The announcement of President Obama's appointment of Amanda Simpson to the Department of Commerce on the last day of 2009 is a significant event for LGBT rights in the U.S. But what does it, in fact, mean? What, if any, results will it translate into? Or is it just a token of change, with emphasis on the token?
LGBT people, and particularly transgender and transsexual people, are subjected to a great deal of prejudice. This appointment won't change that. I'm not even sure we'll see much news in the mainstream media about it. Few other appointees have received much press, even the controversial ones.
But the announcement that a transgender person is worthy of a Presidential appointment will impact the cultural imaginary of the DC power elite. Ultimately, media and the public have limited relevance in the running of national affairs. Never forget the power elite that runs things. This appointment will impact them, and that is saying a lot.
Being LGBT in the U.S. today carries a dangerous stigma, whether you live in Laramie or New York City, and the degree of discrimination and danger depends in large measure on who you are. That is not going to change one whit based on this one appointment. The state of our culture is more accurately expressed by the recent news item about the response of a McDonald's franchise to an African-American trans applicant for employment: "We do not hire faggots."
In my opinion, the real story here is more significant than a mere first, or as an ambiguous token. More importantly, it represents a dent in the cultural imaginary, that vision conjured up by our culture in the eye of the imagination when the word "transsexual" is uttered, especially among those in the power elite of Washington. Most people who are in charge of running things are not ready to give much credence to a trans person, regardless of credentials, even if they are willing to give lip service to diversity. There's a big difference between tolerance and inclusion.
The cultural imaginary conjured up by the words "transsexual" and "transgender" is of a mentally unstable, predatory man in a dress, scheming to deceive in order to commit a crime or make sexual advances to the unwilling. The cultural imaginary stands in the way of progress in many areas of LGBT rights. That is why it important that organizations protest negative images of LGBT people in the media, as they have been doing. It is equally important that people get to see positive images. More importantly, the People Who Run Things must see LGBT people as potentially one of their own.
When I say this, I'm not endorsing the power elite, or the way things are run, or saying that the system is therefore automatically good. I see many problematic elements in these things. But I do not imagine that the System, therefore, does not exist. It exists, and to the extent that we are frozen out of it, we do not. Whatever one thinks of the system, this is a step forward for us.
The cultural imaginary decides what is privileged and unprivileged, separates acceptable from unacceptable, and elevates class over underclass. Having people see us as capable people with respected roles puts a dent in that cultural imaginary. That is why I always insist on being called "Doctor" in public roles, and having people understand that I am a college professor. I am not interested in my personal prestige, and I am sensitive to the fact that some people find it overwrought. But people need to know that we include college professors, and managers, and accountants and business people and politicians and are participants in the social fabric of this country.
That President Obama, and more importantly, the Beltway power elite that forms the administrative corps of this nation, are willing to cross that Rubicon and to face the powerful hostile forces of cultural prejudice arrayed against this appointment, is a declaration that cannot be minimized.
Mentally ill...predator...prostitute...deceiver...These are the memes that continually resurge when hate-mongers spew their venom These are the beliefs that so many Americans have swallowed whole. Some LGBT people have these beliefs, and that needs to be impacted as well. it's important to have young trans people know that they can succeed, or they won't even try. It is these memes that the wingnuts will repeat like a mantra to discredit Ms. Simpson and the Administration that appointed her, trying like mad to reinforce the cultural imaginary of trans people as crazy deviants.
The Administration's willingness to confront this evil on the national stage is the real story here. I do not know how successful it will be in denting the cultural imaginary for the wider public, but it will require Administration officials to get some education about trans issues in the process of defending their choice. It will require them to learn about and understand the issues and prejudices that face Ms. Simpson as a transgender person. Hopefully, it will have the same salutary effect on portions of the executive branch that the appointment of Diego Sanchez had on the legislative branch.
That understanding is a key to the Administration's ability and willingness to stand up for LGBT legislation, such as ENDA. ENDA will require expenditure of political capital for its enactment, and the Administration's ability and willingness to do depends on the level of education about these issues among the DC power elite. They are not going to put their necks on the line for crazy deviants. They might do so if they understand that we are part of the social fabric of this country and that the voters think so too.
It's important to realize that the Administration is a bureaucracy and a not-easily-moved system, and President Obama cannot steer the ship of state by himself. The long preliminary steps of background checks and vetting this appointment has likely already required that people in the power elite confront the issues faced by transgender and transsexual Americans. The appointment itself will continue to require the power elite to educate itself. This is key.
That the appointment came in the Commerce Department is significant because it is in commerce where transgender and transsexual people are best poised for and most in need of help. Unemployment and underemployment is rampant in the transgender community, and the most significant barrier to social progress. This will serve as a signal not only of acceptance to public sector employers, but also to the private sector that Commerce regulates and serves. The diffusion of education outward from the Commerce Department should not be underestimated.
Good luck and many good wishes on your appointment, Ms. Simpson. Remember that DC is a snake pit, and watch your back. I hope they take advantage of the opportunity to learn something about diversity in the 21st century.