Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions for 2009: Remembering Those Before Us

I don't really do New Years Resolutions in the material sense. I don't resolve to go to the gym 3 times a week or anything that could be viewed definitvley. I try to have my goals be more all-encompassing, focusing on changes I want to make in my general outlook and approach to life.

During my last week at GLAAD I helped to draft some opinion pieces on the life of Brandon Teena, all which focused on the the fact that this New Year's Eve is the 15th commmoration of his murder. With that, New Years becomes a day filled with multiple meanings - it is the symbolic end to old things, and the chance to make new beginnings – but it is also the anniversary of one of the most infamous hate crimes in US History.

When I was working with the authors to draft their letters and articles we focused on the idea of resolving to end hate, vioelnce, and discrimiantion against transgender people in 2009. This is a good thought. It's a noble and worthy thought. But since then at least three people have died due to anti-transgender violence.

Just before Christmas, on Dec 23 I learned that Leeneshia Edwards , a transwoman from Memphis, was shot in the face and now lies in critical condition in a Memphis hospital. This is the same city Duanna Johnson and Ebony Whitaker were murdered in, the same state that the amazing Dr. Marisha Richmond works in with the Tennessee Transgender Political Coalition. My heart and thoughts go out to the transgender people and allies of Memphis who must be terrified of the city they love.

And only a few days ago we learned that Taysia Elzy and Michael Hunt were murdered in Indianapolis. Avery was a transgender woman, and Micheal was her boyfriend. Michael's death is like the death of so many SOFFA's, often undocumented as anti-transgender violence so often focuses on transgender people, and not those who love and ally with us. A good resource from the Transgender Aging Network can be found here.

These deaths, these brutal and purposeful acts of violence, are overwhelming. But we can not let them overwhelm us. On New Years Eve my resolution will be to work even harder to stop hate violence and transphobia through education, outreach, and surviving day-to-day as a transgender person. I hope everyone has a safe and happy New Years, and I hope that we are all surrounded by our friends and the family we choose to be with. Let us find strength and joy in each other and our survival in 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Framing Discussions of Mental Health

This post is really only half thought-out as it is a recurring issue for me that I still haven’t properly settled in my mind. As many of you know, transgender people are considered to be suffering from “Gender Identity Disorder (GID)”. This diagnosis is crucial to pursuing things as basic as competent medical care, name changes, and at times proving discrimination lawsuits. Yet the majority of transgender people abhor this diagnosis as it suggests that transgender people, unlike cisgender men or women need someone else to tell them who they are, and that this identity must be done in the purview of the institutions of medicine.

I agree with this position – there is nothing disordered about me, or about being transgender. However, when trans folk talk about getting GID out of the official manual of the DSM-V there tends to be an undertone of ableism that I simply can’t shake. The premise for many of these actions is that transgender identities aren't disorders. However other folks with mental health disabilities could just as easily argue that their identites aren't disordered either, so I worry that these reforms reinforce the divide between folks with cognitive, developmental, or emotional disabilities and those who are considered to be able-bodied.

I am stuck in my theorizing on this issue. Transgender identity is not a mental health issue, but the effect of living in a transphobic world force many transgender people and allies into needing assistance mentally surviving. However, as long as GID remains in the DSM-V it will be used against those who are the least able to defend themselves – predominantly youth and people without the means to communicate with other transfolk. I recently heard Pauline Park speak on this subject and her remarks on the ways in which transyouth are suffering (corporal punishment, electric shock therapy, isolation etc.) made me question the narrowness of the movement to remove GID from the DSM-V.

Clearly transyouth can’t be the only group manipulated by medical industrial complex. As if to prove this point to me, the book I’m reading Andrea Smith’s Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide has provided me with ample clues as to how racial constructions of mental health have been used as justifications for medical mistreatment and experimentation on indigenous people across the globe, and folk of color in the US. She writes “[Colonialists believed that] Indians lacked the language that would allow them to comprehend God…” Smith goes on to link this colonial belief to the ways in which choices have always been made for American Indians with the belief that they are “’in an arrested state of social development’” unable to care for their land or children. Thus, they are experimented on medically and for several generations children are forcibly removed from Indigenous homes, all due to the racist and colonialist concept that American Indians aren’t mentally healthy.

Therefore, it would be wrong to suggest that GID should be removed as it is the only incorrect diagnosis in all of the DSM-V. Clearly many other diagnoses are based on issues of racism, sexism, and capitalism. What I’m still trying to frame is this: how do we remove the disability categories based in racism, homophobia, and sexism without reifying that mental disability is stigmatizing or somehow wrong?

I do not believe – cannot believe – that transgender people are misinformed or not able to know who they really are. But neither do I believe that people with cognitive, learning, or mental disabilities are misinformed or unable to know who they are.

It is becoming certain in my mind that the only choice is to overhaul the entirety of the health care system as it can not possible assist us in our needs when we are not considered right enough to know our own needs. The diagnosis of not being able to care for oneself is rooted in capitalism – that bodies only have value when they “meet capitalist expectations of self-sufficiency and productivity”. Folks who might finish a task in a different way due to different cultural norms, or who might take longer to finish a task aren’t considered valuable under the structures of the DSM-V. In order to best serve the needs of folks who may require mental health assistance perhaps the only logical – and obvious - conclusion is to have the folks with needs to be met write out these standards of care.

I am still thinking on this subject, and clearly I’m not the person who should be making these demands, but I have become so annoyed by the ableism in the organizing against GID in the DSM that I needed to at least put down some semblance of my thoughts.

* Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. South End Press: Mass, 2005. p. 52 & 57 (quote from Pat Robertson) & 87.

Thoughts on the Privilege of Employment

There was a long gap on this blog where I wasn’t posting (I’m sure you noticed) for almost the entirety of December. There were many reasons for this – most pertinently my job search. My previous job at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was a contract position that ended in December. As the economy got worse and worse I decided to kick my job search into overdrive at the end of November and felt too guilty to write until my job search was over.

I’m incredibly happy to report that after four months – which in this economy I know is nothing – I have found a position as the Transgender Services Coordinator for the Long Island GLBT Services Network. As I live in Brooklyn the commute is definitely a big change for me, but I’m excited to be working one-on-one with transgender folks again. Generally I would go for months at GLAAD without physically encountering a transgender person beyond the few at work, which sometimes made me feel incredibly lonely. Sure, I saw all my transgender and genderqueer friends, but I was never really allowed to just go out and meet with someone whose story needed to be told. So I’m excited to be back in a grassroots small change position.

Job hunting opened for me multiple issues surrounding ideas of race, class, and safety. I realized I had a lot of desires generally classified as “bourgeois”, although I think they are standard desires that have been reclassified as bourgeois due to the persistent desire of class-privileged people to embrace the “romance” of poverty. I didn’t want to work multiple jobs, I wanted at least the possibility of a normative week, and I needed to make enough money to pay off my student loan and credit card debts and I’d like to move into a neighborhood that has a sense of identity to it…The expense of living a comfortable existence is absurd and directly related to our capitalist values system.

While I was job-searching though I, I’m sure like many people in similar positions, began to have an employment crisis. The more time went on the less sure I was of what my skills were, what kind of job I was looking for, and what I really wanted to do with my life. To exemplify the entirety of this crisis, days before I heard back about my new job I began to work on an application for the TransJustice Coordinator for the Audre Lorde Project . The Audre Lorde Project is an amazing initiative that is staffed by folks of color to serve folks of color in the NYC area. Everything from political rallies to anti police violence is housed out of the ALP offices, and their performances, gatherings, marches, are an amazing vision of solidarity. ALP is exactly the kind of place wherein I knew I would flourish. Committed not only to populations of indigenous, immigrant, and of color communities, but also to low income folks, they value the voices that are “too complicated” for most other LGBT organization. Moreover, they are organized in non-hierarchical formations where individuals of all backgrounds and educational levels are welcomed.

I know that ALP serves the people I want to work with in ways that I find affirming and encouraging. However, in order to do their work – in order to reach out to communities of color they need to be staffed by folks of color. White folks, even those whose commitments to anti-racism are as clear as Tim Wise’s (although I have some issues with his understanding of sexism), disrupt a lot of the balance in the office. I'm not saying that folks of color and white folks can't work together in communities of color, but paid full-time staff jobs shouldn't go to those whose ties in the communities aren't as pervasive as others. Here I think of Malcolm X’s statement that white folks can raise consciousness in their own communities, but they cannot come into communities of color and patronize the people with their knowledge of oppression. I desire to work with organizations like ALP deeply, but I know that I have too much to learn and too much baggage to truly be of assistance in any of their efforts. So instead I volunteer, donate, and attend events in order to be as active and a s informed as I can possibly be.

When I realized this – that while I was qualified I simply could not apply to the organizations I most admired – I was at first incredibly embittered by my position of despising the agonizing whiteness of non-poc specific organizations while being unable to leave them. Finally, though, it dawned on me that my work was not only to advocate for transgender people, but also to encourage more complicated understandings of whiteness among my white colleagues, and to reposition the way we view work specific to communities of color.

My time at GLAAD taught me that while an individual department’s work may be fulfilling and positive (I believe I, and many of my colleagues, did do important work at GLAAD) the overall organization needs to be invested in the same – or at least similar – ideals as you. GLAAD did not integrate what was deemed “cultural” programs well, meaning that programs specific to communities of color were treated as untouchable by people not entirely identifying with that community. Moreover they were perpetually understaffed and not integrated into general work, all of which solidified the assumption that lgbt folks are defacto white. There were amazing exceptions among GLAAD’s staff, folks who continually bucked the system in order to do the best possible work. Those co-workers are going to be my examples as I try and take the lessons about whiteness into my work.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reach out to Queer Imprisoned Populations.

In early December we heard some extraordinary news! The NY Appeals Court reversed Venice Brown's conviction. You can read the entire decision here. Unfortunately for Venice and her family this means she’ll have to go through a new trial, just like Renata Hill, but the new trials for both women could mean positive things. To find out more about what’s going on go to the Free NJ4 blog.

For Patreese Johnson the NY Appeals Court ruled that her trial had tried her fairly and affirmed her conviction, although they did reduce her sentence from 13 to 8 years. If you want to keep her spirits up, feel free to send her cards and care packages. I know how this is not an economically stable time for anyone, but sending a letter or a note can be a lifeline:

Patreese Johnson
#07-G-0635
Bedford Hills Correctional Facility
P.O. Box 1000
Bedford Hills, NY 10507


I’ve been writing a lot about the women known as the New Jersey 4 on my blog, and I don’t mean to imply that these women are the only queer folks of color worth fighting for – I realize that for every public case like NJ4 (which really isn't even all that public) there are women, men and gender non-conforming folks who suffer alone. I hope to use this blog to shine more light on the experiences of folks incarcerated in the criminal justice system, and I will try to do so whenever possible. To find out more about queer folks in prison visit the Sylvia Rivera Law Project or Black & Pink.

Also, check out SRLP’s amazing publication It’s War in Here.