Ed Note: Guest Blogger Barbra Casbar Siperstein is a member of the DNC Executive Committee, Deputy Vice Chair of the NJ Democratic State Committee, and director of Gender Rights Advocacy Association of NJ (GRAANJ)
This July 4th my partner and I celebrated America's birthday at the home of a stealth trans sister with her family, friends and neighbors. We enjoyed a well-prepared home cooked traditional barbeque on a hot day, with the trees, umbrellas and canopies provided just enough shade to facilitate good conversation and cheer among the diverse collection of participants.
It was early evening when our host(ess) got a chance to sit at our table, relax, and chat a bit. She was interested to hear my opinion of the recent, and most inelegant, de facto firing of Allyson Robinson, the only transgender executive director of a national LGBT organization: Outserve-SLDN, which provides inclusive support and advocacy for LGBT active service members and veterans.
Was this another case of "transgender exceptionalism?" In other words, would the 27 year old gay man who was the Board co-chair have had the guts or guile to engineer this action if the position had been held by a homosexual man or a lesbian woman, after only 9 months on a challenging job that most people would not want to take, particulalry considering the daunting challenges after the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell? Some have also suggested misogyny, rather than or in addition to transphobia is at work, and that it might have happened to any woman in Allyson's position. One thing is for sure, all equality loving people should be aware of this significant and currently fluid chain of events.
During the afternoon I snuck a peek at my iPhone Facebook app, and noted that my friend Melissa Sklarz was celebrating the 4th of July at Fire Island Pines, where she was witnessing the spectacle of the "Invasion of the Pines". I note this here for two reasons:
- Firstly, Melissa is one of the trans community's foremost political leaders, having been the first out transperson to be elected to public office in New York City. She also is currently President of New York's largest LGBT Democratic political club, and has over the years been subject to more than her share of transphobic words and actions from certain of her gay establishment peers. Rather than recount the words of the worst offender, Jim Fouratt, I refer the reader to this link. It's pretty concise, and I can attest first hand to some of the lengths this apparently "gender variant" gay man has gone to spew his transphobia in general, as well as personal attacks on Melissa.
- Secondly, The Invasion of the Pines, is the over the top celebration and reenactment of an event in 1976, when a gay bar in the affluent gay summer beach community of Fire Island Pines, NY denied entry to a visitor in drag from the less affluent neighboring gay community of Cherry Grove. When the story was recounted to her drag queen friends back in Cherry Grove, they organized, and, on July 4, 1976 led by Cherry Grove's 1976 Homecoming Queen, Panzi, who was armed with a bull horn, sailed to the Pines by water taxi. They stormed into the Pines that day to voice their objections--to a surprised, embarrassed but later exuberant welcome, where the bar owner bought them drinks. That was the first "invasion," an event now repeated each year. Although it's been over 10 years since I've participated with a group of nearly 300, I think the policy is still in effect that if you are in drag costume, male or female, the drinks are on the house. (at least for a limited time). Here was a case of transphobia (looking too gay, "gender variant", in a conservative gay venue), where the "lemon" resulted in lemonade. It's also an example of creative positive direct action.
I should relate one other set of e-mail's that I received on the 4th that was distressing and related to apparent transphobia: As the first transgender member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), I take great pride in the fact that the DNC's Charter and By-Laws contain language not only barring discrimination of transpeople, but also providing for our full inclusion in all party affairs.
As time approached for the 2012 election, I focused on encouraging as many people as possible to be Delegates and credentialed officials for the DNC Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. With the new rules of inclusion I had hoped many would at least apply. There was one gal from North Carolina who did take it seriously and got elected as a delegate at a District Convention on her own! This was impressive, as often the key to being a delegate is knowing how to work the "inside" game. I've repeatedly said that, "to be successful in much of politics, you have to learn the rules and make them work for you" ... and even more frequently, "all politics is local."
Janice Covington, from Charlotte, is a big gal with a big voice, a grassroots Southern woman, tough yet sensitive, with much experience both in a straight and LGBT world. Her positive experience and acceptance as a female delegate in 2012, combined with her passion for equality, gave her an incentive to get more involved in North Carolina Democratic Party Affairs. An endeavor that I of course, certainly encouraged her in.
She applied for membership in the Mecklenburg County Democratic Women's Association (MCDWA) and was accepted in May of 2013. The MCDWA membership chair was well aware of her status as a trans woman. Janice had garnered a bit of positive local publicity in 2012 when she was elected as the first transgender delegate to the DNC from North Carolina. She paid her dues, was accepted for membership and invited to attend her first meeting on June 12, 2013.
I'll let Janice describe what happened in her own words:
I arrived at the meeting early and was asked to help set up chairs for the meeting, I did this without hesitation. I then received my name tag and was checked off on the role when I checked in at the table near the entrance. After a great meeting, I was approached by a person who identified herself as Concetta Caliendo 1st VP/President-Elect of the North Carolina Democratic Woman's Association; she then informed me they had a problem with my membership. I asked what it was and she stated that I could not belong to the Woman's association and that it would be better suited for me to be in the men's auxiliary [associates].
I was insulted to greatest extent. I informed her that her request was not an option and that it was inappropriate. She then informed me that the North Carolina State Democratic Woman's Association would have to vote on me to allow me to REMAIN a member. I feel that this is not acceptable and is in contrary to the policies concerning inclusion and equality under the gender identity clause of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Party's guidelines for inclusion and nondiscrimination.
Wow... she would be better suited in the "men's auxiliary" ?
The Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County issued a statement on June 17 clarifying the situation and reaffirming Covington's full membership. The group in a separate Facebook post again reaffirmed Covington had full membership and apologized that she was "led to believe otherwise by someone who is not a current board member." The group has also said Covington was the first transgender woman to apply for membership and that they and the statewide Democratic Women of North Carolina will be reviewing their membership policies.
According to the local LGBT press:
Caliendo is a longtime lesbian activist and Democratic Party supporter. In addition to her role at the LGBT Democrats of North Carolina, Caliendo is also first vice president and president-elect of Democratic Women of North Carolina. She also served on Charlotte's Democratic National Convention Host Committee last year.
I think it is possible that one might, from reading the description of her and seeing her picture, infer that Ms. Caliendo expresses as a "butch" lesbian. I have many butch lesbian friends and "femme" gay male friends who are comfortable with their own gender identity as well as mine. It is what it is, and we respect and celebrate our diversity.
That said, often I see patterns with people who go out of their way to discriminate. How many times do we see overt homophobic actions from people (politicians) who are closeted gays or at least bi-sexual? Clearly such people may be described as "insecure about their own sexual orientation.
I have witnessed first hand as well as read about numerous acts of transphobia, and the pattern is there in this incident as well. Perhaps it might be reasonable to ascribe an insecurity of her own gender identity, much like the case of feminine acting Fouratt, as the reason that she went out of her way to denigrate and disrespect a transperson.
As a point of comparison, I must note, without comment, that in the "progressive" State of Tennessee, the current President of the Davidson County Democratic Women is Marisa Richmond, an African American Trans Woman!
We will have to see how this plays out. Let's hope there is time and common sense to make "lemonade".