Although Richard M. Juang is an otherwise studious English professor, I came to know him through my participation with the NCTE Board of Advisors, and increasingly found him to be gentle and smart as a whip. We got to sit down and talk recently at First Event, where he agreed to answer my Five Questions.
(1) Tell me about the impetus that lead to writing Transgender Rights. Why now? Why you, Paisley Currah, and Shannon Price Minter?
Transgender Rights helps create a discussion of the concrete issues faced by transgender people and communities. Our contributors have all written in an accessible way, while also respecting the need for complex in-depth thought, whether the topic is employment, family law, health care, poverty, or hate crimes. We also provide two important primary documents and commentaries on them: the International Bill of Gender Rights and an important decision from the Colombian Constitutional Court concerning an intersex child. Both have important implications for thinking about how one articulates the right of gender self-determination in law. We wanted to create a single volume that would let students, activists, attorneys, and policy-makers think about transgender civil rights issues, history, and political activism well beyond Transgender 101.
One of the things the book doesn’t do is get bogged down in a lot of debate about how to define “transgender” or about what transgender identity “means”; we wanted to break sharply away from that tendency in scholarly writing. Instead, we wanted to make available a well-informed overview about the legal and political reality that transgender people live in.
Oddly enough, Shannon, Paisley and I each did graduate work in a different field at Cornell University in Ithaca NY. (Apparently, a small town in upstate New York is a good place to create transgender activists!) The book represents a cross-disciplinary collaboration where, although we had common goals for the book, we also had different perspectives. The result was that, as editors, we were able to stay alert to the fact that the transgender movement is diverse and has many different priorities and types of activism.
(2) Massachusetts is obviously the state leading on the issue of gay marriage. Tell me why you think trans people in particular should be on board for the gay marriage initiatives.
We’ve already seen cases where anti-marriage laws and amendments have negative consequences, where transgender individuals can have their marriages challenged as being invalid in divorce, child custody, and inheritance cases.Another, more overlooked, but equally important reason is that gay, bisexual, and lesbian transgender people are a significant part of trans communities and will begin to face the same discrimination as non-transgender people. A transman, for example, should be able to marry someone of the same sex or gender, in his true identity and without having his gender challenged by a clerk in a courthouse.
(3) A transgender-inclusive non-discrimination bill has been introduced into the Massachusetts legislature. Do you think this will carry as much “heat” as gay marriage?
The radical right relies on a lot of scare tactics to oppose marriage equality and those tactics lose power when people become familiar with gay and lesbian people. They have virtually no support among individuals who have strong friendships with LGB people and who would be happy to see the people they care about treated as equals. It’s also telling that anti-marriage laws have very little support among younger people who have grown up comfortable with the idea of LGB equality. Frankly, I think that, in a generation, when people who can’t vote now and who don’t get polled start voting, anti-marriage laws and amendments will be seen, culturally, as an anachronism and an embarrassment. Legally, I think they will gradually be ignored or repealed.
Emotionally, people are less easily scared about non-discrimination laws, in general. Just out of basic human decency, people feel more empathy for a person who gets fired or refused a job or who gets harassed and evicted, than for employers or landlords who are bigoted. Even if a person doesn’t really know much about transgender people and issues, I think that he or she will see the bill for what it is: an affirmation that people deserve to be treated fairly and have a chance to lead an ordinary life.
Notably, there’s already a substantial precedent for transgender inclusive non-discrimination laws. Nine states and many cities already have transgender inclusive non-discrimination laws. Additionally, employers themselves tend to have no interest losing good employees: over 450 large employers across the US have already created transgender-inclusive non-discrimination policies.
(4) People will want to know what exactly you do for the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). Can you explain the purpose of the organization and your specific role within it?
NCTE is one of our federal voices. The torrent of decisions, policy changes, bills, and laws that come out of the nation’s capital makes Niagara Falls look like a low-flow showerhead; most of those things don’t directly make reference to transgender people. But almost all of them will have serious consequences for transgender people. For example, the Real ID Act,which is intended to create uniform national policies around identity documents, may have very negative consequences for transgender people (as well as the poor and immigrants). Transgender people may find themselves unable to get basic identity documents, getting outed at work, find themselves in legal limbo or worse.
NCTE educates legislators and policy-makers about the impact of their decisions on transgender people and works with them to create better laws and policies. NCTE deals with laws and policies that have high impact on trans people, but that often go unnoticed by the broader LGBT community because they doesn’t come with a clear “transgender issues” label on it.
I co-chair NCTE’s Advisory Board, along with attorney Cole Thaler of Lambda Legal. We’re a national network of activists with experience and knowledge in a wide range of issues. One long-term purpose of the Advisory Board is developing the publications that help activists work on key issues. For example, we recently released a handbook on developing community responses to hate crimes.
As a movement, we’re past the point where we have to reinvent the wheel in terms of political and community advocacy; ideally, one major task of the Advisory Board will be to build a strong body of knowledge that will help transgender activists in the long run.
(5) If all the best kinds of legislation were already passed, what would you do with your time?
I often think about starting something that I call the “sanctuary project”: this would be a multi-generational transgender and genderqueer housing complex that would involve cooperative living, provide a healthy environment with educational and artistic opportunities, and be a good place for youth, parents, and elders to grow in.
Then I would sit in front of a fireplace with a dog and write bad novels.