As you or at least your staff no doubt know, I've done more than my share of attacking your politics, your methods, and the manner in which you have chosen to advocate in Congress on behalf of ENDA. I've written often on these topics in the past, especially since becoming a contributor and now an Associate Editor here at the Bilerico Project. I'm well aware you may be antagonistic toward my views or even offended by what I've had to say, or perhaps even will be by what I'm about to say now, but in all honesty, I'd be disingenuous if I were to apologize for any of it. Like you, like so many of us who live lives which significantly differ from that considered the norm and so many of us who choose to speak out publicly on these issues, I'm passionate about what I believe and I try to get others to understand and share my passion through the media I create. I'm going to try to do something now that I like to think I'm pretty good at: I'm going to try to get you to understand it, too.
As difficult as it is for me to do so, for the purposes of this letter in the hope of maximizing whatever impact it might possibly have on you and your thinking process in regards to Transgender-Americans and the issues which affect our lives, I'm putting all of that on the shelf for the moment, and I want to speak to you, as directly as is possible through this medium, as one LGBT community member to another, person-to-person, and American to American.
It might surprise you to know that when I first began creeping out of closet in the late 90's, desperately seeking information about who and what I was, and then later, learning about the politics and culture of this community and movement I suddenly found myself a part of, you were one of my heroes. Knowing that an openly gay man was in the US Congress sticking up for people who were different and who wasn't afraid to fight the good fight toward a better future for all of us was a very comforting thing to know.
Though I'd come to understand by then that even so much as a serious discussion of federal anti-discrimination protections for gender-variant people was still years away at that time, I believed in my heart that when the time was right, you'd fight for us because someone like you had to understand that civil rights protections, by their nature, have to protect all Americans or they're not really civil rights at all, but in reality every bit the special rights for certain specific minorities the conservatives accuse us of demanding. It was absolutely inconceivable to me that a champion of civil rights like yourself could fail to understand that.
Even later, as I became more active and vocal within the LGBT and especially the trans community, I still found it hard to believe that someone like yourself could possibly be so cold and calculating as some made you out to be. I remember calling into a radio show you were on in 1998 or 99 to ask you about transgender rights. You responded in the negative, with an explanation that made me stop and rethink everything I'd once believed about you and the future of our movement. You told me that too many people were concerned with the prospect of pre-operative transsexual women in open showers for Congress to seriously consider the rights of transgender people.
Honestly, sir, I was stunned. Even as a newly-out transwoman, new to the activism of this movement and the politics surrounding it, I knew that using such a situation as a rationale for failing to fight for equal rights and treatment of those who are different was not only so arguable in credibility as to be almost laughable in terms of its representation of how the vast majority of real-world transsexual women conduct ourselves in such situations, but that it also played directly into the unreasoning fears and bigotries so many have about all of us, regardless of whether it takes the form of concerns of bathroom and facility usage for transpeople, charges of pedophilia and promiscuity so often directed toward gay men, charges that simply the presence of an LGBT person in a school or childcare situation represents a risk of children's "indoctrination" into that person's particular sexuality or gender identity and expression, or any of the other myriad ways our enemies seek to defame us and offer justification for their hatred and bigotry toward us.
A few years later, I did the same thing. You appeared on another radio show, and again I called in, asked you about ENDA, and asked you if you thought things had gotten better. Your answer then was almost identical to the first one. No rights for transgender Americans because no one wants to risk the even the possibility of having to see a pre-operative transsexual woman naked in the women's shower. No evolution of thought, no ideas as to how we move forward despite these unfounded fears, no promises of assistance or support. As I recall, you summed up your assessment of our chances at being treated fairly with a simple, terse "There are no votes for that.".
I was as taken aback as I was because by then I knew enough about you to know that you had to know better. I know you know it now because it's been quite some time since I've heard you drag out that old saw. You know the country has moved on from this kind of thinking. You know the poll numbers as well as we do, probably better. You know that about half the population of our country now lives in jurisdictions where gender-variant Americans are protected from discrimination, and that with the turn of the new year three more states will begin protecting their own gender-variant citizens. You know that there are now more places in this country which protect all of their LGBT citizens than there are those which only protect some. You know that there is substantially more support nationwide for protecting transgender people from discrimination than there is for permitting same-sex couples to marry.
I know you know these things because you are too smart, too savvy, and tuned into what's going on in our community socially and politically not to know them. When we're told that more education needs to be done on transgender people, we expect you to be among those doing the educating, and not among those we feel compelled to speak out against.
As passionate as I am about my beliefs, and as loud and as strident as I can get when I sit down behind my keyboard or my microphone, it hurts my heart every time I have to speak out against you, someone like you, and yes, even the Human Rights Campaign. Even as I publicly rage against injustice, it saddens me greatly that I must direct my attacks against those who we should be able to unite with to work toward a better America for all of us.
And yet, what other choice do I have? What other means is left to those like myself who know in our hearts that what we are seeing is wrong, that we are not witnessing a strengthening, unifying movement, but rather one that is fracturing and crumbling apart as some rush headlong toward short-term, but essentially valueless goals at the expense of others even more desperately in need? What can else can I do when I see a man I once revered as an icon of civil rights progress take to the floor of the United States House of Representatives to say in essence, that I and others like me just don't matter as much as other citizens do, that yes, some animals really are more equal than others?
I'm not a politician or an activist leader. I don't run in the circles the political elite wheel and deal in, and with my big mouth, I doubt I'll ever be welcome in such spaces. I don't have all the answers nor do I pretend to. What I am is a transwoman from Jersey with a big mouth and an active keyboard. I speak out because I can, and because if I'm lucky and reasonably good at it, maybe at least a few people are listening. I tell people I do it because I love it, and I do, but it really wouldn't matter if I hated every second of it. I do it because I can't not do it, because I can't bear to see so many crying out for justice and not do something to help. I do it because one of those people crying out for justice is me. And I do it because I believe in the future, of our community and our country.
I remember as a child hearing my teachers tell me that America is the most free nation on Earth. Then I came out transsexual at the age of 35 and I learned that while that may be true for many of its citizens, that freedom doesn't always fully extend to everyone. I learned what it was like to be fired from my job solely because my boss decided he didn't want a transsexual working for him and to then discover that as far as the government was concerned I didn't have the right to seek redress for this injustice as I would have if I'd been fired for having a different skin color, nationality, or religion. I learned that as a transsexual woman I would be the last hired and the first fired in just about every case. I learned that this was to be my lot even in a state that had legally prohibited such discrimination against sexual minorities many years previously. Most of all, I learned that most of the people who made these laws really didn't care one way or the other if I and others like me were assured the same basic civil rights as other citizens. I learned that as a transgender person I was a member of a minority just too small in number for most politicians to see a benefit to themselves or their political parties in acknowledging or fighting for, regardless of the feelings of their own constituents on the matter.
I then spent six years looking for another paying job, Congressman. Yes, that's right...six years, zero income. My resume garnered me plenty of interviews, but not a single one lasted more than a few minutes. Had I not been fortunate enough to have a family that didn't turn its back on me, that gives me a place from where I can now write you from a warm home in suburban Central New Jersey and tell you these things, I don't know where I'd be. Maybe on the streets somewhere, maybe dead, who knows? With my job prospects being what they were (and still are for that matter), I doubt I'd be in a position to tell you all this.
As time went on and I learned more, my opinion of you soured...how could it not? Despite that though, I still held out hope. Somewhere, deep down, I told myself, Barney Frank has a good heart. His goals are essentially the same as mine. I may not like his strategy but he's a smart guy and maybe he knows something we don't...maybe things really will turn out for the best if we just have a little faith that he knows what he's doing. After all, things can't get much worse, can they?
In early September, my heart was singing, or at least humming a happy, hopeful tune. The hate crimes bill had passed both Houses, House leadership was preparing to introduce an inclusive ENDA, the Human Rights Campaign had publicly come out staunchly in support of it. Finally, I thought, all the work, all the waiting, it was all worth it. We're going to win this, and we're going to win it together. Even still suffering the crushing socio-political effects of George Bush's America, I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, the American Dream could now be within our grasp, too.
It seems so long ago now, since that hope turned to anger and then to rage, since that fragile veneer of civility, community solidarity, idealistic politics, and hopeful rhetoric was cruelly ripped away to reveal the truth of what was actually going on behind the scenes. The true agendas came out in the light. I saw promises which once filled me with hope exposed as lies. I witnessed you come before the Congress and tell your colleagues not to stand on principle and the values which this country was founded upon, but rather to offer your seal of approval to voting for a bill to protect one group of American citizens from discrimination and ensuring its passage by excluding those Americans most desperately in need of those protections in order to do so. I heard you tell me and others like me that my desire to be treated like every other American was unrealistic and those like myself who believe in that dream are "living in Oz". I saw a man I once saw as a giant and someone I could perhaps even hope to emulate in some ways tell me and every other gender-variant American that our government just doesn't care about us, that when it comes to American civil rights, we are, and probably always will be, expendable and unworthy of the effort to fight for.
To be a bit blunt Congressman, when the man everyone looks to for direction in the political battle for Americans civil rights basically calls you gutter trash and not worth the effort to even bother trying to legally protect from injustice from the floor of the US Congress, even when he knows perfectly well that the bill he's fighting to pass has virtually no chance of becoming law, you can't help but be a little bit miffed, y'know?
And then, just when I'd thought I couldn't possibly become more disillusioned with the Democratic Party and the entire political process in general, you go on yet another radio show last week and show me that no, you're not done, you're going to do everything in your power to make the pit you've thrown us into even deeper.
Maybe at 45 I'm a little too young to have seen the very worst of the worst here, but in all the time I've been paying attention to politics, I've never before heard a sitting Democratic Congressman publicly tell a violently oppressed minority group that not only doesn't he or his Party have any intention of fighting for our rights now, but that even if his Party is able to secure the Presidency and a stronger majority in Congress, they still won't fight for them even then, that the fight for progress in civil rights at the federal level will not only exclude them now, but that it has already been decided that it will continue to exclude them from equal protection under the law in the future.
When you said that, Congressman, what you have said, quite clearly, is that "If you are a gender-variant American, even those of us who define ourselves as progressive Democrats will not fight for you, not now, and not in the foreseeable future. Your lives, your families, your status as full American citizens are unimportant to us and we will not make the effort to protect you from unjust discrimination, regardless of whether it is politically doable or not. We've already decided that you're not worth making that extra effort for, and we've decided that we're not even going to bother to try, so don't even bother asking. While we are in control of the agenda, your voices and your concerns will not be heard".
That's not pragmatism, sir, that's just plain cruel.
There are those who say that this our punishment from the Democratic leadership, that for daring to stand up and speak out against leaving us behind in ENDA, for inconveniencing Democratic House leaders who wished to quickly pass a non-inclusive ENDA, the Party leadership will now refuse to allow the issue of protections for gender-variant Americans to be considered until at least 2013. If true, I would be hard-pressed to determine which is the crueler, more vicious stroke: Hearing you denounce your own bill and the efforts of a persecuted American minority group demanding the same rights to you seek to ensure for others, or hearing you publicly announce, in essence, that the Democratic Party leadership is no longer interested in even working toward the possibility of an ENDA that would protect all of us the next time it is introduced in Congress.
Yes, I'm angry with you. A lot of us are. It's personal for us, too. For a lot of us, it means the difference between being able to hope for a better day and knowing for a fact that when that day finally does come, it will only come for others but not for us.
Of all the things I'm disappointed in you for, of all the things you've done that have annoyed me, angered me, and enraged me, of all the things you or anyone could have possibly done to hurt me and others like me, you've now done the one thing I never thought, even after all the rest of it, that I still could never have imagined you could do. You've taken away the one thing we still had left after all this: hope.
Despite it all, I never believed a man as passionate as yourself about helping to create a better future for persecuted minorities could possibly be so heartless as to openly and casually deny that hope to a group of citizens so desperately in need. You've told us go away, leave us alone, we're just not interested. You've told us that even when things do change for the better, that when the long darkness that has been the Bush Administration finally does lift and new things become possible, when America will finally be able to once again look forward with optimism and eagerly pursue the reclamation of our country and the values we really treasure, even then gender-variant Americans will not be welcome to participate in it fully, that the progress toward a truly equal America will continue on without us being a part of it.
Yes, Congressman Frank, I'm glad I'm not a politician. I could never do what you and your colleagues are doing to gender-variant Americans and be able to live with myself. It is one thing to advocate the pragmatic route, sir, quite another to declare out of hand, without even knowing what the political situation might be by then, that you're just not going to bother to try to help the poorest and most oppressed among us gain the same rights we all need and deserve as Americans.
Illusions die hard, I suppose, but once dead they tend to stay that way. You and your colleagues crushed our hopes and dreams like a steamroller going over an ant, gaining nothing in doing so. You made an impassioned speech calling for ensuring fairness for one group of citizens by denying it to another, even more harshly opposed group.
Did you really have to take away our hope, too? Did you really have to promise to continue excluding us from the American Dream, no matter what we do or how hard we work to promote our equality? Did you really have to tell every gender-variant American that their country not only doesn't care if they're able to share in the same rights and benefits as everyone else, but that their elected lawmakers aren't even going to bother to consider treating them as equals anytime soon?
Did you really have to be so cruel, to crush even our hopes of a better life, just because we want to fight for the American Dream as hard as you do?
Did you, really?