Thursday, July 31, 2008

Addresing Racism

I want to share a very well-crafted video that I found (surprisingly) in my lazy Facebook forays a couple of nights ago. Usually Facebook is just an excuse for me to compare myself to my peers and wonder how they're doing, so I was shocked that it wielded this great video. My friend who manages the blog Atoms Arranged Meaningwise was the one who originally found it, and all kudos should go to her.

[Image description: In a grey-toned video a young light-skinned man speaks directly to the camera. He is wearing a T-shirt and has short close-cropped hair. At times, key phrases appear on the screen next to him in yellow. The video has a slightly jerky feel, but it is intentional.]

I really enjoyed this video, and the subsequent blog "Ill Doctrine". I didn't know if I would enjoy it as the premise, of how to speak to someone about race, is a premise that could easily go poorly and conclude around some basic sweeping statement. The statement is a little broad, but based on my experiences of working in multiple situations where I've had to encounter racist comments, I do agree on his conclusion. The man in the video is clearly well-versed at what he does, and I think his messaging reflects a very scary reality. The reality that being called "racist" is one of the most often-used criticisms that people can easily deny by claiming "black friends" or "having international family". Confronting racism is something no one but a handful of people want to address, so you have to, as he put is, "have a strategy". No one want to admit to racism, but an individual act can be much more manageable to address.

There are very few people who are consciously racist or white supremacist, people who do believe that white folks are biologically and intellectually better than folks of color. However, there are many many people who believe this but are not aware that they do, and this includes a lot of folks who are consciously attempting to live anti-racist lives. I wrote about one of these confrontations earlier, and I used a similar approach of addressing the issue and not the personality of the person. I think the approach the person in this video advocates allows for more of these conversations to continue, so that an individual can eventually address their internalized white supremacy and racism. It's an approach that I hope to embody, and that I know has worked successfully on me. As you address an individual act (being surprised to find a Latino man in the applicant pool for a CEO job), the individual might begin to consider why they (who don't believe themselves to be racist) would have a white supremacist thought, and they begin to examine what they think about Latino men and their education.

Edit: One of my colleagues brought to my attention that the RaceWire blog has also picked up on this video and has added some fantastic commentary on where the Ill Doctrine falls short. It's an incredible read, as always.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

On “The Transgender Child” and new transgender narratives

About two weeks ago I finished reading Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s new book “The Transgender Child: a handbook for families and professionals”. The book is incredibly well done, and while some of its suggestions are vague, the vagueness is a direct result of the great gender diversity transyouth (and adults) can have. Brill and Pepper do a good job of not pining and specific template of transgender identity on these youth. However, I was disappointed by the incredibly short sections on intersecting identity. For youth with (other) disabilities the section basically translated as "good luck!" and for the section on religious and ethnic intersections, it could be translated as "some communities are difficult, but your child is worth it". The book was written with a heterosexual married white adult in mind who has a well-paying job and is able-bodied. There were attempts to steer away from that metaidentity, but they weren't too successful. I feel compelled to forgive, as the book is still invaluable, yet still be upset because by now we should know better. [Image Description: The cover for Transgender Child. The upper 1/3 is a lime green color and carries a large quote which is illegible. The lower 2/3 are white, and carry the authors names and the title of the book, all in grey.]

I had requested The Transgender Child as an early birthday present for several reasons, the most prominent being that I feel a need to understand the great diversity of my community, including youth. Although I do not plan to have children or be in a position where transgender children will view me as a role model, I am often asked to speak towards their needs. Normally such questions would mildly irritate me, but seeing that my job involves me having a position of some authority on transgender issues I feel an obligation to stay informed.

Also, the story of my transition doesn’t involve me having any definitive feelings of male or genderqueer identity early in my life. So it interests me to read more about youth who already know, at such a young age, that they are male, female, gender variant, or gender fluid. As I read the book I realized that the increasing amount of transgender youth will be drastically changing the narrative that transgender adults have formed to discuss and provide resources for our identities. While there have certainly been a few stories of note about transgender children who were supported in their gender identities before the 2000s, there can be no doubt that more and more youth are coming out and being acknowledged these days.

For the lucky youth whose gender identities are affirmed and supported by their guardians this means that they will live a significant part of their life in the identity they desire. In any community this will still present issues and families will have to struggle with sports teams, legal identification, doctors visits, bullying, and public bathroom use among numerous other complications. However, it also means that youth will be affirmed as who they are before creating a second life – marrying, having children, serving in the military, obtaining degrees given in birth names etc that often make transitioning when older much more difficult. The models that those of us who have had to merge our young adult/adult life into our new life created won’t be relevant for this coming generation, as they may very well interact with their identity in a new way. The book even mentions how many of these youth don’t want to be called transgender - that they want only to be recognized as male or female. This is of course, absolutely OK. There are many adults who identify only as male or female and I absolutely support individuals claiming the correct language for their experiences. However it will change the landscape of gender narratives. Like all change it's initially exciting, but I wonder what the repercussions will be, and whether us older transfolk will ultimately accept these younger narratives.

Of course, there will always be transfolk coming out when they're 40 and 60 and 20. Our exploration of gender and sex will always be a continuing process, so the emergence of transyouth doesn't signify an end to older transgender identities. The main thought I had, though, as I read the handbook, was that these youth could come up in a world where they want to blend into cigender and heterosexual privilege, or they could be brought up to be proud of their transgender history, and I hope that they do feel pride even as they encounter great difficulty.

Finally, the most surprising part of the book, for me, was finding a passage that reflected a part of my identity completely. I had very little connection to the stories that wove the handbook together, but a quote from a mother of a transmale youth stood out. The young man, who at that time hadn't stated his transmale identity to his mother, had gotten his first period, and responded by hiding in his room and becoming depressed. The mother chalked that up to the depression many cigender women feel as their bodies change. However, she then discovered that her son wasn't using any tampons, pads, or other menstrual devices. It was as if he was going to will his period into disappearing. Which was when the mother realized something bigger was going on and found out (later) that her child was transgender. This is such a complete illustration of how I handle my period. When I go to work I behave like I should and take care of it, but as soon as I come home I remove all sanitary devices in the hopes that if I pretend it isn't happening it eventually will stop happening. Which is ridiculous, but clearly to at least two transmen this makes perfect sense.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

An Assault and its Aftereffects

This post concerns a detailed description of an assault, so I want to warn readers that it could spark some triggers.

I know that many of the folks who read my blog also read my partner’s blog, and so there are several of you who have e-mailed me in the past weeks with concern over her latest post. Thank you so much for contacting me, I can’t even begin to tell you how comforting it has been to receive your e-mails and phone calls.

I wasn’t sure I was going to write about this but I feel compelled to discuss the situation and our various decisions around it in its entirety. So I find myself writing about violence once again, only this time it is violence against me and not fictional film violence or the idea of violence against women.

On Friday night I was assaulted and mugged at around 4:20 AM less than a block from my apartment. I was walking home from the subway after seeing a very good friend in Manhattan. I had been careful until that point, scanning around to look for other people and walking on the most well lit path that leads to our apartment. Two young men came out from behind a car and the moment I saw them I thought, “they are going to hurt me” which was immediately followed by one of them punching me twice in the chin. The same young man then told me to give him all my money. At the same time he was saying that, though, I screamed “Jesus Fucking Christ” because, you know, I was just punched twice in the chin.

My voice is fairly high-pitched. Most cigender women think its low, most cigender men think it’s high, I think it usually outs me as trans. So, of course, the two men look at me in that way and the same one asks, “fuck, are you a girl?” And, as I fish out my wallet and hand them the whopping $10 I have on me I say, “I’m male, I have a high pitched voice.” I’m handing out the money to the man who has so far said nothing, but he indicates with his head that I should give it to the other guy. I do, and he says, “now move along”. After waiting to make sure they’re moving too, I begin my walk of less than 100 feet to my apartment where I crawl into bed with my partner and start sobbing uncontrollably.

The more my partner and I have thought over the assault the more I realize that there was very little I could do in the situation, and that if there was any logic behind the attack it has to do with systems that I represent.

In 2006 employment of Black men in NYC was at 50%, meaning half of all Black men were either working under-the-table kind of jobs or were unemployed.* Given our current economy the young men (and I don’t know how they would identify racially) who assaulted me probably didn’t see any direct means of employment in their future. Moreover, as I doubt they make much money mugging in our neighborhood, it’s a good way to get out anger at a system that will always keep them down. NYC schools (and these men were high school age) are some of the worst and most highly segregated in the US, and our neighborhood is situated in area that is both devoid of any form of cultural pride and slowly being encroached by young white folk like myself. Certain areas of Bushwick retain a sense of Latino and Black Pride, with amazing organizations such as Sista II Sista that work for and within communities of color, but not our neighborhood.

Most middle class folks would probably describe my neighborhood as “bad”, which has as much to do with white middle class aspirations as it does with actual safety. My neighborhood is an odd assortment of broken down buildings, barely concealed sweatshops, and apartments, yet I have never felt unsafe there. True, at night I do remain extra-vigilant but no more so than in any other neighborhood. During the day there are elderly folks and children everywhere, generally sitting out on stoops until 10PM. The neighborhood is overwhelmingly Puerto Rican, and I know I’m one of only a handful of white folks in the area. The area is also fairly poor and working class, though definitely not impoverished. Now that Brooklyn is “hip” and white folks like me are moving in everywhere, it must be read as infuriating that one of the few affordable neighborhoods is now populated with white men who can afford to go out drinking in Manhattan until 4:20AM.

I don’t know if my attack was random, or if I was targeted for being scrawny and little, or if my whiteness or my effeminate mannerisms had to do with anything. I don’t know if I would have been more assaulted if I were a butch woman, or if being a woman would have left me unscathed. I don’t know if my high-voice freaked them out enough that they left, or if my gender identity had any effect on the assault whatsoever. None of the thought-out reasons for assaulting me - my whiteness, my perceived class privilege, my gender identity - make my assault right. But it does make any response on my part more complicated.

I didn’t call the police. In fact, it never really crossed my mind and my partner never even suggested it. After all, what are the police going to do besides bother more of my fellow residents? The two men were so nondescript that they’d be harassing every male youth in the neighborhood, if they even took my complaint seriously. Police harassment of young men of color is just going to encourage seeing the police, the criminal justice system, and the young white men like myself as systems that reinforce racial stereotyping and will do nothing to actually deter crime.The criminal justice system doesn’t rehabilitate youth either, so should these men land in jail the chances of them gaining a better education, becoming employed post-incarceration, and reevaluating their relationship with violence is more than minimal. Moreover, I’m certain the police wouldn’t take my complaint seriously – what the hell was I doing out at 4AM? Why didn’t I protect myself? What kind of man am I?...etc. I’ve previously had run ins with the police and even in Minnesota, where the St. Paul police are supposed to be some of the most community-minded, non racist and non-sexist, they never really gave a fuck.

I am however considering calling the Anti-Violence Project, which records instances of violence against LGBT or perceived LGBT folk. I don’t think I was targeted as a transman, but my gender identity and my size certainly entered the conversation. If AVP can use my assault as part of their initiative to protect LGBT folks equally under the law, then I’ll contact them, because that seems like a useful thing that won’t reproduce patterns of violence and racism. As I think about my assault I realize that any changes in my behavior should be about addressing the reasons why assaults like this happen, and not targeting the two young men. My partner and I are considering attending self defense classes at the Center for Anti-Violence Education, although I have my doubts about their use.

In the meantime, my partner and I are both OK. I have a nasty bruise, and I’ve had trouble sleeping recently, but the incident was so random and unrelated to me as an individual that I’m trying to not take it too seriously. My heart starts beating faster on the walk from subway to apartment, but I’m sure we will both continue to be OK. Again, thanks to everyone who checked-in with me. I was feeling a little weird as I went to several functions over the weekend and nobody commented on the huge purple bruise covering my chin until Tuesday. It was nice to know you all cared and to have a space to process it.

* TransJustice/Audre Lorde Project. “Trans Day of Action for Social and Economic Justice.” Color of Violence: the INCITE! anthology. Ed. INCITE!. Massachusets: South End Press, 2006. 227-230

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Transitoning and Feminism

I never decided to transition, although I do think of my transition as a choice. I believe that I could be living my life as a woman, but I have no doubt that the severe depression I found myself in during college and the scary mood swings would be a major part of my life. So I didn’t decide to become a man all of a sudden, rather I decided to do what I needed to do to feel good about myself. It turned out, that was living as a man. But I didn’t decide that, it came upon me slowly and in small out-of-order steps. By the time I realized I was male it was too late to turn back, and I choose then to continue after a strong and serious debate with myself.

A strong part of that debate was trying to decide how to continue my commitment to feminism, and to all women. While my definition of feminism probably deserves its own post, I’ll just say for now that my feminism is based on the writings of the Combahee River Collective and the contributors to This Bridge Called My Back. The feminism I want to support and be a part of is flexible, accepting and rooted in an understanding of interlinking oppressions. I knew when I accepted myself as male that I needed to remember what being a girl had been like, and I needed to make a commitment towards the women in my life.

So, when my partner asked me if I would march with her in the Dyke March at the end of June my first instinct was a “hell yeah”. I had always been in the Dyke March in the Twin Cities, and I supported the thinking behind it – that any celebration of queer life needs to acknowledge and support the different way that women interact with their sexuality and gender identities. Further, the Dyke March is a protest against misogyny and patriarchy, corporate takeover of Pride, and other aspects close to various dyke communities. But then I got nervous – would it be OK for me to march? I would be marching in support of queer women, but what if the female-identified marchers thought I was staking a claim in a women’s community? While I think it’s essential to realize that masculine and genderqueer women make up a large portion of the Dyke/Queer Women’s population I would never force myself, as someone male-identified, into that community. At the same time, I was worried that not marching would be read as a dismissal of the importance of this march. I would be seen as someone who gave lip-service to feminism, but wouldn’t be seen in the presence of strong queer women, marking myself as a supporter. [Image Description: three older white men lining the path of the dyke march. They are standing in front of several bright geen trees. Two are holding a sign in the upper right corner reading "Dykes Make Me Proud" in rainbow letters. In the lower left a sign reading "I heart" is cut off from view.]

There are many different ways to read a man’s presence at a queer women’s event. Judging from conversations with gay male co-workers attending a lesbian-specific event isn’t wrong in their eyes, but it sure is unusual. I feel that there’s a general understanding across all LGBT lines that queer women experience their identities in a different way than queer men, but there’s very little effort to bridge that gap through self-education. Further conversations with co-workers confirmed that we all had a similar concern: would our presence be welcome? Should men attend events as an act of education and solidarity, or should we give these events space allowing for a safer space where explanations don’t need to be given quite as frequently? For me, my attendance of the Dyke March was a bit easier as I was explicitly invited by my partner to march alongside her as her ally.

So I did end up attending, and despite the downpours it was amazing. I also noticed a lot of transmen in attendance, folks I recognized from my circle of friends and from the LGBT Center’s transmasculine group. While being improperly gendered (referred to as female) is for many of us an action that can cut to the quick, I was thrilled to see that we were all sustaining this connection to the women in our lives, and for many of us, the queer women’s spaces we used to frequent. I know that before I was able to commit to the Dyke March I had to seriously consider how I would respond to people who assumed I was female during the march. The only thing I came up with was the fact that I know who I am, and if anyone engages me in conversation I will quickly be seen as male. But in passing, if someone was doing a count of the march and decided I was in the women's category...well it didn't matter too much. I don't want to become invisible, and I don't want to claim identity that's not my own, but for this one day being seen as female is OK. I thought about the allies who attended the gay-straight alliance at my college, the ones who always outed themselves as straight within the first ten seconds. For the rest of us, the flaunting of straight privilege was so irritating we quickly grew to despise the very people claiming to ally with us. I don't want to replicate that. I just want to be proud of all the women who have supported me along my route, all the women who face multiple oppressions everyday, and if that means I'm temporarily read as female, then that's just another reminder to me of what sexism can look like. And that's good. Challenging as it is, that's good.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Review: Lesbian Herstory Archives

As a follow up to my last post on managing my gender and sex identity within women's spaces, I wanted to add a review of the Lesbian Herstory Archives. The Lesbian Herstory Archives, in Brooklyn, houses the largest collection of works on lesbians and queer women in the world. The LHA is also dedicated to making the space accessible by housing it in the community, a conscious effort to not bar access by race or class, and to not demand identification. They also have a point about an individual always living in the space of the archives so that the space is a home, and not an institution. I really enjoy that idea, as it allows the archives to seem emotionally accessible as well.

One of the most exciting things for me was seeing an exhibit in homage to Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson. I have read essays about the case and campaign, and even tried to buy the book, Why Can’t Sharon Kowalski Come Home?, but it’s sadly out of print. However at the archives you can not only read the book but also leaf through pamphlets, speeches, and even T-Shirt collections relating to the campaign to bring Sharon home, and more broadly to instill a system where the wishes of folks with disabilities are respected and not patronized or ignored. Luckily, in keeping with the campaign, the Lesbian Herstory Archives has a wheelchair access ramp, and a fully accessible bathroom. However, the second story where the magazines and personal archives are stored does not appear to be wheelchair accessible.

The second most exciting thing, beyond standing in a room where the lives of queer women were being preserved, honored, and saved for generations to come, came when Alison Bechdel entered with her girlfriend Holly. Alison is the creator of “Dykes to Watch Out For” and the author of “Fun Home”. Her cartoon, which is rumored to be based in the Twin Cities and involves a highly diverse queer cast, was the first place where I found a reflection of myself as transgender within a largely LGB community. Alison's character Jasmine transitions early on with the help of another character, Lois, who also provides Jasmine with a genderqueer role model. Seeing Jasmine's identity being affirmed and supported – despite the differences in race, socio-economic status, and age – helped me immensely. Beyond that, though, Alison's writing and art is clear, witty, beautiful, and extraordinarily reflective of many lives. Below is a photo of us trying to look tough but just looking nervous and eerily similar.

[Image Description: a snapshot photo of Alison Bechdel and me. We are standing inside in front of a white-curtained window and a red "Dyke Avenger" flag. Alison is on the left in a short-sleeved green button-up, and I am on the right in a black muscle-T. We are both white, petite, wearing glasses and have dark black/brown short-cropped hair. We are smiling goofily at the camera.]

I’m glad I swallowed my dual fears of being read as female and of “invading” a women’s space. The Lesbian Herstory Archives were amazing – full archives on various women’s lives dating back for decades, material on all sorts of queer women including some extensive transgender files, and collections that spanned genres and political/social identities. The Archives, though, did not necessarily make me feel accepted or part of a greater community. And I think that's OK. After all, I'm not a member of the queer women's community - I'm certainly tangential, and I care deeply about it. As a man entering a space designed to honor women it's only appropriate that I feel a little nervous. After all, reflecting on that nervous energy helps me to reflect on my male identity, and tat's something I always welcome, challenging as it is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On Language: keeping "gender" specific

I have written a lot on this blog about the need for clear and concise language when discussing issues relating to the legal, medical, and sociological effects of our identities. This post is specifically about transgender identity and language issues, but I think this need to use accurate language applies across many identities.

A recent article originally published in the Matangi Times and a Huffington Post blog from June outline these issues for me. The Matangi Times article focused on a group of men and transwomen from Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands and New Zealand with HIV or AIDS who also have sex with men. The participants, like so many groups in the US, are struggling with the issue of self-identification. Terms such as gay, transgender, and bisexual don't quite speak to their experiences, and years of war and colonization have led to the erasure of any non-Western influenced words. Using words influenced by Western culture ignores the specificity of their experience, but likewise reaching into the past for language doesn't correctly identify current experiences. The article summarizes this very well:
“Participants…stressed the need to identify an appropriate and culturally sensitive terminology for 'MSM' and 'Transgender' in the Pacific Island Region. But the participants acknowledged that coming up with such a term was no easy task and would require further dialogue.”
In the Huffington Post blog the same importance of language is highlighted but without the respect for difference. In this article Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign blogs about the importance of the Transgender Workplace Discrimination hearings but refers to them as the Gender Identity Discrimination hearings. Now the meaning here is extraordinarily different, and I think that very few people understand the huge level of difference between transgender and gender identity. Everybody has a gender identity. Not everybody is transgender. Therefore bills such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) would protect all people from gender identity discrimination - not just transgender people. After all, transgender people can be discriminated against because of sex, race, ability etc. In fact, a recent court case out of Texas summarized this exactly when the Southern District Court of Texas ruled that a transwoman was discriminated against because of sex, as she didn’t look like a “traditional man”. In a reverse version of this, Khadijah Farmer, the butch cigender lesbian booted from a woman’s bathroom, suffered gender identity discrimination when she didn’t look like a “traditional woman”.

One of the things that irked me throughout the entire ENDA campaign is the consistent replacement in both LGBT and non-LGBT press of “gender identity” with “transgender”. No matter how many times transgender advocates patiently explained the differences to reporters the terms remained conflated. Gender identity non-discrimination has been equated to only discriminating against transgender people, and this has created a jargon where a universal discrimination became specific to a much smaller population. Now, when that population wants to have a day in court specific to discussions of their personal discrimination, the language is reversed. All of a sudden someone attempts to universalize the day through labeling it the “Gender Identity Discrimination” hearings, yet it doesn’t even achieve that universality. As the participants telling personal stories were all transgender – or transsexual – identified, gender identity discrimination once again looked like transgender-specific discrimination. The majority of these participants revealed stories specific to gender identity discrimination, but it’s possibly that the trans women suffered from sex discrimination as well (after all, working at NASA or in construction isn’t “traditional” for a woman) and Diego Sanchez has already discussed his encounters with racial discrimination.

I’m happy that the HRC is trying to get back on board with transgender and gender variant folks, but I think they should leave these discussions to the people with the right ability to discuss them – folks from the National Center for Transgender Equality, the various state-wide Transgender Political Coalitions, and the Center for Lesbian Rights – just to name a few. By letting the people who understand these issues the most lead, we will ensure that the discussions reflect the reality of all constituents, and that the best possible language is used.

Brief updates: Call for Papers and a Thank You!

I want to open this post by apologizing for not being very present on my blog for June or July. In June there were so many events related to Pride Month that I was more busy than I thought I would be, and I’ve been feeling very sick recently so my writing has been pretty cloudy and I haven’t wanted to post anything that was not clear in its purpose. So I apologize, but I hope to be posting more as soon as I get over these persistent allergies and colds.

I also want to thank and welcome any readers who came to my blog via the Disabilities Network of New York’s July newsletter. I got a beautiful shout-out on page 7 of their most recent newsletter. I hope you all find this blog interesting and amusing, and please feel free to post comments and e-mail me! I always want to know more about any of the issues I’m blogging about, and I want to hear conflicting opinions. Also I’m always willing to learn how to make my writing and blog more accessible. Thank you again to the Disabilities Network of New York for the spotlight!

Finally, in lieu of an actual update I just saw this call for submissions and thought folks might be interested! The Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies will be publishing two special issues, one on Blindness and Literature and another on Disabling Postcolonialism. The link to their call for submissions is here, and proposals for Blindness and Literature are due by October 1st to guest editor Georgina Kleege, gkleege at Proposals for Disabling Postcolonialism are due before December 1st to guest editors Clare Barker and Stuart Murray at c.f.barker at and S.F.Murray at Both special issues are also accepting book reviews that can be e-mailed to the Book Review Editor, Clare Barker, whose e-mail is above.

Good luck to all those who submit, it looks wonderful!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Trying to Avoid Transgender

Over this last weekend I received my economic stimulus check. Which is great, considering this month was looking a little tight, but unfortunately raised a few questions for me. This check was made out to my former name…misspelled. I have lived with my new legal name for almost two years but the Federal Government continually issues me my tax refund to my previous name…misspelled. Short to say this mistake on Uncle Sam’s part is pretty drastic as my birth name automatically outs me as transsexual -it is ridiculously feminine- and the only part of my name that remains unchanged (my last name) is very badly misspelled.

So last night I dug through boxes of my legal documents - carefully filed doctors notes, letters registering me to vote as male, my temporary ID card listing me as male - trying to find my name change documents from Minnesota. I finally found a version that was not notarized but did include the Judge’s signature and date. I have mailed out so many copies of my name-change to credit card companies, former employers (for reference checks), my student loan companies, and my various educational institutes that I apparently have none left. Hoping for the best, and banking on the fact that I had successfully deposited my tax refund (with the same name issue) in April, I decided to bring this not-quite-that-official document with me today as I attempted to deposit it over my lunch break.

Armed with my documents and the check that would out me as transsexual to my bank…I almost chose to act in a way that would out me as ashamed of my identity. I almost walked an extra couple of blocks in order to go to a different bank branch that I’d be unlikely to visit again. In fact, I had already turned down that street when I stopped and thought about what I was doing. I am so ridiculously out in all aspects of my life – my bank in Minnesota, my credit card companies, my college, my friends and family all know that I am a transsexual man. True, the more institutional of these choose to ignore that fact most days, but I have never actively hid my status before except in cases where I feared some form of violent or emotional recrimination. My very job, this blog, and all of my social networking profiles out me every single day…and yet I wanted to hide this fact from a bank teller?

I quickly turned around and went to my usual bank branch where I had to wait about 10 minutes for my teller to consult with her manager before accepting my check. Luckily my name-change form went unquestioned despite the lack of a proper notarization. It was still embarrassing to have to explain my entire history to a relative stranger, but I did feel better that at least I hadn’t tried to hide my history. Even better, the teller told me to “have a good day, sir” as I was leaving. You should have seen my smile.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Unionizing in Restaurants

I have finally gotten around to reading the new Colorlines and I am excited to say that my love for the magazine continues to be justified. This issue, unofficially dubbed the “Women and Children” issue also relied heavily on issues of immigration, specifically employment. The article that caught my eye immediately focused on employment discrimination between white and Latino staff in restaurants.

Before moving to the Big Apple I worked in a restaurant in St. Paul, where the counter staff was overwhelmingly white and the kitchen staff was almost entirely Latino. Of course, there were a few exceptions on either end but the white kitchen staff never stayed over two months and the counter staff of color were all inevitably fired. The extraordinary differences in how staff at the different ends of the establishment were paid and treated were a source of extreme discomfort for all of us. The servers and cooks all knew what was happening was wrong, but being dependent on a job that had no security, severance pay or any form of compensation made the counter staff anxious to complain. On the other hand much of the Latino staff were working on expired Visas or had entered the U.S. without “proper” documents, and complaints could lead to all forms of legal repercussions. Even attempts to improve work that didn’t involve the management, such as joint language sessions where English-speaking employees learned Spanish and Spanish-speaking employees learned English, all failed.

Yes, those of us with the privilege of our skin, our education level, and our language should have spoken up. But unless we did so in a unionized effort the results would have resulted either in our firing, or in repercussions against the Latino kitchen staff – under the assumption that they would have asked the white counter staff to speak up. Also, though, I dislike the paradigm that the white staff should speak up "on behalf of" the Latino staff. Despite language barriers, the Latino chefs were perfectly able to speak for themselves. The fact that they didn't want the white staff to say anything, should have been enough of a deterrent. The few times we spoke together or against a new practice, we saw serious repercussions, I had received repercussions for speaking up on multiple occasions. This doesn’t make it right, but I want to put the context there. In this issue of ColorLines, however, a better option is offered through the organization Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York.

True, like all unions joining runs a lot of risks, but unlike (historically) many other unions, ROCNY has a focus in race differences, especially on Latino staff. Last year ROCNY sent 43 “matched pairs” (I assume this means an equally employable white man and Latino man) into NYC restaurants and found some unsurprising results. For instance, white men were not hired for the “less desirable” positions of runner, buser, or dishwasher as they were not as “’willing’ as Latinos to stay at the same low-wage job” according to the ColorLines report. Yes, it appears that it was all men, which reveals another prejudice in service work (for straight outfits, it's women in the front men in the back) but I have hopes that ROCNY will address that as well. Now that the ROCNY has this information they will be approaching restaurant employees to unionize and fight for better wages and more equitable hiring practices. Even better though, the organizing won’t be just in New York, but they will be approaching employees across the country.

I know a lot of my white friends work in restaurants…and I know we all are aware of the racial politics without ever saying a word about it. So come on…reach out to this organization and let them know you want to be counted too! And if any of my former Latino comrades read my blog (I know, I should learn Spanish and translate it!) I hope this organization can inspire and empower you!

Edit: I just noticed that I had written "I know a lot of my white friends work in restaurants still". So I erased the "still" because I didn't want to judge the decision or the necessity of food service. However, I want to acknowledge here that I did make that judgement, and that I made it specifically for my white friends. So, here it is in an edit: my judgement and my prejudice.