There comes a time when a people, long marginalized, reach the boiling point and chose to actively combat the practices and attitudes that have held them down. Persons who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming will probably relate to the frustration Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer felt in the early 1960s, when she uttered, "I am sick and tired of being sick and tired." Formed by the heat of society's derision, exclusion, and active persecution, trans people have organized in various ways to battle systematic discrimination and to eradicate normative standards and values that regard trans people as the "ugly other." But despite the pain, which includes the obscuring of their presence throughout history, trans people are truly on the move today. Although the trans movement is in need of substantial improvements, there is much about it that one can celebrate and about which one can be hopeful.
Unlike the storming of the Bastille by the aggrieved Third Estate (who launched the French Revolution in 1789), one cannot point with certainly to a singular moment when the trans movement drew its first breath. But some have tried. When the June 9, 2014 editions (online and print) of Time Magazine appeared with the cover story, "The Transgender Tipping Point: America's next civil rights frontier," the mainstream media gave substantial acknowledgement to a process that had been in play for many years, giving the wider public greater awareness of people who have existed and contributed positively even before the dawn of history. In subsequent months, a plethora of movies and television shows have included at least some trans content. And whether in cyberspace, on radio or television, public affairs shows have granted time to both proponents and detractors of trans rights.
This flow of developments has moved along to the point at which some internal reflection and assessment is surely in order. On July 14, 2015, Advocate.com posted "What Trans Movement?" In this well-researched, cogently argued piece, Jen Richards steers away from simplistic perspectives. She posits that what many view as a singular movement is, in fact, many disconnected parts. Richards decries the internecine conflict, which has greatly set back the advancements that trans people could have achieved by now. Most of all, Richards sees major fault lines at work, ones that separate trans people based on ethnic and economic backgrounds. In her coverage, Richards sees the privileging of those with gay and European heritage, to the detriment of trans women of color, whose significant contributions to trans history have only recently begun to see the light of day.
With the goal of supporting Richards' piece, the multi-part discussion on which her post is based can be advanced, in some ways, by slightly different perspectives. One can argue that a multifaceted social awakening that took place over a century ago merits the title "movement" as much as the broad endeavors supporting trans people today. Her view that activism has being taken over by the loudest, most destructive voices, while understandable, should also subjected to closer scrutiny. By contrast, Richards' argument on the ethnic and economic divides affecting trans folk is something that is just as relevant today as it was during the 1960s.
In her post, "What Trans Movement?" Richards argues the view of a single trans movement is a "dangerous lie." The characterization of such as "dangerous" seems rather odd to me. From my understanding as a college history instructor, I posit that the unitary perspective is not "dangerous," but rather an oversimplification of a phenomenon with many facets. This is best illustrated by the America's Progressive Movement. With its origins as early as the mid-1880s but strongest from 1900 to 1914, the Progressive Movement was a collection of different projects, all loosely connected through the belief that society can be advanced through greater public involvement in the political process and, in particular, through the advancement of economic and social justice. Politically, activists championed women's suffrage, the dismantling of trusts, and citizens' use of the initiative (propositions) process. In labor, proponents fought to put an end to child labor, advance a shorter work week, and secure strong standards of workplace safety. The efforts of other Progressives made safeguards for food and drug safety a reality, shone a spotlight on the deadly and unsafe health hazards in public housing (championed by Jacob Riis), aided the social, economic and cultural betterment of immigrants through the Settlement house movement, and through the Social purity movement, curbed saloons, brothels and (unfortunately) access by women to birth control.
The long discussion on the Progressive movement shows, in essence, that one can call a multifaceted phenomenon a "movement" even if the main objective--societal improvement---is rather generic. Although reforms in the military, the treatment of prisoners and detainees, access to public accommodations, economic empowerment (jobs, housing, etc.), medical care, education, and media representations (to name a few) are quite different one from the other, all of these aspects are connected to the goal of empowerment for, and positive recognition of, trans people. So while the movement has many diverse goals, the central focus of strengthening trans rights shows that is, as with Progressivism, is in fact a movement with many parts.
Richards' assessment that "we are ceding space to the most destructive elements of our community just as trans visibility is reaching a crescendo...." is another point worth taking seriously. The sad reality is that hostility that trans people are sometimes the victims of hostility (quite harsh at times) from others in the population. I have seen---not a few times--snide comments directed, seemingly out of the blue, by one transwoman against another. For me the worst of it centers on the toxic debate over who is really trans. A few years ago, I was eye-witness to a nasty turf war that pitted transsexual women against cross-dressers. While both sides had some valid points to make, the exchanges soon devolved into caustic, bitter personal attacks.
By occupying ourselves with settling scores and by setting rigid definitions on who belongs and who doesn't, or who looks good and who doesn't, we as trans people lose sight of the designs of organizations and individuals bent on harming us through any means possible. Whether one is a cross-dresser or transsexual, we are at risk of assault outdoors by anyone whose twisted world view regards us as "men in dresses," shouting "f****t" before unleashing their terror on our bodies. With over 2,000 attorneys in their employ, the Alliance Defending Freedom has been redoubling their attempts to impose restroom bans on trans people. Terrifyingly active in 2014 and this year, ADF seeks passage of ordinances prohibiting trans people from using public toilets and changing rooms that match their gender identity and gender expression. At all times, it's imperative for us to direct our energies and focus on fighting the real enemies.
But several examples of high-visibility clashes within the trans community don't always square with Richards' thesis that the loudest voices are the most destructive. The White House action of Jennicet Gutierrez on June 24, while initially condemned by not a few in the trans population, did bring light to the dire problem of trans immigrants in detention. In another development earlier in 2015, trans people reacted with alarm to the ill-informed views of Zoey Tur, who cherished scientific studies that have been long discredited, sided with trans exclusionary radical feminists regarding access to public changing rooms, and sought to establish a one-size-fits-all model of transitioning. Marc Cummings and Lynna Lopez, both trans, have made it their mission to denounce and vilify anyone promoting full gender transition in childhood. Although the first two dramas rose to the attention of the general public, I see no evidence that they have inflicted permanent harm on the movement. On the contrary, challenging wrong-headed perspectives swiftly and decisively is necessary to prevent the disintegration of a movement. And from time to time, a controversial tactic needs to be employed in order to spur along action by the rest of us. Most of the time, use the carrot. But when problems become sufficiently dire, it's time to break out that stick.
Richards' discussion of the current state of trans America is strongest in regards to the divide along ethnic and economic lines. Sadly, we can point to the historical oppression of all black Americans as analogous to similar challenges affecting minority trans people. The great sociologist, pan-Africanist, and co-founder of the NAACP, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois presaged in "The Souls of Black Folk" (1903), "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." The wave of lynchings and other extra-legal violence against blacks even well into the 1960s, the systematic denial—through Jim Crow legislation or, in the North, by de facto practices—of blacks to equal housing, education, employment, restaurants and other public facilities, and a criminal-justice system that has privileged whites but put extra burdens on blacks, are issues that should resonate to trans people, regardless of ethnic heritage. Indeed, we as trans people should always keep in mind the challenges faced by blacks and ways the Civil Rights movement addressed systemic biases that negatively affected blacks. African American history should inform our overall vision and the tools trans people use as we continue to fight for equal rights and respect under the sun.
Sadly and for reasons Richards (and others elsewhere) have articulated fully, trans women of color suffer higher rates of unemployment, murder, assaults by staff and others in prisons, jails and detention centers and a host of other ills, in far greater numbers than their white counterparts. So much of this recalls the reasons why white feminists and their counterparts of color started parting ways during the early 1970s. At that time, feminists of color argued that white activists did not address the concerns of ethnic women, affected by the additional burdens from racism. Moreover, black, Latina and Asian feminists rightfully challenged white women with dominating leadership roles in the movement.
And these long standing grievances have not yet found sufficient redress to the powers that be. Broadcast news organizations will sometimes air a story on a solitary trans woman killed while walking down the street or by a boyfriend. But, from what I have read and heard from numerous people, the news bureaus are loathe to air stories that systematically assess the broader picture, saying viewers won't tolerate such content and will quickly switch channels.
Unfortunately, the rise of gay men to positions of immense power in political and LGBT circles has not automatically translated to help for trans people. With the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor in same-sex marriage throughout the United States, it remains to be seem to what extent Gay, Inc. will be willing to lend trans people assistance in our struggle for equal rights. And even among gays and lesbians of more modest status, their overall silence in regards to the murder of trans women is deafening. One would think that others should care about the deliberate targeting of a group, for the sole reason that beleaguered persons are full-fledged human beings.
Nevertheless, it would be reckless and wrongheaded to argue that gay and lesbian America will fully abandon us. Organizations such as PFLAG, which now include trans and gender non-conforming people in its mission statement and vigorously recruit and support trans people as speakers for their public outreach program, would belie such a view. And so would GLAAD, which celebrates all who foster positive media portrayals of LGBTQ peoples. But it must be said that, we cannot cede our power to anyone, even those purportedly in support of us.
So what can be said in broad strokes about the trans movement today? In so far as it has a central purpose of self empowerment and recognition of the valuable contributions of trans people over time, the seemingly disconnected fields do form a movement. Trans people have been known to backstab one another and be otherwise unsupportive of peers. Undoubtedly, such acrimony tends to sap energy from constructive endeavors. But disagreements, even ones that reach the attention of the general public, are sometimes beneficial and necessary for the movement to grow. Historical precedents, such as the Civil Rights movement, can be harvested for strategy and tactics that can empower our current activism. We must recognize and address significant, long-standing challenges that disproportionately affect trans people of color and poorer for their own importance and to heal schisms that could rend apart the movement. And even with persons and groups self-identifying as allies, we must help them to help us, never conceding power to them or expecting them automatically to know or to carry out what is in our best interests. As a recognizable entity, the trans movement has entered a new phase, one in which the general public is slowly coming to understand and appreciate us, and to lend a hand to help us claim our place in the sun. I am optimistic and hope you will be, too!