I did a talk for Rainbow Over Wisconsin last night – a local org that helps fund LGBTQ projects in northeastern wisco. Here’s what I said.
Someone asked me recently why it is that gay people are so political, and I said, “you’re kidding, right?”
Our lives are legislated, our existence is debated, our relationships are suspect, and we are still, to this day, likely to drop our partner’s hand on the street, in bars; we worry about kissing each other on New Year’s Eve, and we have to prove ourselves before we are assumed to be good people, good parents, good teachers or lawyers or accountants. Every time some institution recognizes our worth – as the Supreme Court did a few years ago – a hundred objections are raised everywhere all over this country, saying we can’t be married, we can’t be good, we can’t be moral.
But we know that’s all wrong, that they don’t know us.
And they don’t. Those who do know us, support us. There are straight allies in this room no doubt, and in all of our lives: people who have seen what we are and who we are and support our right to exist, to thrive, to choose our families and professions, to walk home at night safely.
Right now we’re seeing those objections – that backlash – everywhere. And I worry mostly about what it means to be us.
The day after the election I had beautiful young queer kids come up and ask me if it might make more sense to be closeted. Worse yet, I said I didn’t know, that that was an individual choice, that if you feel scared, it’s okay to hide a little more.
But what’s funny is that my own impulse was to be more visibly queer, to be more out there, to not shut up. I feel like so many queer people I know have come to me quietly and said, “I’m just waiting for someone to say something” or that they are so tuned in to the sideways glances that they feel like they’re walking around with their fists clenched. My jaw some days is like a vise. A lot of us are feeling it – anger, but if not anger, rage. Sadness, exhaustion, fatigue. They keep trying, you know? To legislate bathrooms and “religious freedom” – by which they mean the legal right to discriminate against us, of course – and to make us feel as if expecting to be treated like a person, to not live in fear, is too big an ask, that we are somehow supposed to be grateful for being treated only a little like 2nd class citizens.
But it’s better now, right? Straight people tell me. For some of us, it is.
But we still stop holding hands when we walk down the street and see a stranger.
And you know? What we need to do is hold tighter, as a recent ad out of Australia put it. We need to hold hands more often, not less. We need bigger buttons, more rainbow flags, more trans pride, more bisexual visibility. We need more of us in the public sphere, not less.
Because when that student asked me that I remembered what it was like when I was 17, in 1986, when people were dying and queers were throwing bricks through Wall Street windows and putting red handprints all over New York City in order to make the point that the lack of funding, the lack of care, for those with HIV, was killing us, and that those who did nothing had blood on their hands.
We were so tentative then, and yet also so angry and so full of love for our communities.
[[ a little bit here about being liminally queer, being that girl in HS for the gay boys, the first days on Christopher Street even in the early 90s ]]
It’s what sustains us. We’re such an amazing group of people. The twinks and the bears and the softball lesbians and the butches and the queens and all of us. We have so many genders, so many versions of smart, so many kinds of fabulous, so much creativity and life and humor. We have so much to us, and a culture of living in the world and making things beautiful even while people hate us.
But what I worry about is who’s getting left behind. Queer identified youth are still getting kicked out of their homes. Trans youth are still being denied healthcare that enables them to be who they are. Trans women are still not getting jobs, they are still living on disability and hustling to pay the rent. Those of us who are gender-y get the cops called on us when we need to pee. I worry that those of us who have jobs, who are white, who have health insurance, and maybe a 401K, don’t remember how insecure life can be when you’re younger. We know that we’re here for them, but I worry that they don’t, and I worry, now that at long last we got to breathe a sigh of relief with Obergefell, that we forget all of the rest of us.
In gender studies, I often teach this idea of “asking the other question” – which means, simply, that we look at what’s not obvious. We see homophobia, say, but we have to ask too: what about racism? We see homophobia, but what about transphobia, misogyny, transmisogyny? Do we pay attention to the ways that those of us who have more intersections – more reasons for people to deny us jobs or housing or healthcare – manage to live? Do we know what life is like for a single black trans woman of color, at all?
I ask because I’ve been doing trans work for a very long time. Almost two decades. When the word transgender was barely a thing.
[[ more here about how I started to do this work, where we came from, what it was like, etc ]]
Now we see Laverne Cox and Janet Mock and Jazz Jennings – two of our most amazing trans women are women of color, I’d like to point out – and love that they can be who they are doing what they do. But trans women, you know, still die too much, and even when they live, they die too young. Trans kids who don’t have supportive families have a 41% risk of suicide. 41%. I have that number written on my bathroom mirror so I don’t forget it.
It’s hard to see sometimes because trans people seem to be made of steel. They amaze me regularly with their ability to hide their fear and their worries. But once gay marriage became a thing, and all those bathroom bans were proposed, I watched my beautiful wife go from being a huge, charismatic, creative, ridiculously flirtatious human being get kind of quiet. She didn’t say anything at first. But then we were in an airport in NY and there was a line for the ladies’ room and she came back to me paler than pale. They stared at me, she said. Like I wasn’t supposed to be there. That hasn’t happened in a long time. It hadn’t. But as I sat and held her hand while she calmed down, I looked up and noticed that in our little corner of the airport, many of the flights were headed to North Carolina. They were debating HB2 at the time and I knew that wasn’t a coincidence.
Let me drop some facts: trans women are women. Trans women do not assault people in bathrooms. This is not about women’s safety – hell, it’s not even about bathrooms. And trans people have been part of the LGBTQ community since the very beginning, and they worked with gays and lesbians on every major issue – marriage, HIV care, adoption, non discrimination laws – that we have fought for and won. Believe me, I can recommend books. Check out Susan Stryker’s Transgender History for starters. She’s a historian who ran the LGBTQ Archives in San Francisco for years, and she’s queer, too.
What is true is that, at that time, trans people hid themselves. They “woodworked” as it came to be called. They transitioned and moved sometimes clear across the country and started life again. So for decades, many of us doing this work didn’t know we knew trans people. We knew the visible ones, the drag queens that would go on to transition, the butches who did. But they were always with us, always fighting side by side, always working for laws that helped and communities that kept us as safe as we could be. Do you know Reed Erickson’s story? You should. He was a trans guy who funded most of the major research on gay and lesbian lives for decades. He inherited some money and he used it to create our history.
What about Lou Sullivan, who started FTM International, and who was one of the first gay identified trans men? Imagine the heat he took about being both trans and gay back in the 70s. He fought for a trans man’s right to transition despite being same sex attracted – which at the time was largely discouraged by medical gatekeepers – they didn’t want to create more gays and lesbians so they routinely turned down transitions for people who knew they would be once they transitioned – and he helped create the LGBT Historical Society. He died of AIDS in 91, and he grew up in Milwaukee. There’s a new book about him that just got published.
Sandy Stone helped start “women’s music” – by which I mean lesbian music – at Olivia Records.
Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson – the P is for ‘pay it no mind’ – a Latina and black woman – were at Stonewall and were reported to start the whole thing off. Holly Woodlawn – one of Warhol’s Factory – was there too.
Ben Barres is a neurobiologist who works for greater diversity – especially opportunity for women – in the sciences. He tells a story about how people still come up to tell him that his work is better than his sister’s, and is a champion for women’s intellectual prowess.
Phyllis Frye is the first out transgender judge appointed in Texas, and believe me she’s fighting SB6.
Alan Hart, Jamison Green, Sarah McBride, Miss Major, Monica Roberts, Riki Wilchins, Allyson Robsinson, the Wachowski sisters… do you know their names? Do you know how many trans people do the good work of increasing visibility for all LGBTQ Americans, not just the trans ones? How many make art for us, music, do research, run companies? There are so many. Some put in decades as gay or lesbian even before they transitioned, and their commitment to the whole of this community has never wavered, not for a minute. Not even when they’ve been told to stand down and step aside, not even when they were told to wait for their rights, that sexual orientation was a more pressing matter than gender.
It’s easier to see the entertainers, the actors and models and athletes, especially. And every year for Transgender Day of Remembrance we see how many trans lives have been cut short – how many die of murder, of the kinds of extreme violence that sicken you even to read about? It’s a necessity – we need to know that this kind of violence is still happening, all the time, around us, but it makes me sad that a lot gays and lesbians only know a list of the dead and … Catilyn Jenner. Because behind every single famous trans person there are hundreds of trans people living their lives, creating families, making a living. And some of the most confident of them are shaken right now by all of this backlash which is focused on them and them only.
So while you see trans people keeping it together, right now, they need all of us behind them. We need to have their backs. They need us to tell bullies where to shove it. They need bathrooms that are safe, schools that are safe, jobs that are safe. They need those of us in the LGB to get over it already. It’s not better for all of us yet. The rates of unemployment, violence, unequal education, all of it – are still very much an issue for trans people, and every time one of these damn bathroom laws gets proposed – there are a dozen in the works right now – beautiful, proud, gigantically queer and awesome women like my wife go quiet.
Which is, you know, why I get louder. Let’s all chime in. I support trans people.
The future is trans. The future is queer. The future is us.