Thank You, Governor Brown

10/12/2011 09:13 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Governor Jerry Brown of California recently signed the Gender Nondiscrimination Act into law. This law makes illegal discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression (basically either identifying as or presenting as a sex other than the one assigned to you at birth, be you male, female, Ziggy Stardust or otherwise). It is, more or less, everything those of us who are on the trans spectrum want and need in terms of sadly required legal protections for the egregious act of being ourselves.

Something interesting happened, though, in the signing of that bill: for once, trans rights were not bargained away in the interests of same-legal-sex marriage. I say "same-legal-sex" because many trans people, including me, don't have our identified sex legally recognized, so it's thoroughly possible that the government would consider my next girlfriend to be, for all intents and purposes, heterosexual. For once, the rights of cisGLB* people did not come before a push to secure for trans people simple protections in housing and education and employment and the simple dignities of everyday life: public accommodations.

I found it rather ironic, upon reflection, that Governor Brown signed this law. Not because I doubt his commitment to trans equality, rare among progressive governors (note Governor Cuomo's silence and lack of use of the bully pulpit when it comes to trans rights in same-legal-sex-marriage-allowing New York, unlike his predecessor). I find it ironic because Governor Brown was also governor when Proposition 13 passed in his state in 1979. This is a law that has consistently stymied progressive forces in California when a clear majority favoured a reasonable tax increase, protecting the right of a well-heeled minority to impoverish the public for the advancement of its own ends... and while I hope for its repeal one day, Governor Brown has managed to strike a significant blow against another political shibboleth that has stymied real progress in America for over 30 years:

He has eliminated the unquestioned preeminence of cis** gays and lesbians in the LGBT movement, or as some critics have dubbed it, the LGb(t) movement. There was an unspoken consensus on the left (trans people and their advocates excepted) that incrementalism would consist of getting as many protections for sexual orientation as possible, and then, and only then, would rights on the basis of gender identity and expression be considered. Trans people and others who know the history of TBLG*** rights in the Western world find it gallingly ironic, given that it's likely that trans civil rights heroine Sylvia Rivera threw the shoe that started the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and that trans people were instrumental in the staging of the Dewey's lunchcounter sit-in in 1965 Philadelphia. Despite this leading role in fighting for acceptance for those who didn't fit quite so neatly into the narrow roles assigned to people in those days, by 1973, Sylvia Rivera was refused the ability to speak at the gay (which was then more of a catch-all term) rights rally in New York City. Trans people were generally pushed off the stage in the 1970s.

Why was this the case? Part of it was, I think, a desire to be seen as acceptable and assimilating by some in the movement, the idea being that if the "freaks" were marginalized, then perhaps acceptance might be gained. Personally, I see this as a self-defeating strategy: to tacitly concede that your life is right at the periphery of what is considered acceptable is tantamount to inviting the next backlash to wash you back into the closet, but then, I wasn't really sitting in on those meetings, being negative-10-years-old at the time. Part of it was, also, cissexist (that is, the belief that one's assigned sex in some way modifies or diminishes one's identified sex), attitudes caused sexual orientation anxieties. In much the same way that trans people, especially trans women, often face violence from avowedly straight cis men who believe that they have had their sexual orientation violated by having so much as an attraction to a trans woman, some of the rhetoric that has come out of cis gay and lesbian spaces, especially lesbian spaces, referring to trans people as infiltrators... well, there's simply too detailed a legacy of hate to begin to pick apart in an article whose original purpose was to thank Governor Brown for realizing that progress on trans rights doesn't need to get in line behind same-legal-sex-marriage, or whatever else Barney Frank wants cis gays and lesbians to have and trans people to not have.

Thank you, Governor.

*Being trans and lesbian at the same time, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that one can't be gay and lesbian at the same time, but one can be cis and bi or trans and gay, etc.

**"Cis" is Latin for "on the same side" and is to "trans" what "heterosexual" is to "homosexual," a non-normative term to refer to the majority without saying that their lives are any more or less valid.

***I've picked up the habit of playing musical chairs with "bisexual," "gay," "trans" and "lesbian," just to point out that none ought to have prevalence.