The transgender community is currently experiencing some long-overdue recognition in our society. But unfortunately, with this new visibility there also comes an increasing level of violence directed toward them. It seems to me — a white, gay cisgender male — that the broader LGBT community trying earnestly to be more inclusive of trans people. But there is, no doubt, some heavy eye-rolling going on in the transgender world from to see how gay men are suddenly falling over themselves to include transgender people.
They must be wondering: Why now?
From my perspective, gay men are a teachable lot. Some of us are learning to understand different segments of our community experience. We are beginning to grasp what it is like to be trans. And most of us sincerely believe that we are supportive.
Still, though: Why now?
The big question, one that screams for a full and honest answer is this: Why have we not always been supportive?
I think that until we can be truthful about why we have worked to keep transgender people out of the mainstream gay culture for so long, we can’t be trusted. Many of us are proponents of a milieu of reparations. But in 2019, gay men owe verbal reparation to a significant group within the LGBTQ framework that we have ignored and, at times, worked against.
Here are my reasons, and I venture that most of what I admit will resonate with many other gay, cis men:
For me it began with my own painful coming out. I grew up in a time when there was no space to live with my own homosexuality. I was bullied. But hearing other peoples’ stories and working so long with social justice issues, I realize how little I actually did endure.
As a child every small incident stung. A child that knows he’s different, long before he is able to comprehend why he is different, feels even the unintentional cruelties. I sensed that I was seen as feminine. I lay awake with self-loathing many nights. I obsessed on figuring out how to mask all traces of femininity in my behavior.
At some point, in my youth, I became popular. But, everyone was extremely homophobic, it seemed. I certainly was. I taunted many other boys believed to be queer.
Hating myself so much made it easy to hate others. I was adept at fooling everyone. It made me feel safer when there was someone else to humiliate.
It started with drag queens when I began to live as an out gay man. They frightened me. I felt their persona would cause the world see me as being same as they were.
I presented as masculine, and I felt the existence of drag queens made a mockery of my masculinity. That extreme paranoia wore off quickly as I became more comfortable in my own skin.
Still, my cis “superiority” never allowed me to see drag queens as “genuine,” even when they were not in drag. When I was free enough myself, I participated in a lot of what was called Trash Drag. We were well known for these antics in Austin in the 1970s, a city where a gay boy was allowed to flourish. Yet, it was always clear that I was masculine. Attempts at serious drag were always uncomfortable. I’ll also admit that I am a hideously ugly woman. Even then I saw myself as better.
Drag queens topped the list of my prejudices — until I encountered trans woman.
I saw myself as a proud gay man that could stand up to the world that wanted to judge me. But truth is the feminine individuals in our community are the truly brave ones. They are always authentic. They are always at risk.
Yes, legions of white men came out and chose to live openly. Some of us were able to live in areas with a long history of acceptance to gay people. Others developed gay neighborhoods in their own hometowns where they could feel safer in their numbers. As white gay men, we have always had our hurdles. But the privilege of our skin color and our maleness often worked in our favor. It always will.
Trans folk are another story. And we as white males did nothing to bring them along in our success. Rarely did one of us have the courage to hire a trans individual in our own businesses. Trans people were forced to either perform in marginalized jobs or pass as their birth gender to even have a job that allowed them to exist. We were okay with that. Little of our political agenda in the past and really even now included concern for their well-being.
I spent 10 years living in San Francisco. I lived in five different flats through those years. Coincidentally, I had a trans woman for a nearby neighbor in each location.
When I encountered them on the street, I was always friendly, while they, for the most part, seemed aloof. It never once occurred to me to ever invite one of them to any gathering I held a few feet from their own front doors.
They were not being stand-offish. They were weary of a glib, gay kid that wanted to only make friendly noises to soothe his own anti-social behavior.
When I arrived in Dallas, The Darkness which was the AIDS holocaust surrounded me almost immediately. My longtime partner was part of the early road kill that perished without the benefit of any kind of treatment. Nothing existed to counter its death toll. That was my wake-up call. I joined the organization that was doing the most to counter the disease.
The biggest issue the other board members (also white males) were confronting was the possibility of adding the term “lesbian” to the name of the organization. This was the end of the 1980s. Every major city had already done so years before.
That organization did immeasurable good work for this community. At some point years after, it ceased to be viable and folded. Trans issues were never considered as an addition to its mission.
The men’s community has resisted diversity again and again through the years. In the late 1990s, the hate-ridden Family Values propaganda machine launched its assault on the LGBTQ world. We pushed back with a brilliant strategy that announced “We Are Family.”
But what started as an empowering movement eventually served as a vehicle for censoring our own identity. Many felt that mimicking hetero norms would bring us the acceptance we longed for. So, we began to restrict what we believed did not conform to our newly-accepted norm. Strains of this continue to influence our queer culture. There have been efforts launched over the years to homogenize the local Pride celebrations. We specifically called for any non-binary forms of gender identity to be removed from public view.
Today, things have changed. The attitude of many gay men towards woman and people of color and those living with disabilities have been changed by members of those communities that forced us to recognize them. They taught us to understand that everyone must be included, and we must all work for our common good.
There are members of the trans community today that are willing to make the effort to educate us. And that is a huge effort, because we have shown no interest in the past. But many trans folk don’t want to be bothered, and why should they? I am seeing organizations scrambling to recruit trans members for their boards, and it’s a case of deja-vu for me. It’s the same lame attempt boards made when they decided to include women and people of color.
Well-meaning people agreed to participate. But their good intentions were soon exhausted. They were picked only to fit a certain profile, with no concern whether they were actually suited for the job. Being on a board or being an activist is not for everyone, and when these folks turned out not to be as experienced and skilled as some others, they were blamed and pushed aside.
But the blame truly lay with an organization concerned only with a “diversity” that was only “skin-deep,” so to speak.
The transgender community’s recently burgeoning visibility is alluring to other parts of the community that want to get in on the visibility action. Riding those trans coattails by being “inclusive” holds potential for increasing our own value and esteem.
But we must pay careful attention, get to know individuals on a personal level. If we make the effort to be genuinely inclusive, we are beginning to grow. But we must stop using the trans community for our own comfort, as has been our history.
Let’s get it right this time. Transgender people deserve better. They are the strongest among us., and at same time, the most at risk. They are our community’s endangered species. If they perish, we will perish.