relations and media consulting to the job (as well as training as a rookie activist on the state level here in PA), has long understood the value of collaboration. As she said, her organization does almost nothing alone. That’s smart politics from the leader of such a marginalized group, but it also seems to reflect a deeper personal philosophy about the importance of education, friends, and alliances.

Perhaps because her background also included some work on public health messaging, Keisling also gets the importance of the administrative and regulatory environment that usually goes unreported. If a sixteen-year-old kid transitioning from male to female can’t get identification papers, how can she get a job? Her organization has worked on creating national standards for dealing with issues like birth and death certificates for transgendered people, and then communicates with groups like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City to get those standards implemented on the local level. More changes are apparently on the way, including one that would make this situation disappear.

Keisling, who doesn’t usually discuss her own story of transition in the media, did so last night. I’ll post separately on what she had to say about it later today — after some sleep and a vat of coffee.

  1. There was a particularly funny and bizarre reference to ownership of a mustache. It wouldn’t work here; trust me.
  2. Example: “Most of the citations I’ve gotten are for bad parking.”
  3. She claims not to be a theorist, but has clearly thought out complex social and legal issues on both the practical and the meta-level.

This Won’t Help

April 11th, 2010 No comments

Issues involving the proper and respectful treatment of transgendered people are inherently difficult in a few situations. A recent story on FOX News (hardly a trustworthy source) about a proposal by the Maine Human Rights Commission to extend the ban on discrimination against the TG community to virtually every school-related context can’t be the best approach. If ultimately adopted, the guidance document would recognize no criteria for deciding when a student’s non-conforming gender identity should or should not be recognized; require the school to allow the student to compete in sports with members of the chosen (as opposed to birth) sex; and require the schools to “figure out” how to accommodate privacy concerns.

Is is enough for a student to simply announce, without more, a chosen gender? Maybe, because the document doesn’t require any particular “test” or even “factors” for deciding the question, and gives school officials only this unhelpful guidance for deciding what to do:

[I]f a school has an objective basis to question whether a student’s gender identity or expression is bona fide, it may ask for information to show that the gender identity is sincerely held. No particular type of information (such as medical) may be required.

This policy, however well-intentioned, is likely to lead to exactly the kind of nastiness it’s trying to avoid. In its effort to avoid the essentializing impulse of rules and laws that declare, brainlessly, that one’s sex at birth determines one gender identity forevermore, the Commission has simply thrown up its hands. But surely this isn’t the right answer. Should a college athlete, born male and with no hormone treatment or surgery be able to compete against women? Unless we’re talking about the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball team, this isn’t fair (and would be poor sportsmanship, to boot).

The Commission deserves credit for trying to show respect for one of the most horribly vilified and mistreated groups of people around. But just as tests have been developed for all kinds of other difficult calls, some kind of criteria need to be applied here, too. Otherwise everyone loses.

Judicial Difficulty with Gender

March 26th, 2010 No comments

A day late (not my fault! really!), here is my column over at 365gay.com. Toggle on over and give it a look. The post examines a few cases in which courts were called upon to decide whether to give legal recognition to someone’s sexual reassignment surgery. In service of a larger point about the difficulties that the law has with gender non-conformists, I also discuss the recent goings-on in Malawi, where a gay couple is in a maximum security prison for conducing a formal engagement ceremony.

Most of the results show that courts need a great deal of education on these issues.

Tax Court Offers Valuable Public Education on Gender Identity Disorder and Sexual Reassignment Surgery

February 3rd, 2010 No comments

Yesterday, the U.S. Tax Court overturned a determination by the IRS that sexual reassignment surgery doesn’t qualify as a deductible medical expense within the meaning of the Internal Revenue Code (and the regulations implementing it). (A copy is here.)

In a long decision that came with several concurring and dissenting opinions (and ran a total of almost 140 pages), the court offered a clear and sympathetic portrayal of the life of the woman, born as a man, whose life-long battle with gender identity disorder (“GID”) culminated in sexual reassignment surgery. Much of the decision is taken up, appropriately, with a discussion of whether the tax law views such surgery as as a qualified medical expense, but the court also was at pains to detail the life, and the course of medical and psychological treatment, that the petitioner had undergone.

The majority opinion is good public education. It walks the reader through the medical community’s evolving view of this disorder, the step-wise approach taken to dealing with this disorder (which can sometimes stop at hormone therapy), and the improved psychological outcomes for those successfully treated. The court makes the medical and psychological communities’ evolution comprehensible, and shows why federal public policy — tax policy, in this case — should follow these experts’ views on medical issues.

But the education isn’t complete without one of the concurring opinions. Judge Holmes’s opinion (the second of the concurring opinions, beginning on page 82) would have decided the issue without answering the contested question of whether the procedure was “medically necessary.” But since the majority had discussed the medical and psychological issues in such detail, Holmes felt compelled to offer a competing view of sexual reassignment surgery, noting that the medical community is in conflict on the issue, and that experts disagree about gender confusion. Some find those so affected “delusional,” others believe that the condition is a social construction, some think it’s a form of erotic attachment, and, as Holmes conceded, the predominant view is as expressed by the majority: that GID is a medical disorder that requires varying levels of intervention, depending on severity. Unlike the disrespect toward the petitioner that the dissenters could barely conceal, Judge Holmes tried instead to flesh out the full debate about gender identity disorder.

A tax court decision might seem like an unlikely place for such a discussion, but it’s not. Tax law is policy and judgment as much as it is statutory and regulatory interpretation, and tax law affects everyone — including those who are gender non-conforming. Of course, this case would never have surfaced had the sex reassignment surgery been covered by insurance, because then there would have been no (or not enough) expenses to deduct. But insurance policies don’t typically cover such surgery. Perhaps this opinion will start a conversation about whether they should.

More on William and Mary’s Trans-Line

October 24th, 2009 1 comment

Judging from the origin of incoming traffic, many people looking for further information on gender-queer Jessee Vasold,  who was honored earlier today as William and Mary’s Homecoming Queen, found last night’s post. This is just a quick nudge to go the school’s paper, The Flat Hat, to read the full range of comments the story has, er, engendered.

You’ll find some anger, but more compassion, understanding, and even humor. There’s useful information there, too: One reader writes that Old English had a gender-neutral pronoun (“hir”), which would surely come in handy in cases like this, where Vasold’s request for gender-neutral pronouns produced some amount of distracting ridicule.

Many of my friends, especially from the swim team, were on hand for this year’s Homecoming. I’m going to find out how important and discussed this whole issue was for those in attendance, and I’ll report back. If anyone has any insights, please pass them along to me. (For example, one reader commented to my earlier post that my wish for parade-goers’ mouths to be agape would  likely not be fulfilled, because Jessee is very convincing as a woman.)    

The Trans-Anything Line

October 19th, 2009 1 comment

I’ve often believed — and told anyone within earshot — that challenges to gender are scarier for lots of people than is sexual orientation.  A class full of law students knows they have a gay or lesbian professor? Ho, hum. But what do you think the reaction would be if that professor did anything “trans”? Start with cross-dressing and go down the line all the way to gender reassignment surgery, and imagine students’ (and everyone else’s) reactions. There are all kinds of complex reasons for this discomfort (including the basic lack of visual familiarity), but it’s clearly there.

See this example, from the state of Mississippi. A superstar female student, Ceara Sturgis, openly lesbian, only runs into trouble when she wants to wear a tux for her senior class picture. The girls, you see, are apparently supposed to wear “drapes,” apparently in homage to this unforgettable scene from the Carol Burnett Show:

Well, Ceara, do you have a sense of humor?

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