Cassandra Keenan

The catch-22 of trans activism

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | May 10, 2010 12:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: trans activism, transgender activists

I'm guessing that there have been many transgender folks who have struggled with this dilemma at some point: they're mistreated because of who they are, they subsequently want to do something about it, but then they ultimately decide against it because the stakes are too high.

It seems that trans people -- particularly those who are in the early stages of their transition process -- face added challenges in stepping up on behalf of their rights. Between pricey surgeries (for those of us who choose to go that route), long-term prescription medication and other transition-related expenses, it's tough to stick one's neck out when one is lucky enough to have a job.

The same applies for trans people who are out of work. How many employers are interested in hiring or retaining an outspoken trans activist? Judging by what I hear from people who have experienced this type of situation, they're avoided like the plague.

I realize that every activist takes risks -- whether the person is trans or not. But like I said, it seems like it can be a little more intimidating in the face of numerous expenses. And the financial obstacles are in addition to the stigma that some trans people may fear due to the attention that speaking out might draw. Not all of us want the world at large to know we are trans.

Thing is, trans individuals are treated so badly that it can force even the most frightened among us into activism. Such is the sway of the stakes of our equality, I guess. Or lack thereof.


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Cassandra, you are so right. You look at the trans people who are involved in activism and they happen to be in a unique place in life where their voice is not silenced. A person like Autumn Sandeen is a retired military person, living off of her pension. Jamison Green has always worked for a supportive company, as did Mara keisling before she started NCTE. You can go on and on whith this.

In my case, I also work for a supportive company that I started at 7.5 years before I started my transition. I hit 20 years with them this past Jan, and I will be living as Monica for 13 years this June. And, as some people on this blog would say, I use my voice way too much. A person has to find a balance, or avoid activism all together. It becomes a very personal thing for each of us.

That's another good reason for those of us who have less reason to fear to be outspoken and supportive allies whenever it's appropriate.

And then you have people like me who achieved some community notoriety while working and now find it ten times tougher to find another job. Anyone who Googles me is going to get reams of info because my writing and shows are all over the net. I'm convinced it's played a negative role in terms of finding regular (i.e. non-media-related) work. Add to that the economy, with five or six applicants for every open position and it's not surprising that I haven't had even a nibble in a while now.

Personally, I'm glad I made the choice I did, and it's probably is a good thing that I didn't realize I was risking my my employment prospects by being as out and open as I am online.

Wouldn't it be great if, say, there was a federal law that said employers had to judge transpeople by the same standards they judge everyone else? They oughtta make a law, right?

You just have to wonder if these Hill staffers and Members actually get that ENDA is a jobs bill. This is why so many people accuse Congress of living in a bubble, unimpacted by what's really going on in mainstream America, because so many of them are guilty of being exactly that.

But ENDA has nothing to do with someone trans actually being offered a job unless an employer retracted a job offer after Googling your name or something like that. Proving you didn't get a job because you're trans is an incredibly tough proposition unless there's a "smoking gun" and ENDA won't have any influence on that.

This is the reason I use a nom de plume for my online activism. I realize it's probably not that difficult to learn my real name from my online activities if on would dig deep enough but I like to think it adds a layer of security against being prejudged based on a simple Google name search.

This is also why ENDA and similar state level nondiscrimination laws that include gender identity and sexual orientation are so vital to the community. If people have money to spend, and less fear about spending it to advance their civil rights, then they will be more willing to do so.

My trans activism to date has been fairly stealthy. Now I have to decide whether to participate in a big trans event that is coming up. My current (remote) job is secure, but it won't last forever, and at some point I will be looking for a job in my own city. I am not planning on outing myself in the process, but would a prospective employer find public information on me? It's a dilemma for sure.

By these comments I was ten times more courageous then.

I started activism under my own name openly. Was outted and lost my first decent post transition job, started an entire new career and still engaged openly in activism. Since if I say how and who outed me Bil will probably call me a liar again as he did about my being raped.....I'll leave it at that.

Cowards. I've always stood proud for what I believe is right regardless of the personal cost.

hmmm, so not only are there 'real' transsexuals, but there are also 'real' activists?

someday I am going to collect a list of 'reals,' just to reaffirm my status as a nihilistic existentialist, if nothing else...

This seemed appropriate, Carol.

(From "Annie Get Your Gun.")

Anything you can do,
I can do better.
I can do anything
Better than you.

No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can. No, you can't.
Yes, I can,
Yes, I can!

Anything you can be
I can be greater.
Sooner or later,
I'm greater than you.

No, you're not. Yes, I am.
No, you're not. Yes, I am.
No, you're NOT!. Yes, I am.
Yes, I am!

I can shoot a partridge
With a single cartridge.
I can get a sparrow
With a bow and arrow.
I can live on bread and cheese.
And only on that?
Yes.
So can a rat!
Any note you can reach
I can go higher.
I can sing anything
Higher than you.
No, you can't. (High)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)
Yes, I can. (Higher) No, you can't. (Higher)
Yes, I CAN! (Highest)

Anything you can buy
I can buy cheaper.
I can buy anything
Cheaper than you.

Fifty cents?
Forty cents! Thirty cents?
Twenty cents! No, you can't!
Yes, I can,
Yes, I can!
Anything you can say
I can say softer.
I can say anything
Softer than you.
No, you can't. (Softly)
Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)
Yes, I can. (Softer) No, you can't. (Softer)
Yes, I can. (Softer)
YES, I CAN! (Full volume)
I can drink my liquor
Faster than a flicker.
I can drink it quicker
And get even sicker!
I can open any safe.
Without bein' caught?
Sure.
That's what I thought--
you crook!
Any note you can hold
I can hold longer.
I can hold any note
Longer than you.

No, you can't.
Yes, I can No, you can't.
Yes, I can No, you can't.
Yes, I can
Yes, I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I No, you C-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-N'T--
CA-A-A-A-N! (Cough, cough!)
Yes, you ca-a-a-an!

Anything you can wear
I can wear better.
In what you wear
I'd look better than you.
In my coat?
In your vest! In my shoes?
In your hat! No, you can't!
Yes, I can
Yes, I CAN!
Anything you say
I can say faster.
I can say anything
Faster than you.
No, you can't. (Fast)
Yes, I can. (Faster) No, you can't. (Faster)
Yes, I can. (Faster) Noyoucan't. (Faster)
YesIcan! (Fastest)
I can jump a hurdle.
I can wear a girdle.
I can knit a sweater.
I can fill it better!
I can do most anything!
Can you bake a pie? No.
Neither can I.
Anything you can sing
I can sing sweeter.
I can sing anything
Sweeter than you.
No, you can't. (Sweetly)
Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)
Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't. (Sweeter)
Yes, I can. (Sweeter) No, you can't, can't, can't (sweeter)
Yes, I can, can, can (Sugary)

Yes, I can! No, you can't!

Amy Hunter Amy Hunter | May 10, 2010 5:46 PM

The following is actually an exerpt from an interview with me for the Michigan Project for Informed Public Policy annual report but, it seems appropriate here.
"Not only does it go against the instincts of transpeople to be public about their lives, it can be highly dangerous too. Indeed, I myself have been stalked, threatened with violence and rape. It is not surprising then, that many transpeople want nothing more than to blend-in with everyday society. While I would never denigrate that impulse, blending-in and remaining silent does nothing to further protections for all of us and in particular, the transperson who is not able to "just" blend-in. Speaking only for myself, but as a woman whose transition occurred successfully in full public view, I believe that I carry a responsibility to broaden the path for those who will follow. It is important for me to remember that my heros were not inadvertent--they were (and are) people willing to carry the burdens and hazards of full disclosure. They are people--who understand that equality cannot be achieved without personal sacrifice."

Hmmmmm. I am an out and open trans woman myself who currently sits on the board of an activist type LGBT equality organization. After reading this, I cannot help but wonder if my own activism has anything to do with my current rather lengthy (2+ years) spate of unemployment...

It has been directly noted that my unemployment -- and, more accurately, my lack of employability -- is due to my activism.

I didn't have a choice about being "out". Too many witnesses to my unusual transition, which was halfway through before we were even sure what was happening.

Given that stealth was impossible to me professionally - there are darned few safety-critical systems engineers in Australia, let alone Rocket Scientists, that was always going to be an issue, activist or no.

But I'd have to be an activist anyway, I can't just stand aside. It's why I'm a conservative too, I believe in individual responsibility. Am I my brother's keeper? Heck yes! I can't leave it to "the gummint" or "the state" to do something about the situation. My worry is not that I do too much, but too little.

I've chosen to divert my career into academe as the result, as I have a snowball in hell's chance of getting a job outside it. Whether I can land a post-doc or teaching position after my PhD is complete or not, I don't know. Both pay 20% less than the average wage here in Australia, but it's the best I can realistically hope for.

And we have ENDA-like protections. Without those - it wouldn't be good. We'd have the same 40% unemployment rate as in the US.

I Googled myself after I read this. At least all the "He's a jerk!" stuff didn't crop up until page 5. But still... There's 94,900 results for "Bil Browning." I could keep a prospective employer going for quite a while.

I won't pretend to be an activist on anything like the same plane or of anything like the same significance as the real heavy lifters, here and elsewhere. I treat what little I do here in Illinois as something I do because it needs doing, *and* at the same time that I continue my active career as a sportswriter who happens to be out and writing for an overwhelmingly hetero audience.

Similarly, I figure it's important for me to work not just on transgender community-specific issues, but broad-spectrum LGBT issues. Working across those lines seems to me to be a good way of erasing them. If we're to expect support from the gay and lesbian community, we need to actively support them on issues less specifically our own.

As a result, it looks like I'll be joining the board of Equality Illinois, having done volunteer work for Equality Virginia in the past, and worked with a number of transgender groups here in Chicago. One of the reliable issues we have to transcend is our relative rarity. It's just my two cents talking, but it seems unfortunately easier to stigmatize a community that has so few intersections--in the form of transsexual individuals--with mainstream America in the workaday world as a simple matter of demographics.

Which is why I figure it's important to reach out, to discover and enjoy what we hold in common, with straights and lesbians and gays, but also with genderqueers and CDs and every element of the full panoply of "Other." Again, speaking only for myself, I find we have an awful lot in common.

I'm not a community leader, but I am a working professional with an interest in making sure that our community thrives. While I don't think it's for everybody, I think fulfilling an active brand of citizenship while also being out and trans in front of broader civil society is a doable proposition. I'm certainly happy to keep giving it a go.

Amy Hunter Amy Hunter | May 11, 2010 2:42 PM

Christina,
I love your comment. To my mind, you have it precisely right in a couple of ways.

1. You are employed and out without "YOU" being a big deal. The more of us who are able to show the true nature of the transperson the better. We and our gay, lesbian, bi and queer cousins are some of the most articulate, passionate, caring individuals I have ever known. I am truly proud to be in the company of such people. I am fond of saying to audiences when I speak that "it's really hard to hate me if you know me" some might beg to differ I suppose.

2. Our activism MUST cross all lines, parochialism has no place in the struggle to bring equality to those who would be marginalized by society.

Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

Sheila Coats | May 11, 2010 1:56 PM

I was an activist when I was hired with a school district and they just asked me if I could work and do the meetings that I had. I said yes. I have since quit being an activist as I guess I was fired from it. I still have my job (6yrs) and most people know who I am, if not all. I don't hide and I think that is the wrong way to go. I do live in an area that is pretty progressive and yet they don't want to give any protection for the trans community. They have it for the gay community. We do have job protection state wide. I think that some one else has said that doesn't get you a job only protects you from getting fired for being trans. I find that I do my job and I don't cause any trouble within my job. Employers don't like trouble makers and if you cause trouble then most likely you will get trouble. There is more than one way to get fired.

All this goes to show that employers still have too much power, often in ways we've come to blithely accept, over our lives.

Heretofore Anonymous | June 23, 2010 10:12 AM

The only message I would want to communicate about my own TS history is: "It's none of anyone's damn business, and I feel zero interest in discussing or negotiating it with anyone."

The only thing that I want from society, or any non-medical individual, is for them to just leave the issue alone. I find that, the most effective path to that, is for them to simply not know the information at all.

It's kind of hard make that point by standing up in public, announcing my name, and blabbing on about all the lurid physical and emotional details.

The right to privacy isn't served by telling everyone the stuff that you want kept private.

Of course, if a person's goal is to get personal attention, or to denigrate stealth folks as cowards, then their approach might be different to mine.