I don't want to jump in on ENDA commentary that's been bubbling lately. Not because I feel like I can't, or that it's not important to discuss it, but because I just prefer not to be a part of that volatile world right now.
See, the more I read on the issue, and the more that trans issues make the national rounds, the more I see huge rifts opening up between life on the ground and the noise in the air. This worries more than anything else in the LGBT movement.
In the air, the rhetoric has gotten to be pretty horrible, especially as far as trans folk are concerned. There's something about trans inclusion that brings out the worst in people. After seeing just how much trans-bashing the mainstream media is willing to accept in the name of "fair and balanced," I'm not terribly inclined to immerse myself in the debate.
On our end, trans people are painted as eternal victims of circumstance and bigotry, and few other narratives work their way to the surface. Seems that everywhere I look I see being trans as this huge load to bear, or this unthinkable taboo that should obviously be shunned by the public.
On the ground, however, things are very different. To use my life as an example, I just sold my first novel, and between frantic edits, drafting a completely new novel, and settling into my life as "just another girl in the crowd," I really don't feel that the storm of controversy over trans women in classrooms and bathrooms really applies well to my own life. The further along I get with my transition, the harder it becomes to associate the problems we espouse over the airwaves with my own transition experience - or to my pre-transition mindset. Outside of a few "in-the-know" circles it's nearly impossible to see this ground view in the news media, let alone reflected in the everyday lives of people in the community.
Worst of all, this disconnect makes it even harder for questioning individuals to find their way through the transition process, whose welfare I feel really needs to be addressed in this fray. More than ever I think we need to reach out to the questioning part of our community; they are the ones who will be most adversely affected by the increased political vitriol, and they are the ones who won't be able to see the ground below the airwaves.
I understand the method behind the madness of political debate. The point of persuasion is to make your position seem as compelling as possible. For us, this means painting our discrimination in the most vivid descriptors imaginable, presenting our transitions, our struggles, and our lives as day-to-day fights for approval and basic needs. For our opponents, this means creating a nasty a smear campaign about trans folk, knowing that it is one of the few things left in our society that is flat-out unacceptable in many circles.
The problem is that our airwaves are only concerned with these two extremes: victimhood or perversion. The debate leaves little room for the people in the middle, who are just living their lives day to day and generally making a decent living for themselves.
The issue isn't exactly the most visible one on our docket: in fact, I didn't think about it until I started putting together the experiences of trans-questioning friends talking about their issues. They all share a common terror of transition: the only images on the airwaves come in the form of scintillating, ratings-grabbing tell-alls, trans-bashing jokesters, or "fair and balanced" debates with hate groups. And when they turn to the LGBT blogosphere they're faced with the exact opposite vision: tales of terrifying murders, unemployment, estrangement, general horror. No matter where they turn, be it insulting or well-intentioned, they are faced with the same take-away thought: being trans can only be horrible.
I mention this disconnect only because I want to create an open, frank, and honest conversation about what this debate does to the people it attempts to help: victory is our primary concern, yes, but I think it's important to look at the costs of this ENDA slug-fest in a larger lens. Gaining political power to enact trans-friendly laws requires creating victims, and in a sense attempting to generate an empowered image of trans people goes against our political agenda. If trans people can be successful, then they don't need laws protecting them!
Debating trans issues hurts questioning people. Period. It is a necessary evil, and there is no avoiding the collateral damage in the conversation. Staying silent makes us even more invisible. However, attacking prejudice requires dealing with people who are really, truly nasty and ignorant towards LGBT issues, which creates an environment that is far from friendly to questioners. I think an important issue we need to be raising here - and, in reality, at all times of advocacy - is how we can reduce the impact of this debate on LGBT people's day-to-day lives. This is especially important to consider now, while increased trans visibility is on the horizon.
As far as I'm concerned, if we make it harder for even one person to come out and live an open, honest life, we are not doing our job.
We can't enjoy our rights if we create bigger closets
Let's be honest: coming out as trans requires some steps that most people never have to consider. Finding transition resources - let alone accepting doctors, therapists, and mentors - is not an easy proposition. I can remember digging through dozens upon dozens of half-baked resources, internet sites with anecdotal tales of terror, scam sites telling me to buy "specialty" clothing for my male frame, black-market hormone sites... all manners of cons, cooks, and crack-pots roaming around a wide-open, taboo subject, offering all sorts of contradictory information to their visitors.
Finding the right people to get transition started is a matter of luck, networking, and trial and error. I knew I was trans for a long, long while, but it wasn't until I met my first in-the-flesh trans person in town that I knew who to visit to get started. Add to this the fact that trans communities are, by their privacy-minded nature, notoriously difficult to find, and you have a situation that makes approaching transition an impossible feat.
The trans community has become a sort of ivory tower: only those connected, tenacious, or savvy enough to research the right websites or bump into the right people can hope to find their way on the path. With all the air traffic from the religious right and the activist left, it's hard to find one's way to the ground. We are stirring up a hornet's nest with ENDA, DADT, marriage protests, and health care concerns - all very valid concerns - but at the same time I think we're forgetting that not everyone in our community is used to getting stung all the time.
While we stir up ire of the social conservative movement, are we also creating adequate numbers of "first aid stations" along the way for the nasty stings our community members will take along the way? I'm really struggling with the answer to this question, and want to hear thoughts on the issue. Gaining our rights will come at a cost and I want to make sure we understand the collateral damage that will occur.
The common thread out of the questioning people I talk to is one of fear. The closet is a terrible place, granted, and there are people out to make it even worse for those still questioning themselves. However, the real surprise from the my discussions was that most of the fear they stored up came from advocacy websites like Bilerico. Sure, they know the anti-gay websites are bull crap, and have been quick to point this out on every occasion; however, their big fears came from the terrible stories they heard on LGBT activist websites. "Do we all have to live like that?" they ask, and I spend the rest of the conversation explaining the difference between the ground and the air. "It's great on the ground, but we're busy fighting for our rights in the air. Pardon the mess." It breaks my heart every single time.
I guess another way of putting it is this: our goal in advocacy is to create a world in which LGBT people can live meaningful, respected, successful lives. If I'm actually making progress toward that goal as a trans woman who's just getting on with life, do I have a duty to continuously read rants pointed at denigrating my identity, or, more specifically, a duty to respond to those accusations? Is there a valid position in the community for people who step up and live their lives peacefully and openly, walking softly and carrying a big stick?
In the melee of political agenda, do we have a responsibility to create resources to help those questioning their identity and sexuality? If so, what priority should be attached to that effort? I told myself that once I got comfortable in my identity that I'd work to make things easier for the people coming behind me. This is not just an empty promise, and I want to make sure we're thinking about and reaching out to those struggling with their sexuality and gender identity.
I want to win political battles just as much as the next person. However, how can we make sure that we're not barricading the closet door for those coming up behind us?