Friday, January 22, 2010

“Do That Which Scares Me”: Fear and Transgender Equality in Massachusetts

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
-Rom 8:38-39

A lobby day for transgender equality yesterday capped off what has been, to put it mildly, an extraordinarily intense week here in Massachusetts.

I attended the lobby day in support the H1728/S1687 “An Act Relative To Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes” bill with my partner and our three-month-old son, and delivered a brief invocation at the end of the speeches in my capacity as Co-Chair of the locally based Interfaith Coalition for Transgender Equality.

The mood in the historic Nurses Hall at the State House was tense, energetic, and laced with anger in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s Tuesday defeat of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Martha Coakley. Brown’s win removes Senate Democrats’ sixty-vote supermajority and imperils the passage of national health care reform legislation.

Coakley had been widely backed by the state’s transgender community, as Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition Executive Director Gunner Scott forcefully expressed in a Bay Windows opinion letter last September: “as State Attorney General, Martha Coakley came out early for transgender civil rights as the first statewide elected official to publicly support ‘An Act Relative to Gender-Based Discrimination and Hate Crimes.’” Coakley also “sought civil rights injunctions in numerous cases involving hate crimes against LGBT victims” including one “against two men who attacked a transgender teenager in a Dorchester pizza shop.”

Meanwhile, as Chuck Colbert reported in Bay Windows yesterday, the Massachusetts LGBT community was angered this election by “anti gay-baiting robo calls” that began plaguing Massachusetts phone lines three days before voters hit the polls. Originating “in a 202 area code from the Washington, D.C. [area], a recorded male voice asks residents if they view marriage defined as ‘only between one man and one woman.’ If they indicated ‘Yes’ they were urged to vote for Brown, ‘the only candidate with a proven track record’ of supporting traditional marriage. The call also labeled Coakley as a ‘radical’ same-sex marriage supporter who opposed letting the people vote on the issue and who used taxpayer dollars to support a same-sex marriage ‘agenda.’”

With the Supreme Court just yesterday approving by a 5-4 margin that corporations and labor unions can spend unlimited amounts on federal elections, the floodgates of such robo-calls and other methods of bombardment would appear to be opening at the national level. The majority opinion, penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, argued that to prevent such spending is to censure free speech. “When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought,’’ he wrote.

Add to this mix the continuing cloud of grief and anxiety hovering over the many intersecting communities devastated by last week’s 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. Numerous people in New England had connections to the events in Haiti, including members of the large Boston Area Haitian community, the Sisters of Saint Margaret, and medical teams from Boston based Partners in Health.

And add to that list the trans community which learned last weekend of the death of Flo McGarell, a visual artist and transman from Newbury, Vermont, who lived in the city of Jacmal for the past six years, serving as director of the FOSAJ, a non-profit art center. The New England Cable News did what struck me as a very respectful interview with McGarrell’s grieving parents and, perhaps without meaning to, gestured toward the complexity of McGarrell’s gender identity and expression. In an in-depth interview with the art 21 blog about his wildly creative art, Flo described himself as “a total gender mash up” which was “a constant and humorous topic of discussion” in Jacmal. When asked about what guided his artistic vision, Flo answered:

“Don’t hide, don’t lie.
Do that which scares me.
Resist the urge to settle.
Be as many things as possible in this lifetime.”

His loved ones are organizing memorials and tributes at this site.

With such losses along with the sour economy on the minds of lobby day attendees yesterday, a fundamental question emerged: how can we help return a sense of confidence to lawmakers who may be afraid to fight for any legislation considered “controversial” right now? How can we break through this late-January crust of fear?

Fear may be eroding Massachusetts’s transgender nondiscrimination legislation, just as it is at work in the stalled Employment Nondiscrimination Act in Washington. D.C. How is it that over 105 state lawmakers (out of a total of 200) have signed on as co-sponsors of the MA bill, that a poll conducted last November by Lake Research Partners showed that 76% of Massachusetts residents and 80% of Massachusetts women support it, that Governor Deval Patrick has signaled his enthusiastic support, and still this bill has not gotten out of committee? We cannot let the events of this week, devastating as they are, deter us from this crucial task.

As I think and pray about all of these swirling currents, as I watch the dynamics of fear playing out all around me, I can’t help but think of McGarrell’s conscious ethic of fearlessness. And that sentiment, in this week’s context, draws my mind to the Apostle Paul writing to communities in Rome about the eager longing with which creation waits to be set free from its bondage. We may groan inwardly now, he says, and we may feel alone in our labor, but the Spirit indeed intercedes for us, and urges us onward, never, ever separate from the love of God, as we collaborate in building God’s glorious dream.

As the three of us emerged from the State House, we were dazzled by a brilliant, cold blue sky and streams of sunlight.


Here is the invocation, which uses language tailored for a group of numerous religious (and nonreligious) traditions:

Nurses’s Hall, State House
Boston, Massachusetts
January 21, 2010

An Invocation for Transgender Lobby Day

May the Holy One of all our traditions bless, protect and empower us, illumining us with insight, calm and unfathomable fortitude.

May we be reminded of the remarkable strength that lies within us, urging us onward even in face of the steepest odds.

May our hearts be filled with gratitude and awe for the sacred community gathered here today: trans people, partners, allies, families of all configurations, people of all races and ethnicities, sexual orientations, national origins, religious and spiritual traditions, professions and vocations.

May the Divine Spirit flowing among us stir up our prophetic anger at the evils of apathy and expediency as much as of bigotry and ignorance.

And may we go forth with boldness, empowered to bear witness to the truth of our lives and the birthright of our human dignity.

All this we ask in the name of the All-Holy One who urges us into life and love, and sets us free. Amen.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Epiphany: Trans Folks “Among Us”

About a week ago I picked up a voicemail from my mom: “Sweetheart, I was wondering if you’ve heard about Amanda Simpson, the transgender woman who was appointed by President Obama this week?” I had indeed heard about Simpson whose appointment as Senior Technical Adviser for the Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security rightly has been hailed as a milestone in the push toward full equality for trans people.

Then on Tuesday, January 5th, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration had “inserted language into the federal jobs Web site explicitly banning employment discrimination based on gender identity.” This move was hailed by the ACLU as “frankly a bigger deal” than the expected insertion of trans inclusive language into the federal handbook for supervisors and managers.

As we move into the season of Epiphany, my question is: what do these developments and the debates swirling around them, reveal about the place and progress of trans folks “among us”? Because if Epiphany – from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning manifestation or revelation – is a celebration of the light of Emmanuel, God-among-us, then part of this celebration requires our search for how God is revealing Godself among us and prodding us to move forward.

Of her own appointment Simpson stated, "I'm truly honored to have received this appointment and am eager and excited about this opportunity that is before me. And at the same time, as one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government, I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others."

Predictably, the religious right has received these developments as portents of doom. In response to the updated federal employment protections, Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council argued that trans people should be treated with reparative therapy. Simpson’s appointment prompted the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody to warn Obama not to alienate conservative Evangelicals with "the transgender thing”, while Peter Labarbera of Americans for Truth wondered, "Is there going to be a transgender quota now in the Obama administration?"

Simpson herself later gestured toward the difficulty of being a pioneer in a stigmatized group, remarking to, “I'd rather not be the first but someone has to be first, or among the first.” Yes, being among the first trans presidential appointees — and certainly the first to be publicly debated — has to be very tough, and she is certainly right to worry about being tokenized, scrutinized, or worse. Any trans person trying to build a career, including within the church, can attest to strains that fall on us. Indeed, a November 2009 survey jointly conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force revealed that 97% of respondents had been harassed or mistreated on the job and 26% had been fired simply for being transgender.

Stories and statistics like these reveal how crucial it is to finally pass the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which has stalled in congress and which President Obama has said he will sign. The Episcopal Church urged the passage of a fully inclusive ENDA at its General Convention last summer.

Meanwhile, even some defenders of trans equality – such as the January 9th piece by Christine Wicker, author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church – reveal by their held noses just how far we have to go.

Wicker argued that to oppose Simpson’s appointment for conservative Christian reasons is to “favor one religious view over all others.” As a thirty-year veteran of the aerospace and defense industry, Simpson is enormously qualified for the job, end of discussion. And yet Wicker could not resist distancing herself from a community that clearly makes her uncomfortable: “She was so unhappy as a man that she went through the horrific process of changing her gender. Most of us can't begin to imagine what would cause a person to do something so strange. Thinking about it gives us the queasy feeling that the world is changing too quickly, in the wrong direction.” And then, “So where should the rest of us come down on this issue? If Amanda Simpson is qualified for the job, she ought to get it – even if the rest of us think she's weird or don't even think she is a she.”

And while I do wonder who needs enemies with friends like Wicker, her comments raise a key point. Certain pathologizing terms from her piece -- “unhappy”, “horrific”, “weird”, “strange” – could have sprung from the pen of a religious right critic. But one seemingly innocuous phrase does much more damage: “the rest of us”.

Yes, it’s the old us-them thing. I could simply say that this distinction is fundamentally false, because on one level it is. But on another level, and more crucially, questions like “where should the rest of us come down on this issue?” have a performative impact—they create distinctions. They instantiate division under the guise of (reluctant) charity. That’s the kind of charity on which Epiphany should train our eyes.

And then open our hearts. Because, in an odd way, Wicker’s unfortunate commentary remind me of Simpson’s repeated statements of being “among the first.” “Among”, it turns out, derives from the Middle English “ongemang” which literally means “in the crowd or company of” and shares the same root with the verb “to mingle.”

In other words, Simpson is not alone. Trans people are “among us”. Trans people are us. May the God who is among us strengthen and inspire us to reveal that truth in our relationships, our communities, and in our advocacy this season.