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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.