An Open Letter to Today's Happy Newlyweds

by Shaker Lena Dahlstrom, a crossdresser from the San Francisco Bay area who also performs as a drag queen under the stage name "Joie de Vivre." She always gets teary-eyed at weddings.

First let me offer my congratulations on this joyous day. It's been far too long in coming.

Now I hope you'll indulge my taking a moment to note that it was a trans man who was the lead attorney in the marriage equality case, the one who made the oral arguments to the California Supreme Court that marriage won't be worth less if more can take part in it, and ask you to keep that in mind the next time ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) comes up for a vote in Congress.

More importantly, I'd ask you to remember Shannon and his dedication to this cause when ENDA comes up for a vote again and the "virtually normal" gay and lesbian crowd claims that trans and gender variant people (who can also be LGB or even hetero) should be excluded because supposedly we haven't done jack to deserve anti-discrimination protections.

In the spirit of the day let me mention:

Something old

Trans people have part of the LGBT communities—and fighting for LGBT rights—for decades. As the authors of Gay L.A. noted: "We choose to call our book Gay L.A. because, as our older informants told us, 'gay' in the 1930s, '40s, '50s, and '60s was the term that included homosexual men, lesbians, transgenders, and even bisexuals." A few highlights:

In 1895 a group of New York "androgynes" organized The Cercle Hermaphroditos "to unite against the world's bitter persecution"—two years before the world's first gay liberation organization, nearly 30 years before the first known gay activist group in the United States and nearly six decades before the first long-lasting gay and lesbian rights groups.

In the 1960s, trans man multi-millionaire Reed Erickson was the major funder (to the tune of $2 million—more than $1 billion in today's dollars) of ONE Inc., one of the first gay rights organizations, which won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision.

In 1965, Dewey's Lunch Counter in Philadelphia was the target of the first LGBT sit-in, after the diner refused to serve young gay and trans patrons in what were euphemistically called "non-conformist clothing." In 1966, trans woman fed up with police harassment turned into "screaming queens" and rioted at Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco. In 1969, trans woman and drag queen Sylvia Rivera threw one of the first bottles at Stonewall and later was a tireless advocate for queer rights.

Despite Rivera's efforts, within a few years, New York's gay rights establishment dropped drag queens and trans people from its civil rights agenda and Rivera was physically prevented from speaking at the 1973 Stonewall commemoration. Sadly this was part of a larger anti-trans backlash within not only the gay communities but also among lesbians, where trans women—such as Beth Elliot, who had been vice president of the pioneering lesbian rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis—were systematically outed and purged from lesbian feminist circles, and where Janice Raymond's notoriously transphobic 1979 book, The Transsexual Empire, became lauded reading.

Still, trans people continued to fight for the gay and lesbian communities. Connie Norman was a nationally known AIDS activist during the 1980s, who also pioneered the first commercial radio talk show programs on gay and lesbian issues.

Unfortunately, people like Norman weren't enough to change these widespread transphobic attitudes. In 1993, the gay and lesbian organizers of the "March on Washington"—one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in history—decided to include bisexuals, but refused to include "transgender" as part of the name of the protest. And when the 1999 murder of soldier Pfc. Barry Winchell was turned into a gay rights cause celeb, forcing President Bill Clinton to order a review of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," gay activists and the gay press suppressed a critical, but inconvenient truth—Winchell wasn't killed for being gay, but because he was a heterosexual man in love with trans woman (which Winchell's killers assumed made him gay).

Something new

By all accounts, when ENDA is reintroduced next year it will be stripped of protections for gender identity and expression. This isn't a "trans-less" ENDA as it's often referred to—it's an ENDA without protections for anyone (even heteros) who isn't straight-acting enough. Employers may not be able to fire you if you're gay or lesbian, but they'll still be able to fire you for being too nelly or too butch. In fact, a GenderPAC survey found that a third of gay, lesbian and bisexual respondents who suffered workplace discrimination said it was due at least in part to their gender expression and another 10 percent said it was due strictly to their gender expression.

Something borrowed

From a July 1990 flier by Queer Nation: "We are Queer Nation. We are here to promote unity between all people—some of whom are like us, most of whom are not. We do not necessarily expect to understand the differences between our cultures, our desires, our beliefs, but we do seek to increase respect and acceptance for all our differences so that we may move into the twenty-first century with joy and dignity."

Whether the "virtually normally" crowd likes it or not, gender variance is, for the foreseeable future, going to be linked to sexual variance. That's the thing about being "othered"—you don't get any choice in how others perceive you. No matter how straight-acting folks like Andrew Sullivan like to portray themselves, the haters are still going to invoke the specter of diesel dykes and flaming nellies. No matter how loudly a few (sadly homophobic) trans people insist they're heterosexual-I-said-heterosexual-dammit, the haters are still going to call them queers.

Lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans people are all minorities. (Just for the record, a number of trans people are also lesbian, gay or bisexual.*) We have to work together to move our causes forward. We also have to rely on allies who aren't LGBT. Just as trans people, being a minority within a minority, have to rely on the LGB communities as allies. As Ben Franklin once said, we can either hang together or we can be hanged separately.

Something blue

I know that a number of you from states without marriage equality are irate about the "go slow" request from the ACLU and a half-dozen major LGBT organizations, asking people not to file lawsuits in your home states to have your marriages recognized there. (These groups fear that losing court cases outside California will set back the cause.) I hope you'll remember those feelings of disappointment, dismay and anger when the incrementalists like Barney Frank and John Aravosis once again tell trans and gender variant people to step aside and wait patiently for anti-discrimination protections "because the public just isn't ready." Which is an odd argument really, since surveys show far more support for protecting trans and gender variant people from discrimination than for marriage equality.

I suppose that's why the other canard is that trans people haven't done enough lobbying work—ignoring the fact that we've been working for anti-discrimination protections since 1980. If we weren't part of the "official" campaign for ENDA until a few years ago, it was because we had to spend at least a decade convincing gay and lesbian lobbying groups that our rights matter, too, and that we should be allowed to join their efforts. Nonetheless, we still helped the LGB communities win a number of state and local anti-discrimination measures that included not only protections for sexual orientation, but also gender identity and expression.

Anyway, I don't mean to be the ghost at the wedding banquet. This is your day, savor it in the fabulicious style that I know you will.

Best wishes, and may you have long and happy marriages,

P.S. Thanks to historian Susan Stryker whose research provided many of the historical examples.


* It's often easier to talk about whether trans people are attracted to men or women (or both), because their perceived sexual orientation changes with their perceived gender. Those who transition from male-to-female early in life typically are attracted to men and most female-to-male transitioners are attracted to women, so they go from being seen as gays and lesbians to being seen as hetero women and men. Transsexuals who transition from male-to-female late in life typically are attracted to women and female-to-male transitioners who are attracted to men go from being seen as hetero men and women to being seen as lesbians and gay men. So the vast majority of transitioners find themselves seen as homosexual at some point in their lives.

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