Over the past few weeks there have been several music-related media stories making the rounds in the LGBT community: the homophobic rant by Michelle Shocked and the subsequent fallout, and the Indigo Girls' commitment to stand with the trans community at the iconic Michigan Womyn's Music Festival (MWMF). The way these two stories developed exemplifies the difference in power and influence between the two communities, gay and trans, which are united except when they're not.
Once Shocked's rant went viral, fans boycotted her shows, and promoters cancelled her performances. She was so infuriated that she herself lashed out with some performance art and the usual unapologetic "apology." The consequences of her words led to what now seems an unremarkable, well-organized response from the gay community and its allies. The well-oiled machine that is the gay communications "war room" primes a community that is no longer willing to tolerate abuse and puts into motion with remarkable efficiency a potent campaign response. It works, the mission is accomplished and the story fades, and one hopes that others with feelings similar to those of Shocked, like Dr. Ben Carson, stop and ponder their beliefs and begin to change their behaviors.
The recent contretemps with the MWMF, however, was a much more placid affair, one that has played out many times over the past 20 years since the actively trans-exclusionist policy of the festival was made public. Change, if it happens, will continue to be incremental, a slap on the wrist and not the kind of punishment meted out to Shocked. A change.org petition made the rounds, the Indigo Girls made a statement and Lisa Vogel, the MWMF's only director for the 38 years of the festival's existence, replied with a non-apology. This included a comment about the event's desire to "recognize and honor diverse gender expression among womyn," a remarkable statement that persons who were assigned female at birth (obviously only on the basis of their perceived genitalia) and then raised as girls are uniquely "womyn-born womyn" and constitute a unique gender identity in themselves. She also highlighted in her response the fact that at the time the festival was created, "the mere idea of a female identity autonomous of male identity was revolutionary."
And therein lies the rub. Ms. Vogel has not evolved over the past four decades from a second-wave-feminist, Manichean worldview that sees two warring camps, male and female, and she follows the so-called "feminist" philosophy that trans women are simply tools of the patriarchy. It is also doubly ironic that when modern feminism developed in the mid-20th century, the fundamental point was that reproductive biology was not destiny, and yet today we have "feminists" lauding the beauty and function of their reproductive systems as the reason to exclude trans women from the set of all women.
I support the right of all to freely associate. That includes lesbian separatists as well as bigots. As former Vice President Dick Cheney memorably said, "Freedom means freedom for everyone." If our community accepts this overt bigotry, however, we send the wrong message.
Now I will wade in more deeply. MWMF is simply the tip of the cultural iceberg. I wish that Lisa Vogel and Janice Raymond and Julie Burchill and the rest of them were simply a small group of loud outliers. Unfortunately, they are not. While we have a remarkable group of cisgender lesbian allies, my experience, and that of many of my 50-plus-year-old trans women friends, is that many cis lesbians do not view trans women as women, nor do they view trans men as men, which is probably even more offensive.
This reality is covered up by civility and the willingness of many of these women to work for the LGBT community to improve the lives of trans persons. But when it comes to real friendships, and, more importantly, to intimate relationships, trans women are invisible to these women. The term "cotton ceiling" has been coined for this divide. We are in an era of a gay Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. We can work together. We can go to school together. We can advocate together for us all, for marriage equality and civil rights. We can party together. But partner with one another, or live together? Still uncommon. Trans women are not visible as potential partners, just as interracial relationships were taboo and rare 60 years ago. And God help the cis lesbian who dares partner with a trans woman. Many of those I know who have done so are then ostracized by their lesbian friends.
And to compound it all, there are the trans men who were the lesbian partners of women who have remained in those relationships and suffer in silence the indignity of not having their true sex recognized by their partners, partners who see them as deluded women. Sometimes it's hard to believe that we're 13-percent into the 21st century already.
The good news -- and there is good news -- is that the Millennial generation doesn't buy into any of this nonsense. They weren't raised on second-wave-feminist bigotry, so to them it's just dry history, and they go happily into their pansexual futures. And just as our children's generation has been powering the drive toward greater equality that benefits us all, I hope their social lives of greater mutual acceptance and respect will benefit their elders, as well.