Time magazine's latest cover, starring "Orange Is The New Black" actress Laverne Cox, breaks another barrier for LGBT civil rights -- one of positive visibility in the mainstream. Many of us will breathe out the word "finally," while others will lament the rapid changes in popular culture, as if gender expression were a static thing in the past century. Gender and gender expression have always been fluid. We just pretended it wasn't.
If we were to take a school trip back to the 1950's, our boys would likely show up in loose jeans and baggy t-shirts, and our girls might be in tight jeans and even tighter t-shirts. Some girls would have baseball caps, and some boys might have satchels. The (heterosexual) guys might want to keep their clothes as loose as possible because tight clothes on a guy is often code for being gay. And the teen girls might be socialized to make sure they would be well noticed. The boys and girls, the men and women of 1950, would flip that image. The men would be in slacks -- or jeans if they were doing manual labor. The women would be in long skirts. At 50 feet away you could easily tell which sex you were looking at by the cut of the fabric. Our modern school trip would be alien, confusing and gender-bending radical. Yet we often pretend that how boys and girls express themselves and their gender today is constant throughout our history. In fact, we train our kids how to express their gender. We teach it.
Struggles around gender roles and gender identity are more than issues around clothing, but clothing is often the easiest marker for people's reactions against those who push the boundaries. For many people it's a life matter that's rooted as deep in their bodies and DNA.
As religious people, we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. There's not a qualifier to that command. Love one another. That is the basis of community, religious or otherwise. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves because we are quiet in the face of societal pressure, it's for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC -- over 40 percent identifying as LGBT -- it's for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again.
Transgender New Yorkers have little protection in the law when it comes to employment, hospital treatment, or housing. The Empire State Pride Agenda's research shows that "one out of every three transgender New Yorkers [have] been homeless at one time, two out of every three [experience] discrimination at work, and nearly 30 percent [have] faced a serious physical or sexual assault."
For those who follow the teachings of Jesus, or other progressive religious voices centered in compassion, we are called to care for those who are homeless, who are poor, or who are ill. I believe that also means to help ensure those conditions do not come about, and to avoid contributing to those forms of pain and suffering. Where society treats someone differently because of their identity or genuine self-expression, we as a society are called to repent for our complicity. This is why I support GENDA, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.