A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Why Transgender Activism Matters

People who are today known as transgendered and transsexual have always been present
in homosexual rights movements. Their presence and contributions, however, have not always
been fully acknowledged or appreciated. As in many other social reform movements, collective
activism in gay and lesbian social movements is based on a shared collective identity.
Homosexual collective identity, especially in the days before queer politics, was largely framed as
inborn, like an ethnicity, and based primarily on sexual desires for persons of the same sex and
gender. However, such definitions make sense only when founded on clearly delineated
distinctions between sexes and genders. It becomes considerably harder to delineate who is gay
and who is lesbian when it is not clear who is a male or a man and who is a female or a woman.
Like bisexual people, transgendered and transsexual people destabilize the otherwise easy
division of men and women into the categories of straight and gay because they are both and/or
neither. Thus there is a long-standing tension over the political terrain of queer politics between
gays and lesbians, on the one hand, and transgendered and transsexual people, on the other.
These boundary issues, with which recent gay and lesbian social movements have struggled, have been intrinsic to definitions of homosexuality since the concept of homosexual
identity was first consolidated at the turn of the last century. Early sexologists and their contemporaries commonly assumed that homosexuality was epitomized by females who seemed to want to be men and by males who seemed to want to be women. For example, J. Allen Gilbert's 1920 article in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, which described the 1917 gender transformation of Lucille Hart into Dr. Alan Hart, was titled "Homosexuality and Its Treatment." Similarly, Radclyffe Hall's book The Well of Loneliness (1928), about a (transgendered) female who yearned to be a man, almost single-handedly defined lesbianism in the popular imagination for much of the twentieth century and is still widely acclaimed as a classic of lesbian literature. It is not surprising, then, that many gays and lesbians who are not transgendered have been eager to make it clear that they are not, given that their societies commonly use gender transgressions to enforce homophobia. Yet others, eagerly seeking to valorize presumed homosexual people from the past, have adopted gender transgressiveness as a symbol of gay and lesbian pride. Nearly a hundred years since homosexuality was formally defined, news reports and gay and lesbian activists still routinely claim both historical and contemporary transgendered people as lesbian and gay.

Only more recently have differently gendered people named themselves transgendered and transsexual and begun to build politicized organizations under self-defined banners. During the last half century there also have been many examples of transgendered and transsexual people being shunned by gay and lesbian political organizations or having their histories expropriated; despite this, many transgendered and transsexual people tried to persuade these organizations to embrace and endorse the fight for the rights of transgendered and transsexual people among and around them. But before you can fully understand the politics of transgender activism, it would defy all sense and logic not to explain how this also fits into gay and lesbian activism over the years as a consequence of the Stonewall riots.

The modern gay and lesbian rights movement in the United States reached a milestone in the summer of 1969, when rioting broke out in New York City's Greenwich Village. The rioting, which lasted for several nights, began when female and male transgendered people resisted arrest at a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. Over the next few years, while gay and lesbian rights organizing expanded rapidly, the distinctive gifts and needs of transgendered people were often marginalized by the leadership of early gay and lesbian organizations. Bull daggers and drag queens, transgendered and transsexual people, were largely treated as embarrassments in the "legitimate" fight for tolerance, acceptance, and equal rights. Several incidents in the 1970s and 1990s were flash points for the smoldering tensions between homosexual people trying to attain social and political weight for themselves and others who hoped to achieve equal rights for all. These incidents illustrated the perception of some in the homosexual population that transgendered and transsexed people presented too great a challenge to mainstream society and thus discredited the endeavors of more "acceptable" gays and lesbians.

Lesbians and feminists have been more at the forefront of these struggles than gay men. In particular, some of the most hotly contested battles recently have been over the question of whether or not male-to-female (MTF) transsexuals are women for the purposes of inclusion in women-only organizations. Transgendered and transsexed people have posed the greatest challenges to gender definitions at a historical moment when women in general, and lesbians in particular, have begun only recently to feel that they exist as political players in their own right. Yet as lesbians and feminists have tentatively gained ground, transgendered and transsexual activists have argued that the identity categories of "lesbian" and "woman" do not exclude those with histories as men and that these categories are in fact a matter of subjective self-identification. Many lesbian-feminist organizations and individuals nevertheless insist on a definition of womanhood that leaves no room for women who were born male. Just such an interpretive clash occurred at Olivia Records in the 1970s. A women-only, lesbian-dominated recording company, Olivia was a source of pride to many feminists. Among the many challenges it faced in its early days was a paucity of women with well-honed recording skills who wished to work long hours, for little or no pay, in a women-only company with a questionable financial future. One such woman, Sandy Stone was an MTF transsexual, a fact she never concealed from the other women at Olivia. When it became more widely known that Stone was an MTF transsexual, some lesbian feminists were outraged, because they thought of her as a man who had infiltrated a women-only organization. The other women at Olivia initially resisted the pressure to request Stone's resignation, but in 1977 they succumbed when they believed that the company's very existence was at stake.

Two years later, in The Transsexual Empire, lesbian-feminist Janice Raymond further publicized the story of Stone's tenure at Olivia and used it to support her case against transsexualism. Raymond vilified transsexualism as a "social tranquilizer" that was "undercutting the movement to eradicate sex-role stereotyping and oppression." The persistence of Raymond's theories about transsexualism became evident once again in a very public way in the early 1990s at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, a five-day women-only event run every year since 1976 on 650 acres of private land. It is unclear when transsexual women began to attend it, but at least one, Nancy Jean Burkholder, had been to it once before 1991; in that year she was expelled for being transsexual. Over the next several years controversy raged over who should be allowed into the festival. Lesbian, gay, and feminist newspapers and magazines were barraged with letters to the editor. In 1994, 1995, and every year from 1999 to 2003 transgendered and transsexual activists set up an informational and protest "Camp Trans" outside the gates of the festival. Eventually, the organizers of the event, bowing to pressure from this coalition, said that anyone self-defined as a "woman-born woman" would be allowed into the festival.

The combined gay and lesbian movement has also proved resistant to aligning itself with transgendered and transsexual people. Prior to the 1993 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Rights, for example, transgendered and transsexual people worked to have the word transgendered added to the name of the march. Ultimately, the organizing committee decided to exclude the word from the title. Furthermore, when the decision was announced at an organizational meeting, cheers went up from some of those present. By 1997 more consistent progress toward unity had been made, with various gay and lesbian organizations expanding their mandate to include transgender perspectives. In September 1997 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force amended its mission statement to include transgendered people. Similarly, in September 1998 Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays voted to include transgendered people in their mission statement. In April 2000 three transgendered activists were featured speakers at the Millennium March for Equality in Washington, DC, which drew hundreds of thousands of participants.  In March 2001 the Human Rights Campaign, which calls itself "America's largest gay and lesbian organization," amended its mission statement to include transgendered people.

Nevertheless, there remains much work to be done to redress the longstanding rejection of transgendered and transsexual people by gays and lesbians. Part of this work is to make gays and lesbians aware of the important contributions of transgendered and transsexual people to the queer movement. Why should we campaign for the rights of some but not others? Why are the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people more important than transgender civil liberties. They are equally important; and if we continue this "us" and "them division we may as well give up the fight for equal civil liberties altogether. If we cannot unite in solidarity to achieve the liberties of all good citizens, we are letting them down - and we are letting ourselves down. So next time you see a rainbow flag remember that the "t" in LGBT is equally important; without it the whole cause is demolished.

1 comment:

myinfamy said...

I don't actually know any transgendered people, but that doesn't mean they should be an invisible populus without a voice. Activism for ALL equality for EVERY decent human being should be a priority for everyone who cares - and should care as it is a hugely important subject.