“What makes us heroic? Confronting simultaneously our supreme suffering and our supreme hope.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Over the past few years, the transgender community has had its share of reports of heroism from Mara Keisling and Lisa Mottet of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) about the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA). It flew in the face of what this writer and many others active in the trans rights game knew as conventional wisdom. These claims were oft-repeated by others who believed this new “heroic” phase of both Barney and HRC, disbursed by blogs, claimed on list-servs, spoken about by the hand-chosen few trans people they use for PC PR, and even distributed on a prominent trans activist’s newsletter, providing a well-orchestrated legitimacy to these reputably embattled folks. One of my personal contacts on the Hill who knows Phyllis Frye was “shocked” to see that even she believed in the “hype” as she put it. She probably would’ve have believed as well had she not known differently, first-hand.
In the face of claims from our true allies on the Hill (congress-critters’ staffers, for those needing elaboration), we were always countered by Mara and Lisa with claims that “these [staffers] have their own [agenda] for wanting to bring HRC and Barney Frank down” and other dismissive explanations.
What a sea change we’ve seen from a month ago. It turns out that everything our Hill contacts said was true. Consistently true, in fact.
What’s more though is how many of us came to believe Barney and HRC in the role of “hero,” without asking. Skeptics, such as our own NTAC, were the ‘anti-heroes,’ summarily kicked to the curb and discredited for our stodginess, or for our unwillingness to disbelieve our ‘unreliable’ Hill contacts. Looking at this weekend’s protest and noting the presence of Mara Keisling and others from NCTE, we can’t help but notice how suddenly our isolated little bandwagon became crowded. Guess everyone wants to be the intransigent anti-hero now.
Moreover, this makes one question who are considered the transgender community’s heroes? How about the well-funded organizations that never leave transgenders behind in their support? When HR 3128, the “Federal Employment Protection Act” (known as the Waxman Bill in the community) was introduced in 2004 protecting sexual orientation, but not gender identity, the National Organization of Women stood up to oppose the bill for it’s lack of inclusion, as did AFL-CIO’s Pride At Work and (after initially signing on) Parents, Family & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). All of the aforementioned organizations were heroic.
Even NCTE couldn’t oppose the bill, instead helping quietly to generate support within the trans community and supportive allies in favor of the bill (prompting one ally from the gay and lesbian community to wonder to this writer “how is this transgender advocacy?”) Was this an example of trans heroism?
I’d posit that the folks from NCTE like Chair, Meredith Bacon and former Chair, Donna Cartwright – both of whom were boisterously adding to the protest cheers, neither of them earning a penny for it – were more heroic. Donna especially was a mere month earlier repeating the “HRC as hero” role on the TGV Advocacy list. For someone to then come out so soon after, knowing all were watching, and actively engage in protesting took guts.
In fact, there are a number of individuals in the Transgender Community who’ve worked tirelessly at thankless voluntary positions of leadership, expended a lot of their own money out of pocket, and in some cases hampered if not outright killed their paying 9-5 jobs they do to pay their bills. Unlike the gay and lesbian community and a precious few amongst our own, none of the trans activists earn a living at this full-time sideline.
Some of these unpaid board members who take personal time off and pay out of pocket to travel cross-country with no compensation for issues pertinent to the community, I’d consider them heroes: folks like, Kathy Padilla, Jerimarie Liesegang, Carrie Davis, Marisa Richmond, Rachel Goldberg, Michael Woodward, Rusty Mae Moore and Chelsea Goodwin, Roz Manley, Katrina Rose. Angela Brightfeather Sheedy, Marti Abernathey and Josephine Tittsworth to name a few.
How about board leaders who’ve paid the price with no due?: It’s Time America’s leaders all did the work gratis, like Jane Fee, and two of them paid a severe economic price with major kinks in their careers: Jessica Xavier and Sarah DePalma. In the latter case, Sarah and her partner both struggle just to keep a roof over their heads.
There was ICTLEP with both Phyllis Frye and her staff of one, the late Dee McKellar. Dee was near minimum wage and Phyllis barely made livable wage – certainly not the worth for their work.
Or take NTAC’s Chairs, Dawn Wilson, Yoseñio Lewis, myself and Ethan St. Pierre, all of whom lost their jobs once taking over the top spot of the group and went through long-term joblessness, save for current Chair St. Pierre who was unemployed well before taking the top spot. All lived well below the median while Chair – and in at least one, if not two cases, lived well below the poverty line while Chair. Any of the above leaders are the “heroes-who-are-not” (especially in the latter case). NTAC of course just finished organizing the protest of our popularly advertised “heroes,” HRC.
There’s plenty of other heroes, including those leading quasi-national or local groups who’ve also done their share of traveling: Miranda Stevens Miller, Lori Buckwalter, Courtney Sharp, the late Alexander John Goodrum, Sarah Fox, Dawn Wilson, Monica Roberts, Michael Woodward, Virginia Stephenson, Babs Casbar, Cecilia Chung, Naomi Archer and others.
Not everyone has to travel to be a hero. Some (because of budget) keep the local groups active and spend a great deal of time keeping our “allies’ feet to the fire” via the media: Gwen Smith, Dallas Denny and Rebecca Juro come to mind.
There’s even a (precious) few major donors who are also heroes for keeping even the struggling groups alive and providing hope: Julie Johnson, Diane Dale and Jo Ann Roberts for instance.
Sometimes it can be someone who seemingly appear to some to “cross over to the enemy’s side,” but really don’t. Shelley Emerson in Atlanta has long been a major donor to GLB organizations and issues, and a former Federal Club Member. She recently resigned, hopped in her car, and with injured foot drove 600 miles to DC to protest the very same HRC. She tried to get the chasm between trans and GLB closed, and worked diligently to achieve that to a small degree. But when push came to shove, she stood on principle and helped join the renunciations of this former “ally.” Similarly Robbi Cohn of NC and Melissa Brown of Michigan resigned from their diversity committee and board of governors respectively.
Donna Rose is an open story. Most don’t know that I’d spoken with Donna some time before anyone else had spoken with her about activism and gave her a run down of the situation between T & GLB. She was skeptical – everyone has a right to make up his or her own mind without another’s coercion or hard sell. After being involved with HRC, and then elected as their first trans board member, she took no small amount of heat – even from some well-known names in the trans leadership. I spent my time peeling folks off of her and letting them know she hadn’t had the history yet (not what we long-timers had) and had no way of knowing what we experienced. But Donna’s a smart cookie, and I knew with time she’d see what this charade was all about. When it became apparent last week, it was a lot to give up for her personally, and a bit humbling of an experience for her. Yet she resigned straight up, was forthright, and did what she felt was the honorable thing for her community. That was heroism.
Meanwhile, none of the above HRC board were ever paid for their time – again all out of pocket, and again done in the dashed hopes of furthering our community.
Some of the folks who should qualify as heroes suffered loss of their livelihood or marriages and then still came out and assisted the trans community cause immediately after. Susan Stanton, the city manager from Largo, FL who then came out to lobby with NCTE was the most recently, but certainly not the only. Recall Dana Rivers who lost her job as a teacher, then came to Capitol Hill with GenderPAC. Of course, for crossdressers, Peter Oiler was the standard-bearer after being fired from Winn-Dixie. Christie Lee Littleton took no small amount of heat when her marriage challenge was working through the Texas Courts – virtually all of our community leaders trashed her. My words to them that “wouldn’t it be funny if she came out after this lawsuit and became an activist?” turned out to be prescient. Christie Lee indeed did come out, and became very active in San Antonio and in Texas, as well as coming to Capitol Hill, along with Peter Oiler, to lobby with NTAC.
A couple gave the ultimate sacrifice as activists: their life. Tacy Ranta, a protégée of Jessica Xavier, was killed on a Baltimore street in what may well have been a hate crime. Terrianne Summers, a protégée of mine, ended up ambushed while pulling into her driveway after work. There were activists who continued fighting even when (esp. in Terrianne’s case) they were tired, frustrated, getting nearly no support and wondering aloud if they even had any effect. Terrianne was the sparkplug, organizing the first Winn-Dixie protest at their corporate headquarters a mile away from her home in Jacksonville. She was also re-energized and again beginning to organize the second anniversary protest of Winn-Dixie when she was gunned down. It pains me to no small degree that her activism may have contributed to her death. Nevertheless, both Terrianne and Tacy were heroes to their very last breath of life.
Not everyone who’s a hero is trans, of course. Family members such as Mary Boenke, and even families with a trans family member killed, such as Ethan St. Pierre and his mom Ellen (aunt / sister, Debra Forte) or Queen Washington (daughter Stephanie Thomas) or la familia Guerrero, esp. mom Sylvia Guerrero (daughter Gwen Araujo) certainly took public stands and went those extra miles to get word out that their they cared for their loved ones and wouldn’t allow society to brush it aside or ridicule them. These are certain heroes, every bit as much as Judy Shepard is also a hero for advocating for hate crimes protection for all – not simply for her son, Matthew.
Sometimes we have straight allies who heroically stand up for us even though we’re not family. Board member, Ken Dollarhide, and PFLAG’s Jim & Sue Null come to mind. Politicians such as Rep. Dennis Kucinich (the first presidential candidate to prominently say the word – much less declare support for – transgenders.), and Rep. Jan Schakowsky. Locally we have state heroes like Rep. Jessica Farrar and Rep. Garnet Coleman, while New York had hero former Dep. Mayor, Gifford Miller, and Houston has Council Member Ada Edwards, who even heroically co-organized the Bush Inaugural Day protest on Houston’s Fed. Courthouse steps back in 2001, along with Dan DiDonato and myself.
Speaking of Dan, he’s one of the staunchest heroes I know from the gay & lesbian community who’s not a politician, along with Two-Spirit Circle members Victor Cutnose and Gilda Yazzie. Add to them heroic gay/lesbian politicos like U. S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), or New York State Sen. Tom Duane, or even NYC Council Member Margarita Lopez.
Finally, how about the true heroes who fought this equality fight back in the days of yore when it was harrowing and possibly dangerous for one to come out of the closet, much less do so blatantly and challengingly. Ray Hill is one such individual: a local Houston activist par excellence and even a national-level activist who once represented his own case all the way to the Supreme Court and won! Ray was also one of the co-organizers of both of the first two gay and lesbian (as they were known then) marches on Washington. Ray and I have disagreed strongly on each other’s views on Hate Crimes laws, to the point of even debating it before our local GLBT Political Caucus. That said, there’s no one I trust to be at my side or watching my back in any battle than Ray Hill. Ray was also someone who never fell for a line of bullshit, and saw through the smokescreen every time! And for all his work, he was just as casually brushed aside and kicked to the curb as any trans activist: too loud, not mainstream.. While he’ll never get any GL community recognition, he’ll always personify “hero” to the underclass underdogs in this disparate GLBT amalgam.
Speaking of those who never get their proper due (at least in life) are both Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson of the Stonewall Riots, 1969. Sylvia especially fought hard to get the trans part into the first Pride festivities and was not going to take getting shoved off lightly. She literally fought them on the stage. Gay activist and Stonewall vet, Bob Kohler commented that Sylvia sat afterwards on the front edge of the stage, nose bleeding and crying. It was the only time in Sylvia’s hard-as-nails life that she was ever seen crying.
Both Marsha and Sylvia did sex-work on the mean streets of New York to survive – there were virtually zero job opportunities for trans people in the late 60’s and most of the 70’s. That lifestyle may have cost Marsha her life. Sylvia continued on even without her best friend and Stonewall cohort. Sylvia continued doing a large amount of street activism, bringing much attention to the plight of homelessness among gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Sylvia was the brainchild and co-coordinator of the 25th anniversary of Stonewall March (dubbed the Illegal March) and other protests that saw her arrested numerous times. She did all of this while living well below the poverty line, and for a good amount of that time, living homeless in a refrigerator box on the Christopher Street Piers. Sylvia hated aggressive elitists with a passion, but saved a special brand of that for folks like Harry Hay and the HRC. Just mere months after organizing one of the larger transgender marches through the streets of downtown New York, Sylvia died of liver cancer. One might think that, due to her lack of education and years on the streets in a self-medicated haze, that Sylvia was a burnt husk of a human. Quite the contrary. The night before the Amanda Milan Vigil and March, I found her surprisingly canny and very aware of what happened around her, and when she or the community was being manipulated. But even on her death bed, with negotiations moving forward with the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) about pushing for an inclusive bill such as the one Sen. Tom Duane authored, Sylvia fought and demanded a spot on the board for a trans-centric trans person on ESPA, and seeking a move toward the inclusive language. Even near death and against the toughest of odds, Sylvia exhibited tremendous heroism.
Sadly, after her death, ESPA Exec. Dir. Joe Grabarz reneged on all the promises on Sylvia’s deathbed, and the organization pushed forward, ignoring Sen. Duane’s bill, per the instructions of their then-board Chair, Jeff Soref. More loose promises were made and never kept, and to this day, New York State still has no employment protections for the transgender community. Heroic for their community –nothing heroic at all to the New York trans community.
Actually, I’m sure I’ve likely left off a number of activists who should be listed among these heroic types: folks who’ve earned nothing, or at best a pittance, working on behalf of a cash-poor and extremely marginalized community. These are, however, my opinions (and opinions I’ll admit come along with a half a bottle of NyQuil as I have a serious cold). Feel free to disagree with the above assessments.
However, if you’re of a mind to keep folks like Jeff Soref, or Joe Solmonese or HRC or even the exalted “ally” Rep. Barney Frank on the Pedestal of Heroes, feel free. I’ll respectfully and unequivocally disagree. HRC and Barney make no sacrifices – they’re simply doing what is expected of them to earn their paycheck each week. Ask them to find a real 9 to 5 job, and then do what they do on the side in their “spare time”! If our community’s heroes can be dismissed, shut out, disreputably labeled, disemployed, underemployed or fully unemployed, and live this for decades, then perhaps we can hope for a day when we’re all egalitarian, and allow the gay and lesbian community to experience the same type of living standards we enjoy.
Until that day is met, I really don’t want to hear about their “heroism” any longer.
“Here is a hero who did nothing but shake the tree as soon as the fruit was ripe. Does this seem to be too small a thing to you? Then take a good look at the tree he shook.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
“I had to kick their law into their teeth in order to save them.” — Gwendolyn Brooks, African-American poet