A few years ago, I did an article on a ventriloquists’ convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., home to 8,000 souls and the Vent Haven Museum, where dummies go to die.
As a transgender woman, I felt strangely at home at this convocation of adorable misfits. Not only were there guys walking around with puppets, there was a Puppet Ministry run by a preacher who sold his own line of dummies (Satan was the most expensive).
There was this whole scene down in the bar after hours. One guy tried to pick me up using something he called “the muffle voice.” People threw their voices. There were fights. One guy, staring into his beer, said, sadly, “A bunch of magicians in the same room? That’s a conversation. A bunch of ventriloquists? That’s an argument.”
I thought of this line after New York passed its marriage-equality law in June. Since then, gay men and lesbians have been lining up from Fire Island to Niagara Falls in order to tie the knot.
As this wave of progress ripples through the country, though, one group of people has been prominently left behind. In conversations with transgender people, again and again, I hear the refrain: Enjoy your cake, folks. Meanwhile, the rest of us remain at risk for discrimination and violence.
More than a few transgender people feel they’ve been sold out by the gay-rights movement and lament the way the “T” in “L.G.B.T.” always comes last. It makes me think, “A bunch of straight people in a room? That’s a conversation. A bunch of L.G.B.T. people in a room? That’s an argument.”
When you look at the staggering statistics concerning the struggles of transgender people, it’s easy to understand resentment over the amount of resources put into the fight for marriage rights. Transgender people, according to a nationwide study released early this year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, are nearly four times more likely to live in poverty than the general population. Forty-one percent of respondents reported attempting suicide; of those who came out as students, 78 percent reported harassment, 35 percent physical assault and 12 percent sexual violence. Nineteen percent said they had been homeless. Among transgender people of color, the numbers are even worse.
The right to marry clearly isn’t the most urgent civil rights issue lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (L.G.B.T.) people face.
Still, it’s not surprising that marriage rights came first. The lives of gay men and lesbians have finally become part of the fabric of American life. It seems to be harder for people to get their minds around the transgender experience. It takes a much larger leap of imagination for straight people to understand the difference between who you want to go to bed “with,” and who you want to go to bed “as.” Frequently, gay and lesbian people struggle with this distinction just as much as straight people do.
But if transgender people are sometimes at odds with their gay and lesbian allies, they’re also at odds with themselves. The community is rife with disagreements about whether transsexuals (individuals who change, or wish to change, their gender via medical intervention, and whom some define as simply having a “birth challenge” like, say, a cleft palate) even ought to be grouped, politically, with “transgenders” (an umbrella term that includes cross-dressers and drag queens).
Whenever I hear about groups splintering into smaller factions, it’s hard for me not to think of John Cleese in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” protesting that he’s not with the Judean People’s Front; he’s with the People’s Front of Judea. In short, infighting seems to guarantee that whatever progress is made for gay men and lesbians, transgender people will continue to lag behind.
We can’t afford that. It is painful that the pressing issues of trans-rights seem forgotten beneath the din of wedding bells, but progress in civil rights can only come with the numbers and resources found in unity. Gay men and lesbians, for their part, ought to remember, on the way home from Niagara Falls, that it was drag queens and transsexuals at Stonewall who began this fight.
At that convention in Fort Mitchell, I met a female ventriloquist who was clearly one of my people. Among the crowds and wild-eyed talking figures, the two of us drew close. She said she’d read my memoir about my transition. I said, with a smile, “I think you and I have something in common.”
But it was clear from her expression that whatever group she thought I belonged to, it was at odds with her own. Her dummy wiggled its wooden ears and looked at me with irritation and contempt. “Why Jenny Boylan,” it said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan, the author, most recently, of “Falcon Quinn and the Crimson Vapor,” serves on the board of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and is a guest columnist.
David Brooks is off today.