Friday, January 23, 2009

Disappearing into Privilege

From the HoustonPress comes this story, “Attagirl: Transsexual Police Officer Nominated Grand Marshall of Pride Parade”. Which is an amazing story celebrating Police Officer Julia Christina Oliver who had (apparently) tremendous support from her commanding officers as she transitioned.Officer Oliver also lives in Houston, one of the many cities that Jennifer Gale lived and campaigned in before her death.

I wrote about Jennifer Gale before I left GLAAD, and you can read more about that here, “Jennifer Gale, Austenite Transgender Leader found Dead”. I wonder if people will remember Jennifer come November’s Transgender Day of Remembrance when we commemorate and memorialize the lives of transgender people who were murdered. In many ways, I feel that Jennifer was indeed murdered. Being a transwoman kept her out of shelters and thereby increased her risk not only to the harsh elements that may have directly caused her death, but also the risk of physical and sexual assault. I’m not sure I want to compare what happened to her to what happened to Duanna Johnson or Sanesha Stewart, but I do want to acknowledge that had her transgender identity been understood and respected by city shelters, potential employers, etc she might not have been allowed to die.

So here we have a state where in one of the most well-known liberal cities a transwoman dies in the cold because there is no space to go, and a few cities over a transwoman has the support of her commanding officer in one of the most conservative, racist, and sexist occupations. Without wishing to trivialize Jennifer’s death or take away from Julia’s achievement I do wonder how these two white transwomen who are both clearly well-educated achieved such different support systems. I don’t wish to paint this as a binary issue, and I’m not speaking specifically about what happens in the Houston community. Instead I am interested in how I can learn from these two lives how to better serve transgender people in my new job, and simply in general as I write, volunteer, and fight for transgender rights.

What I immediately see here is that the focus for services in traditional LGBT (or GLB with the T added on) organizations is a focus on “upwardly mobile” services. We (and I include myself here as I do work in the same organizations I’m criticizing) tend to be nervous to talk about the activities deemed negative or destructive that occur in our communities. We are also so used to hearing the “I’m the same as you” argument that sometimes we’re less willing to acknowledge the ways queer people differ from straight people. Homelessness (as an example) is overwhelmingly ignored in outreach of LGBT organizations and foundations. Another example, when we encounter a person who has a learning, cognitive, mental or emotional disability we are more likely to encourage institutionalization than to discuss disability understanding in our communities or to rearrange our modes of education, service provision etc to better fit their needs. When we encounter a person who doesn’t fit our idea of what a man or a woman should be (especially if we think they are “early on” in a transition) we tend to encourage them to “pick a gender” or we subtly hint ways of “feminizing” or “masculinizing” an appearance.

I want to make sure that we are addressing all the members of our community and encouraging people to question why they want to disappear into cisgender heterosexual society by pretending to be, or actually embodying “the same as you” identity. For an example of integration: that we acknowledge that while having an LGBT police liaison may be incredibly useful and helpful it doesn’t always benefit all of our community members. So we encourage people to turn to examples given by the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Outside the System or Sista II Sista’s model of community intervention that encourage community members to address issues of violence or criminal behavior in a model that isn’t rooted in racism and sexism. A second example: that while we work and organize for the right to marry (if that is what makes you happy) we acknowledge that marriage alone isn’t what should give people the right to access health care, second parent adoption, hospital visitation etc. That we simultaneously work with communities of immigrants, multiple or single parent homes or homes headed by multiple generations to secure legal rights that actually reflect the many and varied ways families are formed in the U.S.

It is through acknowledging that being recognized in capitalist white supremacist heteronormative ableist America as equal isn’t necessarily a positive thing that we will be able to actually affect each others lives in ways that promote positive social change and hopefully encourage each other to be more cognizant of the positive possibilities of difference.

2 comments:

Go Go Jo Jo said...

Points that were awesome in this post:

1)In many ways, I feel that Jennifer was indeed murdered. Being a transwoman kept her out of shelters and thereby increased her risk not only to the harsh elements that may have directly caused her death, but also the risk of physical and sexual assault.

2)What I immediately see here is that the focus for services in traditional LGBT (or GLB with the T added on) organizations is a focus on “upwardly mobile” services. We (and I include myself here as I do work in the same organizations I’m criticizing) tend to be nervous to talk about the activities deemed negative or destructive that occur in our communities. We are also so used to hearing the “I’m the same as you” argument that sometimes we’re less willing to acknowledge the ways queer people differ from straight people.

I am working with Houston Pride this year (actually in two weeks I'll be taking up votes on who the Grand Marshall should be.) This was a very thought provoking post. I had nothing to do with nominations as I felt like I haven't been in the community long enough to have a say on who should represent it. Anyway, I think you bring up interesting points. All to often in my experience it is the easily palatable organizations and people who get the most attention. Very rarely do I see these kinds of queer organizations touching (openly) on issues such as homelessness or disability despite the fact that know I could find people doing work at these intersections.

Lot's of food for thought.

Mik Danger said...

Thank you, GO Go Jo Jo! You write so eloquently - I'm really honored to have your comments.