Category Archives: activism

The Transgender Outing On Survivor

Two weeks ago on Survivor, one of the contestants, Zeke Smith, was forcibly outed as transgender by another contestant. It made the news, or I wouldn’t have heard about it. Outing people without their consent is a majorly uncool thing to do, and the incident prompted me to watch my first episode of Survivor in at least a decade.

Several initial thoughts come to my mind before I address the matter of the outing. I’ve itemized them.

  1. How is Survivor still a thing? Does it have any relevance today? Do people actually watch it? I see from Wikipedia that it still draws decent ratings, although they’re miniscule compared to those of the first few seasons. I don’t know that I know anyone who still watches the show, but obviously it’s still profitable. I watched Survivor faithfully in its early seasons. The season I remember best is the second one, set in Australia. I liked the aw-shucks charm of boy-next-door Texan Colby Donaldson, and had a major crush on the contestant who, sadly, later became a talking head on The View and revealed herself to be a right-wing buffoon.
    After several more seasons, the show had become so repetitive, with the tropical island watersports challenges, the predictable deal making and backstabbing, that I’d had enough. By the middle of the Aughts, I no longer watched the show. The last season I watched was the season nicknamed “Survivor: Race War,” in which contestants were sorted into tribes of white people, black people, Latinos, and Asians. For reals. Despite all the exotic locales the show has visited, it has struggled to find moral high ground.
    Apparently Jeff Varner, the wrongdoer in this recent incident, had also been a contestant in the Australia season that I remember so fondly. I have no recollection of him.

    Zeke Smith, the aggrieved party.

  1. This season is titled Survivor: Game Changers, and all the contestants have competed before. Is every season now an “all-stars” kind of thing? After 34 iterations, has the show run out of new people who are interested in competing on the show? And speaking of which:
  2. Thirty-four seasons? How ridiculous is that? Those are numbers you associate with Meet The Press or 60 Minutes, not a show that has only existed during this millennium. Does Jeff Probst aspire to do nothing else? Does he like spending two months of every year primitive camping on tropical islands that much?

I’ll say one thing for the show: it has stuck with what must be a winning formula. Even the dialogue is unchanged. Jeff Probst still beckons the tribes in to the challenge areas with “come on in, guys,” with exactly the same wording and inflection he’s always used.

The reward challenge, with some minor treat symbolizing the comforts of civilization at stake (in this episode, it was ten pizzas accompanied by cold soda), is the same as it’s always been. The immunity challenge, with immunity from tribal council at stake, also has not changed.

What also hasn’t changed is that both challenges were done and dusted before the episode was half over. The rest of the episode’s running time was consumed by the losing tribe’s members scheming, wheeling and dealing about the upcoming vote, and by the tribal council itself.

The contestants all had moments alone with several of their tribemates, including Zeke, and also some time alone with the camera. I might have followed everyone’s strategy talk better if I had been watching this season all along, but there’s really not a lot of variation in these things. There’s always a group of contestants who talk about loyalty and honesty; there are others who say all’s fair in “the game,” and that they’re “not here to make friends.” Still others act as if they’re above the politics and claim they just want to go along to get along.

Jeff Varner, the villain.

And then there’s always one guy—it was legendarily Machiavellian Richard Hatch in the inaugural season of the show—who juggles his team’s feelings like bean bags, promising everything to everyone while clearly only caring for himself.

This character was personified by Jeff Varner in this episode. Varner discussed his plans with the camera like Iago to his audience in Othello. He said he liked Zeke, but that he thought he knew something about Zeke, some secret that Zeke hadn’t told anyone, and that while he didn’t want to have to use this secret against Zeke, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so if it looked like he (Varner) would be on the short end of the torch at tribal council.

In hindsight it’s obvious what he meant. Not obvious is how what Varner was hinting he’d be divulging could in any way save him from being voted off the island. Was he thinking his teammates would be so disgusted by the presence of a trans person in their midst that ejecting Zeke would override any other concerns? We can only guess.

Before the vote, Varner continued to play the standard villain role. He told several of them that Zeke and another player, Ozzie (a veteran of the show starting with the Survivor: Race War season) were plotting against them, and they appeared to believe it. Again, it’s astounding that the show can still find people this naïve to be contestants. Even I, dropping in on this one episode, could easily see Varner wasn’t to be trusted. And apparently everyone on the show this season had competed before, so it’s a fool-me-twice situation for anyone who gets bamboozled by another player.

At the tribal council, Varner acknowledged that he would likely be voted out, but still tried to make the case for voting out Ozzie instead. Standard desperation ploy.

But then his argument took an abrupt turn. He told Jeff Probst:

“There’s deception here. Deception on levels, Jeff, that these guys don’t even understand.”

He paused then, and Probst asked him to continue, which he did.

Varner turned to Zeke, and without further ado, asked bluntly, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

I knew that outing was going to happen—it’s the only reason I was watching in the first place. And yet, I still found the outing so shocking I had to pause the episode and take a moment before continuing.

Transgender men, in general, enjoy a privilege that transgender women, in general, do not. That is, trans men are more likely to look cisnormative, which means they get to choose whether or not to live their lives in “stealth” mode. It’s up to them to disclose their transgender status, and if they keep it to themselves, no one’s the wiser.

I don’t know how Varner figured out that Zeke was trans; as a gay man himself, maybe Varner has met more transgender people in his life than people outside our community, and so recognizes subtle clues. That doesn’t make what he did in any way okay. He should know himself what a horrible act of psychological violence it is to out another person. Even worse, the phrasing of his question made it seem Zeke had some obligation to disclose his transgender status to the rest of his tribe.

Let’s be clear about this: Survivor is a game show. It requires a much larger commitment than The Price Is Right or Jeopardy!, but it’s still just a game show. While there are a small number of situations in which a transgender person could reasonably be expected to reveal their transgender status to others, none of those situations are likely to arise in the course of competing on a game show.

There are zero situations in which it’s reasonable for another person to out a person as transgender without that person’s consent.

Zeke looked shocked when Varner outed him, and he didn’t answer or respond in any other way.

To the great credit of the rest of the tribe, they immediately rose up against Varner.

“That’s personal!” one dark-haired woman said. “That is so wrong of you to bring that up!” the older Asian man shouted.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” Ozzy told Varner.

To a person, the tribe rejected Varner’s premise that Zeke was in any way “deceiving” people, or had done anything wrong. To a person, they were livid.

Even Jeff Probst, who typically adopts a pose of objectivity at the tribal councils, essentially told Varner he was being a creep. It really was a sight to behold.

In the face of this backlash, Varner folded like a broken umbrella, expressed regret, wept, and begged Zeke to forgive him. He did seem sincerely contrite. I can say that much for him. But I wonder if he would have backpedaled if the tribe hadn’t been so quick to condemn him.

Prompted by Jeff Probst, Zeke turned this clusterfuck into a teachable moment about living one’s truth; he said that he had only ever wanted to be “Zeke the Survivor contestant,” not “Zeke the trans Survivor contestant.” Now that it was out, he shrugged, and said he hoped living his life “out” from this moment on, before the millions of viewers of the show, could help bring solace and courage to some kid watching who’s contemplating their own transition.

He was a class act, in other words.

Varner then left the show in a voice vote, which I’ve never seen happen on the show before. In his exit confessional during the closing credits, he told the camera “No one should ever do what I did,” then buried his head in his hands.


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The Trans List.

Atlanta’s LGBT film festival, Out On Film, is going on right now, and on Monday evening I went to a screening of The Trans List at Landmark Midtown Cinema, on the edge of Piedmont Park. The film will be broadcast on HBO later this year.

It’s not feature-length; it runs about an hour, and features interviews with 11 prominent transgender Americans. The interviews were conducted by fashion editor Janet Mock, although we never see her on screen after her brief introduction. The subjects are presented alone on the screen, talking about their lives, with a few intercuts to home movies and childhood photos.

The interviewees run the gamut of the transgender experience in the United States. They’re black, white, and Hispanic; teenage through senior citizen; men, women, and nonbinary; famous and virtually unknown (to me, at least, and I like to think I keep up). I won’t recap all the interviews here, but I’ll touch on some of them.

Kylar Broadus was up first. He’s an African-American attorney, and a few years back he addressed a U.S. Senate committee about the importance of passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He briefly told his story about growing up an awkward tomboy in Missouri, usually “mistaken” for a boy even when his parents managed to get him into a dress—years before he transitioned for real. He spoke with a quiet dignity, and it was hard not to be moved by his struggles with the double whammy of being both gender-variant and black in a world that’s too often both transphobic and racist.

Nicole Maines’ segment helps illustrate the better world that all of us are creating by being out and proud in the 21st century. She’s still a teenager, but she has been out and an activist since she was very small; she never had to endure (and then undo) male puberty. Her family, including her (formerly?) identical twin brother, are accepting and supportive. Nicole has fought her high school for her Title IX right to use the correct restroom. Could a story like hers have happened 20 years ago? I find it unlikely; the information, the understanding, and the role models to help such a young person simply didn’t exist until quite recently. Nicole’s is an inspiring story of possibility.Borrowed from bambysalcedo.com

Shane Ortega is an Army non-commissioned officer, and one of the first U.S. military members to transition on active duty. Another transperson of color, he’s charming, very good-natured and funny, and a veteran of two combat tours. As a veteran myself (though not of combat), I’m proud to know he’s out there, fighting for every transperson’s right to serve. Transgender people historically have joined the military in numbers far higher than the general population. Thanks to people like Ortega, soon we’ll be able to do so openly.

Miss Major Griffin-Gracy was the most colorful personality interviewed. She was at Stonewall and was a leader in the riots. She’s had a long life full of activism.

Rounding out the list were Alok Vaid-Menon, a writer with a nonbinary gender identity; Amos Mac, photographer and founder of “Original Plumbing” magazine; Buck Angel, the porn star famous as the “man with a pussy”; Bamby Salcedo, a Mexican-American activist and organizer, Caroline Cossey, model, former Bond girl, and current Atlanta resident; and Laverne Cox, internationally-famous television star.

Oh, and finally, Mock interviewed Caitlyn Jenner. I’m glad Jenner was included, because I don’t think the former Olympian and Kardashian-by-marriage has received much media attention since she transitioned last year.

This points up the biggest flaw with The Trans List: it’s much too short, or else there were too many subjects. For the really famous interviewees, like Cox and Jenner, I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know about them. For the more obscure ones, like Amos Mac, I learned enough about them to know they’re interesting people, but got nothing really substantial to take away with me. They’re superficial sketches of personalities that deserve in-depth portraits.

Maybe that was the purpose behind the film. In an era when we all have Google in our pockets, I guess a project like The Trans List only needs to put names in front of us. If we want to know more, we can go learn more on our own.

If that’s the case, I’d call the movie a success, because I’ve certainly done that with many of these fascinating individuals. I hope there will be more; maybe this could become a series.


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Senators Debate “Religious Freedom.”

Tuesday night at Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Midtown Atlanta, state senators Greg Kirk (R), of Americus, and Vincent Fort (D) of Atlanta kicked off a series of four debates that will take place around the state on the subjects of “Religious Freedom, the Pastor Protection Act and the First Amendment Defense Act.”

The other debates will be on the same subjects, and will take place (or have already taken place) this week in Macon, Tifton, and Savannah.

Senator Kirk, a former Baptist preacher, was the introducer of the “First Amendment Defense Act” during the last Georgia legislative session. He was also a proponent of the “Pastor Protection Act” and the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” Parts of all three bills were incorporated into HB 757, which was vetoed by Governor Deal this past spring.

Senator Fort, the minority whip in the upper chamber, is a former history professor who has been a strong supporter of the LGBT community for many years. I saw him speak at an event while my lawsuit was ongoing; he recognized me without introduction, gave me his card, and encouraged me to reach out to him if there was anything he could do to help.

You’d think Deal’s veto would mean that we’d seen the last of these anti-LGBT bills in the Peach State. You’d be wrong; Kirk and fellow Republican Sen. Josh McKoon have both pledged to re-introduce such bills during next year’s legislative session.

Turnout to the debate was light; there couldn’t have been more than sixty people in the pews. I should note that Saint Mark is a liberal Methodist church in the heart of Midtown, so its leadership and congregation are either LGBT themselves or are solid allies. I think the debate wasn’t promoted well; I learned about it from a Georgia Equality email, and after the fact some people told me they wished they’d known about it.

What’s next? Polygamy? —Sen. Greg Kirk

Content was also light; if you’ve been following the emergence of these “religious freedom” bills as they’ve been festering in statehouses around the country, you know what they’re about, and you wouldn’t have learned anything new at this event. Below are some quick takes, borrowed from my own live tweets during the debate. Any erroneous details are due to my own poor recollection.

Sen. Kirk claimed the “Pastor Protection Act” would ensure that clergypeople cannot be forced to perform a wedding they object to on religious grounds.

Sen. Fort retorted that no pastor can be forced to perform any wedding he or she doesn’t want to, on any grounds, religious or not.

Kirk argued that bills such as these are simply “common sense”; they’ll protect the religious without affecting anyone else.

Fort’s retort was that they offer no protections that aren’t already guaranteed by the Constitution and they will expose Georgia to boycotts and other economic harms like what’s happening in North Carolina in the wake of HB2’s passage.

When a moderator asked Kirk if same-sex couples should be a protected class under the law, Kirk admitted that post-Obergefell, that is a matter of settled law. But then he did the usual “slippery slope” scaremongering by asking, “What’s next? Polygamy?”

In the question and answer portion of the program, an audience member asked, “Senator Kirk, you keep saying ‘traditional marriage.’ Define that.”

He took the bait, and said “traditional marriage is marriage as defined in the Bible”; the questioner pounced, reminding him that the Bible pretty much celebrates polygamy. Kirk backpedaled, explaining that he’d meant traditional marriage is what most Christians believe it to be. Slippery slope, indeed.

Senator Fort won raucous applause when he declared that Georgia needs a comprehensive antidiscrimination law. This was definitely his crowd. I wonder how his message will be received in Tifton.

I’ll close by noting that Fort and Kirk were both unfailingly polite to and respectful of each other, of the moderators, and of the audience. Anyone who turned out hoping to see a Republican primaries-style uglyfest would have been disappointed.


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Mara Keisling Visits Atlanta.

This week Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) came down from Washington to speak at the Philip Rush Center in Atlanta about the current state of transgender rights and advocacy in the United States. I was excited to attend and see Mara again; I’ve known her since 2009, when she was instrumental in getting me to speak before the House committee on labor on the importance of passing ENDA. She’s a hard-working and dedicated advocate who has improved all our lives in her time at NCTE.

Mara spoke for about two hours, and I live-tweeted the event. I’ll paraphrase and flesh out my tweets in this post, but don’t think this is all-inclusive; I didn’t catch everything that was said. This is just all that I tweeted or remember of the meeting. Any errors or omissions of fact are my own.

After stressing that NCTE is not a political organization and cannot endorse candidates for office, Mara noted that the Obama Administration has been quite good for the transgender community. If I heard her correctly, under President Obama there have been 111 discrete actions by the federal government that have made life a little better for transgender Americans.

While the so-called “ENDA executive order” is a famous example, there have been many others most people don’t even know about, and some that came as a surprise even to NCTE. A bulletin last week from the General Services Administration, for example, mandated that transgender people may use the restroom matching their gender identity in all federal buildings (the GSA’s job is to manage federal buildings), and Mara said nobody told NCTE ahead of time that would be coming.

She talked for a while about identity documents and the gender markers that most of them have. Medicare, for example, apparently has “F” or “M” in big letters in the center of the cards recipients use. This means some transgender Medicare recipients have no choice but to out themselves to their medical providers.

Gender markers are also used on the DD 214 forms that all military veterans receive upon discharge, and which are needed to obtain VA medical care and all other veterans’ services. They’re also on passports, and of course they’re on all our driver’s licenses.

NCTE is lobbying hard to get [gender] markers removed from most or all identity documents

NCTE is lobbying hard to get these markers removed from most or all identity documents, since they serve no function except to invite discriminatory behavior. Someone in the audience noted that gender markers are an artifact of the time when such documents didn’t incorporate photographs; now that they do, they’re no more needed than is information about eye and hair color, which are pretty much gone from IDs today. Mara thinks it will take several more years of lobbying before gender markers will be removed.

The “bathroom bills” like HB2 in North Carolina are a direct result of the achievement of nationwide marriage equality last year. Denying LGBT people the right to marriage equality was the central front in the culture war for many years; now that it’s lost, the religious right has set its sights on the transgender community instead.

Texas will probably pass a bill like HB2 next year. It will be the next state to do so, but it won’t be the last. Expect the religious right to be very creative in the ways it finds to attack, humiliate, and restrict the rights of transgender people in the near future. While life has steadily improved for us in recent times, and will continue to in the long run, the next few years will suck while we’re in the crosshairs.

In 2010, NCTE worked with other organizations to produce Injustice At Every Turn, a comprehensive nationwide survey about being transgender in the United States and the discrimination and other ills we face. An update is in the works this year, and there have been over 28,000 respondents. The results will be out next year.

For the 2010 survey, a question about suicide was included at the last minute, and results indicated that 41 percent of transgender Americans have attempted suicide during their lives. It was discovered after the fact that the question was poorly worded, to the extent that the responses were unlikely to be accurate. This time around a similar question was carefully designed with a suicide prevention group with expertise in these matters. The results were about the same.

Mara was in the news last year when she (and other activists) used the restrooms in North Carolina’s Capitol as a protest against HB2, intending to get arrested. Mara said NAACP members who are veterans of the 1960s civil rights era, including Rep. John Lewis, coached her in how to get arrested.

Most of the money funding used by transgender rights groups comes from gay groups. Mara didn’t offer speculation as to why this might be the case, but it seems obvious to me: most trans people are too broke to be donating to nonprofits.

A trans movement, Mara declared in conclusion, must also be antiracist, antipoverty, anti-incarceration, pro-immigrant, feminist, and pro-worker.

Summary: life is incrementally better for us in 2016. But strap in for a tough ride to come.

It was good to see Mara again. It always is.


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Pryor Restraint.

Pryor restraintA few days ago, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump released a list of jurists he claimed would be his short list of potential appointees to the Supreme Court if he becomes President next year. The list is not composed of progressive individuals, if the reaction from the liberal Internet is to be believed. If the contenders were gathered together in, say, a cantina, it might be fair to state that, “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” But in the case of at least one of the names on the list, I might humbly suggest that such judgment (no pun intended) may be premature.

William Pryor is a 2005 George W. Bush appointee to the federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Pryor, nicknamed “Wild Bill,” is infamous for certain homophobic statements, and for arguments he has made in legal briefs. I’ll cite two examples.

Before his nomination to the federal bench, he was Alabama’s attorney general, and in that role he filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas. Lawrence is the case that led to the overturn of all state laws against gay sex. Attorney General Pryor’s brief urged the Court not to declare “homosexual sodomy as a fundamental constitutional right,” arguing that acceptance of “a constitutional right that protects ‘the choice of one’s partner’ and ‘whether and how to connect sexually’ must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia.”

That’s pretty strongly indicative of Pryor’s thoughts about gay people, especially when you consider his brief was an amicus (“friend of the court”); Pryor didn’t directly have a dog in the fight—although presumably Alabama also had a sodomy law that would have been (and was) invalidated by Lawrence‘s win.

After eight years of Dubya, followed by several more years of a Republican-controlled Senate stonewalling many of President Obama’s judicial nominees, the Eleventh Circuit had taken on a considerable right-wing tinge.

Second, during the contentious U.S. Senate confirmation hearings on Pryor’s nomination to the Eleventh Circuit, he mentioned that as a result of “a value judgment,” he and his wife rescheduled a family vacation to avoid the annual “Gay Day” at Disney World.

Kevin Cathcart, who was the executive director of Lambda Legal when Pryor was nominated, said at the time, “William Pryor is the most demonstrably antigay judicial nominee in recent memory.”

I knew all these things about Judge Pryor when Lambda Legal and I won our lawsuit at the federal district court level in July 2010 and defendants Sewell Brumby and the State of Georgia appealed to the Eleventh Circuit. And I was worried. Pryor wasn’t on the record with anything about transgender people, and to be homophobic isn’t necessarily also to be transphobic, but it’s rare for a person to be one and not the other.

At the time there were a dozen or so judges on the court, and our case was going to be heard (and ruled on) by a randomly selected panel of three of them.

After eight years of Dubya, followed by several more years of a Republican-controlled Senate stonewalling many of President Obama’s judicial nominees, the Eleventh Circuit had taken on a considerable right-wing tinge. While no cases had yet tested the court on LGBT rights specifically, there had been recent decisions unfavorable to civil rights generally and to employees’ rights specifically. And Pryor had joined the majority vote in at least one of those cases. He was the personification of everything we imagined could go wrong with our suit. The lower court win could be reversed, and all the years of struggle would be for nothing.

The year 2010 came to an end and 2011 began to grind along. We didn’t know when oral arguments in the appeal would be heard; it could’ve been months or years. The only thing I did know was that with each passing day it was incrementally more likely that the date would be announced. I became an obsessive watcher of the Eleventh Circuit, reading up on the backgrounds of the judges, checking the progress of potential Obama nominees, and reading each new decision as it came down. I was in a constant state of nervousness. The odds were not in our favor.

Finally, in late October, my attorney Greg called with the news that we had a date for the oral arguments (early December), and our panel had been assigned.

I took a deep breath and held it as Greg said, “I have some bad news and some good news.”

“First the bad news,” he said, followed by his own long inhalation. “We got Judge Pryor.”

“Quickly, Greg,” I said, paraphrasing Peter O’Toole from the underappreciated classic, King Ralph, “The good news!”

The good news was much better: our other two judges were Rosemary Barkett and Phyllis A. Kravitch, two amazing women with long, solid track records for progressive judicial temperaments. I was immensely reassured; with these two on our panel, I felt confident of a 2-1 vote in our favor.

But a two to one vote is exactly as much as I expected. Everything I’d learned about Pryor told me he wouldn’t be on our side.

It was on the day of the arguments that I began to wonder otherwise. When Brumby’s attorney rose to defend their side, he was eviscerated. Figuratively, that is. Before he could get his first sentence out, Judge Pryor interrupted to say, “You have a big problem with Price Waterhouse.” Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins was the main precedent our lawsuit was premised upon.

The attorney stammered and stumbled through the next few minutes, enduring constant interruptions from Pryor and Judge Barkett (Judge Kravitch remained largely silent). He was trying to make the case that firing me for transitioning was somehow different from firing me for being transgender. The panel was having none of is, and Pryor finally advised the man to “take it up with Congress” if he didn’t like the current state of the law. Barkett then offered to “put [him] out of [his] misery” and let him sit down. She was laughing as she said it. The defendants’ attorney was laughed off the lectern. Literally.

The ruling, which came down a lightning-fast six days later, was 3-0. Whatever negative opinions William Pryor may have about LGBT people personally, in my case, at least, he didn’t let those thoughts cloud his judgment.

Which makes me wonder if his inclusion on Trump’s list was a mistake.


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Transgender characters in comic books.

alters72dpiThe New York Times recently reported about Alters, a new comic book from a new comic book company, Aftershock Comics, that’s launching in September.

Normally, this isn’t the sort of news that would hit the Times. The hook here is that one of the main characters is transgender. She’s college student Charlie Young, who is just beginning her transition; everyone in her noncostumed identity knows her as male. She only presents as female when she suits up to be the super-heroine, Chalice, who is able to fly by “manipulating gravity.”

Characters who change gender or sex are not new to comics. Most comic books, after all, are science fiction or fantasy by genre, and transformations, either into a differently aged person, an animal or animals, a mythical creature, an extraterrestrial, or from a man into a woman or vice versa, are quite common in science fiction and fantasy, and they can be found all the way back to the earliest days of the medium.

The earliest sex-changing comics character I know of is a Superman villain, a mad scientist who called himself the “Ultra-Humanite.” In an Action Comics storyline beginning in the December 1939 issue, Ultra-Humanite has his brain transplanted from his old, crippled male body into that of a beautiful, fit young actress.

I don’t know if it was ever explained why he chose a female body over a male one, but obviously Ultra-Humanite wasn’t transgender as we understand the term today, i.e. a person with gender dysphoria. His stated objective was to trade up from his aged and frail original body, regardless of gender. The veracity of this interpretation is strengthened by the character’s brain’s later transplantation into the body of a giant, presumably male, albino gorilla. The gender change was simplyultra-humanite3 part and parcel of the escapist strangeness that defines super-hero storytelling, and this was the motivation behind all sex-changing comics characters for the next several decades.

The earliest character I’m aware of in mainstream (Marvel and DC) comics that could truly be described as gender dysphoric is Wanda Mann, a transwoman in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series for Vertigo. Vertigo is a mature-readers imprint of DC Comics. Wanda’s storyline was published in 1993. For the most part, Wanda was an informed and respectful portrayal of a transwoman, although in some ways she did embody the sad, “pathetic transsexual” stereotype described by transgender author Julia Serano in her book, Whipping Girl. Due credit to Gaiman, but we still had a ways to go.

Most of the comics by the “big two” publishers I read nowadays are by DC Comics (including Vertigo); I only follow a handful of Marvel books, so I’m not familiar with any trans characters who may be appearing there.

DC Comics has Alysia Yeoh. She’s a supporting character in Batgirl; she was for a time the roommate of Batgirl’s alter-ego, Barbara Gordon, and is still in the book as the CEO of Barbara’s tech startup. I’m glad that DC has added an openly transgender character to the lineup, but I have to say, paraphrasing Gertrude Stein regarding her hometown of Oakland, that there’s very little “there” there.

Alysia came out to Barbara in a way many of us will recognize: hesitantly, timidly revealing, “I’m transgender, Barbara.” Barbara immediately smiles and hugs her, as any true super-heroine and friend would. And that was the end of it. Her gender identity is never mentioned again.alysiayeohcomposite

Alysia’s face and body look completely cisnormative, which is true for many transwomen, but not most. Storylines involving Alysia have never shown her dealing with transphobia, family or friend nonacceptance, identity document hassles, gender-affirming health care, finding clothes that fit, or any of the myriad other issues that are part of the daily lives of transgender people. It’s like DC wanted credit for filling in the “transgender” box on a diversity checklist, but wasn’t interested in actually telling stories about transgender people.

You could push back on this criticism with, “Alysia is a supporting character. Going into such details would take storytelling time away from Batgirl herself.”

Sure, that’s true—up to a point. I’d respond that it doesn’t take much to establish such details, even for a minor character: stray bits of dialogue here or there; a telling object or item of clothing in the background of a panel. I mean, heck, it has been established that Alysia is a lesbian (and she recently married her fiancée in the book), is originally from Singapore, and has impressive technological and business skills. Narrative real estate could easily have been borrowed from those attributes to tell readers something interesting that arises from Alysia’s transgender status. Especially since the creative team did find room to bring in a villain that was an embarrassing, transphobic stereotype (who never interacted with Alysia).

And yes, Batgirl isn’t about Alysia; it’s about Barbara/Batgirl herself, of course. We wouldn’t want it to be about another character, and Batgirl isn’t transgender.

There is another version of Alysia who appears in DC’s digital-only comic, Bombshells, written by Marguerite Bennett. This Alysia is a teenager during World War 2, and although she’s only one of a much larger cast than Batgirl‘s, Bennett has managed to elaborate on her transness in some of the ways lacking in Batgirl. But digital-only comics are still a novelty, accounting for a tiny fraction of annual comic book sales, and they’re not heavily promoted.

That’s why I’m cautiously optimistic about Alters. The writer, Paul Jenkins, is a cisgender straight man, but from interviews I’ve read, he seems dedicated to telling Chalice’s story with knowledge and maturity. He shows each of his scripts to a panel of transgender people for feedback, and a transwoman is part of the Alters creative team (the colorist).

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Promotional art of Chalice from Alters.

Another important thing to consider with transgender characters is how they’re drawn. I wrote above that Alysia Yeoh’s appearance is cisnormative, while that’s not always true for transgender women in real life. This is a big part of why we complain when cisgender men or women are cast as transgender women in movie and TV roles. The portrayal usually either hews close to the “man in a dress” stereotype, for male actors, or puts silly prosthetic makeup on female actors, as with Felicity Huffman in Transamerica.

Neither course hits the mark; trans people tend to look androgynous in a unique way that’s hard for any cisgender person to mimic. But it should be doable in comics, as long as the artist uses appropriate reference models. Based on the promotional art that’s been released so far, Chalice is drawn to look like the standard conventionally-attractive cisgender woman typified by all super-heroines. Maybe there will be an explanation for that within the story itself; I’ll wait and see.

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Invisible Targets Don’t Get Shot.

Back in the 1960s, the great novelty singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer had a hit with “National Brotherhood Week.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics,
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

The song wryly observes that during the titular seven days, groups that usually hate each other embrace and pretend to be BFFs. It name-checks practically every religious or racial demographic you can imagine.

There isn’t a word in the song about gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. We were an invisible minority in the United States back then; if all your information came from network TV shows, studio-produced movies, and radio-played music, you’d have no idea we even existed. Nobody was trying to ban same-sex marriage or exclude transgender people from public restrooms, because it never entered most people’s heads that those were things which could happen in the first place.

Obviously that changed. We began to assert our existence and demand our civil rights. The Stonewall riot of June 28, 1969, is considered the watershed event that started the ball rolling. The New York Times covered the riot in a story the next day; it was half a column on page 33.1times2a

The next several decades were a long, slow crawl out of the shadows and toward level ground with our cisgender and heterosexual peers. Today, we can marry whoever we want, and can celebrate and openly discuss those marriages in most workplaces. Gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military, and (fingers crossed), transgender people will soon join them in uniform. More and more employer-provided health plans cover the costs associated with treatment for gender dysphoria. Openly gay, lesbian, and transgender politicians are winning elective offices all over the country. Transgender high school students have been crowned homecoming kings and queens.

In 2004, support for LGBT rights was a wedge issue; Republicans were united in opposition, while Democrats were split. Today, it’s a wedge issue again, but in reverse: Democrats are united in support for us, while Republicans are split. They’ll come around when they finally realize they’ve lost the culture war, and will continue losing elections until they stop fighting it. Our community has entered the mainstream of American life, and isn’t leaving. If Lehrer had written his song today, there’s no question we’d be in that list of demographics. We’re here, we’re queer, and as Lisa Simpson says, everyone is “used to it.” Like it or not.

Which brings us to last week’s horrific event in Orlando. We’ll never fully know what drove that man to end 50 lives and ruin dozens more. Some blame his religious faith. Others think it’s internalized homophobia.

Of course some sort of homophobia is the root cause (religion-motivated or not), but there was more going on than that. I think the improved status of LGBT people today was itself a contributing factor to the killings. Twenty, or even ten years ago, a bigot might harbor the most virulent, hate-filled opinions about gay people imaginable, but the objects of his hate were largely out of sight and therefore out of mind.

He wouldn’t have known which of his coworkers were gay because they’d never mention it; they certainly wouldn’t have photos of their sweethearts on their desks. He wouldn’t see his neighbors out on the sidewalk (or “out” on the sidewalks) holding hands, or hoisting Pride flags next to their front doors.

If you think LGBT people are abnormal, it must be galling to look around and see them being treated normally. I’m no psychologist, but I don’t doubt society’s growing acceptance of us is like tinder (not Tinder) feeding the flames of violence inside these individuals’ heads.

And when they choose to act, they know where to find us. The Pulse nightclub isn’t a dingy speakeasy without a sign that opens onto an alley; it’s a huge complex that advertises heavily and has reviews in general-interest travel publications. The killer knew where to find his victims. We were safer in our closets.

But I don’t mean we should retreat back into our closets. Our lives are better out, and being out is the best way to end homophobia and transphobia in the long run.

In the short run, this is going to keep happening. Orlando won’t be the last Orlando. Get ready for more.

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Bathroom Laws Are About Insufficient Femininity, Not Being Transgender

Recently, in the wake of all the high-profile nonsense about restrooms in this country, a friend of mine (who is a gay attorney, just to set the table) messaged me on Facebook with this:

“I am in regular communication with lots of ‘Republicans’ and others who would self-describe as conservatives. I frequently hear people say, ‘I don’t have a problem with anyone being transgender.’ And when they elaborate, what’s clear is that their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female. And I just think that that sort of thing is:

1) classist (not everyone can afford procedures like facial feminization, etc.) and

2) not really any different than other sorts of bigoted thinking—why should it really matter what someone looks like?”

There’s a good bit to unpack in that comment. Let’s start with his statement that’s really at the heart of the matter: “their problem is with people who ‘look like’ they have transitioned—i.e., people who, for whatever reason, have external visual identifiers that indicate that they were formerly presenting as male/female.”

Of course that’s true. You could even narrow the focus a little further and state that conservatives’ problem is with transwomen who look (to them) like men; it’s “men in dresses” going into women’s restrooms that conservatives care about, not transmen in men’s rooms. I presume this is due to a sexist attitude that men can take care of themselves, but dainty, defenseless women and girls need protection from burly, scary transwomen.

But it’s basically a tautology to say that masculine-looking transwomen are the ones conservatives care about, because the ones who don’t look masculine—who look like every other woman in the loo—are never “clocked” as transgender in the first place. Transphobic conservatives don’t discriminate against them because they don’t know they exist. They recognize the transwomen they recognize.

I made posts here about physical differences between men and women, both large and small. “Passing” (the term I prefer is “having a cisnormative appearance”) as one’s correct gender identity is difficult or easy for transwomen, depending on the individual. It can be achieved via:

a. Makeup. Just like cisgender women.

b. Hormone replacement therapy. Results vary, but estrogen can redistribute fat in the face to soften masculine angles.

c. Electrolysis or laser hair removal. No other single trait looks as male to most people as a beard shadow.

d. Surgeries to feminize the face and body.

Not all masculine-looking transwomen go for these therapies and procedures. They can be dangerous for some; many people have health concerns that preclude surgeries, and others risk thrombosis if they take estrogen supplements. And, as my friend surmised, the treatments are very expensive, and until quite recently they usually weren’t covered by government or employer-provided health insurance. It is absolutely correct to say, as my friend did, that discrimination against masculine-looking transwomen can be discrimination against the economically underprivileged.

However, my friend missed one very important fact. When I followed up with him, he confessed it hadn’t even occurred to him: not every transgender woman cares about “passing,” or at least, not enough to go to all the effort and expense required to do so.

Seems strange, right? When we first learn about transgender women, we assume looking and acting feminine is the whole point. But transgender women are women, and women may choose to look however they want. They may be short-haired and tall; prefer pants to skirts; own no makeup. I’m sure you know cisgender women who describe themselves as “butch.” There are transgender women who do as well. Having a female gender identity does not automatically equate to being a cartoon of womanliness.

The assertion by conservatives that women should be feminine, and indeed must be so to be allowed to participate in society, is at the heart of the “bathroom bills”; and why they’re doomed to fail. Drafted to single out transgender women for harassment, they’re certain to have their greatest effect on butch-looking cisgender women instead. It’s already happening:

  • Cortney Bogorad in Detroit is suing a restaurant after a security guard threw her out of the establishment’s women’s restroom for looking “like a man”
  • In Dallas, Jessica Rush was followed into a hospital restroom by a diligent officer of the gender laity because she was “dressed like a man
  • CNN contributor Sally Kohn is 6′ 1″ and short-haired; she repeatedly has unpleasant encounters of this nature

All three of those women are cisgender, and it’s worth noting that none of the localities where they were harassed, to the best of my knowledge, have passed any “bathroom bills.” The concept is in the Zeitgeist now, so it’s emboldened the idiots and jerks regardless of the laws. And these are just three examples; there are already many, many more. Google “mistaken for transgender” if you want more evidence, and have a high tolerance for outrage.

I haven’t seen any stories about transmen (or effeminate cisgender men) being mistaken for women yet. It may or may not ever happen; as I wrote above, the touch point for the transphobes is having to share women’s rooms with masculinity. Transphobes like former ACLU employee Maya Dillard Smith, who related this story on Fox News:

I have shared my personal experience of having taken my elementary school age daughters into a women’s restroom when shortly after three transgender young adults, over six feet [tall] with deep voices, entered. My children were visibly frightened, concerned about their safety and left asking lots of questions for which I, like many parents, was ill-prepared to answer.

The simple answer to Ms. Smith’s children, “those people are transgender,” apparently didn’t occur to her at the time. And note that she doesn’t give any reason in that story why she or her children should have been afraid of those three young adults, or how she knew for sure they were transgender.

Laws regarding who may use which public restroom are nothing new and accomplish nothing good. They’re tools of hatred and hurt people in categories far beyond their intended targets. Fight them and end them.

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Jenner Again.

Caitlyn Jenner, the most famous transgender person ever (so far), has put her foot in her mouth again. In a recent interview with TIME magazine, she said:

I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

Outrage came from all corners, including the transgender community itself. Jenner gets a taste of her pedicure with practically every sentence in that quote. If you haven’t done much thinking or reading about these matters, it may not be obvious why these words were so inflammatory. I’ll take each misstep in turn and unpack them for you.

“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role.”

Jenner meant by this that life is easier for a trans woman or trans man if his or her looks conform to what the general public assumes cisgender women or men “should” look like. What she described as “authentic” is more often called having a “cisnormative” appearance.

authentic_stamp

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

There’s no such thing as “authentic” when it comes to a person’s gender expression. People look the way they look, and there’s nothing wrong with that, cisnormative or not. A woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips (and there are cisgender women shaped like this) is no less “authentically” a woman than a petite woman with an hourglass figure (and there are transgender women shaped like this), and to imply otherwise is to indulge in the reductive biological-sex-equals-gender essentialism that’s at the heart of transphobia, especially phobia against trans women: i.e., “you don’t look like a woman to me, so you’re really a man.”

But the biggest howler in that sentence is the three words, “plays the role.” Jenner seems here to conflate transgender people with drag artists. Trans people are not “playing a role.” Our gender is not a costume that we peel off when we arrive at home after a long day of applying for jobs, arguing with an ex-spouse over visitation rights with our children, or giving testimony in the trial of punks who assaulted us. Transgender women are women, down to their bones and 24/7. Transgender men, to paraphrase West Side Story, are men all the way. Caitlyn Jenner knows this, or at least should know it, after a full reality-show season of being lectured on such matters by Jenny Boylan and other luminaries.

“[W]hat I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease.”
“[I]f you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.”

I assume by these statements Jenner means that she strives to present herself to be as cisnormative (feminine) as she can manage. There’s nothing wrong with this; many transgender women present themselves in a hyper-feminine way, either by nature, or as a celebration of the identity they’ve finally learned to embrace, or—maybe more often—as a survival tactic, because transgender women who look cisnormative are less likely to be victims of physical assault. As Jenner said, it puts people at ease.

But it’s not the job of transgender people to put anyone at ease. It’s a free country, as the saying goes, and if the way we look makes people uncomfortable, that’s their lookout, not ours. To say otherwise is nasty and ignorant, the same as telling women not to dress in a manner provocative to rapists, or asking someone with a chronic disease to cover up her medication port, or suggesting a Sikh leave his turban at home because he might be mistaken for a Muslim and shot. Who we are is only our own business, and if haters are gonna hate, they’re welcome to suck it.Caitlyn_Jenner

Naturally, Jenner quickly walked back these remarks and apologized after the predictable backlash. Good on her for that; she has always been contrite after her podiatric oral intrusions. I don’t fault her for saying such foolish things; she’s new into her transition, and that’s a time of learning for all trans people.

The problem is that, newly transitioned or not, she’s looked to by the media as a leader, icon, and spokesperson for all transgender Americans. Her pre-transition fame makes that inevitable. She’s the person people will turn to for keynote speeches, diversity awards, and sound bites, and when she says something ignorant or dumb, the general public will assume she speaks for all transgender people.

This is something of a pattern with transgender people who get a little bit of notoriety early in their transition. Back in the middle of the Aughts, Susan Stanton made similar “man in a dress” remarks in an interview.

Susan Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida. She was quietly and privately transitioning when she was unwillingly outed and then fired by Largo’s city council, in an outrageous (and never punished) act of transphobia. This thrust her prematurely into the public eye, and reporters sought her out for interviews and quotes before she’d had time to work out for herself what it means to be transgender, or how to talk about such matters with sensitivity and grace.

Susan Stanton.

Susan Stanton.

When Lambda Legal accepted me as a client and we launched our lawsuit, Glenn v. Brumby, one of the organization’s conditions was that my interactions with the public had to go through their media relations department. This frustrated me at the time, because Lambda Legal was very careful about choosing which interviews and public events would be good for me or for the case. I wanted to talk to everyone about the unfairness and pervasiveness of the kind of discrimination I had suffered, but I wasn’t allowed to.

That parsimony is probably part of why the important legal precedent we set is still little-known today, but on the flip side, Lambda Legal definitely saved me from committing howlers like Stanton and Jenner’s. During those four years, I listened more than I spoke; I wasn’t thrust unprepared into a leadership or spokesperson position.

By dint of her pre-transition fame, Jenner didn’t have the option of a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight transition, even if she had wanted one (and, with the second season of her reality series greenlit, she doesn’t seem to want one). Like her or not, gaffe-prone or not, she is American media’s reigning go-to transperson, and will remain so until and unless someone even more famous transitions.

Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this.

As I’ve written before, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has been enormously important for the transgender community, and has accelerated the cause of civil rights and public acceptance, probably by years. That shouldn’t be denied. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t highly problematic at the same time. Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this, and give cisgender America an impression of our lives that is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous.

Which puts the rest of us on alert. We need to stand ready with our metaphorical mops and buckets, ready to leap into action and correct the record the next time a Cleanup on Aisle Caitlyn is needed.


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I Get Letters.

I recently let it be known on social media that I welcome questions about the transgender experience, and that such questions can be anonymous if that makes correspondents more comfortable. Among other responses, I got an anonymous email from someone who says we’re acquainted on social media, but aren’t friends otherwise. The question the person asked is reproduced below:

I cross-dress. In the last several years, it’s dawned on me that, in part, this predilection stems from a childhood incident wherein I was sexually abused.

How would I determine if my crossdressing is just a fetish or if I’m farther along the spectrum?

You can probably guess that I’ve paraphrased the language of the question a little to further preserve the individual’s anonymity. Normal people, unlike me, don’t use words like “wherein.”

Below is my reply. I hope you readers may also find it helpful, or at least informative:

You say you believe you’re a crossdresser, in part, because you were molested as a child. I’d be interested to know if you have you been told this by a therapist or psychologist. I’m not a mental health professional myself, so I don’t state this with any sort of authority, but it’s my understanding that such a one-to-one correspondence between a childhood trauma and an adult paraphilia is a myth. In other words, if you crossdress, that’s probably just something you happen to be into—the way you’re wired. I very much doubt that your crossdressing is related to what happened to you as a child, even if that was a part of what happened to you.

(And by the way, my sympathies over having had that experience. That shouldn’t happen to anyone, and I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to go through that.)

As for whether your crossdressing is “just a fetish” or if you’re elsewhere on the spectrum, I don’t know if I have much to tell you about that either.

For starters, I wouldn’t say anything is “just a fetish.” “Fetish” isn’t even the right word; the technical term for this behavior is a “paraphilia,” if you want to do an in-depth search of the psychological literature. But

whatever you call it, it’s a part of who you are. A small part or a larger part (TBD), but it’s valid either way. There’s nothing wrong with it, it doesn’t make you dysfunctional or bad, and you should embrace it. And celebrate and acknowledge it, if you can do so without putting your safety or livelihood in jeopardy.

To your question about whether you’re “farther along the spectrum”—well, the spectrum model has its uses, but sometimes it’s better to think of the variety of gender identities not as a spectrum, but a road. Let’s say Point A is a gender dysphoric person who lives full time in his or her sex as assigned at birth, never crossdresses and has taken no outward steps toward transition.

Point B would be a gender dysphoric person who has legally changed his or her name and the sex marker on all legal documents, lives openly and full-time in the gender they were not assigned at birth, is on a regimen of hormone replacement therapy, and has availed him or herself of all possible transition-related surgeries and medical procedures.

Very few transgender people reach Point B. Point B is a long way from Point A. Most transgender people don’t have the resources they’d need to get there. But here’s the point too many people miss: not everyone even wants to get there. It’s an arbitrary goal, and one that doesn’t define us.

Therapists and pop culture tend to assume we all want to go to Point B, and it’s common to internalize that assumption. But you can stop and pitch your tent anywhere you want along the road. Returning briefly to the spectrum model, you’re trying to find your personal wavelength.

If occasional crossdressing satisfies you, then be satisfied with it. If you decide later that it’s not enough, and you want to spend a larger percentage of your time presenting as the other gender, then go with that. If you later come to want people to call you by a name more associated with the gender other than your birth sex, do that too. Etcetera. Maybe you’ll reach a place where you’re completely comfortable and don’t need to make any more “progress.” That’s fine, and it’s a process that all of us have gone through.

There’s no wrong way to be transgender. Look at Stu Rasmussen, the mayor of Silverton, Oregon. His journey doesn’t in any way resemble the iconic model of “transitioning” put in our heads by the likes of Renee Richards, Jenny Boylan, or Caitlyn Jenner. But Stu seems happy with who he is, and that’s the only standard he or you or I ever have to meet.

Put simply, don’t overthink it. What matters in your transition is that it’s your transition. And you are transitioning; by occasionally crossdressing, you’ve already left Point A. Your eventual destination is entirely up to you.


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Autobiography: Congress, Part 2.

Wait, yesterday’s post was wrong. I didn’t speak first; Representative Barney Frank did:

(You can see me sitting behind Frank’s right shoulder; my attorney, Cole, is to my left.)

He went first because he had somewhere else to be. He spoke, then left. He wasn’t a member of the committee, anyway.

Frank’s testimony was much anticipated and scrutinized, because the last time ENDA had come before Congress, in 2007, he had allowed transgender protections to be stripped from the language of the bill. He justified this change by saying the bill couldn’t have passed the House of Representatives if the transgender language remained in it.

This was a bullshit argument. In 2007, the Senate was in the hands of a Republican majority that would not have passed any version of ENDA, and living in the White House was a bigoted Republican President who would not have signed any version of ENDA. So there was no reason not to swing for the fences with the House’s wording of the bill. Compromising on a bill that had no chance of passage anyway served no purpose other than pissing off almost every national LGBT rights group (except the Human Rights Campaign (HRC); its director at the time, Joe Solmonese, was always ready to throw transgender people under the bus) and changing the perception of Barney Frank from that of an ally to a villain.

As you can hear if you listen to the video above, in 2009 Frank’s remarks had an unmistakable “transgender employees, yay!” quality to them.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin also spoke. At the time, she and Frank were two of only three gays in Congress at the time; the third, Jared Polis of Colorado, didn’t speak, but I think he was there as a committee member.rsz_enda_hearing1

Then it was my turn. Cole had written my testimony, as I’ve noted. Most people assume I wrote them myself, but I try to remember to give Cole the credit he’s due. Sure, I’m also a writer, but for this purpose Cole brought certain skills to the task that I didn’t have. With only five minutes to work with, my words had to have maximum information content, yet still tickle the committee’s compassion bones in a way that convinced them that passing ENDA would help people like me.

The words were all accurate and true to my experiences, and the break in my voice was all me.

Several of my coaches at NGLTF the day before had wanted some mention of my Navy experience in my testimony, because letting it drop that you’re a veteran always plays well in the cheap seats. I successfully argued against that, on several grounds.

For one, my Navy service was a pretty important and formative time in my life, but it was still only four years out of my life, and they didn’t have anything to do with my case or with ENDA.

Secondly, I wasn’t a very good officer, so it felt wrong to try to make hay out of that experience.

Third, and most of all, it feels like a cliché to me to mention a transgender woman’s military service. The media loves to find the irony in a story, and since serving in the military is often characterized as the epitome of masculinity, they can’t resist contrasting it apparently going to the other extreme. This angle goes back at least as far as Christine Jorgensen in the 1950s, with “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty!” and similar headlines. I wanted no part of it.

ExGIBlondeBeauty

Thank you, but no.

My testimony did its job nonetheless. Chairman George Miller of California (not the director of the Mad Max films) seemed genuinely stunned that anyone could be as callous and closed-minded as Sewell Brumby had been. Several other committee members also seemed moved. They didn’t ask me many questions, though. Beyond my testimony, there wasn’t much else to say.

After I spoke, the other witnesses took their turns. One was a pro-equality rabbi; another was Stuart J. Ishimaru of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Craig Parshall of the National Religious Broadcasters predictably spoke against the passage of ENDA. I didn’t know of him, but his wife was asshole radio host Janet Parshall.

The committee spent most of its time talking with Ishimaru about the nuts and bolts of implementing ENDA: how it would affect American workplaces, what accommodations would need to be made, how many people would stand to benefit from it, etc.

They were pretty much done with me now. Mara Keisling of NCTE had encouraged me to insert myself into the conversation wherever possible, to help focus the attention on the specific needs of transgender people and to remind everyone just what’s at stake. But I wasn’t able to; the hearing became very technical, very quickly. I had neither the credentials nor the knowledge to contribute anything further.

And then it was all over. The hearing adjourned. The aftermath is all a blur. I remember shaking the hand of Dennis Kucinich, who praised my bravery (in 2009, everyone I met praised my bravery). David snagged my notes and grabbed my nameplate off the witnesses’ bench. “For history,” he said. I think he may still have them.

Back at … somewhere, I was handed a phone and told a reporter from the ABC News website, Devin Dwyer, wanted to interview me. He’d been watching the committee’s feed in some

This was the guy with all the answers.

This was the guy with all the answers.

Capitol press room. This is the story he wrote. Like all journalists who’ve ever interviewed me, he got several of his facts wrong, but since one of his errors was to say I was 30 years old, I’m overall pleased with his reportage.

Then David, Cole, and I found ourselves in the office of Rep. John Lewis, chatting with Lewis and his chief of staff (whose name I’ve forgotten; sorry!). Cole and I both lived in Lewis’s Congressional district, which we were proud to tell him. He hadn’t been able to attend the hearing, but he was, and is, and always has been a strong ally. In his mind, he told us, the fight for civil rights for LGBT people is exactly the same as the fight for equality for African-Americans and every other minority.

He gets it. He has always gotten it. We spent half an hour chatting with him, and it was the only time that day I felt star struck.

No time for sightseeing. After we left the Capitol, Mara ordered up a Zip car and drove us all back to the airport. We boarded our plane and I went almost immediately to sleep. I don’t even remember takeoff.

And why shouldn’t I sleep? I’d helped convince a Congressional committee that ENDA was necessary, and it enjoyed support among the majority in both houses of Congress and the sitting President. I still didn’t know whether I’d win my lawsuit, but I could rest easy knowing that, by the end of 2009, the discrimination I’d endured would be illegal.

Yeah, I was an idiot.


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Autobiography: Congress, Part 1

Here’s another post in my ongoing autobiography project. If you like reading these posts, please consider helping me out financially; I’m crowdfunding this project via my Patreon account. You can read more about my ambitions here.

Today, September 23, is an important anniversary for me. It’s the day I became the first openly transgender person to testify before a Congressional committee. Here’s the first part of the story.

In mid-September 2009 I got a call from my attorney, Cole Thaler. He had a proposition for me. The Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was preparing to convene a hearing where it would receive testimony about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would extend federal employment protections to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) Americans. Several versions of the bill had languished in Congress for over fifteen years; now, with a friendly President, friendly veto-proof majorities in both the House and the Senate, and support by wide majorities in issue polls, equality-minded progressives had decided it was time to finally pass it.

This hearing would be the first step. Testimony would be given by the usual policy wonks and attorneys, but they also wanted a witness whose life had been adversely affected by the lack of ENDA. A call was put out nationwide by the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF, but they’re now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force) to find such a witness, and the powers that be at Lambda Legal had asked Cole to ask me if I was interested.

During the course of my lawsuit, Cole (and my other attorneys, Greg Nevins and Dru Levasseur) asked me to make appearances at several public events, and whether or not I accepted was governed by these two questions, in order:

1. Will it be good for the LGBT community?

2. Will it be good for our case?

If the answer to #1 was “yes,” I always accepted. (If the answer to #2 was “no,” they usually didn’t bring the idea to me in the first place, but I tried to do everything I could that was good forNCTE-logo the community, even if it might be bad for the lawsuit.)

This time I said “yes,” of course. This one was a no-brainer. The passage of ENDA would make what Sewell Brumby had done to me illegal, nationwide. If my testimony could help make that happen, there’s no way I could say no.

There were three other people under consideration for the role. I don’t remember the details, but I believe they were all also transgender, and their stories were also compelling. I think the committee wanted a transgender person, because we stood even closer to the front lines of this fight than lesbians and gays.

At that time, our lawsuit had been filed about 14 months previously, and over the summer our district court judge had turned down the plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss with a lengthy, point-by-point refutation of their justification for firing me. He hinted broadly that, if everything we’d alleged was true (and it was), he would eventually rule in our favor.

Counterintuitively, we suspected this would make the committee less likely to choose me as a witness: if I was on track to win my lawsuit, it sort of suggested I didn’t need ENDA, right? Certainly hundreds of LGBT people are fired from jobs every year, and most of their circumstances didn’t give them the option to sue that Lambda Legal and I had pounced upon. It seemed likely that one of these other three candidates had more woeful tales of woe.

I’ll probably never know, since I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process. But in the end, they did choose me. I had to keep it a secret until the day before, but I wasn’t telling anyone then, because I spent that day traveling.

Cole and I flew up to Washington together early on TuesdayTF_logo_pos_arrow morning, the 22nd. My best friend, David Deriso, came along on his own dime. Mara Keisling of NCTE met us at the airport and drove us into the district, where we were installed in a hotel near the Congressional office building where the hearings would be held. Then walked a few blocks to the headquarters of the NGLTF.

Cole had written my testimony, which was strictly limited to five minutes. We spent all afternoon at a conference table. Some of the biggest names in LGBT political activism told me what to expect from the hearing, how I should respond to questions, and how best to comport myself. I may or may not have walked the length of the room balancing a book on my head.

I memorized my testimony, although I’d also have notecards the next day. I rehearsed it over and over as Mara timed me with her iPhone’s stopwatch app. By the time we were done, I was hitting within a few seconds under the five-minute mark.

Finally, I was as ready as I was going to be, and we knocked off to go relax a little. We found ourselves at a nearby restaurant/bar in what I was told was one of D.C.’s many gay neighborhoods.

While there, I saw a face out of the past. At a booth near the front door was my old shipmate, Trey, dining with another man. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in years. I wanted to go say hello to him, and to this day I regret that I didn’t, but at the time my thinking was that there would be more explaining to do than I had the excess emotional energy for. I did Google him later that night, and learned that after he’d also left the Navy, he joined an association for gay Annapolis grads. And the wheel keeps turning.

I didn’t sleep well that night, but I was so adrenalized and nervous the next morning that it didn’t matter. We took a taxi to Congress and went into an antechamber to the hearing room. It was here that I met Tico Almeida, who at the time worked for George Miller, a California Congressman and the chairman of the committee. It was Tico’s idea to bring a victim of discrimination to speak at this hearing. He later founded Freedom to Work.

This was the panel of witnesses (h/t bilerico and my friend Jillian Weiss). You can see a couple of anti-equality conservative names there, added by the Republican vice chairman. I don’t know why he insisted, since not a single Republican committee member showed up for the hearing.

Each of us gave our testimony, then took questions. I went first:

Tomorrow: Part 2.


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Autobiography: 20th Century Man, Part Three.

This is the third part of an excerpt from my in-progress autobiography. You can find Part One here, and Part Two is here.

If you can help me financially with this book project, I’d be very grateful. A Paypal “donate” button is at the bottom of this post, and my Patreon page is here. Additional funding channels are on their way. Thank you so much!

I spoke to Lorraine for a good half hour, sharing all the details I could remember. Yes, I had the audio recording, but I’d turned the recorder off in the stairwell while marching back to the editors’ office, and there was much that wasn’t captured in the audio. Had I been asked to sign anything? Would I receive severance pay? Was there any advance indication things would go down this way? How did my coworkers react? Who escorted me from the building? And so forth.

I answered all her questions as patiently and completely as I could. It wasn’t easy. The day was crowding on 1 p.m. now, and I really just wanted to get on home. But I knew this phone call was very important to my future, so I stuck it out and kept answering questions until Lorraine was satisfied she had all she needed. Finally, she told me she’d speak to the attorneys in the office and someone would get back to me. Then she hung up.

She seemed more surprised than pleased that I’d recorded the conversation. She didn’t really know what to make of it. Most people don’t think to do such a thing, and in many states it’s illegal.

It’s legal in Georgia; Georgia is a “single consent” state, meaning a conversation may be recorded if at least one of the parties is aware it’s happening. I learned that in my communication law classes at UGA’s Grady College of Journalism. If Mr. Brumby had fired me over the phone, calling from a different state, or had used a voice over IP line that had routed the call through overseas servers and then back to my desk phone, that would have complicated the legality of a secret audio recording. But we’d been face to face. Legally, in Georgia, it wasn’t a gray area. But use caution before trying it elsewhere.

The lavaliere microphone I used was clipped to the inside cuff of the left sleeve of my sweater. The cord ran up the sleeve, down the left side of my torso, and into the left pocket of my khakis, where it plugged into the recorder. The setup had been waiting in a desk drawer for weeks, and when Brumby called me down to his office that morning, I stopped in the restroom on the way and wired myself up.

In a time to come, when I was deposed for the lawsuit, Brumby’s attorney snidely asked why I didn’t reveal beforehand that I was recording the conversation. I answered, a bit glibly, that “I didn’t want to put artificial limits on Mr. Brumby’s impulse to be candid.”

I really wasn’t expecting to capture a “smoking gun” moment with the recording. Again, this was 2007, when the weight of existing court decisions in the United States was still very much against the notion that transgender people had a right not to be fired for their gender identity and we had a President who spoke openly in favor of a Constitutional amendment to outlaw marriage equality. Also, I was in Georgia, deep-red politically and an anti-union, “right to work” state, where employers brag about how easy it is to fire people for any reason they like. If Brumby fired me for being transgender, he was probably secure in the knowledge he was on solid legal ground to do so.

But there are other ways to fight injustice, especially since the Internet was invented. Even back then, most people who weren’t well-informed about the law thought it was illegal to fire people for being gay or transgender, and I had it in the back of my mind that, if I had no other recourse, maybe I could go the Woodward and Bernstein route with the recording and at least shame Brumby in the court of public opinion.

In short, whatever happened next, I’d want an accurate record of the events of this day, and I know enough about human memories to know how faulty they can be. I’d forget details, even critically important ones, but an unedited recording of that fateful encounter would have all the words, pauses, inflections and nuances, true and accurate.

“At about 11:30 this morning the senior attorney called me into his office and fired me because I am transgender.”

I pulled out of the CVS and drove the rest of the way back to my little bungalow in East Atlanta Village. I fell into my desk chair and reported the morning to my LiveJournal, as was the custom in those days. It was a one-sentence post:

“At about 11:30 this morning the senior attorney called me into his office and fired me because I am transgender.”

I called or emailed a few select loved ones. I only called a one or two people before switching to email; I found I couldn’t hear their replies, “We’re sorry, and we love you and will support you,” without bursting into tears.

Some friends offered to come over to take me out to eat, or drown my sorrows, or just sit with me for a while and let me vent. I appreciated all the offers, but I wasn’t ready. That day, what I needed was to be alone (with my cats), and begin to process the trauma.

Not to overstate the case, but these three may well have saved my life in that dark time.

Not to overstate the case, but these three may well have saved my life in that dark time.

It was a very long day. In a sense, it’s a day that never ended; the emotional effects of Brumby’s callous dismissal come back to visit me from time to time. My subconscious brain is always making connections between things I see, read, or hear, and dredging up memories that relate to them. Usually I don’t even consciously know what the spark was. So October 16, 2007, often comes back and hits me unawares. The shock, the humiliation, the despair, the anger—all periodically come back in a wave, and it’s a while before I can put them back down again. Especially the anger. The anger still burns hot. No amount of vindication will ever douse it. There is no forgiveness. The flame will char the fringes of my soul until my final breath.

Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.

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Autobiography: 20th Century Man, Part Two.

Here’s Part Two of this excerpt from my in-progress autobiography. Part One is here. If you’d like to help me crowd-fund this project, please click the “Donate” button at the bottom of this post, or visit my Patreon page. Thank you!

I got up and left, Beth following behind. I moved briskly, despite my mood. I was glad it was lunchtime and most people were out; I didn’t want to encounter anyone on my way back to the editors’ office. I liked my coworkers, every one of them, and seeing them would have punctuated what I had just lost, and cost me the composure I was barely hanging on to. Now that the worst-case scenario had come to pass, I wanted to escape the Capitol as soon as possible and go commiserate with my cats or a bottle or both.

At the landing halfway up the stairs, while briefly out of Beth’s sight, I stuck my left hand into my trouser pocket for a moment, then quickly withdrew it.

I shouldn’t have been shocked by what had just happened. All the evidence, beginning with the incident on Hallowe’en the previous year, had pointed to this action as inevitable. I’d had no reason to believe Brumby would act according to compassion or empathy. Or, if he’d fired me because he thought it would please his “bosses,” as he called them, the conservative Republicans who ran the General Assembly, I’d wrongly credited him with a courage and loyalty to his subordinates that he obviously lacked.

Either way, in firing me, he’d revealed himself to be small-minded and mean, entirely deserving of a name like a villain in a Charles Dickens novel.

"I don't believe this guy." SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

“I don’t believe this guy.”
SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens

Back in the editors’ office, I sat down at my (now former) desk to pack. I took a breath and willed myself not to rush. I’d been caught off-guard, but I was going to do this right and protect myself as well as I could. While I doubted I could find an attorney willing to take a case like this in deep-red, “right-to-work” Georgia, I was going to do everything I could to preserve as much of a chance for myself as possible.

I opened Outlook and forwarded to my personal email account any and all messages I thought might conceivably relate to my job, my work performance, my relationships with my colleagues, or my gender identity. Then I trashed my email file and browser history and cleared my browser cookies. I didn’t think there was anything questionable among those items, but I didn’t want to have to worry whether there was. Not that it would have occurred to anyone to tell the IT department to examine the machine; I have no doubt the Acer desktop was reformatted and issued to someone else by the end of the week.

Beth stood next to my desk, arms crossed, a look of deep unease on her face. Larry and Eugie were looking at us querulously from their desks.

“Tell them what just happened,” I told Beth. Her lips parted, but she didn’t say anything. In that moment I realized Sewell must have admonished her to be reticent. It was my first hint he was in any way concerned that firing a transgender employee could come back to haunt him.

“They deserve to know,” I persisted. Put on the spot, Beth finally spilled it.

“Sewell has just fired Glenn.” She stopped abruptly, like she knew that wasn’t a complete answer, but was afraid to continue it.

“Tell them why,” I prodded. She hesitated again.

“For … the obvious reason.” Eugie bit her lip and looked shocked. Larry didn’t show any emotion. He wasn’t surprised.

Done flushing my electronic files, I shut down my computer and looked around my desk. I’ve always been too much of a pack rat, but I was still surprised at all the things I’d accumulated in just two years. Pens, pencils, cartoons tacked to the wall, a page-a-day calendar, a few books, paperweights… In the drawers were employment-related documents: tax forms, direct deposit paperwork; plus a few blocks of ramen and cans of fruit. “I’m going to need a box,” I said. An empty printer-paper carton appeared from somewhere. Larry produced a second and placed it on top of my inbox.

It took me at least ten minutes to empty my drawers and stuff everything into the boxes. I was systematic and thorough. I wanted to be gone, but I wasn’t going to leave anything behind; again, if I hoped to ever win justice for this outrage, the more material I retained in my possession, the better. I couldn’t see any reason to hurry.

Clearly growing impatient, Beth tried to hurry me along. “I think Sewell wants you out of here as soon as possible,” she said urgently.

Despite myself, I nearly burst into laughter. Why would she think I cared what Sewell wanted? He wasn’t my employer anymore; was he going to call the Capitol Police to drag me away? But I didn’t say anything.

The founder of Georgia does not approve. SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

The founder of Georgia does not approve.
SOURCE: georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu/statues_monuments

Once I had all my belongings boxed up, the four of us left the office via the mezzanine door. I carried my jacket and my messenger bag; Larry and Eugie each had one of my boxes. We went halfway down the divided main steps to the bust of James Oglethorpe, then down the rest of the way to the basement. I looked morosely at Oglethorpe, and at the other familiar monuments and embellishments. I saw everything with the certainty that it was for the last time. No matter what happens now, I remember thinking, Even if I can sue, even if I win—I’ll never work here ever again. It was the saddest thought I’d had all day.

We went out the doors and across Capitol Avenue to the employee parking deck and my truck. I put my things in the front passenger seat, handed my badge and key to Beth, and shook her hand. “It was great working with you,” I told her. I meant it.

“Good luck,” she replied. “I’ll give you a minute to say goodbye to Eugie.”

I shook Larry’s hand. Eugie and I hugged. She smiled at me sadly. I think I wanted to say something to her, but I don’t remember what. It didn’t matter anyway; Eugie and I were friends before we were also coworkers, and that was never going to change.

I got in my truck and drove out of the deck.

A mile away I pulled into a space at the Grant Park CVS Pharmacy and parked. I got out my phone and called Lorraine at Lambda Legal. I’d spoken to her a couple of times before. She was one of the legal assistants, and she’d given me general advice about how to protect myself, but couldn’t do more until I’d actually been fired. Part of her job was to be a gatekeeper for Lambda Legal’s attorneys; they were overworked and didn’t have time to discuss hypotheticals. If and when I got fired, then they’d have something to respond to.

Lorraine answered.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.” I transferred my phone to my right hand and dug into my trouser pocket with my left.

“It’s happened,” I said. “My boss just fired me for being transgender.”

I heard her reach for a notepad. “Are you sure that was the reason? Did he put it like that?” Work like Lambda Legal’s requires rigorous attention to detail.

“That’s definitely the reason,” I answered, “but those weren’t the exact words he used…”

“We need to know his exact words,” she said.

“No problem,” I replied as I pulled the tiny electronic device out of my pocket and unplugged the wire of the lavaliere mike tucked inside the cuff of my left sleeve. “I recorded the whole conversation.”

Posts in my ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
2003.
20th Century Man, Part One.
Perspective.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution:


Thank you!


“Out” Is Activism.

Panorama

The following post is the keynote address I gave on Thursday, October 2, 2014, for the Opening Reception of “Opening Doors, Outing History,” Kennesaw State University’s GLBTIQ Student Retention Services’ art exhibit for LGBT History Month. I was told this was the second year of this event, and I was its first-ever keynote speaker.

I was honored and proud to be given this distinction, and I’m grateful to everyone at Kennesaw State for the opportunity. Jessica Duvall, Program Coordinator for GLBTIQ Retention Services,  invited me to give the keynote and introduced me to the audience.

The Zuckerman Museum of Art hosted the event. The exhibit, as you can see in the photos in this post (which I’m using with permission) is a series of doors describing important events in LGBT history, both nationally and local to Georgia or Kennesaw State. The doors represent the closet.

My speech wasn’t captured to video or audio, so this is the only way I can share it. If you’re reading this, I hope you find it meaningful. 

 

“Out” Is Activism

by Vandy Beth Glenn

Good afternoon! I hope you’re all having a good day. I’m excited to be here. My partner and I arrived earlier today to tour the exhibit, and we really loved it. I love the doors as a concept. It’s brilliant; a powerful and versatile metaphor for our community.

Doors are wonderful devices, aren’t they? I love doors! Dutch doors, pet doors, revolving doors, sliding doors, airlock doors, car doors. Opportunities knock on doors. You can’t tell a “Knock Knock” joke without doors.

I was hunched forward because I was protecting my printed speech from being blown away by the wind.

I was hunched forward because I was protecting my printed speech from being blown away by the wind.

And closets have doors. They have to, or else they’re just alcoves. When the doors are closed, it’s easy to stop thinking about whatever’s inside those closets. Often, that’s the whole idea.

Gay people have been “coming out” since the 1960s in New York City, but originally it had nothing to do with closets. Gay men would “come out” the same way wealthy young debutantes had a “coming out” ball when they declared their eligibility. It was a way for gay men to make fun of gender norms.

The idea that it was a closet they were “coming out” of came later. That was adapted from the older saying about having a “skeleton in your closet.” A skeleton in your closet is a shameful or embarrassing secret you don’t want anyone to know about. Usually, it’s a dark family secret, like “slave labor was the source of the family wealth,” or “my war-hero ancestor was actually a deserter,” or “it turns out we’re actually Kardashians.”

For many families, the uncle who was gay or the cousin who gender transitioned was one of these “skeletons in the closet.” They would never be mentioned except at family reunions, to which they were not invited, and then they were talked about only in hushed tones. Being in the closet was the default status for these “skeletons.” The fact that we were LGBT was, in society’s eyes, automatically shameful, wrong, sacrilegious, and embarrassing, and by extension, we were expected to believe ourselves that we were shameful, wrong, sacrilegious, and embarrassing. We internalized these homophobic and transphobic attitudes and made them part of ourselves.

We didn’t just stand in our closets; we lived in them, like Harry Potter under the Dursleys’ stairs. We made ourselves comfortable there. We had to, because outside the closet we found only scorn and hate and abuse. The closet may have been small and stuffy, but inside the closet, at least, we could be ourselves. Plus, it was the only way we knew how to live. We didn’t even realize the door opened from the inside.

Of course, to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender is not shameful, wrong, or sacrilegious, and it isn’t embarrassing. It is simply who we are. We are kind, respectable, moral people, just like anyone else. Or we’re jerks, just like anyone else. Either way, it has nothing to do with our sexual orientation or our gender identity, and those are never a reason why we should be judged or excluded.

There should be no more closets for any of us, or for our loyal families and allies who lived with us in those closets. The people who continue to hate us; the homophobic and transphobic people, the ones who stuffed us into those closets, are the ones who should be ashamed of who they are. We should be proud, and we’ve been learning to be proud. The doors in this exhibit show us how far we’ve all progressed in that direction.

Everyone here today, whether gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or a straight ally, knows that no one should be made to suffer or to feel bad about themselves because of the sex or gender characteristics of themselves or their loved ones. We are out. I understand that probably many of you are not out to all the people in your lives. That’s just realistic. Not everyone can safely be out, especially in this part of the country. There are still the risks of rejection, of job loss, of homelessness, that go along with being out.

Doors about Atlanta Pride and kicking the 1996 Olympics out of Cobb County.

Doors about Atlanta Pride and kicking the 1996 Olympics out of Cobb County.

But I hope most of you are out or will be soon. I hope that for the vast majority of you, your closets are just places to keep clothes, or cleaning supplies, or canned food.

The closets are still destroying lives, and we need to continue to help others pry them open. And we will. This century, this decade, is our moment in history. It is our turn.

Looking back at where we used to be helps us to understand how far we’ve advanced. The exhibit has two new doors this year, commemorating two terrible stories in United States history.

The Lavender Scare is one of them. In the 1950s, the Lavender Scare ousted hundreds of gay people from federal jobs; it was a part of McCarthyism. Gay people were thought to be unfit for federal service, because their sexual orientation was considered a mental illness. President Eisenhower himself signed an executive order firing all the openly gay people working for the federal government. This is just sickening to me. Eisenhower is remembered as one of the most moderate, middle-of-the-road Presidents we’ve had, so his buy-in to this shocking persecution is a strong signal to us today of how mainstream it was to be homophobic in the 1950s.

Today, not only are thousands of our people working openly in federal employment, but President Obama recently signed his own executive order, which in this case protects all LGBT people employed by the federal government and by federal contractors. Presidents of both parties have been appointing openly gay individuals to federal posts since at least the 1980s, and President Obama has appointed many openly transgender people as well.

The other new door tells the story of the Johns Committee in Florida, which began in the early 1960s. This was similar to the Lavender Menace, but was a state government initiative in Florida by state senator Charley Johns, and it focused on the state colleges and universities—a fact which should resonate with those of us here today. It resulted in many qualified and capable instructors and students being denied the jobs and educations they deserved and had a right to.

Today, well, I tried researching the status today of LGBT people in Florida, and the state is maybe still not a shining beacon of LGBT diversity. But at least there are no longer witch hunts against LGBT educators, and Senator Johns himself has long since died of old age. As an aside, I note that many of the people who persecute us are dying of old age. In fact, if you look at the demographics of homophobic and transphobic individuals, you’ll find that old age is their number one cause of death. I’m not saying older people are intolerant. I’m saying intolerant people tend to be older, so to a large extent, an equal society is just a waiting game.

I don’t remember personally the events described on those two new doors, but in many ways the United States I grew up in wasn’t much better. I was in one of these closets for over half my life. Nobody knew my secret! I had an ordinary childhood, went to college, joined the Navy, worked in the civilian world. I even had an apparently heterosexual dating life. People had no reason not to assume I was an ordinary straight person.

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

The Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

I wasn’t an ordinary straight person. I am transgender. There was a life I really wanted to live, but fear kept me living the lie instead. I was afraid I would lose everything that was important to me. I would lose the people I cared about and the job that sustained me. I would lose the ability to walk unnoticed and unharassed in public. I was sure these things would happen if I stepped out of my closet and embraced my true gender identity.

Eventually the time arrived when I had to do that, though. Gender dysphoria is like that; it’s a tinny little voice inside your head, insisting that you need to make a change, and if you don’t answer it, it grows louder every year. At last it’s so loud that it drowns out everything else, and you have to do something about it. You have to. It no longer matters what you’re going to lose as a result.

Well, it matters, but it doesn’t matter enough. Gender dysphoria always wins in the long run. We transition because we can no longer continue to live as we had been. We’ve been reduced to two options, and transitioning is the only option that keeps us alive. I reached this point, and I began my transition. I did so with the certain belief that I would probably lose most of my friends, possibly lose my job, and definitely, definitely, I’d never have another romantic relationship. I wasn’t happy about any of that, but it was a price I had to pay.

This is a fact that even lesbians and gays often don’t understand about the transgender experience. Before our gender transitions, we are suffering. We don’t transition on a whim, or as a political statement, or because we want to be societal outcasts. We transition because we want to stay alive.

So I stepped out of my closet, and true to my fears, I lost my job. The man who fired me, Sewell Brumby, said that my transition was unacceptable in his workplace. He used words like “inappropriate,” “uncomfortable,” and “immoral.” Yes, he said “immoral.” He said it out loud. He felt so safe in firing an employee for being transgender that he didn’t even see the need to hide it. He had no fear about it.

He should have been afraid. I went to Lambda Legal, and together we filed a federal lawsuit against Sewell Brumby. At first I had no confidence we would win; this was in 2007. The judicial landscape for LGBT rights was very different. There were a few good precedents, many bad ones, and we had a President who was openly talking about a Constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality. It didn’t look good for our case, but I knew filing it was the right thing to do. We had to fight the fight, even if we lost.

You know from Jessica’s introduction that we won after all, against all the odds and at two levels of federal courts. Four months after our victory, in April 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced, based partly on our precedent, that it would treat discrimination against transgender people as sex discrimination, which means that now transgender people’s jobs are protected all over the nation.

Doors about ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and the Stonewall Inn Riots.

Doors about ACT UP, the Gay Liberation Front, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and the Stonewall Inn Riots.

I’m proud of that, but I’m even more proud that I finally left my closet. It did cost me my job, but not the people who care about me. They care about me every bit as much, and are happy that I’m happy.

And once I’d become a person I could love, I was able to meet someone who could also love me, and she and I have been together for five years now.

We’re all encouraged to be activists these days: to go to rallies, to lobby our elected officials, to march in protests.

These are all important and praiseworthy activities, but to be an activist, we only have to be out. Part of the reason Sewell Brumby felt so safe in firing me was because he didn’t know, or didn’t believe he knew, any transgender people. He may not even have realized he knew any gays or lesbians. I know for sure that he did. They just were not out to him, so he was allowed to believe they were people who don’t count and don’t matter.

Living our lives in the open is the way to win the rest of the world’s hearts and minds. And we have to win their hearts and minds, because the straight population will always outnumber us.

So we put photos of our partners on our desks at work.

We marry the people we love, regardless of their gender, and we wear our wedding bands where everyone can see them.

We fly our flags, and we put rainbow stickers on our cars, and we’re not coy about pronouns when we tell people about the amazing person we went on a date with last night.

We don’t grin and remain silent when we hear a homophobic joke or comment; we politely and swiftly say that sort of talk is unacceptable in polite society.

We do these things, as out LGBT people, because by being out, we’re all activists. A lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person who lives her life in the light of day, daring any hater to have a problem with it, is an activist. Remember that. Take it to heart. Live it.

Pride isn’t just a word. It’s a way of life. Living openly is the best catalyst for change.

Doors about Safe Space Initiative and GLBTIQ Student Organizing at KSU.

Doors about Safe Space Initiative and GLBTIQ Student Organizing at KSU.

And change is coming. I told you how the employment landscape has improved. In addition to that, marriage equality is the law in more and more parts of the nation all the time. A year or two ago it was only six or seven states. It’s over twice that now; I can’t even keep an accurate count. Even the bigots admit this is a fight that we’ll eventually win nationwide. There are battles left to fight, but the war is essentially over.

The closet doors are standing open now. We don’t have to live there anymore. We’ve stepped out into the light of day, our adversaries are dying off, and the world belongs to us now.

It’s not all happy talk; many challenges remain. It is still legal to fire people for being gay or lesbian in much of the country, and even where it’s not, clever employers can always make up a reason to fire an LGBT worker and hide their discrimination. Legal protection is only part of the solution.

Marriage equality is a war that we’re winning, but it’s not won yet. It’s still illegal for us to marry in more states than not. We have to keep fighting on that front.

Transgender people still suffer and die as a result of ignorance and intolerance. You’re all aware the biggest shared experience each year for gays and lesbians is Pride; for transgender people, it’s the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, when we read the names of all the people who were murdered during the previous year simply for being transgender. It’s a list that never seems to grow shorter.

So, there’s much work left to be done. But the first step, for all of us, is to come out. There are some sad tales told on the doors in this exhibit, but the doors themselves are a celebration. Let’s celebrate together.

Thank you for having me here today.

Doors In A Corner

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