They Just Aren't Like Us

The following article is from a small GLBT community publication in Nashville, and I thought it made a nice bookend to the speech I gave in Albany.
“They just aren’t like us.”
I remember those words of several years ago, spoken about the transgender community.
“Like” and “us” both just beg to be defined. How “like” does someone have to be in order to be welcomed into the world of “us”? Who gets to define “us,” anyway? Whether by gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, age, “expendable income,” or such perennial favorites as “cute” or “hot” criteria—some make the cut, some don’t. We divide ourselves up into little “us” and “them” nooks and cranny’s, some self-selected, others imposed.
Last week Tim Toonen, CSFP publisher, and I were happy to be guests on WRFN’s “Gender Talk,” hosted by Roxie. It’s a program, she says, for which one primary purpose is to make it easier for individuals to come out. It’s also a way to help us get to know one another. As we were ending the conversation, she asked for a concluding thought. “Listen to each other,” I said, which is not exactly earth shattering or even remotely original. But I do believe we could do a better job of it.
I had a variety of chances, beyond the usual, to “listen” in the next few days. The Artrageous Pre-Party gathering was one opportunity. Another was the Queer Talk Saturday radio show I do with DJ Ron on WRVU, as Dwayne Jenkins came to talk about this weekend’s Nashville Black Pride celebration. Then there was Sunday night’s dinner for the Tennessee Transgender Political Action Committee.
I think one reason this whole “listen to each other” thing is ringing bells is because of a commentary piece I read a few weeks ago, one that feels very much like an example of not listening. Chris Crain’s column, in the Washington Blade, was headlined, “‘Trans or bust’ is still a bust.’” He uses the term, which I find offensive, “trans-jacking.” His argument is that it is wrong for the transgender community and “gay” supporters to insist that legislative efforts in the area of workplace rights include protection based on “gender identity” as well as “sexual orientation.” He writes that, “…the placement of gender identity on par with sexual orientation in many of our organizations has crippled needed activism against the ‘swishy fag’ and ‘diesel dyke’ stereotypes that still permeate the entertainment media and society generally.” “Swishy fag” and “diesel dyke” typecasting is the fault of the trans community?
Obviously I don’t know who Crain listened to, as he came to this conclusion, one he’s voiced in at least one earlier commentary. But as I’ve listened and learned over the years, what I’ve heard from those who are transgender, and those who support them, sounds nothing like “trans-jacking.” What it has sounded like are voices insisting they are as deserving of equal rights as any one else. It took a lot of work for some of the organizations Crain criticizes to get beyond a view similar to his. As it took years of efforts for lesbians to be considered an equal part of the “gay” organizers. As it took the (ongoing) hard work of the bisexual community. Listening to those who do the work, what you hear is an insistence that they be included in efforts to insure full civil rights. Will it be more complicated, to be inclusive rather than exclusive? Sure it will.
But that doesn’t mean it’s right to pick out those who may have the best chance of winning a round in the legislature, and tell the “others” they have to wait. That’s like a wink and a nod with the legislator, and the other insiders—hey, we’ll get ours first. In the meantime, we’ll also be quite happy to take any of the benefits that might come our way because of the work of those “others.” We’ll even use the whole GLBT alphabet (probably not the “Q” and “I,” though), when it suits our purposes. But for now, you others, you can come to the party. Just wait over there, quietly, until we let you know that you can also have a seat at the table.
When our listening is confined to the safety and comfort of “us,” we do to “others” what we rightfully argue shouldn’t be done to “us”—like being ignored and avoided; like being left out of conversations and decisions that vitally impact our lives. We really do need to listen to each other. Be warned, though, that once you do, “they” stop being “other,” and become a person, like “us.”
Copyright Joyce Arnold and Church Street Freedom Press.