Austen Crowder

The Trans Mafia Revisited: Hospitality & Messaging

Filed By Austen Crowder | February 29, 2012 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: circular firing squad, Hoosier hospitality, messaging tactics, trans mafia, transgender community

So my old Trans Mafia post has become hot reading material as of late. Wow. Never expected that to happen. (You know you've grabbed some attention when Dan Savage mentions your work.) Since it looks like "Trans Mafia" is looking to become a thing in future conversations on this issue I figure I should follow-up on the first post.

A few clarifications and assurances: Thumbnail image for trans-mafia.jpgI am still a trans activist, even if I'm not nearly as loud as I used to be. I still believe the original post is important, and I still believe that trigger-happy activists are turning potential trans allies into enemies. We continue this behavior at our own peril - the cultural conversation about trans people is happening, here (IN rep) and now (Maine Human Rights).

Screaming about the imperfections of the greater LGBTQ community, and by extension Gay, Inc., leads us into a terrible uphill battle we can't hope to win alone. Like it or not, the big-alphabet coalition has the money, boots on the ground, resources, and press cred we will need to achieve trans equality, and is already achieving victories for trans people as part of larger issues of LGB and gender nonconforming rights.

Being right isn't the same as holding power - one gives personal security, the other yields change. And the latter is far messier than the former.

Why Can't We Be Friends & Show a Little Hoosier Hospitality?

Look, I do work with the Indiana LGBTQ community. We're outgunned, outspent, and deep in a mostly unsupported environment in which queerness is still that "dirty little secret" few people like to bring up in polite conversation. It's a different world here; you smile more, shake hands more, let mistakes slide because you know people mean well and want to count on their support despite their missteps.

In Indiana the strength of your character does matter - its a deep part of our cultural identity as Hoosiers. That character, properly presented, can battle back existing prejudices against LGBTQ people with enough exposure. This isn't just the trans community; it's every letter of the Indiana alphabet. I'll let you imagine how that shakes out in practice as we make sure folks struggling with their gender identity have access to the small handful of doctors willing to diagnose and treat trans people.

The strange thing about Indiana, though, is that character means a lot. People tend to look over what they see as undesirable characteristics if the person is good-hearted and carries a decent reputation. (The "I don't care what you do at home" argument, while a little stomach-turning, does work in our favor here.) Sure, we are behind the times as far as social norms go, but this also means looking someone in the eye and being genuine still goes a long way within the realm of day-to-day conversation.

You learn to do a lot of gladhanding when you're this bad an underdog in this traditional an environment. I know plenty of good-hearted Christians, conservatives, even previously transphobic LGB people who are now trans activists because of a smile, a handshake, a friendship, and a little conversation about what it's like to be trans. Truth is, nobody likes seeing discrimination against people they like, and even if they don't fully understand gender identity they know that discrimination is wrong.

I could scream and holler about how they get the terminology wrong, how they mis-gender me here and there, how they don't truly get what my identity means. Or I could watch them call out transphobia when they see it in public, on their Facebook walls, and in their homes. Which spreads a trans-inclusive message faster, I ask you?

This isn't to say that there is no place for anger in trans activism. Sometimes enforcers need to rough up existing allies to drum up support. This is politics. However, there's a huge difference between strong arming people for support who Already Get It and flat-out whining when someone trips up or tells a tasteless joke. Strong arming shows we mean business. Whining on the internet and lashing out at existing allies whenever they make a mistake sends the message that the trans community at large isn't willing to discuss things.

And speaking of messaging...

If We Are a Mafia, Our Messaging Stinks

The trans community needs simple, accessible messages to rally behind. As I mentioned in the last post a lot of the success in gay/lesbian rights debate centers around the simplification of messaging. Sure, there's tons of complexity within the LGB community, but when public policy debate comes up we approach with a pretty well-focused strike.

LGBT people need healthcare rights. LGB people need marriage. LGBT people need to be protected from discrimination. Name any portion of the LGB agenda and I can wrap up the issue in a nice, succulent action item that fits in a twitter message of a ten-second "didja know" for when I meet somebody who has never thought about LGBT rights.

Anti-trans sentiment is building pressure in our cultural conversation. We've left the ghetto-ization of sweeps-grabbing talk show specials and have entered the larger cultural conversation. We've had our Will and Grace moment, I believe, in Chaz Bono's appearance on DWTS; now transgender exists within the social consciousness and will be part of our conversations going forward.

People know what a trans person is like now, and there are some social conservatives for who this realization has scared them half to death. Again, their message is simple: "Transgender people are crazy and we must protect them from themselves."

Transgender rights will be won or lost on our ability to counter with an equally simple and meaningful statement: "Trans people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity in society and in the law." It will need to be repeated early and often by allies of all shapes and sizes, sexual orientations and religious affiliations, queer and non-queer, out and stealth. Those allies may not be perfect all the time, but without them?

Without them, we haven't a chance in hell.

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