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We have been betrayed before

by Helen Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 03:01:04 PM EST

Some of you may have seen references on various blogs recently regarding a situation with the ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) in the USA. The idea of the legislation being that gay people will be protected from being fired or otherwise discriminated against because of their sexuality.

The reason why this has suddenly become contentious is that senior Democratic representatives, liaising with the HRC (US gay Human rights Campaign), decided that the gender conformity portion of the bill, ie the bit that protects the transgender community, should be jettisoned in order to make it more likely to pass. Apparently the reasoning is that they imagine that some Republicans might be persuaded to vote for the employment rights of gay people so long as they look "straight". However, if weirdo trannies are included the bill will fail. What they fail to mention is that such calculations are irrelevant because Bush will veto this bill whatever.

Now one can argue the pros and cons of this decision endlessly and, let's be honest, the arguments in the gay blogosphere have seemed endless (and repetitive), but whatever the merits, they are of little relevance here in Europe. However, one of the claims that seems to have taken root amongst the antis is that many gay men cannot seem to remember when the T got added to GLBT, but that it seems to have been a recent concept. This has led to the idea that, as Joannas-come-lately, the trannies can be thrown off the bus because we haven't paid our dues and our needs are politically disposable. Well, as they say, those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, so maybe a short history lesson is in order. Especially as I've heard similar things being said here in Europe, mostly by "feminists" who ought to know better.


Generally when we talk about such things, it's best to restrict ourselves to a modern era of continuous activism. References to 19th century societies or even 1950s advocacy groups that largely left no trace become irrelevant to the narrative. So let's start in the 60s with the "famous" acts of disobedience that began the gay liberation movement in its many varied guises.

The first such was at Dewey's diner in Philadephia in 1965, a student bar popular with gay people and other bohemian types. The managers decided that the trannies, described as wearing "non-conformist clothing", were driving away custom and sought to ban them. This led to protests that resulted in the arrest of three trannies and a gay activist who was providing legal advice. Finally all charges were dropped and Dewey's ceased their discriminatory policies.

The Janus society, the main gay and lesbian advocacy organization at the time, said this in celebration of the transgendered participation at Dewey's in its newsletter.

All too often there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man are looked down upon...but the Janus Society is concerned with the worth of the individual and the manner in which she or he comports himself.

What is offensive today we have seen become the style of tomorrow, and even if what is offensive today remains offensive to some persons tomorrow, there is no reason to penalize non-conformist behaviour unless their is direct anti-social behaviour connected with it.

However the following year outside Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin things did not resolve themselves so peacefully when a transgendered woman resisted arrest by a cop on a harrassment raiding party. This led to a riot and was one of the first occasions when the queer community resisted official harrassment violently.

This was of course followed by the Stonewall riots in New York in 1969. They were chaotic--witnessed or participated in by thousands of people, so accounts will vary and contradict one another. But many first-person accounts say a butch woman first resisted arrest, and that her resistance inspired drag queens in the crowd to escalate their own resistance. Marsha P. Johnson, a transwoman who was murdered in the 1990s, was there. Sylvia Rivera, another transwoman, maintained until her death that she threw the bottle that tipped the crowd's mood from resistance to rebellion.

What marked all of these events, that pitched the transgendered into the frontline, was that they had nowhere to hide. Gay men and women could, if they wished, blend into the background where a certain amount of conformity could grant invisibility. But the gender-transgressive were too visible, too obvious a target for persecution, and that became the impetus that turned victimhood into resistance.

But these moments of triumph were, sadly, the highpoints of the relationship between gays and the transgendered. Things went downhill rapidly, and the impressive gains of the transgender movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s were largely wiped out and forgotten due to an anti-transgender backlash.

The problem was that, despite all falling under the banner of "Queer", the gay, lesbian/feminist and transgendered groups had different agenda and were pulling in different directions. The gay and lesbian groups were working to "depathologize" homosexuality, while transgender people were trying to get doctors to pay attention to them. Feminist groups particularly were trying to overthrow the gender system, while transgender people were (supposedly) reinforcing stereotypes. Transgender analyses that argued for appropriate access to health care, or that pointed out that all of us inescapably have a gender, fell on deaf ears. It was transphobic prejudice masquerading as progress.

As Michael Bronski noted, as if in rehearsal of today's situation;-

After Gay Liberation Front folded and the more reformist Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) became New York’s primary gay rights group, Sylvia Rivera worked hard within their ranks in 1971 to promote a citywide gay rights, anti-discrimination ordinance. But for all of her work, when it came time to make deals, GAA dropped the portions in the civil rights bill that dealt with transvestitism and drag—it just wasn’t possible to pass it with such “extreme” elements included.

It was like their attitude was “things are getting more mainstream now so we don’t need you any more.

1973 was a watershed year. Sentiments against transgender people participating in gay and feminist work reached a fever pitch. Sylvia Rivera who, remember, had a pivotal role in the very Stonewall riots that were the launchpad for the gay rights movement, was physically prevented from speaking at the Stonewall commemoration in New York. Beth Elliot, a lesbian transsexual woman who had once been vice president of the San Francisco chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis lesbian organization in San Francisco was ejected from the West Coast Lesbian Conference in Los Angeles, by vehemently anti-transgender feminist Robin Morgan.

Meanwhile, amongst gay groups, the androgynous hippy style of the "Freakin'Fag Revolution" was replaced with the new uber-macho of the "clone look".  Keen to dissociate themselves from accusations of being effeminate "fairies", the gay scene quickly rendered boys dressing as girls about as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit. After all, with the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder, gender-normative gay and lesbian people could claim that they were healthy, it was only the transgendered who were sick.

In the UK, feminism was beginning its retreat from progressive politics towards embracing the comforting, conservative, (if unchallenging) mythologies of (Patriarchal) Essentialism that came to be known as Wimminism. Authors such as Germaine Greer and Sheila Jeffreys began writing hostile anti-transgendered polemics, Jeffreys herself concluded that the transgendered were a patriarchal plot to colonise women's experience. By the later 1970s, things were so bad for transgender people that "feminist ethicist",  Janice Raymond, could write a book called The Transsexual Empire that actually advocated that transsexuality be "morally mandated out of existence." The book itself, (a Gay News Review), still horrifyingly influential, is a fascinating example of how being hopelessly, demonstrably wrong in 9 dimensions doesn't seem to matter to  those already hostile, so long as you provide a pseudo-intellectual justification for their distaste.

By 1980, transgender political isolation was complete--nobody cared about the dire forms of discrimination and oppression facing the transgender community except transgender people themselves. That year, a new psychopathology was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Gender Identity Disorder. The ideological schism was complete.

So, how come we seem to have been allowed back on the bus? It started happening in the mid-1990s when a new generation of queer activists, whose political sensibilities had been forged in the context of the AIDS crisis, started coming to the fore. They had no time for the squabbles of earlier times as they were fighting for their lives. Convincing others that AIDS was not a gay disease required a transformation of sexual politics and created alliances between lots of different kinds of people who all shared the common goal of ending the epidemic -- even if sometimes precious little else.

However, nobody told the leadership of the ironically named HRC that the TG community were on-board. This group, whose prejudices were still informed by the queer and feminist ideologies of the 70s and 80s, were still virulently anti-trans. The record of the HRC leadership in sabotaging legislation with trans inclusion is, in hindsight, quite damning.

Yet the strange thing is, that whilst there are a large number of straight-acting gays, there are many more who are sufficiently gender queer to be threatened by these exemptions. Boys aren't bullied at school for who they want to sleep with, they are called "gay" and beaten up for not liking sports. Similarly girls are bullied for not wearing makeup or being too tomboyish. It's the same in the workplace; nobody has to know who you sleep with, but if your clothing or your mannerisms suggests you might be "transgressive", you can find you have difficulties. And legislation about who you sleep with won't help you

So, apparently full circle then. Perhaps the fact that the transgendered have been air-brushed out of queer history means it should be no surprise that significant gay commentators can write of the transgendered as being late to the party. After all, we only started their revolution for them and then, when we became politically inconvenient, embarrassing even, they threw us out. And that generational hostility still informs the "legislative leadership". However, when these people start claiming that our concerns are secondary and we can be thrown off the bus to better serve the needs of the many we certainly are entitled to a sense of deja vu. However, when they claim they'll come back and get us when times are favourable, then they should be reminded that we, who remember the shared history better than they, recall that we have been betrayed before.  

I am somewhat reminded of Dr Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham jail. Seems there's nothing new under the sun;-

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

Disappointingly relevant, even today;-

All too often there is a tendency to be concerned with the rights of homosexuals as long as they somehow appear to be heterosexual, whatever that is. The masculine woman and the feminine man are looked down upon.......

things are getting more mainstream now so we don’t need you any more


Update [2007-10-24 6:15:57 by Helen]: title changed. Minor modifications to text.

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I liked the old title better!  Sorry I didn't comment, but I didn't really have anything to add.  Very interesting diary on a subject I know next-to-nothing about.  Thanks, Helen.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 07:06:57 AM EST
Yes, I appreciate it's rather hard to comment unless you're inside the issue.

But as I explained to colman, I personally prefer this title.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 07:54:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Why'd you change the title? This is a read and not comment diary - what would one say?
by Colman (colman at eurotrib.com) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 07:12:13 AM EST
To be honest, the old title was just the working one. I never really liked it. However, I only came up with the line about "we have been b etrayed before" in the final draft and it was only after I'd mulled over the essay in bed that I realised it was the better title.

Also, being unspecific about the subject, it invites readers who may be deterred from something so obviously a case of special pleading.

I guess I was motivated to write by two items on AmericaBlog yesterday.

The first was a rather petulant article highlighting that a legal magazine agrees with americablog's advocacy that the T portion of ENDA should be dispensed with. Coupled with JA's campaign against Barack Obama for highlighting black issues by using a homophobic singer, saying BA was throwing the gays off the bus. An article on Kos called JA out on his hypocrisy, although the discussion thread afterwards largely ignored this rather pertinent point.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 07:52:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Really, "nt" up there implies that there is no text down here.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 12:21:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Throw the trannie off the bus...again

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 07:16:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I understand maybe dumping part of a finance bill so that it can get support, maybe something can't be afforded at this moment, but a discrimination bill? What kind despicable cowardice is that?

how can you not see that saying well "we'll campaign to stop discrimination against a group of people as long as it's my group that we're stopping discrimination against" is wrong?

I read the diary through a couple of times before now with the feelings above, but I always worry about replying to a diary that is so obviously personal. Worry that any answer that you give will seem patronising, or will completely misunderstand the issues as you're coming from outside the community.

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 09:38:45 AM EST
I understand maybe dumping part of a finance bill so that it can get support, maybe something can't be afforded at this moment, but a discrimination bill? What kind despicable cowardice is that?

Well said, ceebs!  

And since these bills are mainly symbolic, in that they mark a change in social mood but don't actually make (rightful) suits against discrimination easy to bring (only legally, theoretically possible), to mark the social mood as "we only discriminate against SOME people" mocks the whole concept, as it has no moral weight whatever.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 03:29:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A very good historical rundown, Helen, thanks.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Oct 24th, 2007 at 04:47:59 PM EST


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