When I was bullied as a child, called names, chased home from school, and sometimes physically attacked, it was because of my gender expression. The way I acted was way more feminine than how most of the people around me thought a boy "should" act. Though I was often told I acted like a girl as a child, I was also usually called anti-gay slurs, like "sissy" or "faggot." I was bullied because of my gender expression, but everyone called it "gay" years before I knew I liked boys, years before I understood I was trans.
I can't even count how many times I have been interviewed and had to explain that "gay" and "trans" aren't the same thing, that being gay is about whom you're attracted to whereas being trans, transgender, or transsexual is about how you see yourself and how you identify your gender and is separate from whom you're attracted to. They aren't the same thing. But even though "gay" and "trans" are distinctly different and separate concepts and identities, we can't fully eradicate homophobia without eradicating transphobia, as well. I was reminded of this last Wednesday, when I sat on a panel, organized by the Stonewall Democrats and the Manhattan Young Democrats, called "Now What: An Activist Life After Gay Marriage." It's a fact that trans folks' issues are often subjugated to those of gays and lesbians. This is evidenced by how trans and gender-nonconforming folks were basically axed from the gay and lesbian civil rights movement in the 1970s, despite the fact that it was mostly trans and gender-nonconforming folks who started the movement with the Stonewall riots in 1969. This tradition was continued when trans folks were dropped from inclusion in the New York bill that would become SONDA (the Sexual-Orientation Nondiscrimination Act), which added sexual orientation to the protected classes in the state's human rights laws. This bill was passed in 2001 without trans inclusion. The leadership at the time said that they would get back to trans folks. Eleven years later we're still waiting for gender expression to be added to protected classes in New York. The bill that would do that is called GENDA (the Gender-Expression Nondiscrimination Act).
Speaking at last week's "Now What" panel, I was reminded that we do ourselves a disservice when we think of fighting for our civil rights piecemeal. In a patriarchal culture, we can't really fully talk about eradicating sexism without talking about eradicating homophobia, as well. So much systemic male domination has occurred because the patriarch doesn't want to appear "soft," which in the homophobic, sexist imagination means "gay," which, within that oppressive logic, also means "like a woman." Historically, many patriarchal men have oppressed women so as to not seem "gay," which, for the patriarch, means, in part, having his masculinity called into question. The patriarch has also oppressed gay folks for the same reason. Based on this oppressive logic, the patriarch has to not only embrace but enforce very rigid gender constructs regarding what it means to be a man or a woman. We can see the links between sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and at the heart of it all gender oppression.
In a gender-binary world, a world that is set up based on two distinct genders, if one is perceived to be outside the binary (whether that person actually identifies outside that binary or not), the possibility of gender oppression exists. For many trans folks, the discrimination we often experience has to do with how someone else might perceive our gender, but people who don't identify as trans but who express their gender in ways that don't conform to the sex they were assigned at birth often experience discrimination, as well. On the "Now What" panel, I cited the case of Khadijah Farmer, who, while using a women's room in a West Village restaurant in New York City in 2007, was asked by a bouncer to leave because he perceived her to be male even though she was assigned female at birth and identified as female. Basically, she is not transgender, but she still experienced gender discrimination based on her gender expression. Farmer is a lesbian woman with a butch presentation and is protected against such discrimination by the GENDA law in place in New York. A statewide bill can protect other folks like Farmer who may not be transgender but who experience gender discrimination based on their perceived gender.
Also, we can begin to spread the word that trans issues are gay and lesbian issues and carry this issue to non-LGBT allies, as well. Trans issues are men's and women's issues, too. Many of us are constantly putting ourselves and others in gender boxes that we just don't fit into, whether or not we identify as trans. This is not to negate the specific discrimination that trans-identified people experience daily and systemically, but gender oppression affects everyone. By truly embracing transgender equality, I believe we can all begin to define what it means to be a man or a woman on our own terms and liberate ourselves from the gender oppression we impose on ourselves and each other.
Folks in New York can urge our state senators to pass GENDA (the Gender-Expression Nondiscrimination Act) now. The state assembly has passed the bill for the fifth year in a row, but the senate has yet to bring the bill to the floor. Time is running out. This current session ends Thursday, but you can call or write your senators and urge them to support GENDA. Find your senator here.
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