Equality and Justice for Whom?

by Cara on May 7, 2009

in activism, events and excursions, legislation, LGBTQ, politics, trans, transphobia and trans misogyny

Last Tuesday, I attended Equality & Justice Day in Albany.  It is the LGBT lobby day for New York, run by the Empire State Pride Agenda.  I generally had a good time, and was glad that I attended to show my support.

But I also noticed something throughout the day that, while I may not be in the best position to do so as a straight and cis person, seemed to me to deserve a strong critique.

I wrote earlier that the main bill I am concerned about seeing pass is GENDA. The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act would protect people from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression in the areas of employment, housing, credit, and more.  Right now, in New York, no such protections exist for trans or otherwise identifying gender variant people — despite the fact that such protections are in place (as they obviously should be) on the basis of sexual orientation.

Last year after Equality & Justice Day, I was surprised and pleased to see that GENDA, while it did not ever reach the Senate floor with Republicans in charge, was given seemingly equal attention to marriage equality and DASA (Dignity for All Students Act).  It could be that I’m simply more aware of trans issues and their marginalization within supposedly LGBT communities than I was last year — though I was already aware of this issue last year, and for that reason made a specific point to watch out for its presence.  But whatever the reason, I noticed a significant shift, and I feel obligated to mention it.

It started, or at least it became noticeable to me, when Governor Paterson came out to give his speech as the first official speaker.  It was a great speech, it really was, and I was happy to see him there.  Except.  Well, it was a great speech if we were only there to talk about marriage equality.  Because that’s all his speech was about.  And that’s not the only reason we were there.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Pride Agenda had no control over the content of the Governor’s speech.  When it’s the governor speaking, does an organization have any say in the topic of his remarks?  I really honestly do not know.  But it seemed to set a tone.

Because marriage equality, though on paper it was not supposed to be, was the focus of this day.  While GENDA and DASA were often mentioned as sidelines, for a majority of the morning speakers, they were not the focus, and they were not even usually given equal treatment.  In fact, I’d say that GENDA received the least treatment of the three issues in question.  Because though I don’t remember who it was, I do specifically remember someone talking at decent length about bullying in schools.  I also admittedly missed a chunk of the afternoon rally — but from what I saw, it was much of the same.  It seemed from the program that there was only one speaker at the rally there to represent trans issues; and I saw her speak, and she only spoke for a minute or two.

I saw the same dynamic in my lobby visits.  Now, I want to be clear that the Pride Agenda has no direct control over what goes on in the lobby visits.  The lobby visit facilitators are volunteers who do not officially represent the organization.  And I will also say that I like the facilitator from my group very much and spent a good deal of the day in his company.

But when we got to the meeting for our senator — and remember, GENDA has passed the Assembly, so the Senate is what matters — he had people in our group talk at length about marriage equality.  Then he had people talk at length about DASA.  (I personally said something about both bills.)  And then, before I knew it, the meeting was over.  When I realized what was happening I tried to catch my facilitator’s eye to say “What about GENDA?” but he didn’t look my way, and it was too late.  When the one person in our group who had identified herself as trans questioned him on it after the meeting, the response was basically a fairly sheepish “yeah, well, I guess I only got to fit two in.”

When we got back to the banquet hall for the closing, we watched a short video which debunked many of the myths that marriage equality opponents use to scare people out of their support.  There was, it probably goes without saying, no similar video for GENDA, though the myths and scare-tactics surrounding such legislation are well-known, rampant and appalling.

There is clearly a problem here.

And that problem could, certainly, have been one that was clearly visible last year and I simply missed due to ignorance on my part.  I have not entirely ruled that out — though again, I was actively expecting and looking for it last year.   So if I had to guess, I would actually, and sadly, place my money on something that I find even more appalling.

Last year, marriage equality didn’t have a chance in hell.  Sure, legislators and activists talked the same big game, but everyone knew it.  Republicans controlled the legislative body.  It likely wasn’t going to get introduced, and if it was, it was going to get shot down.

This year?  Things are significantly different.  53% of New Yorkers recently polled said that they would support marriage equality in New York. Democrats are now in charge, and while that’s definitely not a guarantee, it’s a lot better.  And the governor has been actively promoting a bill.

In other words: marriage equality has a real, legitimate chance this year.  It might actually make it through.  Before 2009 is over, we might have it.

When marriage equality had no real shot, it seemed to me that GENDA was portrayed as equally important to it.  It was regularly discussed in conjunction with the other issues.  And last year, I also had the same lobby visit facilitator, and we managed to discuss GENDA substantially in all of those visits.

Now that marriage equality is a very real possibility, GENDA has taken a back seat — despite the fact that it has significantly greater favor with voters, but much of the same resistance among lawmakers, and establishes rights that are easily as important, and quite arguably more so.  And so, it seems to me that the rights of trans people only matter when the real goal, the currently trendy one, isn’t really on the table.

I am, in all honesty, not particularly surprised by this.  But I am extraordinarily disappointed and saddened, and also angry.  Because what I have outlined above, if accurate (and I’m sure the Pride Agenda would vehemently deny it), is tremendously and unforgivably fucked up.  And even if I’m wrong about the reasoning — even if things were just as bad last year — it doesn’t erase the disparity or make it any less of a major issue.

I hope there is no doubt that I would absolutely love to see New York become the next state to gain marriage equality.  But I don’t want it on the backs of trans people.  (Of course, there are many trans people who would also benefit from marriage equality; but I think it would be disingenuous to act as though it’s the thinking at play here.)

What I don’t want is marriage equality in New York while it’s still fucking legal to deny a transgender person a place to live.  I don’t want New York to become the sixth state to instate marriage equality when it is not yet even the fourteenth state to instate anti- discrimination laws on the basis of gender identity.

And yet, I’m worried that it’s exactly what’s going to happen.  I worry that we’re going to end up looking a hell of a lot like New Hampshire.  And that in that event, as so often happens, the rest of the supposed coalition won’t come back for transgender people.

I’m not saying “the Pride Agenda couldn’t care less about trans people.”  Some certainly would make that argument, but again, as a straight and cis woman, I don’t think I’m in a position to make that call.

I am, however, in a position to simply report what I saw.  And what I saw was a day that was supposed to be about rights for all LGBT New Yorkers largely toss out the T.  I saw a day whose focus was on marriage equality, not marriage equality, GENDA and DASA.  I saw a disparity, and I saw a problem.

NOTE: This is not a place for 101 questions.  If you have one, google it.

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{ 14 comments }

1 Amanda in the South Bay May 7, 2009 at 1:37 pm

Honestly, its stuff like this that has pretty much burnt me out on most progressive/queer activism. I’ve become *very* selective on those organizations that I support, and even queer related events in SF to go to. Which saddens me to no end, since its not as if there are soooo many LGBT rights groups to begin with.

2 belledame222 May 7, 2009 at 6:13 pm

Yeah, I’m tired of HRC et al being willfully silent (at best) about this. The R’s fuck the nation over so the Dems step in; Dems fuck us over so mainstream LGB rights group step in; LGB rights groups fuck the trans folk over; at what point do supposed human rights activists stop playing the Republican trickle-down game?

3 Kristen J. May 7, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Makes you despair of humanity sometimes, doesn’t it?

4 Zoe Brain May 8, 2009 at 10:18 am

Nothing new, move on.

And the list of our dead grows longer with every delay.

We will get there eventually – but not, I think, due in any great part to those who see us as “oh yes, well I guess they’re in too, as long as it doesn’t make any difficulties for us.”

As I said, nothing new, move on.

5 TammieH May 8, 2009 at 10:50 am

I understand completely, but I hope that you and other trans activists would make appointments with your reps and tell our stories. I know it can be inconvenient at least make phone calls. Remember they are your reps and most will make time to listen to their constituents.

People tend to get myopic too easily and many in the LGBT community are excited by the recent progress in marriage equality, so naturally they are wanting to keep the momentum going.

I know the trans community in NY feels left out again as usual, but I urge everyone to speak up, but in a positive way. Contact your reps, Empire State Pride Agenda and everyone else involved…most important do not stop or let them make you go silent.

Remember we in the trans community are very small in numbers and the percentage of activists even smaller.

6 Emelye Waldherr May 8, 2009 at 10:59 am

What happened on E&J Day regarding the shift to the fore of marriage equality over GENDA was what I feared when I heard Gov. Patterson announce the introduction of the marriage equality bill. It dismayed me to no end because I knew that trans people would once again be pushed into the background by the GLB community.

I was fortunate that my facilitator was another trans woman so we did get GENDA into our discussion with our senator’s aide but I agree, the general tome of the whole day was for marriage, them DASA and GENDA. Because of this I’ve decided to act unilaterally, to write to the senate’s Investigations and Operations committee members, where their version of GENDA has been sitting since February, in support of both bills but emphasizing the critical necessity of GENDA over marriage equality. The member’s email addresses are:

johnson@senate.state.ny.us,
diaz@senate.state.ny.us,
espada@senate.state.ny.us, golden@senate.state.ny.us,
klein@senate.state.ny.us,
nozzolio@senate.state.ny.us,
stachows@senate.state.ny.us,
winner@senate.state.ny.us

I told them that marriage equality is very important and that GENDA is vital. I told them,

“The ability to marry a same sex sweetheart is pretty worthless if you can’t get a job no matter what your qualifications are or if your landlord has thrown you out of your home because he doesn’t “rent to your kind.” Being married to a person of the same sex doesn’t help when a bouncer throws you out of a bathroom or restaurant because some paranoid and ignorant customer made a complaint about your appearance rather than behavior.”

Please take some time to write them as well. If we cannot rely on the GLB community then we must do the best we can to shift for ourselves.

7 FrustratedinCT May 8, 2009 at 3:45 pm

The same thing happen here Connecticut, last October the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality and same-sex marriage became legal.

We were promised that the gender identity bill would have #1 priority. That this was our year!
However, a bill to codify the marriage ruling was raised first in committee, had a hearing first and was voted out of committee first. Time then ran out and the gender identity bill never made it out of committee.

Once again, we were screwed by the LGB community.

8 Hazumu Osaragi May 9, 2009 at 4:02 pm

It appears there is a desperate need for a scapegoat in society. Normal-appearing gays and lesbians have managed to begin moving into the mainstream, but the need still remains.

‘Trannies’ still have that “ikk” cachet, so we (as a society) still have someone to choose against. It’s like the line in “Blazing Saddles” where the townspeople need help, and get an offer from a diverse group of non-white-non-protestant ‘undesirables’, the catch being that the white-protestant townspeople have to let them live amongst them after the aid is rendered. Finally, the spokesman says, “All right… we’ll give some land to the n*****s and the c****s. But we don’t want the Irish!”.

Same story. Some group has to be made into the losers. As the straight-normal-appearing gays and lesbians walk into the light, there is a concerted campaign to paint the transgenders as uber-icky. We trans seem to be receiving the revulsiveness that gays and lesbians are finally managing to shed.

As there seems to be a need for someone to be untouchable caste and to carry away an imagined stench from the rest of society, might we quietly invest in some sort of social programs to provide humane support and a modicum of dignity to trans persons while we serve the societal purpose of being the ones it’s okay to reject and deny membership in society to?

Just a thought…

Hazumu the SmartA**

9 Emelye Waldherr May 9, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Hazumu may be right in thinking humans need scapegoats and groups to despise but aren’t there enough of them, without adding trans people, to use up the hate? I mean, there are more than enough groups that deserve our disapprobation? Aren’t drug dealers and pedophiles and wife abusers and serial killers, etc, enough?

I guess they would be if trans people were not considered heinous enough to be mentioned in the same breath as those groups. We still have a very long way to go in terms of education, I guess.

10 caprice bellefleur May 10, 2009 at 11:01 pm

The writer’s observations were basically correct, IMO. And though she says she doesn’t want to judge the Pride Agenda on its apparently unequal treatment of GENDA, it’s pretty clear what she thinks. But I think she’s wrong.

The Pride Agenda’s behind-the-scenes lobbying on behalf of GENDA is very strong. As a member of the steering committee of the GENDA Coalition, I have seen how much effort and resources the Pride Agenda has devoted to our cause. And their present efforts have not diminished one bit, despite the increase in the public attention to marriage equality that the governor’s actions and out-of-state events have generated–things totally out of the Pride Agenda’s control.

The Pride Agenda certainly cannot tell the governor what to say, even to a Pride Agenda gathering. He sets his own agenda. Nor does it really have that much control over what the speakers they select for the rally say. I’m sure suggestions can be made, but I doubt they know exactly what will be said in advance. As for the trans woman who spoke at the rally, I agree that she was disappointing. I have met with her in the past, and she is quite effective when talking to 3 people–but to 2,000 is another matter. (The choice of the trans speaker for the rally has been a difficult one for the Pride Agenda. They came under a fair amount of criticism for the series of white, middle-aged ones, the last one imported from out-of-state.)

Where it really counts, the Pride Agenda has been working for GENDA tirelessly. They know that it has more votes and a better chance to pass than marriage equality. The campaign for GENDA will be becoming more public in the next week or so, and it will be quite evident that the Pride Agenda is fully committed to getting GENDA enacted.

11 GallingGalla May 11, 2009 at 11:09 pm

But I also noticed something throughout the day that, while I may not be in the best position to do so as a straight and cis person, seemed to me to deserve a strong critique.

but it’s good that you did notice and critique it. better than silence. which is what we get from (most) cis lgb groups.

oh, and caprice? i’ll believe it when i see it. when GENDA is passed and signed by the governor, (maybe) i’ll believe your words. until that happens, your words are just a tone argument.

(p.s. *gg waves at cara*)

12 Cara May 12, 2009 at 8:13 am

*waves back at gg* (No seriously, if *waving* is code for something, I don’t know what it is. :/ But if you’re just waving . . . hi, and it’s good to see you!)

I agree with GallingGalla that I will believe it if/when I see it. I will also go a step further to say that I think that even if it is true, public, vocal support is also extremely important, especially in such a gathering. There were a lot of trans people who attended that day. I imagine, that since it was supposed to be a vocal, unabashed day of support, that it would have been important to them to see their issues represented, rather than being simply told “oh, it’s behind the scenes.” The day was about stepping out from behind the scenes and getting people involved.

13 GallingGalla May 12, 2009 at 8:57 pm

if *waving* is code for something, I don’t know what it is

nope, not a code. just another way of saying “hi” :o)

14 Hypatia May 24, 2009 at 6:31 am

This is a wonderful post; very thorough and elegant. I have nothing to add, except to let you know that there are a lot of cis gays (married ones, even!) who feel the same about this as you do. My partner and I are two of them.

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