It's something you hope you'll never have to do, but you do it when you have to.
I watched "Her Name Was Steven" on CNN Saturday night, and it's taken me until now to decide how I want to discuss this documentary and revisit this story. I found myself somewhat closer to this story than most when it happened, in part because I'd actually met Susan Stanton at an event here in New Jersey, and because when she did an interview with the St. Petersburg Times she said some pretty awful and disparaging things about her transgender sisters and brothers and I'd blogged about it.
Not surprisingly, the reaction to the interview was swift and direct from myself, Marti Abernathey, and many others. What may have seemed to some like a "pile-on" or an aggressive attack against Susan Stanton was really, in essence, self-defense. Stanton, a transwoman, had just told the world that transgender people weren't worthy of being protected against discrimination in the workplace. Many of us felt compelled to say just as loudly that she was wrong, that Stanton's own story, not to mention so many others like it, is crystal-clear evidence of why transgender and gender-variant Americans need to be legally protected against discrimination.
Some knew or suspected what was going on right from the start, and many more figured it out as this story played out over time. The Human Rights Campaign and certain members of Congress wanted to see the passage of a non-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007 and they apparently felt that a celebrity transwoman like Susan Stanton could be persuasive in advocating for that bill, presumably demonstrating support for it among transgender people.
When I saw that interview, I knew I couldn't stay silent, even though I also knew that speaking out would entail directing some rather sharp words toward a fellow transwoman. When the choice is to either bash a fellow transperson or increase the chance of incalculable damage to the movement for transgender equality as whole by not doing so, there's only one reasonable choice I and so many others could make. When push comes to shove, I value the ongoing movement for transgender equality and its potential success far more than I value the personal comfort of any one individual, and I think that's true for a lot of us.
Citizen lobbyists from NCTE and Garden State Equality (yay, home team!) have been visiting offices of members of Congress this week to lobby for ENDA. Even now, two years later, we're still struggling to get this bill passed, even just for it to remain on the agenda. Now, just imagine if we'd simply allowed Susan Stanton disseminate her views in the media without challenge or comment. What might that have done to the chances of an inclusive ENDA ever seeing the light of day? On the other hand, what we did see was quick and direct public condemnation of Susan Stanton's political positions from the transgender community, coupled with the ongoing protests against HRC's support of the non-inclusive bill throughout that year. This freight train was already rolling down the tracks at full speed when Susan Stanton made the mistake of stepping in front of it...but perhaps she was pushed?
HRC, and surely the Dems as well, had to know that we'd never let Susan Stanton's public statements on transgender rights go unanswered. As much as we may not like some of the things they do, we also know that these people are just not that clueless. Therefore, it's fair to conclude that it was known going in at least by some that they were setting up Susan Stanton as a sacrificial lamb. The apparent plan seemed to be that they'd put her out there, use her statements as evidence that a significant portion of the transgender community supports the passage of a non-inclusive ENDA, and then hope that Stanton's notoriety and status as a transwoman would shield them from the brunt of the negative backlash from the trans community and the allied progressive left which they had to know was sure to follow.
The problem for these folks was that virtually none of the politically-conscious transgender and allied community bought it. We've been doing this for far too long not to recognize a cheap political parlor trick when we see one. Susan Stanton has no credibility as an activist leader in our community, yet she was being promoted as one by HRC and the straight media. We called her out and publicly discredited her because we had to, before her fifteen minutes of fame gave her words and opinions a veneer of credibility and of representing the viewpoints of a persecuted minority group with whom she apparently sees herself as sharing little in common with save the physical experience of transitioning.
Is there a better idea? Well yes, actually, and more than one in fact. First and foremost, there's what's going on right now, directly lobbying members of Congress. Second, there's the Internet and other trans-inclusive media. While there's often much success to be had by meeting with your member of Congress face-to face, there's even more potential success waiting for those who can extend their reach through the media outside their own circles. In order to accomplish that, we need good media messengers. What we don't need and can't tolerate is someone like Susan Stanton blundering in and shooting her mouth off without taking the time and effort to understand the players and playing field, particularly when there's so much at stake.
Celebrity, even "Z-list" celebrity, can go a long way toward opening doors that may be closed to others, but it can also paint a target when public opinion turns negative. Susan Stanton reveled in her minor celebrity status, but she didn't understand that simple notoriety can only get people to listen, it takes a lot more than just having been featured in the media a few times to get people to actually rally behind you. Just being well-known isn't enough, especially when you're speaking out against treating a minority group you ostensibly represent fairly and equally.
The transgender community rejected and disempowered Susan Stanton as a community spokesperson because Stanton herself left us with no other choice. She used her notoriety to promote the idea that transgender people are unworthy of equal rights and treatment under the law, that we aren't ready for equality, as she put it. Leaving aside the obvious question of how any persecuted minority group can not be ready to be treated fairly and equally under the law, Stanton's clear disdain for her fellow transpeople and her elitism in separating herself from the rest of the community, "men in dresses" as she sees us (I wonder what she thinks of FTMs? Is she even aware there is such a thing?), set the stage for both an angry personal response from many transpeople as well as a necessary public refutation of her statements in the media.
I'm disappointed that we had to take down Susan Stanton, but not at all apologetic. We have nothing to be sorry for. Our movement was attacked and we defended it. The fact that the attacker came from within our community is irrelevant. We used the very same weapons she did, only ours were sharper and cut deeper. We did what had to be done to defend our movement and the progress we've made, what we will no doubt do again and again, when and as the need arises. The price of doing nothing is just too high.
The passage of an inclusive ENDA will hardly solve all of our problems, but with non-discrimination as the law of the land, things cannot help but get better immediately in the short term as workers who are unjustly discriminated against finally have recourse to the law, and over the long term, as the standards of the law become the cultural norm, much as has happened for racial and ethnic minorities. Failing to speak out against Susan Stanton could have potentially threatened transgender inclusion in ENDA by offering political cover, thin though it might have been, to skittish Democrats who hadn't yet worked up the political will to protect the basic civil rights of all American citizens to take the easy way out and vote for the non-inclusive bill.
The lesson to be learned here is that we can and should be speaking for ourselves. We can and should be choosing our own leaders and our own spokespeople. We can and should be promoting our own agenda, in our own way, and in our own voices. We can and should include among those voices not only military heroes and business leaders, but also parking lot attendants and grocery clerks. We can and should be doing a much better job of showing America and the rest of the world the true depth and diversity of who and what we are. We can and should be using the media, all forms of media, to tell our stories and present our perspectives much more effectively than we have been until now.
The rise and fall of Susan Stanton teaches us that you can't be accepted as a credible transgender spokesperson or leader unless you've actually got the goods, no matter how much media buzz you generate. The community just won't allow it. It also proves we've got some more slots we need to fill in that regard.
In a community where it's common to shun the spotlight, it seems we're running a bit short on people willing or able to step into it right now. Here's hoping that changes as time goes on. Mara Keisling and a relative handful of transgender activists and online mediamakers can't and shouldn't be doing it all.