WHOSE MOVEMENT IS IT?
It happened every time Jamison "James" Green tried to enter a lesbian bar in the '70s and '80s. The bouncer would try to stop him from entering because of the way he looked. "This is a women-only bar," the bouncer would protest.
"Do you want me to show you my tits?" Green would respond.
Only after the bouncer engaged in a brief and hushed huddle with a manager would Green eventually be admitted to the bar.
For 22 years Green had sex with women and identified as a lesbian. "But [the discrimination] wasn't about whom I was sleeping with, it was about my exterior gender traits. Being challenged like that was painful," he recalls.
But once inside the bar, Green was still uncomfortable. "I felt left out in women-only spaces," he says. "The fact is, I was more male than female."
Although born with a female anatomy, Green felt like a man. In 1988 he began medical treatment to transition from female to male. Today the 50-year-old writer is president of the San Francisco-based organization Female-to-Male International. "My orientation is still toward women, so today I'm heterosexual," he says. "But I still consider myself part of the queer community."
However, many gay men and lesbians don't consider Green and others like him, referred to as transgendered, or transsexual, to be part of their political and social movement. Those skeptics look on transgendered people as part of the fringe, oddities who are a potential embarrassment to the push for mainstream acceptance. Only in the past few years have transgendered people begun winning acceptance as part of a larger alliance of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. And while many gay and lesbian political organizations on both the local and national levels now officially recognize transgendered people in their mission statements, an often-divisive debate continues around the question of how closely connected the gay and lesbian movement and the transgender movement are and should be.
Resistance comes from both sides. "There are a lot of people in my situation--heterosexual men--who are vehemently opposed to being associated with queers," Green says.
"There are some transgendered people with homophobia," agrees Sharon Stuart, executive director of the Transgender Law Conference, an organization that helps transsexuals locate legal resources. For example, Stuart says, many cross-dressers--men who wear women's clothes but are heterosexual--resent being confused with drag queens, who are gay men who dress in women's clothes.
Still, most transgender leaders insist the opposition to a united gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement comes from gay men and lesbians.
"A significant number of gays and lesbians haven't resolved their own phobias around gender and appearance, and they're the ones most likely to object" to including transsexuals, says Nancy Nangeroni, a transgender activist who hosts GenderTalk, a radio show on WMBR in Cambridge, Mass.
Even the gay leaders who make distinctions between the gay rights movement and the transgender rights movement concede that the hesitancy to link the groups comes most strongly from gay men and lesbians.
"I'd say if a transgendered person doesn't have a gay orientation, he or she is not part of the gay movement," says Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay political group. "Adding transgendered people to a mission means arguing for a group of heterosexual people too, and that is a broader coalition of people."
But, Tafel admits, much of the discrimination against transgendered people exhibited by gays and lesbians is based on fear, not philosophy. "Frankly, to a lot of gay men, transgendered people are an embarrassment. The unspoken attitude is, Let's keep them in the closet. They're freaks and they hurt us."
Tafel condemns that attitude, calling it "little more than internalized homophobia." He believes that transgendered people are more likely to be victims of discrimination and violence than lesbians or gay men because they are less likely to meld into mainstream society. He says the key to cooperation between gays and lesbians and transsexuals is "being honest and clear about who everyone is. The transgender issue confuses a lot of people, gay and straight. A lot of the opposition in the gay community is based on the fear that others will think the transgendered are just gay people with sex-change operations."
But some transgender activists say that making distinctions about experiences and political goals is what separates transgendered people from gays and lesbians in the first place. Simply asking whether transsexuals should be part of the gay rights movement shows the arrogance of a movement that is too politically narrow, says Riki Wilchins, executive director of the gender education and advocacy group GenderPAC.
"Gayness used to be about both orientation and gender," Wilchins says. But then, she charges, some gays and lesbians staked out what has proved to be a successful, if divisive, public relations strategy in winning support from heterosexuals: "We look like you. We act like you. We're just like you. Give us our rights."
When this happened, Wilchins says, "the movement was hijacked. Now, we're just trying to reintegrate the movement again. It has left out gender queers because, let's face it, we're not like everybody else. We were the flamboyant, visible ones, so we got sacrificed for political expediency. You can sell Ellen DeGeneres on Capitol Hill. You can't sell RuPaul."
Nothing epitomizes the rift between the gay and lesbian movement and the transgendered more than the attempt to draft and pass the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act. As currently written, ENDA, if passed, would offer federal protection against employment discrimination for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Transsexuals are not included in the bill.
Transgender activists uniformly condemn the exclusion from ENDA. They charge that gay and lesbian leaders and organizations, particularly Democratic congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts and the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay lobbying group, fought hard to keep transgendered people out of ENDA because they believed it would ease the political struggle to pass it.
Frank and HRC deny it was a matter of political self-interest. "I am not for including transgender in ENDA because [the transgendered population's] issues couldn't be addressed in this" bill, Frank says. He dismisses the notion of political embarrassment and points to his support of including transgendered people in federal hate-crimes legislation. "It's not about who is being covered, it's about what activity is being covered. Transgendered people want a law that mandates a person with a penis be allowed to shower with women. They can't get that in ENDA. They may need separate laws." Frank says there are real issues for businesses where employees must share dorms, showers, and bathrooms. He believes some transgendered people will get protection from ENDA but acknowledges it does not offer blanket coverage.
"Every civil rights legislation ever passed was partial," he says. "The notion [that] you shouldn't do anything until you can do everything is a notion for doing nothing. It's not immoral to take the gains where you can get them."
And Donna Red Wing, national field director at HRC--a group whose fundraisers have been protested by transgender activists in the past--denies her organization would ever adopt an "us versus them" approach to transsexuals. "It's dangerous to separate ourselves from transgendered people in order to be more palatable to the mainstream," she says. "And it's crazy to pretend that those who would discriminate against the transgendered wouldn't discriminate against us."
But she also says ENDA will move forward as written, without including the transgendered. The claim that transsexuals have been politically sacrificed "is an easy out," she says. "The gay and lesbian community has worked Congress for 25 years. The transgendered community has just started to lobby Congress in the past five years. Congress doesn't have any real understanding of the transgendered community. The real work is ahead of them."
Not all gay activists hold this view. "It is not just up to transgendered people to do the legwork" on educating Congress and the public, says Kerry Lobel, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a political group. In 1996 the task force became the first national gay and lesbian organization to incorporate transgendered people into its mission statement. "NGLTF believes there is one movement, the GLBT movement," Lobel says. Therefore, she says, the organization cannot support ENDA without transsexual inclusion. "You can't leave some members behind now and hope they catch up later."
Transgender activists scoff at the arguments against including them in ENDA and say it is typical of the political segregation they experience from gays and lesbians.
"When the bathroom argument was raised in the fight over gays in the military, Barney [Frank] courageously denounced it as a red herring," Wilchins says. "Now he's using the same argument against the most vulnerable people in the movement." (Wilchins's group, GenderPAC, is planning to hold its fourth annual lobby effort in Washington, D.C., May 23-25, to urge representatives to include transgendered people in ENDA and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.)
Activists say that on the local level the issue of bathrooms and showers can be easily negotiated by including language that calls on businesses to offer "reasonable accommodation." "There are so many ways to work around this," says Phyllis Randolph Frye, an attorney and transgender activist in Texas. Prejudice, not practicality, is the real obstacle, she insists. "It is a choice between political opportunism and inclusion, and ENDA is the litmus test."
But beyond political strategizing, transgendered people argue there is a deeper philosophical basis for inclusion: Gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people are essentially fighting the same battles against prejudice. This bond should be stronger than any difference that might separate members of the various groups.
"No one is saying that transgendered equals gay equals lesbian equals bisexual," Stuart says. "We all have our distinct identities, our distinct concerns. But what we share is more important than our differences, and that's what the larger political movement should be built upon."
As a former lesbian, Green says his years of battling discrimination with different identifies has taught him that "we are all vilified in similar ways by the nonqueer world. Those who hate us don't draw distinctions. Their venom is directed against all of us. I don't think we have any choice but to stick together."
RELATED ARTICLE: THE TERMS THAT DEFINE US
Definitions are supposed to make meanings clearer, but in the realm of sex, definitions often underscore just how inadequate words are. What is the sexual orientation of a transsexual? How fixed are our views of gender identity? If anything, the words and their definitions are the jumping-off point for a discussion about our assumptions of how we see ourselves. The following glossary, based on information from GenderPAC and other sources, lists in alphabetical order the most commonly used terms about sexual identity, especially as they relate to transgendered people.
BISEXUAL: A person who is capable of being sexually attracted to people of either gender. Bisexuals may be improperly categorized by other people as gay or heterosexual, depending upon whom they might be sexually involved with at any given time.
CROSS-DRESSER: The preferred term for men who enjoy or prefer women's clothing and social roles. Contrary to popular belief, the overwhelming majority of male cross-dressers identify as straight and often are married.
DRAG: Refers to the adoption of clothing and roles of the opposite sex by individuals for play, entertainment, or eroticism. Originally used to refer only to "drag queens," gay men who dress as women and who are distinct from crossdressers. Lately there has been an enormous growth--in number and popularity--of "drag kings" among lesbians.
GAY: Used to describe individuals who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex. While the term usually connotes men, the term gays, or gay people, often refers to both gay men and lesbians.
GENDER EXPRESSION: A person's expression of masculinity or femininity. For many, sexual orientation is subsumed within gender as part of their expression of maleness or femaleness. Thus, many people believe that sleeping with men is considered an expression of femininity, no matter which sex engages in the behavior.
GENDER IDENTITY: A psychological term referring to one's "core" sense of maleness or femaleness. When used for legal purposes, the term is most often used in connection with transgendered people and is commonly considered to exclude those who do drag or cross-dress.
GENDER QUEER: A controversial term describing anyone considered "queer" because of how he or she expresses sexuality or gender.
HERMAPHRODITE, INTERSEX: Refers to people born with genitals that are neither completely male nor female. According to the Intersex Society of North America, a group fighting for intersex concerns, approximately one in every 2,000 newborns is intersexual. Many will suffer cosmetic surgery to "correct" their genitals, often resulting in a profound and permanent loss of erotic genital sensation.
HETEROSEXUAL: A person who is sexually attracted to people of the opposite sex.
HOMOSEXUAL: A person who is sexually attracted to people of the same sex.
LESBIAN: A woman who is sexually attracted to other women.
SEXUAL ORIENTATION: Describes the emotional or sexual attraction of one individual to a particular gender. The reason for a given individual's orientation is not well understood, but many scientists believe biology plays a key role. For transsexuals, the description of orientation may change. Someone who preferred men as a man would be described as homosexual; as a woman, the same person would be described as heterosexual.
TRANSGENDER: Originally used to refer to individuals who lived in another gender but did not desire surgery, the term is now used interchangeably with transsexual, though transgender is preferred by many because of its allusion to gender identity. Some activists use the term to refer to anyone who transgresses societal norms of sex and gender.
TRANSSEXUAL: A medical term coined in the 1950s to refer to individuals who desire not only to live in another gender but also to change their bodies through surgery to reflect that gender. Not all transsexuals can have or desire complete genital surgery. Despite popular belief that male-to-female transsexuals outnumber their female-to-male counterparts, about 50% of transsexuals identify as male, and 50% as female.
TRANSVESTITE: A medical term used to describe men who wear women's clothing. Few people still use the term, which has been mostly replaced by crossdresser.
Dahir is an editorial writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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|Title Annotation:||transsexual feels part of the gay community|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||May 25, 1999|
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