I was thinking last night about a conversation I had with a friend back in April. We were having dinner together at a restaurant in Westbrook, and she began talking, with great animation and passion (not at all unusual for her) about the nearly invisible amount of public support the queer community displayed for trans issues. She said that our failure to recognize and address--intentional or not-- the challenges that the trans community faces was sending them a horrible message: you are ignored, you are marginalized, and you just don't fit it into our plan for equality. And that until we faced those issues head on and publicly, we would never, ever, be a truly united L,G,B and T community. She was frustrated that our strategy for equality seemed to center on "assimilation": the HRC-like presentation of gay people looking, acting, and sounding just like straight people, and she worried that this effectively eliminated a huge segment of our community by making them invisible. She did not mince words--she never does--and by the end of the conversation I felt exhausted, frustrated...and aware. Acutely aware.
I've never forgotten that dinner. It was a necessary education for me from someone who trusted me enough to know that she could be highly critical of the work I was tightly wrapped up in and that I could hear it without feeling attacked or defensive, or taking it too personally. And I am so thankful she did, because it has changed the way I look at our community, at our issues, at the way I do my job as an advocate. Her words are always there, in my head, challenging me to be better and more aware of the work I do. I am paying more attention to the way my organization handles trans issues, and I am watching other state and national organizations more closely, trying to find clues or signs that we are moving forward as a whole community and working to address the issues and challenges of every single person that falls under our diverse umbrella.
My first notion that we are moving in the right direction came in the last months with this whole ENDA fiasco. I won't go into the details (you can just google ENDA and find every bit of information you could ever need and then some.) The long and short of it is that HRC and The Powerful Pols of DC decided a few months ago that removing the gender identity/expression protections in ENDA was the only chance it had for passage. They tried to do it quietly, in a brief statement to the press. Maybe they figured we would be silent about it and just blindly trust that they knew best. Maybe they figured that we would greedily gobble up any crumbs of protections we would could get, even at the expense of the "less assimilated" segments of our community.
Turns out they were wrong.
Abraham Lincoln said that "to sin by silence, when they should protest, makes cowards of men." I'm happy to say we were not silent. Our protest was deafening.
We said "no thanks" to the crumbs. We formed a coalition of over 350 state and national LGBT organizations called United ENDA and said "it's an all-inclusive ENDA or we don't want an ENDA at all. " (I must give a shout out to the Equality Federation of which EQME is a member, and to my friends at The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, both organizations taking gigantic roles in spearheading this amazing effort. )We worked together and generated more than 15,000 phone calls to Washington, thousands more emails, all saying the same thing: we will not let you leave any of us behind. I am pretty sure that HRC and Washington underestimated the vigor and passion with which the grassroots state organizations would fight to keep the trans protections in ENDA. I think they were surprised that we would "break rank" and go up against the most powerful LGBT organization in the country. I think maybe we even surprised ourselves a little bit. We were standing up, standing together, maybe for the first time ever. And we were louder and more powerful than we ever imagined we could be. It was a little like being unable to speak your entire life, and then suddenly, one day you open your mouth and music comes pouring out. We found our voice. And it was beautiful.
In the end, we lost the battle and the shitty version of ENDA prevailed and passed in the House. Goliath 1, David 0. It was heart-wrenching for me to see political expediency win at the cost of principle. I could spend an entirely different post ranting about what I see as the utter hypocrisy of HRC and their overt abandonment of the trans community. It disgusts me, and it's unforgiveable. But I'm not gonna go there, not today at least.
Yeah. We lost that battle, but the thing is, I am pretty sure we gained something in return that will pay off in extraordinary dividends very, very soon. I think we found our true identity as a community. I think we came to understand that there are some who believe that political expediency and forward-motion have no price tag and that those people are extremely powerful. But that doesn't mean they're right and it doesn't mean we should be silent. We need to shout out how wrong they are at the top our lungs because if you're loud enough people can't help but listen. It turns out that when we do protest, we have some nifty power of our own. And that we don't have to and in fact should never sit quietly and settle for incremental steps if it means leaving some of us behind.
We've never really been tested like this before. We've never had to look the ugliness of divide and conquer politics so directly in the face. A carrot was dangled in front of us: we can finally pass a bill we've been fighting over for more than 30 years, and we'll only have to leave out a tiny segment of our community to do it. Don't worry, we'll come back for them soon. We LOVE them, you know that, but sometimes they just make it so hard for us! But really, we won't forget about them. We can take this boat down the river, but we need to toss a part of the community overboard. 'Cause the only way this boat doesn't sink is if we remove some of the weight, and the "T" in LGBT is just too heavy and hard and they are just going to have to jump off for now and wait for us to come back and get them later on.
The grassroots backbone of our political advocacy work is the state organization that every day goes to work on the ground. Alone, that organization is a small tiny voice that has little if any impact on national issues. But when we saw that carrot, and we understood the cost, those state organizations quickly started talking to one another. And suddenly we realized we might have some power if we united as one voice and said "Fuck you. We go together, or we don't want to go at all." We stood up to the all-and-powerful Oz known as HRC and said "we aren't afraid to go up against your money and your insider politics and your patronizing we-know-what's-best-for-you attitude. And we may not win, but we are gonna go down kicking and screaming." It feels like we "grew up" during this controversy and that we finally found our voice as a united queer community.
And maybe we didn't get what we fought for this time, but we didn't compromise our integrity. I'm hoping that someday we will look back on this profound moment in our history and know that we did the right thing, that we stood together. We will look back on this moment as a turning point in our identity, in our shared goals, and in our vision as one solid and unified community. What I hope for most is that we have begun the process in earnest of recognizing our transgender brothers and sisters as an important and necessary part of who we are. It should have never taken this long.
I've never been prouder to be an activist, and I am most especially proud of the way EqualityMaine has stood firm in our position through all of it. Our executive director wrote a beautiful and articulate message to our members about how the moral yardstick of a civil rights movement is measured against the way we treat the most vulnerable people in our community. She did not budge from our stance that we would not support an ENDA bill that left trans protections out, and in that message she took HRC to task. It was a courageous thing for a tiny little LGBT organization in Maine to do, and I was so proud of her for doing it. And since then, she's had to deal with some fairly harsh criticism by some of our members who felt that "incremental steps" were better than no steps at all. But she hasn't wavered and I know we are a better organization because of it.
I know we still have a long way to go. I know there is a lot of healing that has to happen, a lot bridges to cross, a lot of education and work to do. We will stumble along the way, we'll make mistakes. Let's be honest, the LGBT community is like a family: when we're under attack, we tend to forget our differences and we act like the brothers and sisters that we are, and then when things are swell we go back to being dysfunctional as hell. But for the first time as an LGBT activist I feel like I'm fighting for everyone in our community. And it feels good and it feels right. I feel like I can look my friend in the eyes now and tell her that we are changing, slowly but surely, into the community she dreams of.
And that means a lot to me.