As detailed in Parts I and II, based on my 2004 article in the Journal of Bisexuality, the roots of transphobia in the U.S. gay community include stigma for femininity in males stemming from the ancient world, the theorization of sexual orientation as entirely separate from gender identity, and increasing US political acceptance that pushes both political solidification of identity and gender accommodationism. A vocal minority in the gay community have long viewed transsexual surgery as part of a history of forced medical "cures" that were as dangerous and cruel as they were ineffective. Many in the transsexual community have distanced themselves from homosexuality and transphobic gays, whose rejection threatened an already fragile place in the world. It is these drivers that must be dismantled to combat transphobia.
As a law professor and a social scientist, one of the main ideas I must get across in my teaching of college students is the understanding that everyone has a bias, including themselves. This is not an easy task. Virtually no one sees themselves as prejudiced. We can see that others are seething pots of bias and ignorance (except for those with whom we completely agree), but we ourselves are exempt from that malady that affects all other humans.
A concept that many students have a hard time with is the notion that there is no such thing as personal "objectivity." (There is "journalistic objectivity," the worthy goal of presenting more than one side in reporting an issue, but that's beside the point here.) But in fact, as human beings with experience and memory and history, we have a point of view about everything. That viewpoint -- that's bias. Bias doesn't refer only to violent prejudices like Nazi ideology. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bias has several meanings, including an inclination, leaning or tendency. "A swaying influence, impulse, or weight; 'any thing which turns a man to a particular course, or gives the direction to his measures'."
It is impossible to be unbiased. As a middle class, white, educated, Democrat, bisexual transgender atheist with a Jewish background, living in the Northeast US and working in education, with an 18 year old son who is about to go off to college, I have certain beliefs about life, education, politics, economics, religion, friendship and the social order. Can I truthfully get up in front of a classroom full of college students and say that what I am about to teach are simply facts, and that my background does not enter into the selection of those facts, the emphasis placed on them, my views on them and what I expect them to know for the test? Should I eliminate all bias by simply reading from the textbook and not offering my own views? That would not eliminate bias. It would simply reproduce the bias of the textbook writers, and bore the class to death.
No, the best course is to acknowledge my biases and give the reasons for them, and ask them to evaluate for themselves whether my viewpoint is valid. Of course, acknowledging my own biases is hard work, because now I need to look at whether I myself think that the viewpoint I have inherited is valid. It would be much easier not to think about it.
Seeing The Back Of Your Own Head
Some of us are better than others at seeing and understanding the other side, something my students constantly struggle with. As a lawyer, whose job it is to represents positions that I do not believe, I have learned to do this with finesse over the past twenty-five years. (My lord, has it been that long?)
Understanding the other side is not a skill that most people spend much time considering. We know what we are for. We are for civil rights, and equality and fairness to all. We oppose hate and violence and bigots and tyrants. We know why we feel these things. We know why the other side is wrong. Rarely do we consider why they are right. We have not stood in their shoes. We don't know whether they were indoctrinated as children into a twisted culture of fear and violence, or experienced deaths of loved ones, or war, or hunger, that may have turned them into what we see as bigots. Nor should this ever excuse bigotry.
But it also suggests that the solution to bigotry is not creating a climate of fear and angry denunciation, for that would not address the roots of the problem. In fact, because such anger ignores the roots of the problem, it requires the opposition to explain itself more and more, and to confirm its biases, to urge their acceptance. Angry denunciations harden positions.
Why Are Transgender People So Angry?
Although angry denunciations harden positions and make the problem worse, it is sometime impossible to avoid. Transgender people have experienced inexcusable prejudice and discrimination that is impossible to explain fully. I cannot fully communicate to you what it was like for my little six-year old boy, whom I loved as dearly as you ever loved another, to be transported to another part of the country, and to not be welcome there. To know that appealing to the law would mean to lose him forever. To call him and to be hung up on. To hear recriminations and angry words. To hear his little piping voice crack as he asked when he would see me, and to hear him cry bitterly and inarticulately as the phone went click. As I write this, separated by a decade from that time, I feel fully all of the pain and tears leak onto my computer. I have had to take a break to sob for a few minutes.
I cannot fully explain what it was like to have people point at me and laugh as I walked down the street, calling after me and encouraging other people to laugh, or threatening violence, getting dangerously close, as I walked down the street without a job, without a family, without a friend.
That's what comes up when I read transphobic literature.
But gay people have also suffered inexcusable prejudice and discrimination. Gay men and lesbian women are today being separated from dying loved ones in hospitals, paying thousands of dollars in extra taxes for a sick partner's health insurance if they can even get it at all, being assaulted on the streets, being separated from children, being stared at and threatened with violence, and killed, if they touch or kiss or hold a loved one. Historically, gay people have been put in jails and mental hospitals and tortured for being gay.
There is also homophobia in the transgender community. Some transgender people want nothing to do with gay issues, or gay people.
The anger of transgender people at transphobia in the gay community, and the anger of gay people at homophobia in the trans community, is justified. We should be angry at hatred. There are times when we must express our anger and outrage as human beings. We can only take so much. Thankfully, we live in a country where such freedom of expression is allowed. But being angry all the time is not going to solve the problem.
And my ex-wife and my son and I now have an excellent relationship, and we are all thankful that the angry, sad times are gone. We continued to communicate during the times of angry denunciation. I stuck with it, and she stuck with it, and my son stuck with it. We stuck it out and kept talking. We talked when we were angry. We talked when we were sad. We talked when we felt betrayed, and annoyed, and wishing this were over. It was almost impossible at times. But thank God we did it. He even wrote a beautiful essay here on Bilerico talking about our relationship.
Political Struggle -- or Separation -- Is A False Dichotomy
The rise of transphobia in the gay community has its roots, as I have shown, a political power struggle. Is the answer to transphobia in the gay community, then, to be found in the trans community struggling to attain and demanding more power? No, for the problem was created by power struggle in the first place. As Einstein so famously said, no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. Part of the reason that the transgender community has so little power is that we are so little. There are too few of us and we are too separated to make effective political demands on our own.
Another possible solution is separation - transgender people leaving the LGBT sphere to dwell only within their own spaces. To separate the T from the LGB, and escape the problem by avoiding it. Yes, it is possible. Many transsexual people do this by going "stealth." They blend into the woodwork of the straight world, avoiding transphobia by constant vigilance in disavowing their history and continually erasing it. This does not, however, combat bias. It merely avoids it.
The Communication Solution
World-renowned scholar Jurgen Habermas suggests another answer. He argues that the key to liberation is not politics or economics, as many people believe. Rather it is to be found in language and communication between people. His tour-de-force writings trace the change in Western society from an aristocratic, top-down structure to a bottom-up democratic one. His contention is that the key to this long-term change lay in the change from a world in which only one group was considered to have anything worthwhile to say -- the aristocracy -- to one in which more and more people of more and more different classes and nations were involved in discussing the issues. That had a salutary effect on the growth of democracy and freedom.
By analogy, the key to long-term change in the relations between the gay community and the transgender communities lies in communication. Here I refer to "communication" in its broadest sense, that of connection. Just as interfaith groups have led to broader understanding and tolerance among people of different faiths, groups of gays, lesbians and bisexuals must communicate with groups of transsexuals and transgenders. This communication must include not only written communication, but also in-person meetings and oral communications. Issues of importance to both communities must be identified and broached. Differences and points of contention must also be addressed.
We are seeing more of this effect through the growth of online mass communication platforms that encourage participation by the population at large. The Bilerico Project is one such communication platform where gays and transgenders can communicate. Of course, one problem with such a communication platform is that airing opinions honestly about our feelings about other groups in the LGBT alliance is going to create a lot of controversy and hard feelings.
But avoiding our honest opinions creates an atmosphere of public accord and private discord, leading to events such as the removal of gender identity from ENDA in 2007. People say one thing to your face and another in the halls of power. I do not say this to excuse the airing of frankly transphobic opinion with no pretense of outreach. But though I agree with Bil when he says his publication of Gold's post was a complete mistake and should not have happened, I do believe that failing to discuss these issues honestly and openly in many places, not just Bilerico, means that many gay people will not understand why transgender people are so angry at some of these references. They, not knowing of our history and our experiences as fully as we do, will think us in overreaction.
But one platform like Bilerico is completely insufficient. There must be outreach by groups all around the nation. These cannot be simply online discussion platforms. Although, as Habermas demonstrated, free public sphere communication can have a life-changing effect on politics and economics, the reverse can also be true.
Why Online Communication Is Insufficient
The public sphere, though rife with discussion and communication today, has decayed. The growth of commercial mass media, owned by a few top corporations, has turned the critical public into a passive consumer public. The large majority of people are content to get their information from television, and perhaps a few other sources, pretending to objectivity, but rife with corporate interests. The "public sphere" is controlled by advertisers and their interests, held thrall to whatever will get the most eyeballs on board to increase advertising revenue. It is, by and large, not a space for the development of a public-minded rational consensus.
This is both good and bad news. The good news is that communication has transformed society from an aristocratic, feudalistic society into a democratic publicly-shared society. The bad news is that the bulk of our current means of communication has been co-opted by profit-seeking interests that define its content as pabulum for the masses, not through direct censorship, but through demand for audience-share. This voracious demand for audience-share means that only the most popular viewpoints can be aired. Minority viewpoints will be aired in distorted fashion so that people can engage in the universal satisfaction of disparaging them in unison. Communication outlets are forced to promote stories with scare headlines, sex, scandal and sensation if they wish to compete successfully for those eyeballs. This is not a formula for liberation in the sense that Habermas means it.
As a result, it is not sufficient to hope that the younger generation will not reproduce our conflicts and divides. There is a great deal of optimism about the younger generation, for they are growing up in a world that is somewhat more free in regard to sexuality and gender. But it is only somewhat more free. Just as the generation that was young in the 60s thought itself free of sexual hang-ups and racial tensions, but was ultimately co-opted by the system, the same forces that perpetuate our divide continue to operate, and will, despite their best intentions, operate on the younger generation. While many young people are outspoken in their support of our LGBT community, many more are silent, and that silence increases as they grow older and life pressures multiply.
How Should Building An LGBT Alliance Proceed?
How then, to create this communication among people of different sexual orientations and gender identities that will lead to our liberation as a community? My vision is that of small local outreach groups all around the nation, whose goal is increasing communication between and among gays and transgenders. I say small, because not many people will be interested in such work at the current time. I also think they must be in many places, because it is totally insufficient to have some national organization start a single sub-organization devoted to this.
I note that there are large national organizations taking this on. I can think of no better example than The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference. Every year, thousands of LGBT activists get together and spend a few days together. The conference broaches a wide-ranging diversity of topics for many different communities, including not only LGBT topics, but issues of race, class, disability and other lines of social stratification. I have not attended the conference, but I have heard many wonderful stories about how it create community across lines that normally divide people.
But can one annual conference accomplish the task of bringing us together? No, it certainly cannot. It's a start. But others have to participate. We need tens of thousands, not merely two thousand.
In order to heal our breaches, we would need people from around the nation to stand up within their current groups, both gay and transgender, and to work with others to reach out across the divide. It would require people to meet in small groups, perhaps in rooms with peeling paint and dented folding chairs and fluorescent lights. It would require people to meet in large groups, at meetings and conferences on other topics, to address the issues of the LBGT community. It may seem dismally small and pitiful and hopeless at first. But these LGBT "interfaith" groups would be the seeds for later action by larger regional and national groups.
It will not be easy to add one more thing to our full plate of activism. If we truly wish to create an LGBT community, and make it more than an often-derided acronym, we must take action to increase communication and interaction between and among us in all regions and at all levels.
Our current level of communication is simply insufficient to the task. We all talk about an alliance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex people. But what are we doing to build such an alliance? Very little, compared to the task at hand.
We people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning - do we have common goals and common cause? Yes, we do. Can we retain our alliance while misunderstanding each others' histories, experiences and concerns? No, we cannot. Can we depend on a few online platforms to accomplish the work of building an alliance? No, we cannot.
Without working on our alliances, we can expect postings like Ron Gold's to surface again. We can expect incidents like removing gender identity from ENDA to surface again. We can expect our relationships within the LGBT community to get worse, not better.
The truth is that this problem we have here is not about Ron Gold, and it is not about Bil Browning. It is far, far bigger than that. We must not miss the forest for the trees.
But, you object, what is your plan? Your grand scheme for making all this happen?
My answer is that I don't have one. I'm not up to such a task. But I am up to analyzing and understanding the nature of the problem after long academic study of our history. I am up to pointing out the types of solutions that might begin to address the problem.
At this point, I am hoping only to spark a conversation, to get people talking about what such a world might be like, to understand the depth of the crevasse we are in, and to recognize that we cannot tell it to go away, we cannot apply band-aids, we cannot merely separate ourselves from the problem, we cannot add more political struggle, and successfully address this problem.
The truth is that we in the LGBT community have been doing very little to build alliance with and among each others' communities. Some people have pointed out that there is no true "LGBT community." It is time to start building one, and not living with the fantasy of one.
We must commence building our alliance, or be doomed to repeat history over and over and over again. How could you contribute, in however small a way, to the building up of that alliance? Let's talk.