Amid all the cheering about marriage equality in New York State, it’s worth remembering that transgender people continue to lag far behind our gay brothers and sisters in the fight for equal rights. In 36 states, I can still be fired for being my own damned self, and here in Maine we only narrowly defeated a bill this spring that would have actually removed people like me from the Maine Human Rights Act. But the victory in New York is an occasion not only for joy for our allies, but to observe how this victory took place.
Three quick observations:
1) Marriage equality advocates in this fight were unified. According to the New York Times: “Five groups pushing for same-sex marriage merged into a single coalition, hired a prominent lobbying firm with ties to Mr. Cuomo’s office and gave themselves a new name: New Yorkers United for Marriage. Those who veered from the script faced swift reprimand. When Assemblyman Daniel J. O’Donnell, an openly gay Democrat from Manhattan, introduced a same-sex marriage bill in May without first alerting the governor’s office, he was upbraided by Mr. Cohen. “What do you think you’re doing?” the governor’s aide barked over the phone.”
Advocates avoided the traditional urge to stab each other in the back; contrast this with the endless internet sniping over the very definition of the word “transgender;” or with the way trans leaders are constantly belittled and heckled by their own communities. I can’t think of a single trans activist who has stepped up to the plate in order to work for something bigger than herself who hasn’t been sniped at. The gay and lesbian community has had plenty of internecine strife over the years, but this time–particularly under the unifiying efforts of Cuomo–a straight, Catholic governor–the movement stood together.
2) Be public. The victory in NY was an avalanche made possible because of the stones that Harvey Milk–and others–got rolling. The message: Come Out. Let people see your face. Over the last several decades, straight America now associates gay men and lesbians with their neighbors and their own family members. Again, according to the Times, it was a group of Republican donors who made the change: “the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Dan Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure. And they were inclined to see the issue as one of personal freedom, consistent with their more libertarian views. Within days, the wealthy Republicans sent back word: They were on board.”
Because Singer’s son is out, and because of thousands of gay men and lesbians who have found the courage to live their truth publicly, the image of gay men and lesbians has changed, both in the eyes of those Republicans, as well as in the eyes of all America.
To be out as trans is harder, and scarier, and trans people have much more to lose by being public. But here in Maine, activists were able to push back at the Statehouse on anti-trans legislation because dozens of trans people, and their allies, stood up and spoke before the Judiciary Committee. A Republican legislator asked me, in the end, if I would address the Republican caucus; a transgender middle school student from Orono looked those legislators in the eyes and told them what her life is like. When legislators see us as human, things change. As a woman from Nebraska wrote me after an Oprah Show years ago, “Jenny, the strangest thing about you is that you seem almost like a person someone could know.”
3) Be patient. We have seen several states wrestle, and fail, with trans protections this year, most notably in Maryland. We wait year after year for ENDA to make its way through the Congress, and for other gender bills to progress in state capitals (including Albany). We should remember that no defeat is final. The marriage bill in NY failed twice before– when Democrats had the majority in the Senate; this year it passes when that same house is controlled by Republicans.
Mara Kiesling at NCTE reports that the list of co-sponsors of ENDA in Congress is now growing, and includes Republican allies. Will we achieve victory this time? I surely hope so. Will we achieve victory sooner or later? This I know.
When we face defeats, we must resist the urge to despair, to hide our faces, to turn on each other. The victory in New York shows that it is possible with time. As Paul Simon sings, “I believe in the future we will suffer no more. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in yours I feel sure.”
(In case you missed it, here is my testimony to the Maine Judiciary Committee; I had three minutes, and that’s what they got. My testimony is followed by that of other good allies, all of which contributed to the victory.)
–Jennifer Finney Boylan is professor of English at Colby College, and the author of 12 books. She serves on the board of directors of GLAAD.