Partners in Struggle

On June 25, gay and lesbian New Yorkers filled the streets of Greenwich Village drunk with joy. They walked up Christopher Street, passing Sylvia Rivera Way, blissfully unaware of the fact that in 1969, this transgender woman was one of the drag queens and street kids who fought back against the police in the Stonewall Riots, which are widely regarded as the start of the modern gay rights movement. And, as they crowded into Stonewall to have celebratory drinks, few gave much thought to the fact that the people who fought back in that very bar 42 years ago are still being left behind in the dust.

As New York joined Massachusetts in the ranks of marriage equality, it also joined in having the unfortunate distinction of once again failing to pass the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, or GENDA. The rapid advances in equality for gay and lesbian Americans are not being matched by advances in transgender equality, and we are too eager to turn away from our transgender partners in struggle.

To be sure, some may question what transgender equality has to do with equality for gay men and lesbians. (Indeed, that was the question Harvard’s Papadopoulos lecture asked in 2010, entitled “Do Transsexuals Dream of Gay Rights? The Struggle for an Inclusive Queer Movement.”) Aside from the common starting point, our struggles have many intersections. In fact, the lead attorney trying to overturn California’s Proposition 8, Shannon Price Minter, was a transgender man who works for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Transgender people can also be gay or lesbian, and, especially with regards to transgender men, many of them identified as queer women before coming out once more. Moreover, regardless of their currently legally defined gender, or their gender identity, or the gender they were assigned at birth, nationwide marriage equality would give transgender people the right to marry freely, without fear of that relationship status changing or being invalidated. (Current laws on transgender people marrying vary state by state.)

However, that is not enough. In a recent article in The New Republic, Eliza Gray pointed out that the success of a civil rights movement depends on its members being recognized as human by the majority. Gay and lesbian Americans, she says, are winning rights because as more people come out, more Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian. It becomes harder to deny someone you know rights. According to Gray’s calculations, however, there are only 700,000 transgender Americans—many of whom are closeted in the workplace and other situations for fear of discrimination. “They are invisible in a way that other minorities are not,” she wrote.

Indeed, that holds true at Harvard and around the country. In Washington, the Human Rights Campaign—a  largely ineffective organization that prides itself on having the same legislative priority in 2011 as it did in 1989—is still working on passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The Act would prohibit discrimination in employment based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2006, Democrats, including Representative Barney Frank ’62, agreed to leave out gender identity protections from the bill, arguing that it would offer the bill a greater chance of passing. The bill still failed to pass both chambers, and Frank and the Human Rights Campaign were humiliated by their decision to leave out a vital part of the LGBT community—particularly because the HRC had promised, in 2004, to only support a trans-inclusive bill.

Indeed, after New York’s marriage equality bill passed this summer, I witnessed an exchange between two gay men involved in state government. At a celebratory function, one congratulated the other, asking what he would have to work on now that their top priority had been passed. “GENDA?” he asked, teasing his friend. “GENDA,” the other man replied, rolling his eyes. In New York and Massachusetts, the advance of marriage equality has taken attention and money away from a statewide bill offering protections based on gender identity.

At Harvard, we saw this debate play out firsthand last year, over the return of the Reserve Officers Training Corps to campus after the end of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, while the military would continue to discriminate against able-bodied transgender Americans. One gay male student asked me why we would want to ally ourselves with a group that is even more despised than us. Even the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies, an umbrella group which purports to represent the entire LGBT community, failed to take transgender equality into consideration. They did not make note of the military’s trans-exclusion policy until after the repeal of DADT, and only after President Faust made a good-faith promise to allow its return to campus after the repeal.

At Harvard, we often talk about being trapped in a bubble. The return of ROTC to campus burst that bubble with regards to indifference towards transgender equality, and we can no longer claim blissful ignorance. If we take seriously the inscription on Dexter Gate that we depart this university to serve better our country and our kind, we must take care to remember those who are often forgotten and keep local and national organizations focused on protecting us all.

Katie Zavadski ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a religion concentrator, lives in Lowell House.

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