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The Next Phase of the Trans Movement

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Below is the keynote speech I delivered today at the Philadelphia Trans-Health Conference, the nation's largest trans conference, drawing over 3,000 people. As the larger public increasingly turns its attention to our community and the issues we face, our movement must grow and evolve. In this speech I lay out what is, in my view, the path forward for transgender equality.

As a movement, we are moving forward at an unprecedented pace.

Real trans lives and stories, from kids to elders, people of all colors, are finally starting to be seen and heard everywhere. As a teenager growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, I had a vague notion that trans people existed, but the fuzzy idea I had of being trans -- some combination of Harry Benjamin, Ricki Lake, and that episode from Night Court where John Larroquette's old school buddy comes back -- didn't seem to relate to me. I didn't know trans people, I didn't read about them, and I couldn't see a way to be myself in the world that made sense. Despite my occasionally painted nails, I still couldn't envision coming out as a transgender girl -- who liked other girls and was kind of a tomboy -- to my family, my girlfriend, my friends, and my school.

So even though I now meet and hear about young people who are doing something very much like that all the time, it blew my mind to hear last month that a ninth-grade student at my own Atherton High School had recently transitioned, with the support of her family, her girlfriend, and her school -- until a few angry parents and an anti-LGBT group pressed to restrict her restroom access. While it wrenched my heart to see parents, teachers, and administrators debating the dignity of a young woman I could so easily identify with, I was proud that, influenced in part by the recent guidance from the U.S. Department of Education stating that the federal Title IX protects transgender students, my alma mater ultimately did the right thing. And I was deeply moved by a sign so close to home of how far we've come.

We see more such signs every day.

We are making it progressively easier to change the name and gender on ID and other documents, not just in blue states but in purple and red ones. Since driver's-license policies can usually be changed just by the DMV itself, this is an area where there is far more potential for progress, from the Deep South to the mountain states.

We are finally starting to beat trans healthcare exclusions. The Medicare exclusion is now gone, and we're going to keep knocking them down in private plans and Medicaid, one state, one employer, one college at a time.

We are using all the levers of legislation, the courts, and the executive branch to say that discrimination against trans people is no longer acceptable. There is now some state or federal legal recourse for most major incidents of discrimination -- at least if folks know their rights and can access legal help. We still need explicit protections for a host of reasons, but at least when it comes to the most blatant forms of bias in employment, housing, education, and health care, there is now something you can do about it in every state in the nation. More and more, the injured patient in the Midwest who gets turned away from the ER because "we don't know how to treat people like you," and the trans woman and her partner who get evicted from their RV park in Texas, and the transgender boy who was only allowed to come on the class trip if his parents stayed with him in a separate cabin, and the grocery clerk in South Dakota who got laid off because coworkers "might be uncomfortable" with her transition have someone to complain to and are getting relief from federal or local officials.

We are changing the policies and the culture of institutional environments toward trans people, from hospitals and nursing homes to the foster-care and shelter systems to jails and prisons.

And we've never been closer to passing a federal law to remove all doubt that we're protected. And I hope you will all join me and the Trans People of Color Coalition, the Trans Latin@ Coalition, Black Transmen Inc. and Black Transwomen Inc., NCTE and many others for our Transgender Lobby Day, July 14 and 15, to meet with our representatives and press for a vote in the House of Representatives. We can do it.

We've got to keep making progress in all these ways, and we will.

But we've also got to look ahead. If we're really going to make a better world for all trans people, it's not enough to keep doing what we're doing. We've got to go further, think bigger. We've got to make our movement stronger, bolder, and broader.

  1. First, we have to do all our work from the premise that there is nothing wrong with trans people, and we belong everywhere. Now, practical compromises are often necessary to move forward, and compromising on an issue today doesn't mean you won't reopen it tomorrow. That's often how politics and the law work. But some compromises don't serve us well. Some compromises reinforce myths and fears about who we are, benefit some of us at the expense of others, and will be very difficult to revisit if we make them now. For us today, the easiest and most dangerous compromises we can make are about our bodies: that some trans bodies are more real or more acceptable than others, that people should be allowed to demand information about our bodies, that there are certain spaces where trans people don't deserve equal rights because some people might be uncomfortable around our bodies. One of the most critical things we must stand for as a movement, together with many other movements, is that, to quote the performance artist Glenn Marla, "there is no wrong way to have a body." We must insist that there is nothing wrong or inappropriate about trans people that justifies compromising our dignity and our equality.
  2. We need to set our sights on achieving full gender self-determination under the law, without medicalization. Right now, the best policies we have in the U.S. are still ones where a doctor or therapist has to sign off on your identity. It's a big improvement on proof of surgery, but we can do better. We have to make sure no one is denied ID because they can't get to a doctor or fit into a doctor's narrow idea of being trans. As we approach the day when our healthcare needs are no longer rejected out of hand, we must continue to insist that my highly individual needs and intensely personal decisions about health care should have not the least bit to do with having my identity recognized and respected. Our model should be one of true self-determination -- that legally, officially, administratively, you are the gender you say you are, without disclosing your medical history, without a diagnosis, without anyone else's say-so. From where we're standing now, that sounds very bold. That's because it is. It is also necessary, and possible, but only if we strive for it.
  3. We need to ensure that our movement, and the progress we're making, really reflects and includes all of us. That means, among other things, that those of us whose identities do not fit in a gender binary are not ignored or pushed to the sidelines by those of us who do. Much as the LGBT movement has often limited transgender folks to the margins of the conversation, it has been too easy for trans advocacy to center the experience of binary-identified men and women with a "traditional" transition experience (and I count myself in that category), to the exclusion of folks who are genderqueer, gender-fluid, or otherwise don't fit in the binary. It's tempting to believe it's easier to start from educating about and advocating for people with binary identities and experiences than challenging the binaries themselves. There is also a fear, I think, on the part of some trans men and women that even acknowledging the existence of non-binary identities will threaten our right to be recognized as the men and women we are. We must resist the fear that there is not enough dignity and justice to go around. Our movement must recognize and elevate the voices and the rights and the leadership of trans folks who are not men or women.
  4. Relatedly, we need to think bigger about challenging gender segregation and gender labeling itself. Trans oppression is heavily concentrated in those places where custom dictates that sorting by gender still must happen as a matter of course. We can make that sorting more flexible, but in many cases we should really ask, "Why do it in the first place?" Trans people aren't the only ones who benefit from challenging systems that over-rely on sorting people by gender. That's why we're not the only ones pressing for gender-neutral housing on college campuses. Domestic violence and homeless agencies are starting to realize that relying on segregated communal shelters does not work for a whole lot of folks. We need better systems for everyone that don't rely on the assumption that sorting by gender meets needs for privacy or safety but that actually meet those needs for everyone. When it comes to public restrooms, we're starting to do a better job of advocating both that segregated restrooms should be accessible according to your identity and that many more restrooms should just be open to everyone -- yes, even multi-user ones. For every one person outside this room who would be horrified at the thought, there's another who realizes it would cut down the damned lines for everyone. And while existing laws may limit us in the short term, we should also set on our long-term agenda the simple goal of getting gender taken off of everyday forms of ID altogether. Lately I've talked to motor-vehicle officials who are asking me why we still need gender markers in this day and age any more than we need to list height, weight, eye or hair color, or race. We don't. These are real, practical goals we should start pressing for now.
  5. With so many achievements with each passing day, we also need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of political backlash against our successes, without letting that backlash define our movement. I'm thinking here especially about the progress we're now making on health care. When you're tearing down prejudices that have stood for so long and been so pervasive, facing a backlash is not uncommon. That it hasn't happened so far, with all the victories we've had of late, is a testament to how much we've changed the cultural and political conversation about our lives so far -- but not enough. That backlash could still come, quick and ugly, and if it does, we'll need to fight back, nimbly and strategically. The last thing we need is another DOMA or "don't ask, don't tell," or state-level equivalents. We have a lot of public education to do to get people to understand that being trans isn't all about surgery, that our medical decisions are private, and, at the same time, that trans health care is real health care that many of us need. That's huge, but so is so much else we are working for. So is being able to have a job, a home, and be free from violence. The LGBT movement let the 1990s backlash over marriage equality define its priorities for the last two decades. Even if we find ourselves in a fight, we cannot afford to let one issue, no matter what or how important, define our movement when there is so much work to do.
  6. What's more, we cannot act as though if we just change one or a handful of laws that single us out, we can fold up our tents and go home to enjoy some of that liberty and justice for all. As a community that still faces so much blatant discrimination, it's natural for us to focus on eliminating barriers that single out trans people uniquely, and on securing formal legal equality. But as Audre Lorde said, we don't live single-issue lives. And moreover, oftentimes the unjust policies that are impacting trans people because of transphobia are also being used against other (of course overlapping) marginalized groups. We need to move beyond looking only for trans-specific problems with trans-specific solutions. We don't just want an equal right to an unjust world. We can best prevent transphobic police violence not only by advocating for protective laws and policies and training focused on trans people but by also working together with others who are affected to tackle the larger problem of police abuse and accountability. We cannot truly address widespread poverty, unemployment, and homelessness among trans people without working against poverty, unemployment, and homelessness in general. We don't just want "better" shelters or jails; we want a lot fewer folks in our communities ending up in them, and a trans-only lens will not get us there. Yes, these are big challenges, but we have so many more allies than we might realize, with the same goals, and so very much we bring to the table. In fact, NCTE has often been the most effective when we have worked with allies to press for broad changes that, yes, have some trans-specific components, but where we care just as much about the whole package. Many of us are still not used to organizing and advocating in such broad, intersectional terms, but we must.
  7. Nowhere is this truer than in combating the criminalization and incarceration of trans people. Our country locks its own people up at a rate unrivaled in the world, and too many of those people are trans. Prison in the U.S. is still frequently a brutal place for more than 2 million people, and among those to whom it is most brutal are trans prisoners. We know CeCe McDonald and the real woman who inspired Sophia Burset aren't alone. We know there are trans faces and voices missing here today and every day because they're behind bars. NCTE hears from them all the time, in page after page of handwritten letters about the constant humiliation from guards; about months spent in the hole; about ignorant doctors cutting your estrogen off because "you're not really transgender"; about wardens saying, "I don't care what the doctor says; we're not giving you testosterone"; about being denied a bra and then punished because men look at your breasts; about piles of ignored grievance forms. And we know why so many are there. We know police abuses against our community didn't end with Stonewall. We know stigma, discrimination, poverty, and violence funnel trans people into the criminal-justice system. We know we are not the only minority for whom this is true. The issues are complex, and solutions multifaceted, but there has never been a better time to press for them. America's addiction to mass incarceration is increasingly being seen across the political spectrum as a civil-rights, human-rights, fiscal-responsibility, and faith issue. Trans and allied activists must be part of the debates not just about ending prison rape but about banning police profiling, ending mandatory-minimum sentences, changing our drug laws, and replacing the criminalization of sex work with policies based on health, safety, and rights. We have an outsized stake in these efforts, and we are indispensable to them.
  8. We also need, engaging in all those debates and every other debate from coast to coast, transgender people in every aspect of politics, including transgender political candidates. The experience of gay and lesbian elected officials, and indeed all types of minority groups around the U.S. and the world, shows that when someone from the group being debated is themselves one of the policy makers, it changes the whole conversation. In D.C. the saying is, "Personnel is policy." We need to be at the table -- every table. We need to be city-council members, county commissioners, school-board members, judges, mayors, and representatives and senators. So think about someone you know who could and should run for office, or think about yourself. We should not fool ourselves that we can change everything through the political and legal systems, but for those things we can, being visible as candidates and elected officials is practically indispensable.
  9. At the same time, perhaps an even more pressing need is to invest our movement's growing resources in direct service, support, and community building just as much as -- at least as much as -- policy, legal, and training work. There's a tendency to think that if we can get all the right laws and policies in place and give everybody cultural-competence training, we will achieve the change we need. Certainly most of the activist-minded students I talk to are interested in doing law or policy work. I tell them that's what I do because it suits my personality, and someone does need to do it, but it's not necessarily the most important thing our communities need. Law, policy, and training don't make oppression disappear; in fact, the gap between policy and practice is often a great chasm. It should be plain that this is true of nondiscrimination laws, for all their value. They will not make prejudice evaporate in a day. If you're discriminated against on the job, or at school, or at a shelter, no matter where you live, there is something you can do, but it can be hard to know where to start. And while we have strong LGBT-movement organizations that do impact-oriented legal work on trans issues, they are not set up to take the majority of cases where people need help, and in most communities we don't yet have free, trans-competent legal services that will take those cases, or resources to help people file complaints without a lawyer (though the recently formed Trans Legal Services Network has the potential to help make that happen). More than legal help, many in our communities need so much help overcoming the effects of years of discrimination in jobs and education. Changing the laws won't fix that. We've got to create solutions in our own communities.

    When it comes to health care, exclusions have meant that surgeons specializing in treating trans folks have designed their practices to rely on higher out-of-pocket prices, while most mainstream surgeons, who are used to taking insurance, haven't learned how to adapt their work to trans people's needs. As the bad old exclusions fall, we need to find ways to help folks navigate the process of finding quality care that's covered. And we must work harder to ensure that community clinics and other providers serving low-income communities, especially those outside of major cities, are ready and willing to make hormone therapy part of their regular primary-care practice.

    Consider also the problem of sexual abuse behind bars. NCTE helped write the federal rules that say decisions about whether to house a trans person in men's or women's prisons have to be made based on what is safest for the individual, not just on genitals. But the rules have made almost no difference so far nationwide in how trans people are housed, because they're buried in so many other new rules and leave a huge amount of discretion and are up against deeply ingrained assumptions. We recently put out a guide to advocating with local jails on their policies, but just having it written down at the local level isn't going to do it either. The support has to be there for individual trans people who have been assaulted, or sent to solitary, or denied medical care, to connect them to community when they are most alone, and to help them wave those rules in the faces of officials to get them actually followed, one case at a time -- not to mention helping them get on their feet when they're finally released.

In all these areas and many others, changing the law is only going to mean so much if we don't create the support, in our local communities, to make it real.

So that's my nine-point program for the trans movement. It is by no means complete, but every one of these steps is critical to moving forward in the years ahead.

Of course, a movement needs more than a plan. It needs a philosophy, a vision, and a community behind it.

As we continue to work for a better world, we must ground our struggle in love for ourselves, each other, and our wider community. Dr. King teaches us that love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend, that only love, and not hate, can drive out darkness. Every one of us has reason for resentment -- against our lawmakers, our employers, our teachers, our neighbors, and not least against each other, as we inevitably differ over how to better our lives. We may be quick to see a different expression of identity as a threat to recognition for our own, in effect gender policing ourselves. We may react to a difference of language or strategy as though it were a craven betrayal. But as Dr. King teaches, we've got to stick with love, because hate and resentment are too great a burden to bear. Love has been the foundation of all successful struggles for human dignity, and so it must be with ours.

So we will differ, we will argue vigorously, we will sometimes have to hold one another to account, but let us always do it with love and devote ourselves to making friends of enemies, not enemies of friends. We must love ourselves no matter what anyone else says. We must love each other in all our diversity and disagreement. We must love and stand up for all among us who have been marginalized and stigmatized in multiple ways. We must not say, "Genderqueer people are not my community. Undocumented trans people are not my community. Trans people who do sex work are not my community. I deal with enough stigma without standing beside those folks."

We must love our non-trans allies in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer communities, who increasingly not only get it but are doing heroic legal, political, and community work for trans people. Allies still have to have accountability, and sometimes they need to get schooled, but we must be allies to each other still. And though it seems unfair (and not all of us can stomach it some days, given the things we've been through), as a movement, we must return the meanness and pettiness of those who oppose our rights, whether we encounter them at a school-board meeting or a local petition drive. Understanding that meanness and pettiness are typically driven by ignorant fear, we must not meet them in kind but with a firm insistence that our humanity is not a threat to anyone else's. That is how movements are built. And that is how victories are won.

I want to leave you all with a question. As a community, there is no question that we have come a long way in a short time. We have accomplished not just changes in our laws but in our culture that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. There's also no question that we have a long, long way to go until no one has to hide who they are for fear of being ejected from their job, their home, their church; losing custody of their own children; or being assaulted on the street.

Until no one has to answer questions about their genitalia when they're just trying to open a bank account or apply for food stamps or use a public restroom.

Until lies about us are no longer used as a ploy for political fundraising.

Until no one is suspended from school for wearing a skirt, or told it wouldn't have happened if they hadn't been so flamboyant.

Until no one knows they should get that thing checked out but doesn't go to a doctor because the last one treated them like a freak, and the one before that just turned them away.

Until no young person is slapped, or beaten, or forced to stuff their clothes in a knapsack and find somewhere to sleep for the night, or told to never, ever say a word again about who they are.

Until no one is stopped or arrested for walking while trans, or because the only line of work they haven't been pushed out of is criminalized.

Until no one has to uproot their life and make a new home in this country because it was not safe to be who they were where they were, only to have to live in the shadows, be denied health care, locked in jail, and deported back into danger.

Until no one has to choose between continuing their education and saving for health care.

Until we have beaten AIDS.

So there is no question that there is plenty to do. But my question to you is: What will you do? What will you do when you emerge, probably both energized and exhausted, from this gathering and go back to your everyday? Some of you are seasoned activists, and a very few are lucky enough to get paid for it. Some of you are just finding your way in the world. Some of you have never been in a room full of trans folks before. Some of you are community elders, and some are passionate allies. Each of you can and must add your power to this movement; you must act. Sometimes we think sharing articles on Facebook is enough -- and that's part of it, just like the conversations we have with our families and neighbors are part of it -- but I know you all can do more. I hope you'll join us for the Transgender Lobby Day in D.C. next month, or set up a visit with your congressperson's local office -- but I know you can do more than that.

Everywhere in your community, in your life, there are people who need to hear our stories; people who need competent services; folks who need to know about the rapidly expanding protections we already have; policies and cultures that need to be changed in schools, clubs, charities, nursing homes, DMVs, group homes, welfare offices, sheriff departments, sports leagues, and houses of worship. There are leaders and decision makers who have never talked to a trans person. There are other communities and groups working for change who are ready to be our allies if we are willing to both teach and learn from them.

You don't have to work for a nonprofit or be a trained lobbyist or any kind of expert, and you don't have to do it alone. You could be working to provide needed services, to raise funds, to educate, to do research, to create art, to change laws or policies, to build community. But my charge to you is that you have to do something -- something meaningful to improve the lives of all of us, and of those who aren't able to be here today.

What will you do to create a better world in which to be ourselves?

Thank you.