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I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.
It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality. Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities. Wow!
Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people. As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?” And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?” Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.
No One Wins The Oppression Olympics
Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons. First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.” Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile. With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time? It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.
Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people. Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed. In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.
Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit. Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights. All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on. Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.
And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s. While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists. When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens). Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.
But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.
I cringe when I hear the suggestion that gender equality has been achieved, or that we are now living in a post-gender society, or something of the sort that suggests that women now occupy an equal status to men. But, I do acknowledge that major gains have been achieved for women, inching further away from an exclusively subordinate status and, sometimes, closer to an equal status to that of men. (I do not, however, buy arguments that men are now a disadvantaged, subordinated group, even if women numerically outnumber men in some contexts, like college.)
Gender Equality For Which Women?
If we learn only one thing from Black and multicultural feminism, third world feminism, lesbian feminism, working-class feminism, and other strands of feminism that challenge the narrow perspective and actions of mainstream (white, heterosexual, Western, middle-class) feminism, it is that the category of “woman” does not consist of one universal set of experiences, needs, and interests. Acknowledging this point, I regularly correct people who suggest that women began entering the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s. Rather, white heterosexual middle-class women in the West were beginning to enter the labor force upon the weakening of the societal norm that a woman’s place is in the home. Women of various disadvantaged backgrounds would have experienced the freedom to stay home as a luxury, for they were/are forced, either due to enslavement in our ugly historical past or poverty in our ugly contemporary present, to work to support themselves and their families.
As such, it is crucial that we attend to whether all women have achieved equal status in society, or at least inched closer to it. In many ways, gains toward gender equality are realized for the relatively privileged class of women but not others; worse, sometimes those gains are experienced at the expense of disadvantaged classes of women. (Who do you think is taking on housekeeping and childcare responsibilities while white middle-class women are off working full-time jobs when they aren’t doing it themselves?)
Equality For Two
By virtue of their gender identity and expression, transgender and gender non-conforming people are not treated as equals in our society. Rather, transphobic people, groups, and institutions attack, exclude, and belittle transpeople in ways that suggest more than a subordinate status — their humanness itself is challenged. This is seen in the resistance to acknowledging individuals who occupy spaces outside of the female-male/woman-man sex/gender binaries, resisting individuals’ right to define their own gender identity and expression, and, in more subtle ways, like referring to transpeople as “it,” as if they are inanimate objects.
Liberating Gendered People, But Not Gender
Yes, gains have been made for women and, to a lesser extent, transgender and gender non-conforming people. But, what we usually miss in our assessment of the presence or absence of gender equality (besides thinking of equality/inequality in binary terms) is whether all components of gender have moved toward equality. There are a number of dimensions of gender: gendered people, sexed people, gender identity, gender expression, among others that I likely have missed here. We typically focus on the full and equal inclusion of gendered people. For example, we attend to whether equal access exists for women and men in education and the labor market, and whether household labor is equally divided between female and male partners in heterosexual couples. (Again, note that transpeople are regularly excluded from these assessments, seen instead as a special case or even a matter of sexuality rather than gender.) Now that we think about gender instead of sex, we seem to fail ask about the inclusion and treatment of particular sexed people. One need only to look at the treatment of intersexed people to see evidence of this reality.
Finally, what I find most ironic about traditional assessments of gender equality is that we fail to ask about individuals’ freedom of gender expression. To be frank, it appears that women are increasingly welcomed in traditionally male-dominated spaces if they become men — not to literally transition their sex to become males and gender to become men, but to become masculine. Women are freer today to express themselves in masculine ways (e.g., wearing suits, jeans); however, men are not substantially freer today to express themselves in feminine ways. In fact, femininity is devalued, even at times when women themselves are not. The policing of gender is sometimes seen in the most surprising places: the “no femmes” and cultural femmephobia seen in gay male spaces, women criticizing other women for being too feminine or “girly” especially in male-dominated space, men snapping at other men to “man up,” and so forth. Further, society still expects gender conformity. This means for women, in particular, the double bind of needing to behave like men to get ahead in life, but the expectation to be women at the end of the day to avoid any challenges to their woman-ness and sexual orientation.
What’s My Point?
My overarching point is that we must acknowledge the complexity of gender equality and gender inequality to comprehensively assess whether they are reflected in society today. This means fully understanding the complexity of gender itself: there is no universal category of “woman,” nor are humans limited to the two gender categories of women and men. We must acknowledge the experiences, needs, and interests of transgender and gender non-conforming people, as well as women of various racial, ethnic, class, sexuality, nationality, ability, and religious backgrounds to begin to assess equity. We must also acknowledge that there is no universal category of “man,” a point that reflects that men of disadvantaged backgrounds do not fully enjoy the privileged status as men. Finally, we cannot miss the absence of full liberty to express one’s gender freely without risk of harm or consequence. For to see women and transpeople equally valued while femininity and gender non-conformity are devalued is only halfway to equality.