Something to bring people together

It was a moving experience this evening to attend the vigil for Islan Nettles, who was brutally murdered in Harlem on August 17. I fear for my own life sometimes, even though I know that the risk I take in being publicly transgender as a white person who’s seen as male most of the time is nothing compared to the risk to black and Latina trans women, who make up the vast majority of trans murder victims in the United States.

One speaker remarked on the hundreds of people gathered and said, “It shouldn’t take something like this to bring people together.” This resonated with a thought I had when I arrived in Jackie Robinson Park: when was the last time there was such a big gathering of LGBT people in Harlem? When was there such a large trans-friendly space there? When was there so much overt (if silent) official approval for a transgender event?

For years, people from Harlem have had to take the subway downtown to show their gay and trans sides. In 2013, with crime at historic lows, this should not be necessary. Harlem should be a place where trans people can be free to dress as we want, without being attacked.

The vigil was just a few blocks from where Nettles was beaten to death by Paris Wilson. It made me wonder whether Wilson and his friends would have felt quite so threatened by Nettles – and so confident in attacking her – if they saw more support for trans people from their community leaders. Would a regular, positive, trans-friendly event have made a difference, and could it make a difference in the future?

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Then I looked over at my friend Brendan Fay who was standing nearby, and I realized I had proof that these positive events work. Fourteen years ago, Brendan got frustrated with the homophobes who refused to allow the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march with a banner in the Fifth Avenue Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. He organized the first annual Saint Pat’s for All Parade in my neighborhood, and has been helping run it ever since. And it’s been bringing the neighborhood together.

Another friend and neighbor of mine is a devout Catholic, who saw the parade as an attack on Catholics. After he wrote a letter to a local newspaper a few years ago complaining about the parade, I spoke to him privately and told him that I’m a transvestite (yes, I used that word) and that when I moved to Woodside from the South Bronx I worried that I would feel just as unwelcome here as I did there. For me the parade changed all that. I saw all my neighbors, of all sexualities and genders, coming out to watch the parade, and I felt like they accepted me. I felt like I belonged.

I told my friend that I saw the parade as a celebration for the whole neighborhood, not just for LGBT people. I said that he and his friends would be welcome to march in it. He asked, “Could I march with a pro-life banner?” I thought that would be a little too divisive, and Brendan confirmed that it would be, but that Catholic organizations with unifying messages were welcome.

Recently, when I posted on Facebook that I was feeling frustrated with certain trans “community leaders,” my friend wrote this comment: “All I can state here is that you have done more to bridge the divide between trans people and the rest of society than any one I have known or met, turning people from prejudice to understanding of the complex issues involved, so rather than be upset at you, I hope praise will be in the offering.” High praise indeed, but I had help from Brendan and everyone else who organized the parade.

This year, in the supermarket, on the day of the parade another neighbor made a comment about “them” getting married, and I told her that I was a transvestite, and that much the parade made me feel welcome. Her face changed, and she answered, “As well you should!”

I hope that Harlem can learn from the successes that Brendan and I have had in Woodside. I hope they can have positive events that bring the community together: trans and non-trans; gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight. I hope that community leaders (and that includes religious leaders, and not just the LGBT ones who were a strong presence at this vigil) can take part and bring people together. We all deserve to feel safer, and black people deserve to feel as safe as anyone else.

Anybody but Christine Quinn for Mayor

Some trans activists fight for easy name and gender changes on official documents. Some fight for access to responsible, professional medical care, or for hormones and surgery to be covered by insurance or government programs. My main goal is for us to have access to bathrooms and changing spaces without getting the shit beaten out of us. And that’s why I’m asking you not to vote for Christine Quinn for Mayor of New York City.

A trans woman walks into a McDonald’s and asks to use the women’s bathroom. While she’s in there, someone yells at her “I’m going to kill you, faggot.” She goes out of the bathroom, and discovers that it was the store manager yelling at her, and he hits her with a lead pipe. One of her friends calls the police, but when they come they arrest the trans woman instead, on accusations from the store manager.

Maybe this sounds like something that happens in Texas, or Wyoming, but in 2006 a woman, Christina Sforza, claimed that it happened to her right here in New York City, across from the Empire State Building, in the City Council district of Christine Quinn. Trans community leaders and Amnesty International took the story seriously.

The Sylvia Rivera Law Project put out an alert on October 11, 2006, and I contacted Quinn shortly after that. She did not have a public email address, so I contacted her through a form on her Council website. I got no response for two weeks, until I got a broadcast email from Quinn’s office about a New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Frustrated, I replied to that email, only to get an auto-reply telling me to fill out the form. I filled out the form again, and got an email from Quinn’s chief of staff saying, “I would love to hear more so that I could have a staff member work with you.” Encouraged, I wrote back with more details.

The Amnesty report says, “Christine Quinn, New York City Council Speaker, reportedly intervened in October 2006 and Christina Sforza was finally able to file a criminal complaint.” I don’t know what this intervention is, but apparently nothing has come of it.

Since then, I have heard nothing from Quinn’s office on this issue. I have, however, gotten regular email updates:

  • 1 criticizing the arrests of “young transgender individuals” in the Port Authority bus terminal bathrooms
  • 1 supporting birth certificate gender changes
  • 1 supporting streamlining transgender marriage bureaucracy
  • 1 inviting me to a “Trans Reality Panel” sponsored by the Empire State Pride Agenda
  • 1 supporting GENDA, the state Gender Non-Discrimination Act
  • 8 annual invitations to the Council LGBT Pride ceremony
  • 1 inviting me to my neighborhood LGBT-inclusive Saint Patrick’s Day parade
  • 3 on hate crimes attacks on gay men
  • 1 on free self-defense trainings
  • 5 on Hurricane Sandy (including 1 on a “LGBT Day of Action” for Sandy victims)
  • 1 inviting me to a hearing on the experiences of LGBTQ youth in the juvenile justice system
  • 1 praising a speech by Hilary Clinton on LGBT rights
  • 1 on a LGBT Advisory Committee to the NYPD
  • 1 on LGBT rights in Uganda
  • 1 on LGBT rights in Russia

Every so often over the past seven years, I’ve tried to think of some reason for Quinn’s silence on this issue. Did her staff find some reason to doubt Sforza’s story? Was there something else that made Sforza a difficult victim to champion?

It doesn’t matter. We’ve heard Sforza’s story, and we know that trans people do get attacked in bathrooms – as we saw on video in Maryland in 2011.

I was deeply unsettled to hear Sforza’s story. It could have been me. I’ve been in that McDonald’s. When we hear reports of a horrific attack that could have happened to us, we want to know that justice is being done. Even if someone found out that Sforza made up the whole thing, it would still have been very reassuring to have a statement from McDonald’s that that kind of behavior is not tolerated from their employees. I would feel much better to hear from the NYPD that they take our rights seriously and will protect us if someone tries to punish us for peeing.

I would like to know that someone on Quinn’s staff took my safety in her district as seriously as they do someone’s birth certificate or marriage license, or the rights of people on the other side of the world. All the ceremonies and parades are meaningless if we can’t use the bathroom without the fear of being beaten.

When Quinn was first elected I was excited at the news of our first out lesbian city council member. I knew she cared about lesbian rights, and I hoped that that would carry over to transgender rights. I was disappointed.

This is why I will not vote for Christine Quinn if I see her name on a ballot, and why I’m asking you to vote for anybody but her on September 10. We can do better.

Breaking down the binary/non-binary binary

Sometimes I’ll ask self-appointed trans “community leaders” – who act like they’re speaking for all trans people – to let the world know that non-transitioners exist, and we have needs, and they’ll bust out something like, “oh yes, and nonbinary people too!” (Last year it was “genderqueer people too!” Sometimes now they add “genderfluid.”) It makes me feel like Elwood Blues when the bartender tells him, “We’ve got both kinds! We’ve got Country and Western!”

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The thing is, I’m not really nonbinary – at least not in the sense that “my spirit truly lies somewhere in between,” as B. Scott so eloquently put it. My ideas of “guy” and “woman” are fairly non-traditional: I’m a guy who cries and cooks and earns less than my wife and stays home with the kid. When I want to be a woman, I want to be a smart, thoughtful woman.

But I don’t want to be in between. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It just doesn’t capture how I personally feel about myself. I want to be a guy, except when I want to be a woman. I want to look like a woman, except when I want to look like a guy.

Do I look non-binary to you?
Do I look non-binary to you?

I’m not genderqueer: my performance of either gender is not intended to provoke or challenge. I’m not agender. I’m not a “closeted trans woman” in ciscritical-not-cisphobic’s attempt to pigeonhole us. I’m not a member of a “third sex,” and I don’t want to be. And no, “genderfluid” doesn’t work for me, either. (I’ll say something about that in another post.)

I am transgender. I have the same feelings and beliefs as a lot of trans people who have successfully transitioned. There is one difference: I chose not to transition. Trans, but not transitioning. Why can’t they say that?

Hands off my umbrella!

I was first referred to Monica Roberts for her explanations of why RuPaul doesn’t count as trans. A few months later I asked a gay black man about trans self-identification in black communities, and he pointed me to Roberts.

I was, honestly, more convinced by the assertion (I don’t know if it’s true or not) that RuPaul rejects the term “transgender” for himself. Whether or not he counts as trans, I think Roberts made a strong case that he is not a prototypical black trans person, or an appropriate community spokesperson. It seems like she wasn’t content with that, and insisted on excluding RuPaul completely from the category of trans. She has now taken it upon herself to do the same for another person who is not even claiming to speak for trans people, B. Scott.

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I first heard of Scott last night when someone reposted a blog post of his on Tumblr; apparently he’s an entertainment journalist who does news, commentary and interviews on his blog, as well as a YouTube channel and podcast, but has branched out into more established media.

Scott identifies as a “proud gay man,” but his public persona is so high-glam femme that he is often perceived as a beautiful woman. At least one man felt embarrassed after trying to flirt with Scott, and lashed out in an immature way.

The current controversy started in June when Scott had been invited to appear at the 2013 BET Awards Pre-Show. He claims that at the last minute, after extensive wardrobe negotiations (people do this?) and interviewing one guest on camera, the BET staffers told him his outfit “wasn’t acceptable,” ordered him to change, and then told him he was being replaced for the rest of the pre-show.

Scott is now suing the network for “discrimination on the basis of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” In yesterday’s blog post, he wrote,

Over the years my love muffins and strangers alike have questioned me about my gender identity. What IS B. Scott? As a society we’ve been conditioned to believe that a person has to be ‘exactly’ this or ‘exactly’ that. Biologically, I am male — as my sex was determined at birth by my reproductive organs.

However, my spirit truly lies somewhere in between. It is that same spirit that has allowed me to become so comfortable in my skin, choose how I express myself, and contributes to how I live my day-to-day life.

Transgender is the state of one’s gender identity (self-identification as woman, man, neither or both) not matching one’s assigned sex (identification by others as male, female or intersex based on physical/genetic sex). [source]

It is by that definition that I accept and welcome the ‘transgender’ label with open arms.

Makes sense, right? Scott self-identifies as “somewhere in between,” which counts as “neither or both,” and doesn’t match his assigned male sex. But that’s not enough for Monica Roberts:

Roberts’ reaction is really problematic. What bothers me the most is that she is prescribing and delineating appropriate transgender actions. It’s not enough for Scott to appear in heavy makeup, long hair and women’s clothes and shoes every time he is in front of a camera. He has to take hormones, declare a transition, and adopt a name that Roberts approves as feminine enough.
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As I wrote back in April, there are at least three conflicting definitions of transgender. Roberts is saying that in order for her to consider him trans, Scott has to follow her prescriptions.

Another thing that bothers me is that Roberts is not only claiming the right to define transgender, but the right to define the umbrella. The “umbrella” definition of transgender is an inclusive one that brings in drag queens and anyone else who’s remotely gender-variant. As umbrella proponent Jamison Green famously said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” Many prescriptive trans advocates explicitly reject the umbrella, many (like GLAAD) switch between the umbrella and their prescriptions, but Roberts claims that the umbrella is her prescriptions.

In a subsequent blog post, Roberts clarified that she worried that this identification was purely a legal strategy, and that Scott was only “embracing the transgender umbrella after resisting it for years.” “Until I get and see more evidence that B.Scott’s embrace of the transgender umbrella is genuine, permanent and not just related to this legal case, call me skeptical.”

Roberts knows a lot more about American black culture’s attitudes towards transness than I do, but I would be surprised if a gay black man who grooms himself like a woman and is often perceived as a woman would face very much less discrimination and harassment than a transitioning black trans woman. How often is Scott really able to draw on his male privilege?

Based on her reactions to RuPaul, my guess is that Roberts is worried that with his large following, Scott could emerge as a powerful trans leader and spokesperson without transitioning, eclipsing her own influence and those of other transitioned black trans people like Janet Mock* and Laverne Cox. Personally, I would welcome an influential non-transitioning trans person of any race to the cause. Any creative responses to trans feelings would be a relief from the relentless hormones-surgery-name-change drumbeat put out by Roberts, Mock and other trans spokespeople. And the transition buy-in that Roberts values so much doesn’t stop her from being divisive and exclusionary.

But regardless of whether you trust Scott to be true to the trans community, Roberts’ heavy-handed prescriptivism should alarm not just advocates of transgender inclusivity, but also feminists of all stripes. And her claiming the right to not just define transgender but to take the transgender umbrella away from us is just uncalled for.

(*Update: In this sympathetic interview, Janet Mock makes it clear that she’s not into that kind of boundary policing.)

What’s keeping me awake at night

I have real reasons to be happy about my excursion on Saturday. I have a great friend. My co-workers are super cool. But that’s not how gender fog works with me. Instead, it keeps me up all night thinking about things like this:

I'm so hot.
I’m so hot. Don’t you think I’m hot? I’m in soft focus.
  • I’ve lost so much weight! I wonder if I’m a 38C or a 36D.
  • That guy who held the door for me totally didn’t read me. I bet nobody did!
  • I definitely fit in with all those cute tourist women. I was prettier than a lot of them.
  • I could rock the dress that woman was wearing on the subway yesterday.
  • Would the brown skirt I bought go better with a black top or a white one?
  • I so want to go out in that green dress. Maybe this weekend. Can I get the time off?
  • Makeup is such a pain. I wonder how much laser costs.
  • Can I really wear a strappy sundress? I’d definitely need to get rid of my T-shirt tan lines first.
  • I could have gone to work in a dress yesterday. No, maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea. Well, at least I could’ve gone to the coffee shop in a dress. Who cares what my neighbors think?
  • Is my video camera good enough to make a haul video?