Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Problems With The Mainstream GLBT Movement

After my post on “Trans Rights Movement Is Disappearing Before Our Eyes,” there was quite a bit of commentary, understandably on both sides. One respondent – Jkusters – on Daily Kos opined:

[T]he trans community cannot expect their supporters to be mind readers. They need leaders who commit to educating their gay and straight allies on their own issues and what is needed to fight for those issues. Trans visibility isn't just going to spring forth from the head of Zeus, it needs visible leaders who are unafraid to speak their truth and inspire people to fight alongside them. I learn about trans issues from friends who are trans, but not everyone has that option.
Would that it were that easy! We’ve had leaders who were not afraid to speak their minds, and who have been doing so on an organized basis since 1993 at least (Sylvia Rivera and the street level activists notwithstanding)!

Simply because individuals step up, and are considered national icons within the transgender community, it does not mean they will be heard. For starters, not everyone can walk in and get an audience with a legislator, most particularly the trans community. Quite frequently, even today, gay and lesbian leadership may not like what they hear and squelch those with who may touch upon issues that disturb the agenda as it began (strictly gay and lesbian). There tends to be a gatekeeper effect where those who’ve been deemed to urgent in pushing for trans rights, rather than waiting their turn (whenever that may be).

There have been any number of trans community leaders that have been available and willing to speak frankly: Sarah DePalma and Jessica Xavier of the previous It’s Time America, Phyllis Frye of the defunct International Conference for Transgender Law & Employment Practice (ICTLEP) and at it’s inception, even Riki Wilchins of GenderPAC (before she relented and was allowed to speak, but only in support of the consistent messaging as per the Human Rights Campaign – HRC).

The National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) began at the time GenderPAC began moving toward the HRC model, and its leaders chose an independent stance and spoke out as well. We created our group due to need (and attempts by HRC to manipulate our movement to "gender" and not "gender identity"). For the first three years we took a loose group of divergent folks, hardcore protesters like Sylvia Rivera for instance, and more business-oriented negotiators like myself and forged an alliance. Indeed, I was one of those in NTAC leaders, a co-founder in 1999 and elected President of the org in 2002.

One of the things I did after my first trip to DC (and the "political reality" I was schooled with by Sen. Bumpers' Chief of Staff) was to find a way to begin outreach to the "groundswell of support" at home that we needed to begin. I began the local series of transgender panel discussions here in Houston and around the region in both churches, with our local PFLAG (which was the only in the nation that was non-inclusive of trans at that time), and with our universities around the region -- even Texas A & M in College Station (which was admittedly a little dicey).

In Washington, we began the process of leaving educational packets in all congressional offices we visited, making inroads with offices on the Hill, and even getting media to pay attention to us. It was all without any hat-in-hand begging or asking assistance from anyone in the G&L community, and we circumvented the obstacles HRC placed before us.

Standing forth and speaking out wasn’t ever a problem. The problem arose when we began being heard by those who then questioned and embarrassed the incrementalists, primarily Rep. Barney Frank and HRC.

Respondent Pico commented:

There are problems with the mainstream movement that have contributed to the marginalization of the trans community - heck, to anyone "queer" who doesn't fit in an increasingly normalized gay/lesbian mold. It's not a new problem, and it led to fractures in the coalition way back in the 70s.

We saw a particularly ugly side of during the debate over ENDA, which is what the diarist is alluding to as well. Based on the perception that we couldn't get the votes to cover gender protections, we went forward with protections on sexual preference alone. The trans community felt it'd been thrown under the proverbial bus, and some groups came to their defense - I remember GLAAD issuing an immediate statement saying it was unacceptable to fracture the coalition like that. HRC stayed silent.

As I’d noted earlier, those issues didn't sit well with the powers that be in HRC-land. They decided to supplant us with others they found more accommodating. As a result, we theretofore moderate types who refused to compromise principle were summarily dismissed, marginalized and censored. In time they eventually declared us irrelevant (though that wasn't completely accurate). This new HRC-trans amalgam worked well for a time, taking our foundation and adding a little more progress to it.

Respondent Pico then commented on my quote from the previous blog:

“Meanwhile Gross or HRC and whichever trans quislings they may employ to plaster over this will merrily work to bury any unaddressed inequalities from public view – all the better to cleanse their legacies.”
I don't think that's fair, especially considering how hostile the environment can be to trans folk in the first place. Some people feel like they can harness the power of HRC to bring attention to trans issues, so they're doing their best to work from the inside. (And when they sense things are going badly, they react: remember when Donna Rose resigned from HRC?)

Point being, HRC is the most high-profile lobby we have, and it's better to have trans activists working there than not. I don't think it's fair to slam them unequivocally.
The comment wasn’t necessarily directed at Donna Rose. And indeed, they do go in with the impression they can succeed where previous iterations of similar-minded trans folks failed. It must be said, though, with the exception of two of the most recent folks joining HRC, all others previously had been warned about what HRC would do – something I can attest to personally with all except Riki Wilchins or Jamison Green (who no doubt were notified by Phyllis Frye before me).

In time, HRC and other groups expect to see returns on their ‘investment’. They’ve developed an unscrupulous habit of co-opting our voice, our media, our victims and raising the lion's share of funds on trans issues. Rarely do they consult, much less physically bring on transgender community leaders. What hiring has been done in HRC at least, was tokenism done specifically with an eye toward circumventing trans leadership and still managing to retain the PR claim that “they worked with transgender leadership.”

Another benefit of their adopted "kingmaker" role is that by choosing brand new trans folks and making them automatic leaders, they indoctrinate them with the HRC version of trans history. It’s a clever effort to cleanse their own history and an attempt revise our own.

As time transpires, though, the very people they deign with "leadership" status end up becoming the newly burned and, once it becomes too obvious to stomach, they then become the newer voices repeating what we old-line leadership have known for the past fifteen years. Undaunted, they bring in even greener, more desperate or more starry-eyed folks who are in the process of learning what their other accommodating forebears learned.

We’re doing what we can to break this cycle.

The question must be asked and heard: why is it that gay and lesbian leadership take for granted such a vastly different reality, with more favorable treatment and an expected entitlement to deference and respect? It’s not something they’ve ever considered affording the trans community's leaders (not specifically the ones they appoint or have had hand in validating, but the leaders who've been at this over the decade plus all the while working on specific behalf of the transgender groups who have consistently been locked out, and shut up)?

In their parlance, we're nothing but "rabble," a bunch of “dumb” or "screaming trannies" who are “naïve” and “politically immature.” In the end this is one dumb transwoman that's not going away, regardless of how much diminution they foist upon me.

You can't fault the lack of leadership when leadership is consistently muzzled and smothered to death.

“Speak out in acts; the time for words has passed, and only deeds will suffice.” — John Greenleaf Whittier


Polar said...

I am certain our leaders will be selected for us, if HRC and Frank haven't done so already. Of course, they will look behind them and find nobody but fools following them.

I don't think the T community is capable of being led in a unified team effort. It is our blessing and our curse. It makes us unreliable, unpredictable, and capable of almost impossible feats, at the same time. Those with the ability and skills know better than to try to lead, or have spent their credibility trying already.

Alexander of the Trees said...

There is a problem with the trans-rights movement. It's not that we have no leaders, or even bad leaders. I feel that the 'leadership' and trans activists in general, are kept isolated from most transpeople. Why? Because only the extremes seem to have lines of communication to these people/orgs.

I have no idea how to get in touch with any of the orgs that claim to speak for me. I have no idea how to offer them my assistance. Further, these orgs do little to explain themselves or invite feedback, just money. Can you advise me on how to get involved?

genevieve said...

It's ot srprising that trans people are relegated to the fringe of mainstream GLBT organizations. They don't even represent the many expressions of the gay and lesbian communities. How many effeminate men or butch/femmes are in leadership or are represented?

It's time for us transpeople to take control of our lives and organizations. No one can tell our stories except us and no one knows what we really need except us.