Two weeks ago, Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote an extremely powerful op ed in the New York Times, entitled "We Want Cake Too." In her own inimitable style, it provided an extremely clear outline of what the trans movement is and its path forward, with that patented sense of wry and poignant humor of hers. She noted that, while she celebrates the progress on marriage rights, trans rights have lagged far behind, and said "Enjoy your cake, folks. Meanwhile, the rest of us remain at risk for discrimination and violence."
Richard Socarides, President of Equality Matters, a campaign for full LGBT equality, most famously known for his role as the White House special assistant for gay rights to President Clinton, replied in a Letter to the Editor in yesterday's New York Times.
Mr. Socarides says in his letter that he shares frustration with the slow pace of progress on civil rights for transgender Americans. "But I think she misses the point," he adds. He argues that same sex marriage rights will bring transgender rights in its wake.
This sounds like a logical argument, but it is all too wearily familiar to the ears of trans people. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, a page of history is worth a volume of logic.
This is nothing more than a new variation on the arguments we have heard, starting in the 90s, that equality statutes including only sexual orientation, but not gender identity, would bring trans rights in their wake. This argument is called "incrementalism," the idea that getting some rights now gets our foot in the door, and then we can put in other rights later. It's not a bad argument, except for the fact that it mostly hasn't worked that way over the past twenty years, and except for the fact that we're not merely talking about leaving out some rights -- we're talking about leaving out an entire segment of the community that has consistently been left out in the cold.
In response to her op-ed, "We Want Cake Too," he says that letting the same sex marriage movement eat all the cake now will allow them to save some cake for us later. What was that Anita Baker song about the cake left out in the rain?
Twenty years later, the same old refrain about them coming back for us is simply a denial of history. Mr. Socarides' letter not only did not reassure me; it immediately put my back up. I understand that marriage equality excites a lot more people than transgender rights. I am reconciled to that, but I am not fooled. Marriage victory will lead to more marriage victories, not transgender rights.
I know that many people will roll their eyes at another angry transgender person raining on the marriage parade. Actually, I've overcome much of the anger I felt in the 90s, after I fell off the face of the earth when I transitioned. I've been successful in regaining much of the ground I lost after most of my family and friends, job, income, and social status skittered away. I have supported marriage equality, as have many transgender people, knowing that marriage equality will help us marry too. I'm not angry about marriage equality. I think it fair to say that I am a fairly reasonable voice in the transgender rights movement. But I'm also aware that won't buy me anything at the rights auction.
It's also reasonable to say that I and many transgender Americans are justifiably tired of hearing, yet again, that gay rights will bring transgender rights if we'll just be patient.
Only last week, Melissa Sklarz, a long-time New York Democratic political activist and a transgender advocate, went to a progressive Democratic state Senate event in New York City to listen to a panel discussion on the post-marriage LGBT vista in Albany. She couldn't believe her ears when the Gender Non-Discrimination Act wasn't even mentioned. GENDA has been languishing in Albany since the 2002 debacle in which the gay advocacy leaders insisted on incrementalism, leaving out gender identity from the LGBT rights statute, but making solemn cross-my-heart assurances that they'd be back for us the following year. The efforts of the New York Democratic Party to make GENDA happen have been pitiful, as I discussed last year after that awful committee hearing. What did Ms. Sklarz hear at the post-marriage panel? Did she hearing people discussing how to circle back and make GENDA happen? Not even one mention.
"The vista is more gay marriage." she noted on her Facebook page. "15 years of work in the Democratic Party and back to being invisible. And the electeds, the panelists, and their staffs are all friends. I made a scene when I stormed out, but it could have been much worse." I'm sure that they shrugged and rolled their eyes when she reproved them and walked out. Nothing has been heard from the New York Democratic Party after that.
This is but one example. The idea that marriage equality is going to help transgender rights is a theory that has no evidence to back it up. Mr. Socarides' chiding of Jennifer Boylan when she brings up the question of "whither trans rights now?" demonstrates that he, like many other gay advocacy leaders, really have no understanding of what is happening on the ground. "Be quiet and you'll get yours" is the message of Mr. Socarides' letter.
I can't help noticing that Equality Matters, the organization of which Mr. Socarides is President, doesn't even include the word "transgender" under its Issues list, and a search for "GENDA" brings up zero, although there are many articles on its "New York" page.
Ms. Boylan did not miss the point, Richard Socarides did.