The vast spectrum of the transgender community has long been excluded from inclusion in federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) bills introduced over the past decades. With the GOP in control of the House, the chances of the new ENDA bill (H.R. 1397) actually coming up for a vote are about the same as Dick Cheney announcing he’s gay. In a March 27 interview with Metro Weekly, H.R. 1397 author Congressman Barney Frank said, “It’s an organizing tool. . . this is a chance to work hard to sway those who are committed to ENDA to support the full transgender inclusion as well.” Frank further noted that, “that’s the lobbying job for the whole community. Transgender people, lesbian and gay and bisexual people, our straight friends – the focal point should be to make sure that everyone who’s supportive of ENDA supports the transgender inclusion.”
Our legislators need our input, but before we can help guide them to what we need done, we should discuss that among ourselves. That alone may prove a tough proposition given the number of different interests and needs under the entire range of the hotly debated transgender umbrella, the contested definitions of the various labels, and amount of internal friction we’ve experienced even before “transgender” began to emerge as a political word in the early nineties.
Very early on I was a huge supporter of the big-tent, umbrella usage of the word “transgender” as a political organizing tool to describe all gender-variant people, particularly when it came to universal issues like hate crimes. As I stated in a 1997 letter to the Bay Area Reporter, “while our issue is one of gender identification rather than sexual orientation, we’re still queer to the mainstream and subject to the same discrimination.” That still holds true. Nobody deserves to be beat down for their gender expression, whether they are a post-op MTF, a hetero crossdresser out for a night of fun, a butch lesbian or a gay man in drag. For that matter, nobody deserves to be denied housing or be fired from his or her job on the basis of what they do in their private lives as long as it isn’t illegal. In that sense, the transgender umbrella makes sense as an all-encompassing term, because in this simple context our need for safety is the same.
Where we get into confusion and conflict is in those areas where our needs are not identical. That is where the transgender label causes confusion and does more harm than good. Perhaps after two decades it is time to redefine that word so that it has a clear meaning to legislators and a general public that has little to no interest or patience for the subtle definitions. Sadly we live in a world largely of black and white thinking, and while the Utopian ideal would be to educate and open minds, such an approach may take many years — if ever — to be effective, and in the meantime people are being harmed, and have been for decades. What needs to happen first and foremost is to adapt the language to the reality of the situation, and without making value judgments.
Sometime in the mid to late 1970s, heterosexual transvestites — whom Dr. Harry Benjamin termed “true” transvestites — began to adopt the label of crossdresser, likely due to the negative association of “transvestite.” It was a word that would serve to differentiate them from gay men in drag, female impersonators and those whose motives were purely fetishistic. Enter the 1990s and the explosion of activism in our community, particularly in the groundbreaking trans rights ordinance enacted in San Francisco that would become a model for other jurisdictions and states. It was in the 1990s that “transgender” became a political umbrella term to cover the entire gender transgressive spectrum. Soon some transsexual people, especially MTFs, began to embrace the transgender label due to the sexualizing of the word “transsexual.” While the umbrella term proved useful when it came to legislation affecting the entire spectrum, its over-generalized nature has become a double-edged sword, both to subgroups and to individuals.
From an individual perspective, “transgender” has become meaningless because of the wildly disparate demographic it covers. If you tell someone you are transgender, what does that mean? Are you a heterosexual guy who dresses up on weekends and goes to a certain club to socialize with others like you? Are you a gay guy who dresses up for fun or for sexual purposes? Are you a female impersonator? Are you a married man who self-pleasures himself with his secret lingerie stash? Are you someone who goes out in public sometimes as one and sometimes as another gender in your daily life? Do you live full time as a woman but have no desire to lose your penis? Are you awaiting surgery? Already had it? Using that generalized label can lead to a five minute explanation or leave someone wondering about you, how to address you and relate to you, etc.
From a group perspective, the non-specificity of the label can cause a lot of confusion, because while there are some very common needs — safety from hate crimes and freedom from discrimination for how you live your private life — there are needs specific to the sub groups as well. This has come up many times, at the federal, state and local levels when anti-discrimination legislation was being debated.
One concern voiced again and again is that a crossdresser might alternate going to work as a man or as a woman, demanding to use the Ladies room when en femme. In a perfect world it wouldn’t matter who uses what restroom or how one dresses at work, but for now the fear of “men in dresses” in the women’s bathroom is the chief complaint against a trans-inclusive ENDA and bills like it. A transsexual woman committed to transition has no choice: she cannot choose to go into work as a man during the real life experience that is a prerequisite for SRS. Furthermore, a non-op TS person who lives full time shouldn’t be forced to masquerade at work.
Only by classifying the gender spectrum into meaningful groups and then determining the best way to protect everybody is the only way protective legislation is going to pass within the next twenty years. Those fortunate enough to work for accepting employers and those who are “deep stealth” capable (or think they are) might argue it would be better to educate and take twenty years to get that wide-spectrum full protection, but people are being hurt right now by the current situation.
For the above reasons I suggest classifying the gender spectrum in terms of transition and and expression. “Transgender” as a political label may be too entrenched as a political to could go back to its earlier meaning of non-operative transsexual but we need to do a better job of addressing the specific needs of the various groups under the TG banner. Also the subgroups should be identified along with their needs. For instance, “transsexual” — pre-op, post-op, non-op and transwoman — could refer to anyone who lives full-time or soon intends to live full-time as the gender opposite of the sex they were born. This is the group that needs full workplace protection when they are living full-time; they do not have the option of retreating to their birth sex when the going gets rough.
While there are other political concerns and needs, employment is arguably the most immediate, especially during a deep recession. Given the costs of transition, given the number of younger transwomen driven into prostitution and porn because they have few other options, given that later transitioners may be fired from established careers when announce their transition, the right to work is a matter of survival.
By necessity we need to simplify the gender spectrum and the various needs as much as possible. We are trying to convince both legislators and a general public that has little time and even less inclination to be educated about all the subtleties of numerous gender labels, gender theories and other intellectual exercises in gender. For this very reason I have purposefully kept issues like “third gender” and “former” transsexual out of the discussion. They distract from the main goal, which is immediate protection. When your house is on fire you don’t have an intellectual discussion about combustion temperatures — you grab a hose and put out the fire.
When the conversation is simplified and group needs are more identified, it makes it easier to counter alarmist claims used to scuttle all trans rights, like the dreaded “bathroom issue.” With workplace protection focused on those living full-time, false arguments like bathroom rapes can be instantly scuttled by arguing that there have been no Ladies Room rapes in CA since AB 196 took effect in 2004. Until we can short circuit the argument that John can show up at work as Jane whenever he wants, we can’t argue rationally with those who oppose our rights.
With no chance of ENDA passing in the current Congress, we now have an opportunity to focus and refine our message. We need to start among ourselves, and I believe that redefining “transgender” needs to happen early in that discussion. As we come to a consensus our leaders can then start to educate our immediate allies in the halls of government, and then we will very much likely begin to see change, perhaps as soon as in the next couple of years. Until we focus and unite our efforts, each group mindful of the other, our rights may continue to elude us for decades.