When I was about three or four years old – enough to be talking but not enough to be in kindergarten – my mother carried me through the lineup to the tellers at the bank. I had never seen a person of colour, and so I’d been awed to see a tall fellow with that “purple”-deep colour of skin. I turned to my mother and said, “oh, mom, I’d never let myself get that dirty.”
My embarassed mother kindly explained that some people are simply born with darker skin, and that ended my experience of personally-felt racial bigotry. A few years later, I learned from a close friend I’d made from Trinidad that skin colours sometimes come with cultural differences. It never occurred to me that any one skin colour or culture was any better than any other.
But I did also learn quickly that others didn’t necessarily share that same blissful innocence. As much as it clearly puzzled me when people expressed their contempt for my friend, it was certainly apparent to me that their contempt was very real. Even in Canada, where hatred was nowhere near as entrenched as it was further south, racism thrived.
I’ve also experienced it from the receiving side, twofold, one from the perspective of being Métis, in a culture where Natives are largely despised. In this situation, shame is taught implicitly, where it is intimated that a person should take refuge in their French last name, or resort to referring to their nationality as “mongrel” rather than identifying themselves as Métis. While I have since learned to be proud of my culture and now mourn not having been able to learn more of the traditions associated with it, it was still a painful experience hiding and pretending that nothing was amiss.
My other experience of bigotry came from being transgender. Even though it took me several decades to finally transition, the feelings were always there, and every crass joke that people made about men in dresses or every condemnation of “those perverts” served to drive me further into hiding, further into shame and further into the nightly suffocated struggle that almost culminated in suicide many times.
So if we learn so intimately how painful it is from the side of the victim, why is bigotry so easily foisted around in our own community?
Every so often, someone turns up the tune, “I’m Not a Fucking Drag Queen,” popularized by the movie, Better Than Chocolate. When I’d first heard it, the song was cute for about the first minute that it took before I started wondering exactly what was wrong about being a drag queen and why we should despise being associated with them. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with defining oneself and pointing out when assumptions made about transsexuals based on the behaviours of others are fallacious, but I fail to see why it needs to be done at someone else’s expense. And yet, there is an enormous rift between many of the transgender communities where this self-defining takes on darker overtones: transsexuals trying to differentiate themselves from crossdressers and drag performers, crossdressers who feel that people who would undergo surgery to change their bodies are extremists and delusional, drag performers who embrace being gay and who feel that their compatriots should just wise up and do the same… there’s an ongoing factionalism that in many communities continues to drive wedges between us.
It does not stop there. At the grassroots level, our communities often ostracize people because they choose to be non-operative (because it isn’t consistent with the “one true way” medical model), or because they have spent some time in the sex trade, or because they play in the leather community (even when they display a healthy differentiation between fantasy and reality, and are clearly transgender in the latter). FTMs and MTFs sometimes feel that they have too many different needs to belong in the same support groups, and intersex people often balk at any association at all with anything transgender, some of whom have never experienced dysphoria and might have been lucky enough to be assigned the right gender at birth. It’s not unusual to see homophobia rear its ugly head when debates flare up between those who work with the local GLB folks (I mean the ones who seriously try to be supportive, not proven nemeses like the Human Rights Commission a.k.a. HRC) and those who call anyone who does so a “traitor.…” And then there’s the support meetings I’ve sat through where people complain about or tell unflattering jokes about “Pakis.” Or the “drunken Indians” comments said with no care that someone in the room is Métis.
If one had any doubts:
“… Susan has said all along that she’s not like other transgender people. She feels uncomfortable even looking at some, ‘like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.’” – The St. Petersburg Times, about Susan
I’ll dispense with my take on Susan Stanton quickly. Although I object to her comments, I do see her as a creator of her own misery. Where she complains that “the transgender groups boo me,” and that her transition is a somewhat solitary one, this is a path that she carves for herself. When she had decided to become an activist, she failed to educate herself in the diversity of the community and the many needs it has, and in so doing she dropped the ball. By surrounding herself with people who are telling her that “Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,” she’s succumbed to their rhetoric, rather than giving serious thought to the matter. A neophyte to transadvocacy, she has no idea how thoroughly and deeply the history of betrayal from her friends, the HRC, runs. But she will find out, when the next betrayal comes along and leaves her hanging in the wind. And when that happens, I see no need for hard feelings enduring from her novice mistakes, provided she becomes willing to see and admit where she was wrong. From my perspective, the personal maligning ends there.
As much as her comment angers me, though, I think it’s important that the subject has been brought up, because this is not just about Susan Stanton. This attitude persists far beyond this one incident.
“… like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.”
This isn’t an altogether unusual complaint, in my experience. I’ve seen the aversion that people have to transwomen who’ve been harder-ravaged by testosterone, with heavy brows, deep voices, large statures, strong jawbones, recessive hairlines, wide shoulders…. “How can you be comfortable being seen in a store with her?” I’ve been asked. “I’d be terrified, and have to make myself as scarce as possible….”
Sorry folks, but not all of these things can be corrected with cosmetic surgery. And those things that can are often so costly that they become inaccessible to much of the community. We don’t all face the same challenges. For some of us, transition will be a lifelong process, and stealth is not a realistic objective. Should rights and protections then be only available to those who are “passable,” based on some unknown subjective scale? While conscientious and active advocates know better, I think our community would be surprised at some of the grassroots answers to that question. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on how often the “men in dresses” attitude is used as justification for shunning crossdressers, some of whom are transsexual at heart but held back by life circumstances (children, spouses, careers) and others of whom are dual-identified and need to alternately express both genders with the same intensity that we need to live one.
Please also understand that I don’t claim this bigotry to be endemic of the entire community, which can be an invaluable source of support and friendship. But it does exist in pockets, and where it does exist, it drives people away from the support they need, and likewise drives away those who would be happy (or at least willing) to provide it.
“’But I don’t blame the human rights groups from separating the transgender people from the protected groups. Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,’ Susan says. Transgender people need to be able to prove they’re still viable workers — especially in the mainstream.”
Until there is protection in place to occasionally discourage employers from firing workers just for being trans, it will continue to be a complicated and sometimes monumental task to carve a successful career, and will continue to happen only so long as a person can remain “passably” stealth and not draw attention… or cause the right-wing fearmongers out there to panic and pick up their torches. And as long as successful transgender people are not free to draw attention, no one will take notice of their accomplishments and associate them with transgender individuals, and this “proving” that is being touted will never take place. Is the world ready for a transgender city manager? In the rest of society, the answer to that would depend solely on personal job qualifications – apparently, we’re to be patronized into believing that we’re not ready for that, yet. And the wonderful thing about the Barney Frank trumpet-that-there-isn’t-enough-support-of-transgender-rights approach is that the louder and more frequent they get on the subject, the more they will convince the legislators who might have once voted for transgender rights.
There is a reason that society associates transgender people with “shemale” porn, bank robberies, unemployment and marginal lifestyles. If you’re not lucky enough to be deemed suitably “passable,” it can be difficult to secure the lowest of jobs – whatever the qualifications. With the difficulties sometimes just in landing a minimum wage job at McDonald’s, coupled with the costs of hormones and surgeries needed just to arrive at a point of peace with oneself, frankly, the sex trade is unfortunately one of the most viable solutions. This will not change until a signal – one with some legal clout – is sent out into the professional world that it is no longer acceptable to exclude transgender people from more viable career paths.
And the transgender community will not be helping itself in pushing forward for these kinds of needs as long as it is still wrapped up in exclusion, distaste and division, and creating environments in which advocacy continues to eat its own. Often, I’ve heard people trumpet that Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and others who threw the first stones that touched off the Stonewall Riots and the gay liberation movement were transgender, in protest of the gay community’s past history of excluding us from the bargaining table. And far too often, I’ve heard (sometimes in the same breath!) derision of drag artists, sex trade workers and anyone else deemed to create a “negative impression” of the transgender community. But at the time of Stonewall, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson et al were drag queens and prostitutes. Sometimes, I think that the only thing that has changed since Stonewall is that gradually some of our community have managed to escape the ranks of the disenfranchised, and are trying to distance themselves from them. Once again, there is a repeat of the cycle of jettisoning the less fortunate – financially, physically or both – and some of us seem to have no qualms about doing to them what was done previously to us (and for exactly the same reasoning).
From time to time, it’s good to remember what inclusion really means, and embrace the consequences. As far as the move toward exclusion, I’ll have no part of it. I’d never let myself get that dirty.