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Vincent Paolo Villano Headshot

What's in a Name?

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Two weeks ago, the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) announced a huge victory for transgender rights: the Social Security Administration (SSA) would no longer verify gender with work records provided by employers. Before this victory, transgender people with inconsistent gender markers between work and SSA records often resulted in SSA sending "gender no-match" letters to employers, outing transgender people in potentially unsafe workplaces. Last year alone, SSA sent out over 700,000 gender no-match letters with their SSNVS system. And today, with this one minor change, transgender people can feel safe that SSA won't put their jobs at risk.

But my euphoria faded quickly after an NCTE member replied to the announcement with this:

Given the name of the communications manager, I would like to confirm the citizenship status of Vincent Paolo Villano. I hope NCTE would not knowingly hire an illegal or the offspring of illegals. I also hope that NCTE validates the citizenship status of all their employees. If not, to either case, then I will be reconsidering my support and membership.

I was stunned, dismayed that this person, a transgender woman, would spoil a victory because it may have been won with the help of an undocumented immigrant. Even more shocking is her sense of entitlement: that her indignation over perceptions of nothing but my name permitted her to demand answers about my citizenship status.

But here's the thing: I am an immigrant. And a femmie gay one, too.

I immigrated to the United States in January of 1990, five years after my dad enlisted in the U.S. Navy. In 1985, he moved to San Diego to complete his military training, and four years later, my mom and my two siblings followed, leaving me behind in the Philippines with my godmother. Military regulations required that my father serve for 15 years before he could apply for citizenship. Fortunately, in the time that we were separated, my parents never had to face the difficult questions about when I could reunite with them, or whether we would all have to be sent back to the Philippines. This, mind you, is an "easy" immigration story amid America's failed immigration system.

Growing up gay in a Filipino household wasn't easy, though. The first family member I came out to was my sister. I was so nervous. She fell silent as I stared at the ceiling waiting for a response. She said, "I know, Vincent, just don't start wearing dresses or anything." I was struck by her reaction because, at that point, I had not recognized how effeminate I was. And it took me some years afterwards to accept and love my femininity.

Jump to today, after being away from a household where my gender was constantly surveilled, you can imagine my surprise when who I am is -- once again -- being forced under a microscope. In a strongly worded reply to the member's email, NCTE Executive Director Mara Keisling said it best:

People who have names that do not sound like European immigrant names, often face disrespect just as trans people find ourselves facing down ignorance from people who doubt our authenticity. When you or I are asked to show ID to prove we are women, it is caused by this same type of ignorance.

It's because of this ignorance that NCTE also advocates for fair immigration policies. No, not just because I am a queer immigrant on the team. It's more than that. It's because queer people, transgender people and immigrants share the same vision of justice in this country, the kind of justice that shows fairness and equality regardless of who we are, what we look like or what we believe in.

Mara continued:

[I]f we live in a country where it is acceptable to disrespect anyone as you did today, we have to expect that it will be okay to disrespect any of us. If we want to live in a country where people aren't disrespecting trans people this way, so we need to live in a country where we aren't disrespecting people of color or anyone this way.

With the exception of a few leaders and organizations, we have not yet done a good job of telling a narrative of justice that demands our investment in the injustices against others. And we shouldn't do it because of silly emails like the one we received last week. We should do it because fighting for equality at the exclusion of some isn't really equality at all, and it isn't really a country we should want to live in.

And what is to happen with the author of this email? MALDEF (the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund) is getting a $100 donation in her name to help step up their inclusive education and policy change efforts.