Dustin Kight

What does the death penalty have to do with transgender rights?

Filed By Dustin Kight | November 10, 2007 7:35 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Bill Moyers, death penalty, ENDA, LGBT, queer, social justice, Thomas Cahill, trans inclusion

Alright, I'll admit it. I'm a bit of a public media junkie. I eat oatmeal in the morning to Morning Edition. And last night I finished a long-since-warm beer at 2:30am watching Bill Moyer's revival of the series, "The Journal." It's what I call a rocking good Friday night.

Last night's featured guest was Thomas Cahill, acclaimed author of all things "Big Idea" and "Western Civilization." Now, I've never read anything by Cahill and was only slightly familiar with his name before the program. He was on to talk about Dominique Green, a black man from Texas who was executed there in 2004 at the age of 30. Green was 18 when he was arrested and tried for the murder of a man he and three others had attempted to rob back in 1992. You can read more about his case here.

I got the impression that I would not often agree with Cahill and that his books would bore me to tears with sweeping historical generalizations. But he made some provocative points about the death penalty in America. And, oddly enough, it got me thinking about transgender rights.

Cahill made the argument that we continue the death penalty because we, as a society, get some primal reassurance out of killing people. And it has a lot to do with social order. Cahill reminds us that very few millionaires have ever been on death row, and even fewer have ever actually died as a result. Death row inmates disproportionately come from marginalized groups -- the poor, poorly educated and non-white, in particular.

Of course, this isn't news. But it's important, I think, to consider this statement in the context of so many arguments that show the illogical nature and inappropriate use of the death penalty. From a crime prevention perspective we know it doesn't work. From a justice perspective, it doesn't gel, seeing as how we claim to believe in punishments that aren't "cruel and unusual." And with a penal system at least partially based on the idea of rehabilitation, no action that impedes or destructs life makes sense.

Yet we still have the death penalty, and efforts to organized broad-based opposition to it are hard to get off the ground. Cahill's perspective, I believe, is that even if we could show people that the death penalty only serves the interests of power brokers who use it and the bloated penal system for political and economic gain, that broad-based opposition would still only superficially emerge.

It's kind of like white people who poll that they would support a non-white candidate for office, but in the ballot box go the "other way."

And it makes me think about our current situation with the inclusion of the T in the LGB. Cahill's point about a primal reassurance in exercising what is ultimately our most final of human acts, murder, can be thought of in a different way.

In a society that thrives on the power of differences, minorities psychologically "benefit" from having their own minorities. Of course this benefit may not always be conscious. And it's definitely a horrific thought, that on some core level, the Ls, the Gs and, to a lesser extent, the Bs might get some primal reassurance thinking that the Ts rely on them for their political and social gain. But it's worth thinking about for precisely the same reasons it's worth thinking about our primal reassurance in the systematic, socially sanctioned killing of others.

Think of it this way: If ENDA had been amended to exclude or less fully protect the L or the G, would the bill have ever moved forward?

Despite the fact that the "gay community" has not always equally included gay men and lesbians and continues to have trouble with gender equity days, there is now little debate at the "community level" -- at the "political community level" -- as to who clearly defines the constituency of gay rights -- gay men and lesbians. If we truly were an LGB & T community, we would never have allowed, not even the biggest insider among us, for this community-splitting debacle to occur. In other words, the exclusion would have been unimaginable.

And yet it was totally imaginable. Even those of us who were adamantly against the trans-exclusive ENDA could understand how it happened, how trans people got thrown from "our" train. We could see it happening. It was not a big surprise.

This is not to say that Ls, Gs and Bs all equally indulge in knowing that we have "our own minority" to fight for, but I believe that some of us are more acutely aware of this than others. These are the people who privately question why trans people are ever considered a part of the community. These are the people who use phrases like "trans-jacked" when referring to the ENDA debate. And when they do stand up for trans inclusion, these are the people who self-congratulate with pats on their big, gay backs.

Well, at this point I should say that I'm not 100% set on the argument I'm making, myself, and if you disagree with me, know that I'm thinking out loud here in the hopes that people will comment and contribute their ideas. But I have to say that it does seem fairly clear. And if you think it's true, that LGB people will continue to perpetuate the minority status of trans people, at least in part, because it reaffirms their own emerging power, than I have just a few things to say about that:

  1. I don't think this means that trans people should leave "the community" or feel that they should, because I do see the continuity of LGBT and all the other groups that make up, broadly, the queer community.
  2. Instead, I think trans people and all others who feel marginalized even within the already marginal queer community should give us hell about this piece of our psychology, which we must root out in order to ever truly include trans people and truly advocate for our community's rights and interests!

I look forward to your thoughts.

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If ENDA had been amended to exclude or less fully protect the L or the G, would the bill have ever moved forward?

Yes. And it did move forward (as evidenced by the fact that it passed the House this week).

ENDA's a shadow of what it used to be, what with it's religious exemption, lack of housing and public accommodation protections (which were there back when it was first introduced), and small business exemption. And the religious exemption grew huge at the same time "gender identity" was taken out. Like, yeah, we mostly agree that churches should be able to hire whomever they want as clergy, but what about church-owned schools and hospitals? Religious charities that receive federal money?

But that's the sort of thing that can be put back in later. When I read the incrementalist argument on this, that civil rights legislation for racial minorities didn't pass all at once, I want to point out that their everyone was included from the start, and it's the other problems that can easily be fixed later, not the scope of the bill.

On the rest of your post, it doesn't ring all that true to me. Sure, there are lots of reasons people who were against T-inclusion were against it, and saying that it came down to one thing will always be a fallacy, but I'm thinking that a lot of it has to do with the idea that sexual orientation is fixed and monolithic and therefore creates a fixed and monolithic group of people, as well as desperation for some progress, any progress, and also just a lack of knowledge of T-folk (Chris Crain said that he's not transphobic, he watched TransAmerica once!).

Because taking out Gender ID means that people who express their gender outside of societal norms (not just T-folk) are open to discrimination. I've heard a lot of people saying that Joe S. or Barney F. or John A. are only interested in protecting those people who are straight-acting like them, when if you've ever heard them talk I'm sure you could spot those nellies from a mile away. But they see that as all being part of "sexual orientation"....

So another piece here would have to be the gap that developed in the past decade between queer theory and LGBT praxis, something I've been wanting to post on for a while but just haven't found an angle....

OK, cool! Your post raises some interesting questions.

I tend to think that Dustin is correct actually.

Just as the white gay community tends to separate itself from the minority community, so do gays and lesbians separate from transfolk. For the majority of gay men, I think their personal experiences with trannies amounts to the drag queens they see in the bars. Just like whites loved the black minstrels, so do gay men love drag queens. But let them as for rights (a la the black civil rights bills) and suddenly the world is challenged. After all, it's easy to think yourself better than someone who's working for dollar tips at the local bar...

There's long been a segregation between L/G/B and T. Most gay men come out and have to explain to their parents that while they're gay that doesn't mean they want to be a woman. It's almost as if we're set to defensive mode from the beginning about trans issues.

I think trans people and all others who feel marginalized even within the already marginal queer community should give us hell about this piece of our psychology

I believe they are when they express their outrage about being left out of ENDA. :)

Give you hell? Um, well, now that you mention it, yes. We should.

Trouble is, it's really difficult giving someone Hell when so many young gay people have already been there, at school, or with their families.

It becomes impossible when I know so many TS women who are lesbian. They're my sisters, I cannot betray them.

I have to support GLB rights, even if T's are excluded. I've seen and mixed with too many of them, and while being Gay may not be nearly as difficult in this society as being T, it ain't easy. Not even for the Rich White Straight-lookers like Barney Frank. Support for GLB rights is not a Gay issue, it's a Human Rights issue, and whether you are GLB, T, Straight, Intersexed, it doesn't matter, it's a Human thing, not restricted to some category of sexual orientation, gender or bodily form.

Jeez, and I'm supposed to be Right Wing. Karl will drum me out of the Regiment if I keep on talking like some kind of dippy hippie. Never mind, my defence is that it's a matter of personal responsibility. See something needing fixing, don't just talk, act. Very neocon, that. My Dark Master would approve.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | November 11, 2007 2:29 PM

Dustin, I, too, think you're on to something. Humans have a propensity to organize themselves into "us" vs "them" and according to a great book I'm reading (in increments) right now, "In the Wake of 9/11" by Tom Pyszczynski, this tendancy is heightened by the sense of insecurity that arises when people are subconsciously reminded of their mortality.

Since 9/11, Americans of all sexual orientations and gender-identities are constantly being reminded of their mortality as part of a deliberate tactic on the part of the Bush administration to play on this psychological propensity to further their agenda. In light of this, it makes sense that the LGB community, feeling insecure, would react by lashing out at the "others," namely, the T community.

I'd highly recommend "In the Wake of 9/11". It offers the most sensible theory I've come across to date to explain a lot of the dynamics on the American political scene, especially since 9/11. But it is hard to read: not due to concepts, which are clearly stated and directly presented, but due to the theory's truth, namely, no one wants to think about their ultimate mortality.

You know im glad I stumbled on to this site.This a good a palce as any to explain something we in the T are split into our own factions. Theres the Drag Qeens. the Cross Dressers like I was for years theres the Preop folks and there are the intersexed folks who have been dumped in with us mainly because nobody knows what to do with them.No Drag Queens and Cross dressers are not the same thing.

But its sad that many of us wide up dead because somebody doesnt like "trannys" for any reason.A lot of genderphobs calim that they are not homophobs go figure.
ok of fthe soap box

love ya

Not that it has much to do with the real thrust of your post, but Cahill's analysis of the death penalty neglects the fact that the death penalty has not been found in all societies, modern or historical, throughout the world. Appeals to evolutionary psychology by historians may only be entertained once the historical analysis is done.

Apropos of your main point: I think we forget that LGBT is a coalition - lesbians have many issues that gay men do not, for example. The list of differences goes on. Coalitions are inherently political, but what irritates the shit out of me is the refusal by many to recognize the extent to which transpeople (transwomen, mostly) played a major role in building the damn coalition for everyone.

I have trouble taking anyone in that group seriously, so I've decided to embrace Barney Frank's pragmatism. Now we know, thanks to Larry Craig et al., that gay men are scary. To pass the Senate, ENDA ought to drop the clauses covering gay men to gain more support. Now we also know that lesbians are angry man-haters, so dropping the L will also help us get more support from the Senate. That leaves the hot bi babes. Everyone loves hot bi babes!

I'm a political genius, I tell you!

Well, I've had a sneaking feeling about the feel-good-about-myself aspects of stomping the living $#!^ out of someone who is perceived to be revolting AND weaker than you.

I learned to fight well in grade- and high-school because my having those two elements provided me a lot of opportunity to deal with bullies who wanted nothing more than to *#

The Death penalty is just plain wrong...
now with that out of the way...
anybody who embraces ether Frank's warped pragmatism or iny incrementalism to any aspect of human rights deserves to live a year in the shoes of a transperson who has been denied work housing and has been beaten. Because you are a hypocrite, selfish and all you see is your own sorry needs.

We are going to defeat ENDA and knock You People down a couple of pegs with the rest of us where you belong.

Susan Robins

Don't forget, too, that some of the problems that gay men have with us transwomen is their abhorrence at the thought of losing their pee-pees. Just look at all the comments from them that essentially all boil down "You CAN'T cut it off!"

Don't forget, too, that some of the problems that gay men have with us transwomen is their abhorrence at the thought of losing their pee-pees. Just look at all the comments from them that essentially all boil down "You CAN'T cut it off!"

To someone who likes male genitals enough to have ready access to more then one besides their own. The thought of cutting off that part scares the hell out of them.

Perhaps they should look beyond their organs and ask some honest questions regrading gender dysphoria or HBS.

Take care
Sue Robins