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Held Hostage, and the Need to Encourage Dissent and Debate

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Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post called "Burying the Lede," about the general silence of the national LGBT and trans organizations in response to the historic Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) decision protecting all trans and gender-nonconforming Americans against discrimination. While that post was focused on one issue, it was a specific example of a more general failure: that of our leaders to adequately represent the needs of the greater community, and the lack of dialogue to encourage that transformation.

This past weekend I attended the J Street conference in D.C. J Street was created to be a counterpoise to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). J Street believes that Israel's Jewish and democratic character depends on a two-state solution, resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. Vice President Joe Biden was a keynote speaker, bringing a degree of recognition to J Street that has been absent in its four years of existence. That recognition is critical, because since the collapse of the Camp David and Taba peace talks and the Second Intifada, the mainstream American Jewish community has been very effective in silencing dissent. For over a decade the only acceptable opinion was one in support of the policies of the rightist Likud party, accompanied by a refusal to discuss the underlying issue of the occupation and its impact on Israeli society.

The most interesting panel was entitled "Held Hostage," on this very topic, and the panelists considered ways to improve dialogue and not only allow for alternate opinions but welcome them. The speakers were clear that this must be a two-way street, that demonization of either side is unacceptable. They emphasized that there needs to be recognition that both sides have serious concerns that deserve respect, and that the only way we can overcome our paralysis is by being willing to listen, forgive when necessary, and compromise.

I believe that these Jewish concerns about Israel's survival are particularly difficult for the American Jewish community because we have little power to influence the outcome. The choice is for the Israeli community, and our role, being a relatively minor one, leads us to exaggerate our differences and battle with unnecessary anger.

While the issue of Israel's soul and security is far more consequential than debates on the future of trans activism, there are similarities. Whereas the leaders of the organized professional Jewish community usually make the decisions on political and legislative matters, so have the leaders of the national trans and LGBT organizations too frequently arrogated unto themselves the decision making on issues of critical import. They act with absolute authority, based on their organizational positions, with few mechanisms for community input and debate.

This is nothing new. Organizations are, by nature, conservative, and they resist change and evolution. Sometimes a change in leadership leads to a change in culture; other times the leadership becomes even more entrenched and isolated from input considered undesirable. Refusing to engage with a wider range of opinion often leads to the creation of new organizations, which then clash with the old.

Another example of institutional isolation is the marginalization of active trans service members from the decision making involved in deciding how we should be working toward open trans military service. A specific side issue that exemplifies the problem is whether we should be encouraging gay lawyers to join the civilian JAG Corps, in spite of the military's continuing ban on open trans service. Since this past spring's implosion of the LGBT organization Outserve-SLDN, created after the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," and the spinoff of the trans military group SPARTA, the trans activists have had to fend for themselves. They've fortunately received a major donation from Col. Jennifer Pritzker, via the Palm Center, for research on the issue in all its complexities. The JAG problem revolves around the issue of safe space, an issue with many parameters and consequences that invites a broad range of input. Instead, a very narrow understanding has led to a rift within the community.

Finally, an issue that first arose in 2007 during the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) debacle, when the value of trans inclusion in ENDA was vociferously debated, is now again coming to the fore and has the potential to drive the LGBT movement in a completely new and exciting direction. The past few years have seen an almost single-minded focus on marriage equality, an issue that clearly leaves many of the community cold and isolated. But with these recent successes there is developing a vacuum that may be filled by trans and gay activists who are inventing a new language and prism through which to understand sexual variation.

During the ENDA debate it was argued by some gay persons that the inclusion of gender identity and expression was both superfluous for gay persons, who were covered under sexual orientation, and inimical to the bill's chances for passage. The counterargument, grasped by our legal advocacy organizations, was that, to the contrary, not only was gender identity and expression necessary to protect the most disadvantaged, but it was necessary to protect gay persons, who often suffer discrimination due to their gender expression rather than their sexual orientation. Those organizations, including Professor Chai Feldblum of the EEOC, used that approach, building on the landmark 1989 Supreme Court decision Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, to cover trans and gender-nonconforming gay persons under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, culminating last year in the Macy v. Holder decision. (See the recent article by Professor Arthur Leonard of the New York Law School.)

I believe that that perception of the core difference between gay and straight as deriving from differences in gender expression rather than from differences in sexual orientation (sexual orientation being a derivative of gender expression) will power the LGBT civil rights movement forward. The rise of the millennial queer and genderqueer activists will bring it about if it doesn't happen sooner. One recent suggestion was to change the "LGBT" acronym to "SGM," for "sexual and gender minorities." The bourgeois gay agenda is nearly complete; the larger and more fundamental problems that impact all women as well as gay and trans persons relate to issues of gender expression based in misogyny, rooted in rigid codes of masculinity and femininity. Recognized by Suzanne Pharr back in 1988, this approach to future activism was recently beautifully described by writer E.J. Graff in Newsweek. In an article entitled "What's Next for the Gay Rights Movement," Graff concludes with this:

If we are lucky, this next phase of the rainbow revolution will make room not just for the transgender and gender variant, but also for straight and gender-consonant boys and men -- and the girls and women who live with them. ... The beauty, in the end, of this next phase of the movement under the rainbow flag is that it can potentially benefit everyone. That's because, at its heart, the gender border patrol is an attempt to keep us more fully divided by sex than is truly natural.

My hope is that rather than isolate themselves from this coming cultural battle, our leaders will embrace it and those most affected by it. The best way to begin is to talk with those with a stake in the issue.