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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.

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.

Rod Dreher’s “Trans”gression

July 31st, 2009 2 comments

I read Rod Dreher’s blog from time to time. Often I find his brand of religious conservatism both thoughtful and provocative. But then he posted this inanity:

If we accept that people who claim that they need to have sex reassignment surgery to make their bodies conform to who they believe they truly are, then on what basis do we deny people who claim that they need to have one or more limbs amputated to feel whole their moral and/or legal right to the desired surgery?

[W]e as a society have decided that someone who believes himself in need of amputation to feel whole is in some real sense mentally disturbed. But we do not believe…that someone who believes they will not be whole unless they have surgery to remove or rearrange their genitalia is mentally disturbed.

What’s the difference? Isn’t this moral distinction really just a political one? If you are a hard-core libertarian, you will say that personal autonomy trumps all, and that we have no real reason to deny the wannabe amputee his desire. But I don’t think most people would be comfortable granting an ethical imprimatur to the putative amputee. So how do you deny the amputee his request for surgery, even as you accept that it’s at least ethically possible to sign off on the requested operation of the aspiring transsexual?

I’m not asking to start a fight; I really want to know what people think. The crux of the moral issue is the extent to which personal autonomy should govern bioethical decisions like this. Let’s talk about this like grown-ups, shall we?

No, let’s not. It’s so obviously ridiculous that Andrew Sullivan could only bring himself to “sigh.” This outraged Dreher, who then wrote:

I get sick of this kind of juvenile fusspot response whenever anyone tries to discuss the moral aspects of issues having to do with sexuality. You know, the “How dare you compare [thing I approve of] to [thing you disapprove of]!?!” As if how dare you were any sort of argument.

I didn’t read the “sigh” as “how dare you,” but more as “there are so many things wrong with this attempted comparison that I don’t have the time or energy to respond.” I was going to tear into this (who knows why?), but then I saw that one of Dreher’s readers did it for me, and better than I could have. Here is one “Kenneth’s” response:

Likening gender dysmorphia to people with amputation fetishes hits the ear like the absurd hate speech of the bigots who say gay marriage is on the same plane as bestiality or child abuse. [M]any conservatives, including the pope, seem to think transgender people put themselves through all that as some sort of decadent new-age kink. As to the original question, personal autonomy should reign. If someone wants to lose a limb, that should be their choice. They should not, however expect any responsible medical professional to assist them. Why? Because transgenderism is a recognized, if not completely understood condition in which gender reassignment surgery (and other supportive services) improve the individuals ability to function as a whole person of the opposite sex. Surely that is not the same as gratuitous mutilation (unless conservatives still want to cling to the old Paulists and Hellenic notions that women are somehow a debased form of mankind).

A doctor who grants the amputee fetishist his wish (however legitimate the person’s autonomy), has not helped someone improve in health or function. They have just created a guy with a disability. The question goes to much more than autonomy. It involves medical ethics. Transgender folks are treated with surgery because it improves outcomes for people who are well-selected for it. This is not the case for people who seek inappropriate amputations or who suffer from Munchausen’s Syndrome (compulsive seekers of unecessary and often invasive medical attention) In the case of transgendered people, I’ve personally witnessed this transformation in people who had lived tortured lives often into middle age until they got their body re-aligned with their internal identity.

I would also leave this question to those of you who think TG people should just suck it up and bloom where God put them: to the men reading this, what would you do if you grew a nice pair of C cup breasts over the next couple months? (not a hypothetical, it’s called gynecomastia, and it can easily happen from hormone imbalances, etc). Would you chalk it up to “God’s plan” and shop for a flattering top, or would you run each other over on the way to the surgeon’s office?

That’s the frequency, Kenneth. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting; it was more than the crazy thought  experiment deserved.


Can We Really Call it a “Trans”Pass?

July 1st, 2009 No comments

An odd story has been developing here in Philadelphia over the past several months. It involves a collision between administration of a supposedly simple rule and the basic  human rights and dignity that have been offended by that rule.

Riders of the public transportation system in the Philly Metro Area can buy a “TransPass”, which is essentially a card that provides a steep discount to frequent travelers. These cards are intended to be used by one person, and not shared. But the only effort to keep that from happening is the gender-labeling of the pass: M or F. This, of course, only eliminates some of the possible fraudulent sharing (one M can share with another; ditto, one F), but I guess it’s a low-cost way of doing something.

But that “something” is causing problems for the gender non-conforming. As this article relates, those who are transgendered or who “appear” to SEPTA personnel not to conform to their biological sex are sometimes  turned away. In the extreme case, one trans woman went “oh-fer-two.” When she wasn’t “female enough” to “qualify” for the “F”, she tried again, this time getting a pass that said “M.” That didn’t work either.

Her effort shows that sometimes people just want to get on with their lives. She didn’t sue at first, despite the affront. She tried again. It’s only when she was effectively declared a woman without a sex that she threw up her hands, going to Equality  Advocates Pennsylvania1, which then filed a complaint against SEPTA.

Discussions and community input are on-going. Last night, a group called RAGE (Riders Against Gender Exclusion) spoke at a meeting of the SEPTA Citizen Advisory Committee in an effort to detail the problem and devise a solution.  It’s fair to assume that SEPTA had no discriminatory animus in mind in creating this system, but what matters is the reality. SEPTA drivers should no more be put to the task of making difficult gender determinations than the trans- and non-conforming gender riders should be excluded or  embarrassed.

A better solution to the fraud problem — one that deals with more than 50% of the cases — can surely be reached. How about a name on the pass and the requirement of showing a photo ID, just for example? This wouldn’t slow things down as much as you’d  think, because the frequent riders are known to the drivers in many cases, and the photo ID woudn’t often need to be produced. Whether this is the best solution or not, the current practice needs to be stopped at once.

  1. Full disclosure: I was on the Board of that organization a few years ago, when it was called the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.

Stonewall’s Progeny

June 28th, 2009 No comments

On the 20th Anniversary of Stonewall, there are any number of great places to find an account of the uprising that began on June 28, 1969, and lasted for some two weeks. I especially recommend Nan Hunter’s typically excellent post, which includes a bunch of useful links and an extended quote from the great writer Edmund White, whose pulsing account of events she quotes extensively.

I want to make a different point, though. Several years ago, a good friend of mine in Michigan was expressing his frustration with well-to-do, polite gays — almost exclusively white men — who cared little about the rights of people more on the fringe than they were. Here of course he was referring to gays and lesbians of color and gender non-conformists (including but not limited to the transgendered community). His admonition to the polite class: “If it’s not safe for the most outrageous drag queen, it’s not safe for you, either.”

Well, yes and no. In a theoretical sense he was right, because the oppression of any group enables the oppression of another; dehumanization and essentialist thinking are easily transported to new contexts, so that the group safe at the first pogrom might not survive the next. Here’s a brief comment that gets right at it from one of the readers of Pam’s House Blend:

“We are all gender transgressors in the eyes of society, either by loving the ‘wrong’ gender, or living as the ‘wrong’ gender. Pretty simple. But I’ve had arguments with boneheaded gay friends who insist ‘those people’ are ruining ‘our’ cause.

“It’s all one cause, people.”

Yet my friend’s admonition often fell on deaf ears, because the privileged class isn’t often on the receiving end of the worst kind of discrimination. Their efforts to maintain the status quo with the “tweak” of formal equality are less threatening, and more $1,000-a-plate-fundraising-dinner friendly, than the messier demands for the social equality that alone lead to good public health and welfare outcomes for transgendered people and other true outliers.

The other point my friend might have made is that the LGBT movement as we know it today simply would not have existed without the reckless courage of those same outliers; people still too often shoved to the margins in the march to formal equality. Having the least to lose and the most to gain, these radical queers sparked the revolution that today has the rest of us comfortably within the social mainstream. And they didn’t start in June of 1969; the transgendered community, working outside the sticky cocoon of a double identity that sheltered many more “passable” gay and lesbian folks, had augured Stonewall with an uprising of their own, four years earlier — in Philadelphia, at a place called “Dewey’s.” Kathy Padilla discussed this event, and provided a sketch of earlier TG visibility, as Pam’s guest blogger.

Because of these ground-breaking — doubtless trembling — efforts, we can argue with seamless confidence today for the full measure of legal equality that is surely soon to come. Even the Obama DOJ’s awful brief defending DOMA underscores rather than contradicts the point; a generation ago, the homophobic cant that the brief recites would have passed, unchallenged. Today it is a major embarrassment for the Obama Administration, which has been forced to respond by agreeing to meet with gay legal advocacy groups before filing the government’s brief in the other DOMA case, due in the Fall.  That’s progress.

And for those of us who congratulate ourselves for being “out,” it’s worth thinking today about the forefathers/mothers who made this possible; even easy, in some cases.

It’s often and accurately stated that the LGBT rights movement doesn’t have a true leader. But we do have pioneers, and Stonewall is an apt time to both remember them and the deep lessons of their courage.