Over the past months there has been a good deal of debate over who speaks for the transgender community, with the lines being drawn between those who do drag -- mostly gay men but some trans women -- and those who don't. A corollary issue has been the use of language by members of the drag community, some of which is in-group specific, and some of which comes from a time many decades ago when the trans community had virtually no public exposure. In those days the cross-gender behavior seen by most Americans was in shows performed by female impersonators, again mostly gay men who were often, but not always, gender-nonconforming in their daily lives.
I've expressed my concern that while I'm not alarmed about the language that subcommunities use within their groups, I am troubled when it is projected publicly and is seen as indicative of the behavior of the larger trans community. The vast majority of trans women are not doing drag for a living, make no attempt at caricaturing women, and most simply want to be seen as who they are: women like all others. They are not producing performance art, nor are they, except in the most abstract and academic sense like all others, performing gender. That people speaking on behalf of the trans community are predominantly gay men is very troubling. It reaches a significant national audience with RuPaul, but it also happens to be problematic on the local scenes throughout this country as well, including in my home state of Maryland.
The promotion of the real lives of trans women took another hit last week when Harvey Fierstein's new play, Casa Valentina, was set to appear on Broadway at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater on April 23. This play is about the lives of male heterosexual crossdressers in the 1960s in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York, a summer vacation region that my family visited every summer during those years. I have neither seen nor read it, and for all I know it may be terrific, as Fierstein is a wonderful playwright, but, once again, I am anxious that the portrayal of this segment of the trans community will paint a distorted picture for America of trans women. Educating the nation that trans women are women assigned male at birth and living with a medical condition has not been easy, and promoting this segment of the community long before trans women have all their rights and can live in peace threatens to undo some of the progress we've made. Also, the play is written by a gay man, not a trans woman or even a heterosexual crossdresser.
It's true that today about one half of crossdressers identify as trans women who would transition if they could, but characterizing this community as it was in those days, a group of heterosexual men who enjoy dressing as women, is problematic in educating our neighbors that being a woman is more than drag or dress-up for men. This is just one more example added to the inaccurate portrayal of the large majority of trans women, another being Rayon in the Oscar-winning film The Dallas Buyer's Club.
This feels like an onslaught of misrepresentation, though I know the flurry is purely coincidental. So it was quite surprising when a story broke in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, written by Jo Becker, entitled, "How the President Got to 'I Do' on Same-Sex Marriage." This is an excerpt from her new book, Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality. Now, if this were meant to be a narrative simply about the president's journey, or the Olsen-Boies Prop 8 case, it would be relatively uncontroversial. But because the author makes it sound like more than that, with the title implying that Chad Griffin's actions with AFER were the "spring" of the movement, similar to the Arab Spring, and not just the latest phase, she infuriated many leaders in the gay community.
But it's worse than just the title. She claims that the movement had been "languishing in obscurity," and she trivializes the efforts of Evan Wolfson, generally regarded as the godfather and leader of the movement, even by his political adversaries. She elevates Chad Griffin to the level of Rosa Parks, the African-American civil rights icon, and she insults Andrew Sullivan, one of the earliest conservative proponents of same-sex marriage, to such a degree that he lashed back. And that has engendered a cutting response from another community leader, Elizabeth Birch, the former president of the Human Rights Campaign.
Apparently there is now a public-relations effort by HRC to take the credit for the changes in marriage rights that have been sweeping the country. Aside from the fact that marriage equality is not yet a constitutional right (though we're moving rapidly in that direction through the courts), it is the act of credit claiming that is causing this firestorm. As Chris Geidner reports, "The debate over the Prop 8 price tag is just one part of a much larger battle within the legal world of LGBT rights: the fight for credit." Griffin did act boldly, the organized gay community united in resistance almost immediately, and at the end of the day, in 2013, Griffin's team (and America) won, by a 5-4 Supreme Court vote. That much is true.
But the hagiography of Griffin is a bit much. While HRC often does great grassroots work, as they did for marriage in New York and Maryland, they have often been one member of a team effort, if often the major partner. Marriage passed in Maryland due to the actions of Gov. Martin O'Malley, who himself was inspired to do the necessary heavy lifting by President Obama. Without the leadership of the president and the work of his grassroots organization, Organizing for America (OfA), marriage equality would not have survived the referendum process in 2012.
And just a few months ago the HRC donated a large sum of money to the gay-rights group Equality Maryland. This money went for completely unnecessary grassroots action in support of the gender-identity bill, a bill that, after six years of apathy and ineptitude from some gay leaders, who were focused on domestic partnership and marriage to the near-exclusion of all else, needed arm twisting within the statehouse, not postcard writing and phone banking from without. In spite of contributing little to moving the bill through its major obstruction of many years, Equality Maryland and its gay supporters claimed credit. Sounds just like Ms. Birch's description of GGS: gay grandiosity gyndrome. Some people, and organizations, simply can't help themselves.