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Equality Forum Day 1: From VIP Kickoff to the Margins

April 27th, 2009 2 comments

Imagine this life: You’re not safe at school. The very sight of you makes people uncomfortable, sometimes angry. Your family disowns you, but no one else will adopt  you or take you in for foster care. Without mooring, and unsure of your own identity, you turn to drugs and alcohol, perhaps landing in jail. You can’t find a “legit” job, so sex work becomes your “best” option. You contract HIV, or Hepatitis, but have no access to health care to pay for your treatment. Low-level bureacrats decide whether to honor your chosen gender on identity documents, making routine transactions an occasion for recurring humiliation.

This nightmare is reality for many transgendered people. Even the “mainstream” gay and lesbian community has only recently begun to wake up and recognize these realities. The National Transgender Panel — significantly, the first substantive program of this year’s Equality  Forum — was an energizing, often moving conversation about the legal, social, and political obstacles that block the full citizenship and dignity of the transgender community. Indeed, the story told  above was pieced together from the comments made by both panelists and audience members, whose input the panelists constantly sought — and received in effective abundance.

The panelists, themselves all members of the community, spoke authoritatively about legal issues (Benjamin Jerner); the national political landscape (Kathy Padilla) and the hugely complex public health challenges faced by this community (Ben Singer).

Perhaps because of my own interest in public health and the legal issues relating to it, I  found Singer’s presentation particularly compelling. He’s a smart activist who understands the need for data-driven results; as he puts it, if you’re not on the public health radar (and you get there by showing a problem affecting a population), you don’t exist. But the issues facing the transgender community are more than a “blip” on any morally defensible radar; they amount to an on-going emergency. A few of the sobering examples confronting this community will have to suffice here: (1) Violence against them is epidemic, and the situation becomes graver as the categories of oppression pile up. Thus, transgendered women of color are at the greatest risk. (2) HIV/AIDS are at levels otherwise associated with sub-Saharan Africa. (3)The community faces high levels of medical uninsurance, a problem connected to joblessness and homelessness, themselves endemic.

Against this backdrop,  many of the issues of formal equality that many of us (including your humble blogger) most often concern ourselves with seem less vital. Really, do you think people facing the kinds of issues I’ve just mentioned have marriage equality on their plate? Again, Singer:  “We talk more about these grand legal issues and not these other ones.”

But “these other” issues were thoroughly chewed over — by the audience. In a wonderfully  generous move, Singer invited the audience to answer a question about the kinds of problems routinely faced by transgendered youth. The answers should pain any person with a halfway developed sense of empathy. One young woman was thrown out of her home and not adoptable. A young man ended up abusing drugs and doing time in prison. Several regarded every day of school as a kind of torture. Of course, any kid growing up gay — or different in any way, really — can share painful experiences. But these really did seem different in kind, not  just degree.

“Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.”

Yet not all transgendered people are in the desperate situation Singer describes, and, for some at least, it would be very helpful if the state were to grant them basic legal rights, including the recognition of their marriage. Jerner discussed a case with which I’m familiar, in which the Kansas Supreme Court idiotically declared null a long-term marriage between an opposite-sex couple (where the wife had been born a male), thereby disinheriting the surviving spouse in favor of an evil offspring. Although I have a quibble with his reading of the case,1 his point about the need for legal remedy is sound.

The panel ran over time. The audience was large; about 100, I’d guess, many of them young, bright activists.  They didn’t seem to want it to end, and that’s not surprising. There was a great deal to be said. Afterwards, I had a chance to speak to Singer, Padilla, and moderator Joelle Ruby Ryan, a warm and gentle giantess who ran an open and generous forum. Singer and Padilla are very interested in the untold story of transgender activism (newsflash: Stonewall wasn’t the first time members of the GLBT community rose up in protest). Padilla showed me some of her materials, and I’m sure I’m only one of many encouraging her to turn these into a book, or at least a long article. In the meantime, I’m hoping to do a follow-up blog on this issue of the history of transgender resistance — with help from Singer and Padilla,  who are enthused, knowledgeable, and in possession of all kinds stuff that’s by turns really cool and very moving.

I couldn’t have asked for a better blogging assignment to get me excited about the rest of the week.

———

Before this amazing panel, Equality Forum kicked off, as always, with the VIP Party in City Hall. This year’s event was staged, aptly, in the grand Conversation Hall. Probably a couple of hundred folks were VI enough to have garnered invitations, and most of the people I spoke to were impressive leaders of various organizations, or were directly involved with Equality Forum.

Dwight Evans, the Pa. State Representative who received a distinguished service award for his legislative efforts on behalf of the LGBT community, is a gregarious man with an expansive view of equality and opportunity. His charter school has been around for more than a decade, and he’s been a consistent advocate for GLBT rights in Harrisburg, where  the political winds don’t reliably blow in a favorable direction. I enjoyed a brief conversation with him, in which he showed himself to be a member of a rare and beautiful species: the pol without affect. His view of equality? “You don’t have to convince me.” His acceptance speech spoke to the need to “get past typical barriers and walls,” and concluded, quite sensibly (yet somehow movingly) with: “Thanks. And let’s move on.”

Also effective was Mayor Michael Nutter, the poor guy stuck with a job that no reasonable person would have taken had he known of the economic collapse to visit the city within nanoseconds of his inauguration. On radio, he comes across as bright and logical, but a bit stiff. In person, he’s witty and relaxed – but just as compelling. The short: He’s on our side. And Equality Forum founder and Executive Director Malcolm Lazin, to whom I must give props for giving me this “forum” to blog about the event, closed the proceedings with an inspiring call to take part in this Sunday’s Equality Rally and March, linking these events to a courageous march here in Philadelphia forty years ago led by gay pioneers Frank Kameny and the late Barbara Gittings. Very effective — now let’s hope the event is the success it needs to be.

Well, it’s late and I’m almost blogged out. But here’s a light moment from the Kickoff Party. Having just speared an unwilling olive after a too-epic struggle at the hors d’oeuvres table, I was standing near it (catching my breath), when a jovial fellow spun around and bumped into me. He was so apologetic that I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d sent my only olive spinning out of my hand and through the air. I was reminded of the Seinfeld “Junior Mint” episode, and only hoped that the escaped refreshment hadn’t had a similarly calamitous result. Alas, I believe (but do not know for sure) that it landed in a scoop of perfect, high hair — unknown to the “victim.” If so, I’d like it back. No questions will be asked.

  1. He says the court declared that transgendered people couldn’t marry anyone — I think that reading is possible but not compelled. The case is In re Estate of Gardiner,42 P.3d 120 (Kan. 2002).