Soon, the world might just be different

The world – at least its human population – has suddenly become remarkably different. The changes from the global pandemic are happening quietly and in solitude, as people shelter in place and renegotiate their patterns of life as best they can, seeking physical, economic, and even spiritual ways to stay healthy, secure, and buoyant. There are so many losses – tragic, painful, grueling, and mostly unmeasured losses – for those who contract the covid-19 virus, for those who care for and worry about them, and for those who depend upon them. We know this is a phase; there will be a time when this is over, when at least some of the accounting of suffering and loss can occur. We’ll mourn, we’ll find ways to heal, we’ll dust ourselves off, and we will move on.

But move on to what?

The invitation to imagine a future characterized by radically positive changes helps many of us make it through this deeply unsettling, troubling time. What we have endured (and still have yet to endure) from the pandemic has earned us at least that freedom to speculate. What if? Why not? Isn’t it long overdue? We find time to ponder what most about the past has failed us, and what simply must change. It’s a time to think big, and to seize an opportunity that may not come again for a very long time.

So here goes…

What if we demand that the patriarchal world order justifies itself? What if we insist that all who benefit most from patriarchal norms explain why we should not all give feminism a try? While patriarchy has many entrenched beneficiaries, the norms and power relations of patriarchy cause most of the planet’s population to be disadvantaged, diminished, disrespected, and exploited, now and since time immemorial. It need not be this way.

I can almost hear the scoffs, but I challenge you to read on…

Recently, I joined a small group of people on Zoom (yes, all women, although men had been invited) to discuss and constructively critique a thoughtful policy paper two of them had written and shared. Their paper dispassionately contemplated a feminist foreign policy for the United States; not as bizarre a notion as it might seem on first blush. Sweden, Mexico and Canada have variants of such policies in place now, and France, Luxembourg, and (if the Labor Party has its way) the United Kingdom are expressing promising intentions. But “feminism” is a fraught concept – a large proportion of women shy away from identifying as feminists, and arguably most men really haven’t bothered to learn even what feminism means. After all, they have seen no need to; presumably men have less frivolous things to think about and decide upon. Few women really expect men to engage on this topic; as women we’ve had good reasons to lower our expectations. Men have been almost entirely absent over the past four decades of advocacy for fundamental aspects of pursuing gender equality: ending domestic violence, stopping child marriages, shutting down sex trafficking, and granting women and girls equal legal status. Worse still, women have come to expect and even tolerate the absence of men in this important work.

If we cannot get individual men even to engage in serious discussions on the violence, exploitation, inequalities and marginalization faced by so many women and girls around the world – which men are at the center of perpetrating – what chance have we to find many men engaging on a feminist foreign policy for the world’s super power? The United States is unapologetically patriarchal; feminine values are relegated to a subordinate status and largely ignored. The United States exudes patriarchy in nearly all our political, cultural, religious, and governance institutions, and our foreign policy naturally follows this focus on power, dominance, strength, security, and wealth maximization. Yes, there are a few aberrations – for example the Peace Corps – but their modest budget has just been slashed again.

Why should our foreign policy be any different?

From the safety of your respective pandemic lock-down, hunker-down vantage points, I urge you to use this moment of global disarray and catastrophe to take a hard look at the system of moral values that underpins and sustains our world now. It’s a system that made a Trump presidency possible. It’s a system that is motivated by fierce competition, rigid hierarchies, “virtuous” self-interest, manipulation of others (persons, countries, genders) to serve the manipulator’s goals, accumulation of wealth and power with no “enough” point ever being defined, and security conceived primarily as the military and economic capacity to dominate (or at least intimidate) any perceived competitor or adversary. We measure our strength in weaponry, superbly trained and highly professional fighting forces, and wealth. Peace is seen only as a (temporary) lull in violent conflict. That system of moral values has a name – patriarchy – even if we are not encouraged to use that word.

In my own career in international development and human rights advocacy, my colleagues and I in this shared endeavor have been very poorly served by our existing American patriarchal foreign policy (although it is almost never referred to in such terms). Foreign aid and international development has no cabinet-level seat, and it rarely features in geopolitical strategizing. Those of us who work in this sector know that this isn’t a particularly lucrative or prestigious calling, but we don’t do it for the money. We do this work because we care. We want our efforts to make a meaningful difference in helping those who are marginalized, vulnerable, and largely ignored to overcome crushing poverty, to rise above lives of suffering, and to achieve freedoms and opportunities that most Americans simply (and rightly) take as a birthright. We want human dignity to be respected as an inviolable and universal threshold, and we commit our lives to this work.

For foreign policy, feminist demands are radical. We want economies everywhere to serve people; not the other way around. We want to see women and others who have been traditionally marginalized now have fair and reasonable access everywhere to genuine participation in decision-making and leadership. We want to see new norms, with room at the top of our “national self-interest” for making global such notions as justice, fairness, solidarity, collaboration, empathy, compassion, mercy, altruism, and long-term thinking. We want to measure our strength not only in our ability to defend ourselves, but also in the ways that we sustainably, creatively, and harmoniously live with each other and with our planet, in peace. We want leadership that inspires, motivates, and transforms – leadership that we now see in the countries that are doing the best in responding to and mitigating the pandemic – Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Norway. They are all led by women.

Mostly, what I and others of a similar mind (not all of whom are women) want is to be respected. We want to know why we all should simply be expected to default to patriarchal norms. We demand that the advocates of patriarchy make their case for its continuance. I’m not here to make an irrefutable case for feminism, or for a feminist foreign policy for the United States. Instead, I ask a different question: why should we not have a feminist foreign policy? That’s a discussion I am very prepared for, and I am not alone.

Getting an answer means that the men and women who support and benefit most from the overwhelming dominance of patriarchal norms would have to undertake a task that they have long ignored and neglected. They would need to learn what feminism means. Only then could they contemplate the implications of instituting a feminist foreign policy in lieu of the patriarchal status quo. Only then could they understand the patriarchy that surrounds them and that defines the world that we now experience. Once they have opened their eyes, they might not like what they see.

So yes, an almost unique opportunity is soon upon us to push the reset button. Those of us on the outer fringes of the current power structure – we who claim the “feminist” label without ambivalence or hesitation – know we can’t argue our way to get anywhere near to that reset button. The outer fringes offer no leverage; it’s not a place from which to make a compelling case, even if it is grounded in universal human dignity and is morally strong. So instead we turn the tables, and employ our democratic prerogatives to demand that the advocates for patriarchy explain why their system’s dominance in the norms, means, and goals of our international relations and in our foreign aid ought to continue as it now is. We have been patiently asking for this dialogue for decades, and consistently we’ve been ignored and waved aside. At best we are cast as an “irritation”; more frequently we’re subjected to far more pejorative or crudely sexualized labels. The arrogance of those who would wish for patriarchy to remain The System is most clearly seen in the condescending ways in which they reject taking any initiative to open their own minds to explore any alternatives, no matter the egregious cost the status quo has on others.

Feminists know that we cannot force them to do so, so why should the defenders of patriarchy bother?

They should bother because for human dignity to matter, it must be universal. If we want a world in which unnecessary suffering, violence, marginalization, inequality, and exploitation will no longer be “the way things are”, human dignity must be a defensible threshold for all. If we want a planet that is environmentally sustainable – one that avoids the impending climate catastrophe – we need different values and transformed leadership. If we want a world in which we no longer tolerate the rapidly growing inequalities between the few who are wealthy and the masses who are in poverty, we need to end patriarchy.

That dialogue has yet to happen. We are not even close right now, and the ravages of the current pandemic bear grim testimony to our dysfunction under patriarchy. It is time to rethink. It is time for the beneficiaries of patriarchy to deign to learn about feminism, and to realize what it offers.

Feminism isn’t a panacea. But a world moderated and influenced by feminism in a meaningful way, at scale, now, would offer such promise.

Find out why.

Catastrophe

Some tears were not meant to be repressed.

In describing the email messages she’d been receiving, she may not have wanted her loss of composure to become the video image being broadcast to the small and scattered universe of our local Quaker community, each at their respective homes behind their Zoom monitors, atomized but oddly together in the midst of the pandemic. But it didn’t matter; her tears flowed and with good reason. This woman works in international development. She, I, and others in our shared line of work have long struggled to reconcile our many personal, very human connections with friends and colleagues in the “Global South” (the countries of the developing world) with the impersonal, almost antiseptic development “industry” that has grown up over the past seventy years to provide global relief and development services. It’s a competitive industry driven by measured results and by indicators of efficiency and effectiveness. It’s characterized by its perpetual scarcity of funds in the face of immense challenges in countries least able to cope. Most of us have long since stopped asking why that scarcity exists among nations that are so wealthy; those who advocate here for the plight of the faraway disadvantaged find very little traction among the American public for extending moral boundaries beyond national boundaries. But we persist in our vocation. Why?

Many (perhaps most if you scratch the surface) who work within the relief and development industry of the “Global North” (the more developed, wealthy, and powerful countries) feel a genuine sense of mission and service, even if the industry provides no institutional structure, space, time, or priority in discussing such sensibilities. Instead of musing among ourselves about our values, we’re constantly reminded that we have work to do. Still, we know: no matter how hard we labor or how earnestly we care, it will never be enough to stanch the stream of suffering and need, or to quench the thirst for freedom and opportunity.

There are people on the other side of this equation. Sometimes called “beneficiaries”, or more disturbingly referred to as “target groups” or “key populations”, the people of the Global South are no longer content to be periodically visited by expatriate experts who typically jet in, work intensely in cultural environments they don’t have time to understand, move their collected data and trip reports into the cloud, and then leave before they’ve even adjusted to local time zones. Such beneficiaries are progressively claiming a bigger role in their own development decisions, but then they have their own ways and they don’t always want to be rushed. I am frequently moved to recall the words brightly painted on a local taxi van (matatu) in Nairobi, Kenya: “No hurry in Africa”. I first saw that back in the early 1980s when I lived in that city; then and now it reminds me of how wide the divide is between the core sensibilities of the Global North and the Global South. For those of us who serve as one of those “experts” in the expatriate development industry, time is fleeting, time is precious, and time is money. Measurable results demand focus, and budgets must be adhered to and accounted for in terms of billable hours. Once our “short term technical assistance” travel is completed, we come back to join with the home office staff to review and complete our evaluation of the data we’ve collected, trying in our small incremental ways to improve international relief and development outcomes. Once evaluated, the data we labored to collect and understand is unilaterally abstracted by the relevant institutions of the Global North into dense, fact-filled technical jargon in the form of spreadsheets, reports, PowerPoint slides, regression analyses, and statistical profiles. It’s important work and there’s no time to waste…until a catastrophe upends everything. Then suddenly, there is indeed a strong reason to hurry in Africa. And in Asia, and in the Middle East – indeed throughout the Global South. The Covid-19 pandemic sets its own time, and it is perishingly fast.

What had been an evolving, largely casual, almost tentative growth of direct interpersonal communication between “us” and “them”, a sideshow that made working in the expatriate relief and development industry more personal and interesting, is now something altogether different. The voices reaching out to us from the Global South via the Internet are no longer chatty. They are frightened, on the edge of panic.

They are demanding our attention.

Until just weeks ago, the short email messages coming out of the Global South typically were poignant with humanity, friendship, humor – but always tinged with legitimate need. Through the Internet, individuals in the Global South – people with names, faces, and stories to share – were making their presence known by breaking the unwritten rules, and leaping free of the political-economy frameworks that we in the Global North conveniently have contained them in up until now. These “beneficiaries” have exhorted us to read, listen to, or watch videos of their stories, to engage with compelling but seldom complaining accounts of what a “day in the life of…” is like. They couldn’t force us to engage – the power of the delete button remains ours to wield – but my tearful Quaker sister reads her incoming email and social media every day. So do I. These messages assert “I matter too” – not just in aggregate, not only in a cost-benefit table – but individually. It’s an assertion that we must respond to authentically; critical international relationships at every level will stand or fall depending on how we answer. Ultimately, the authors of each message have been subconsciously asserting two thoughts: they too are dignified human beings, and the principle of universal human dignity is at risk of being so comprehensively ignored that it will soon fall into permanent irrelevance.

But now the messages have suddenly changed. The humor is gone and their exhortations to engage are taking on a sense of calling-in an obligation, something that has always just been assumed: that we genuinely care about their wellbeing. We are being directly challenged by the authors of these email and social media messages to make the words on our slick websites and stirring policy statements real. Words like “human rights”, and “universal human dignity”. We are being challenged to stand up and be accountable. Not only in monetary terms, although that too is important…the “beneficiaries” are holding us to moral accountability.

It’s a stretch. Our foreign aid, at best, uses human dignity as a rhetorical device, effectively making any notion of morally defending a universal threshold of human dignity – a threshold or secular “moral minimum” that we must all work with determination to defend so that no one falls below it – into a sham. Most of us don’t know that secular moral vocabulary, and anyway we’re not willing to shoulder our part of such a heavy burden. In the past we could get by this awkward accountability by burying it in the empirical reports and the dense jargon of international relief and development.

Now; not so easy.

They are right there on your monitor, looking you in the eye, and asking in real time some perfectly appropriate moral questions: what did I do to deserve this life of hardship, suffering, and indignity? Why aren’t our public health systems capable to help us survive this pandemic? Why is there no adequate safety net as our economies fall apart? Do notions of fairness, equality, and universal dignity hold any significance at all? As the pandemic explodes around the world, countries in the Global North search and often fail to find such answers for themselves; no one here has much of an answer for the urgent questions of the Global South. Our “beneficiary” friends are not naïve; most have grudgingly come to accept injustice and suffering as their lot, and long ago they have tempered their hope for improvements and parked such aspirations at the margins. But not now.

In just the past ten days, my Quaker sister and I (and no doubt many more people with friends in the Global South) have been receiving truly alarming emails. The messages in those emails are variations on the same theme: the situation for the poor and the marginalized who are now lock-downed due to the burgeoning pandemic – people with no reserves of food or money – is already beyond dire. Their prospects, and the plight of their dependent children, elderly, or disabled folk, is beyond bleak. And that’s before factoring in their vulnerability to infection from the novel coronavirus. Our 0.2 percent (and yes, that is two-tenths of one percent) of GNP funding that the United States allocates to foreign aid each year isn’t going to make a dent in this calamity.

Throughout most of the developing world, this is a perfect storm. Covid-19 has found the soft underbelly of the Global South, and it now is wasting no time in exploiting grossly inadequate public health systems, a lack of competent or caring governance by economically insulated elites, close-packing of ordinary people due to widespread poverty, rapidly increasing vulnerability arising from lock-down induced malnutrition, increasing violence and civic unrest, extremes of sexism and domestic violence, police brutality and lack of training, and no effective strategies to cope with a massive and deadly pandemic. Everyone in the Global South knows that little help from outside can be expected despite stalwart efforts by the WHO and similar under-funded international institutions; the more developed countries of the world are beset by our own deep challenges, chronic (and, in retrospect, inexcusable) lack of preparedness, and the exponential escalation in the spread of the virus right here at home. We have to prioritize our own needs, and…well…we have nothing to say in response to the alarming messages coming in.

Our hearts and prayers won’t cut it.   

This will all end, someday. Nothing will be the same; everywhere the death toll and devastation will be beyond reckoning. Whether we will learn anything from this, and begin to reconfigure our sensibilities, values, and plans remains highly questionable. Humanity has been on this journey before; the 1918 influenza pandemic caused by a variant of an H1N1 virus infected nearly one third of the planet’s population. We didn’t seem to change our ways much afterwards; apparently we mostly clamored to return quickly to the way things were before the flu. The consequences of our unwillingness to learn from that experience are all around us right now. 

Human suffering at this massive scale strains our capacity to comprehend, much less to cope with it. The reality that it is the poorest, most marginalized, and most vulnerable who will suffer the most speaks volumes about our prevailing world of inequalities, lack of empathy, and highly competitive individualism. This intensity of misery and death condemns us for our short-sightedness, our bottom-line maximization, and the low value that we place on selecting political leaders of integrity and competence. Our democratic systems prioritize short-term gratification, not long-term reconfiguration of a scandalously inequitable world order and economies based on perverse, self-serving, “America First” values.

It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe of this scale to point us to the many flaws in our global patriarchal standards. We live in a world that classifies those values that are more aligned with feminine principles – empathy, altruism, compassion, public service, generosity, solidarity, and collaboration as being of a lower order – although curiously we suddenly stand in awe of the medical professionals who are valiantly and tirelessly living those caregiver, self-sacrificing values right now in our hospitals.

Those messages from the Global South demanding secular moral accountability aren’t going away, nor should they. More and more, they will be laying a very profound moral failure at the feet of those who have benefited most from our current inequitable world order.

Let the tears flow, but let’s start planning something new – and something very much better – for all of us. That’s right, all of us. It’s what universal human dignity – and the messages from the Global South – demand.

Not to be discussed

The cold fluid ran down my shin as I lay on my back on the examination table, my foot drawn back and my right knee raised. Having chilled my knee to numbness with the liquid, the doctor made no effort to dry the drips. Instead he lapsed into a patter of small talk – something about his upcoming holiday plans for Portugal – as he readied the needle. His distraction drew me back to fond memories of my one time in Lisbon, almost 40 years ago; the sharp prick of the needle entering my knee interrupted those musings, but it wasn’t so bad. The pain was already subsiding as he slapped the Band-Aid over my kneecap. “See you next Friday”, he said, already on his way down the vinyl tiled corridor to his next patient.

I’d been through this routine once before, two years earlier. Injections of some magical gel into my right knee, spaced out over three weeks, thereby attaining full and relatively pain-free movement of my right leg. It would do for now; although I was keenly aware that there would come a time when more complicated measures would be needed to keep this body’s aging at bay. Despite my disciplined dedication to staying fit and healthy, enjoying continued unfettered mobility was no longer a given. I took a modicum of comfort knowing that it could all be much worse; I’m approaching 70 but I’m far more active and able than many people my age. Hell, I’m more fit than many people far younger than me – or so I like to think. Yet despite my relatively good fortune with my health, and the benefits of all those years of being a regular at the gym, there’s one painful reality that we cannot assuage with a visit to the clinic: getting old in America isn’t for the fainthearted.  

Hey, I’m tough, resilient, and generally upbeat too. Still, finding myself balancing on the precipice of “elderly” as a single woman, and a transgender woman at that, has given me pause. Even the best cared-for bodies and minds will gradually wear out, although so far I’ve held the worst at bay. What most occupies me now isn’t physical – it’s how difficult it’s become to push back effectively against the tightening encirclement of three overlapping powerful social biases: ageism, sexism, and transphobia. In my combat against all three, my once robust counterpunches now appear more like pointless flailing; I am feeling this battle slipping away from me. Yes, I’ve always known that the inexorable forces of aging will prevail against me, but succumbing to social stigma and discrimination is another thing altogether.

What will it mean for me to lose this struggle – how will I keep my spirits up, my rent paid, and both me and my cat fed? What would my surrender to any or all three of these biases mean to my own dignity and purpose? Am I deluded in clinging to the notion that I have so much more to give, and do, and be in this world?

Years ago, when I first returned home briefly after two years of what was ultimately to become fifteen years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa, I had so much to talk about. Africa had changed me. My unsolicited lessons in life had sprung from seeing firsthand and all around me the juxtaposition of intense opportunity and grinding poverty, from the warmth and sparkle of the Kenyans I had come to know, and from sensing firsthand the corrosive weight of systemic corruption, exploitation, and ignorance. Africa had opened my eyes and transformed my entire worldview, and I was so eager to share my perspective with friends and family back home. I was quick to learn, however, that very few in the States really wanted to know. My life in Africa wasn’t where they were at. I soon stopped trying to share.

Getting old isn’t where most Americans are at either. Younger America isn’t inviting our perspectives; economic and social survival for elderly Americans certainly isn’t something the general public wants us to discuss. We have our Social Security and Medicare, don’t we? Even if those entitlements barely keep us alive, the message isn’t ambiguous. “Stop your complaining”, say those who are burdened with severe student loan debt, mortgage payments, and the cost and multiple demands of young families to raise. So, wise to the knowledge that they have a good point, we shut up. We’ve had our chance at life; we’re expected now to quietly find our peace with the consequences of our lives and our past choices. We must play the cards that we’ve been dealt, even if we now hold only a few cards. Society wants us out of the spotlight, to give the next generations some space. Our time is past; our turn is over. Deal with it. We’re on our own.

No.

What if I refuse to see myself as irrelevant, as no longer worthy? What if I remain engaged in mind and spirit, and in body too as much as my joints will allow? What if I consider my experiences and capabilities as still being of value – perhaps even essential – to solving some of the challenges that we all share within our current environment? What if I still have hopes and dreams? Spunk and grit, idealism and energy? I’m not ready to take that step back into the shadows. Yes, I recognize that it’s a step whose time inevitably will come, and I do hope to meet that time with grace and awareness. But not now. Not yet.

You see, some of us have a little problem. It’s a problem guaranteed to attract negligible attention from policy makers or the public, from potential employers, and from those who are immersed in the affairs, adventures, challenges, and prospects of youth and middle age. But for us, our problem is very real; we are failing in our efforts to solve it on our own. Such failure is undignified; it’s best not to speak of it.

But I will speak.

You see, some of us actually want to work. We delight in work. And some of us also have to work. I have to work, and since it’s about my survival, I guess it’s important. I know; you have other pressing concerns to attend to, but…

It’s not written down anywhere (that would be illegal), yet I’ve learned to my chagrin that I’m no longer “positioned” to apply for most jobs that are advertised – even jobs I’m imminently qualified for. The HR office at any employer, by coincidence or conspiracy, has quietly come to function as an effective gatekeeper against resumes that are too long, graduation dates too far back, and publications written back in the 1980s (even if some of them are still a damn good read). Unless someone well placed within an organization is acting as our champion and taking strong measures to get our candidacies reviewed fairly, applying for jobs is now nearly always a waste of time. The unwritten message is all too clear: applications are not welcome from men over 60, women over 50, or from anyone over 40 who is transgender.

Were it only a waste of time, that might be countenanced. My problem is more personal. When I see a job posted that I know I would do exceptionally well at – for an employer whose important mission I know would truly benefit from the deep resources of experience, networks, and wisdom that these years have earned me – I get invested. I can’t resist placing myself in the picture: there I am doing that job, and everyone is delighted with my performance, my sharp wit, and my congeniality.  And I am enjoying their engagement, and the sense of community in a vibrant workplace that embraces diversity of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity. So, I sit down and write my heart out – well, in a properly reserved manner. After all, I know how to write those cover letters. For years I’ve been the one reading them at the other end.

Still, my investment is fruitless; my cover letter will go unread, and my resume will be placed in the “other” stack (a digital stack, these days). No one will be moved, or impressed, or intrigued. They won’t even write back. Nothing, silence; the door is closed. At my age all the doors are closing around me, and those whom we have relied upon on the inside to keep those doors slightly ajar for “that remarkably experienced and capable applicant” are rapidly leaving the workforce.  Who is left to advocate for someone “old” like me?

Fair enough. We know that patience among those of younger generations for listening to the woes or more gritty interjections of elders is very limited. We confront all those closed and closing doors mostly on our own, wondering with increasing anxiety how we’re supposed to pay our bills and survive into whatever our futures hold for us. For those like me – and I suspect many transgender people of my generation – the notion of a comfortable retirement just around the corner is a tantalizing yet unreachable prospect. We watch our more affluent but similarly aged cohort of friends and siblings plan their cruises and move to their comfortable, sunny retirement villas, secure in the coverage of their extended-care old age insurance policies. There’s nothing for us to say about it all, and no one to listen were we to do so. We’re left to wish them well in their hard-earned retirements. God bless them.

Transgender lives like mine are almost never characterized by such affluence and security. We’ve had to pay and pay for our “condition”; my transition took place when all health insurance providers routinely and expressly excluded transition-related services. I paid for my womanhood, in costs that drained any savings I had ever accumulated, and which left me indebted for years to come. My expensive new body saved my life and brought me untold meaning and peace (if not a boyfriend), but I am still shouldering that very high price tag for that physical, psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual transformation.

The medical, practical, and counseling costs of a gender transition aside, transgender lives are also frequently marked by disruption. It’s not just the big and often messy splash of coming out and reconfiguring one’s personal, family, bureaucratic, and intimate arrangements; transgender people face a nearly unscalable wall of discrimination in employment and in so many other aspects of our lives. Our resumes are replete with periods of “consulting”, if we are even that lucky. Finding and keeping a job is frequently a monumental challenge in the midst of such pervasive transphobia and bias, and getting older exacerbates this challenge exponentially. For us, the prospect of easing into a comfortable retirement is the bittersweet stuff of fantasy.

With doors closing, the bank balance diminishing, and the face in the mirror acquiring ever more wrinkles, our options are few. Often there isn’t really anywhere or anyone to turn to. Being old and without substantial means of support in America is rough. Our personal narratives do not attract a caring readership. Not only do old people’s complaints generate little sympathy or action, but who among the young and middle-aged demographics want to entertain the future prospect of their own aging? Who wants to think through our journeys to form conjectures about their own possibly dim pathway ahead?  We’re therefore expected to stay quiet, to soldier on somehow, and find a way to pay our bills and retain our dignity. How? That’s our problem. And we’ll do our best, often isolated and alone.

But know this much: this is really, really hard.

An pacifist advocating for transgender equality – in the military.

I’m setting myself up for criticism. After all, aren’t Quakers known for our fierce (some would say strident) pacifism and opposition to all things military? So why is this Quaker advocating for the legal right of transgender Americans to serve in the military?

The easy answer is simply that I am also a transgender person, so I feel a profound solidarity with my transgender brothers and sisters in any aspect of our shared struggle for equality as American citizens. Have I placed myself on the horns of moral and spiritual conflict then – pacifism versus equality?

No.

First, the pacifism that Quakers generally espouse runs deep. It isn’t simply about avoiding military service and renouncing war; it’s about avoiding all conditions that give rise to violent conflict in the first place. Many will argue that it is human nature to be competitive, and that on occasion this competition is inherently bound to escalate to violence and sometimes even organized violence at scale – war. What drives competition to become violent conflict is as complex as is human nature, and yet such extreme competition is frequently and appropriately linked to some of the worst attributes of human nature: greed, pride, arrogance, callousness to human suffering, elitism, even evil.

In short, violent conflict – and the need for having a military to defend us – represents human failure at a vast scale. While Americans frequently celebrate our women and men in uniform, and rightly express our gratitude to them for their service, we tend to turn a blind eye to the brutal savagery and devastation of warfare. War leads inexorably to human suffering, often massively. Morality, and our efforts towards building civilized societies, is all about ending human suffering. War and violence stand in our way.

Those who feel called to place themselves in harm’s way to defend us from the devastating and destructive consequences of that massive human failure are rightly hailed for their selfless courage and sacrifice. I’m the grandchild of a Marine Corps general, the daughter of a Marine Corps colonel, the sister of brothers all of whom served in the armed forces, and the aunt of a Navy pilot, so I have lived close to men of commendable patriotism, sacrifice, virtue, and dedication through their service. I have many dear friends (some transgender) who are veterans. I respect them all deeply.

There is another side. Continue reading An pacifist advocating for transgender equality – in the military.

To appease the base

Originally posted on December 16, 2017; updated and revised November 19, 2018

 

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.

Reading these words from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was challenging, even when I first encountered them many years ago. I never imagined, however, that the words being destroyed would be about particular human beings. Human beings like …me.

Words are now being officially destroyed. In just the latest manifestation in the continuing deluge of outrage upon offense upon indignity, the Trump administration – in the form of the Department of Health & Human Services – has given clear evidence of its desire to eliminate for once and all the legal category of transgender. This process is not new; last December they decreed that I be made invisible – at least in official documents then being prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of the current fiscal year’s budget process. Trump has made it so that in federal budgeting transactions the word transgender is no longer permitted, as are six other presumably highly provocative words: vulnerableentitlementdiversityfetusevidencebased and science-based.

It’s more than a little unsettling to find oneself about to be erased. In some ways I feel that as Chloe, I’ve only just arrived. Was I getting too complacent, having succeeded in the lengthy and often fraught process of getting my name, gender marker, passport, drivers’ license, and even birth certificate all formally changed to become “Chloe” and “female”? None of those documents employ the word transgender, so should I be concerned if President Trump and his DHSS are poised to expand their flagrant attacks against transgender folk? Will the next words to be banned include “Latina” or “African-American”. No matter – we’ll still each have our names and numbers. Right? We’ll only be losing our identity.

There’s no specific human right to be yourself. Part of being myself includes owning the curious history that I was born into a male body and was once classified as a male. Do I need a specific human right to recognize that odd fact of my birth? We exist, and we exist as male or female. Except when we don’t.

Now I (blissfully) inhabit a female body, and am officially accepted by law as a woman – but only fully so in 19 states within these United States. The majority of both U.S. states and the world’s countries either refuse to fully accept people such as me, or they make it nearly impossible bureaucratically to transition to one’s authentic gender. Yet thankfully, here in Maryland I am Chloe, a woman – but a “woman with a past”. A woman who was never a girl.

I am transgender. I don’t walk around holding a placard stating this identity, but I’m not ashamed or embarrassed to be transgender; it is what it is. The journey across the gender binary has been grueling, expensive, painful, and enormously difficult. Fortunately, few people have any reason to attempt it. Yet that journey speaks to us all, as it challenges society to rethink the absurd presumption of a gender binary. It’s a profound and provocative challenge – indeed, the very existence of trans and gender non-binary folk makes some people very uncomfortable. We are the challenge.

Still, challenge or not, here I am. I’ve every reason to expect my own government to acknowledge my identity in this critically descriptive context – and I bristle at the notion that the White House would seek to erase me and act to impose barriers in accessing government-funding for CDC programs affecting transgender persons. Health programs.

Obviously, the Trump base must be appeased.

Such appeasement comes at a high cost to us. Our invisibility becomes the starting point for our dehumanization. It’s hardly uncommon; through many international assignments over many years I have seen so many countries with laws that make it impossible for transgender and non-binary persons to have any visibility – to exist in any legal, economic, social, or political way. When you show up as a potential employee, tenant, voter, patient, bank account applicant, airline passenger, or student and your official documents describe a person who is not you – by name or gender – you have the door slammed in your face. Again and again. You’re left to survive on the street, through informal employment if you can find it, perhaps as a sex worker if you are young. You cannot get official identity documents that describe you, as you know yourself to be. Your choices are few, and your chances of having your human dignity acknowledged – must less respected – are scant. You are consigned to being fringe; just an unimportant and marginalized curiosity. You are dehumanized.

President Trump’s recent targeting of transgender service members is already an integral part of his cruel legacy of discrimination and division, and we know where he stands on accepting our place within the American fabric. He and his base of supporters would like us to be gone, and his administration is at work to make it so. Banning the word transgender was but one step in an unfolding strategy, and much easier and less expensive than making us wear declarative armbands or having us impounded somewhere out of the way. Just make us go away – administratively and legally. But do it where it matters – in the allocation of the budget, and in the wording of the law. In the expenditure of my taxes. On matters of health. On matters of identity.

On matters of existence.

Our existence and our authenticity – where we place ourselves along the gender continuum – may make many cisgender persons uncomfortable, but we cause them no harm. We demand but one thing – that we be accepted as equal human beings. Which of course means that we demand the recognition of the transgender phenomenon as something real, something that happens and that has always been there, even if it is something that makes us just a little different. That difference is not “fake news”. It may even be a blessing, if we come to embrace human diversity and all the gifts and insights that diverse human beings bring to the United States and to the world. But wait; diversity is also a banned word now. My bad.

So resistance has becomes more urgent. It’s now time that I boldly hold the transgender placard. It’s time that I and all of my transgender and cisgender allies stand up and demand that our existence – the 0.6% of Americans who are transgender – be legally and socially recognized, respected, and – yes – budgeted for. When specific groups of Americans can be rendered non-existent by our own government, we have a problem. People who do not exist have no rights. You can do what you want with them.

George Orwell again: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Is this to be my face?

Not if I can help to stop it. Not if you help me.

 

Moving on…

In 2015 I completed my original manuscript for my memoir Self-ish: a transgender awakening. That year felt to me like an auspicious time to be sharing one transgender woman’s journey, as the public discourse on gender identity issues was already fractious, politicized, and rife with misinformation. When Red Hen Press gently but firmly reminded me that the backlog for actually publishing their approved manuscripts was three years, I was distraught. The message seemed so urgent then.

Little did I know.

My book came out this March, and I’ve been pleased to see it well received both in terms of reviews and sales. I had made some important edits to the manuscript in the period between 2015 and this year, to offer an updated critical perspective on the intensifying damage coming in the wake of Trump-fueled transphobia and the targeting of transgender persons. Yet even in March when the memoir finally hit the bookstores, I hadn’t anticipated the recent dramatic escalation in this targeting. No doubt the current turbulence in the media arising from the leaked memo from Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, will quickly fade as the mid-term election pushes all other topics aside.  Still, the New York Times’ account of the draft memo is harrowing, describing language that dispassionately and categorically intends to strip me of my legal standing as a woman (as a post-operative transgender person, that would leave me in a very curious anatomical place as a legal man). Psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, to be disappeared so comprehensively would be unbearable. Such an intense level of government-induced trauma among my community would be catastrophic; it bears urgent contemplation well past the vagaries of the news cycle.

That official de-gendering threat alone is something that most cisgender people (people who do not identify as transgender) are unlikely to be able to wrap their heads around. For us this is more than a legal nuance, or the checking of a different box, yet from the character of so much of the caustic social media on this topic in the past few days, a very large number of Americans view transgender and non-binary people as confused, intentionally provocative, irrational, or bereft of common sense. We are an irritant, and a threat to … well, that part isn’t clear. What is clear is that the experience of always being comfortably aligned with your sex and gender is difficult to unpack when there is no vantage point outside that experience.

Except that there is such a vantage point – the lives and stories of transgender people like me. My book was written with just that goal in mind, and if nothing else it would be challenging for even the most transphobic reader to convincingly label this author as someone who is psychologically unhinged or otherwise of dubious character. I am simply a woman, a human being, and a person with the same innate dignity as any other person.

Is this really so hard? Continue reading Moving on…

It’s funny, right?

Dave Chappelle – Funny Or Die Oddball To by Anirudh Koul, on Flickr

 

Should I write yet another note to PBS NewsHour? That particular evening show is one of my favorite sources of thoughtful news and reflection on the world around me, but they do occasionally stumble. This evening, they did more than stumble. They waved me aside, and relegated me and people like me to an insignificant footnote.

I wasn’t meant to be a footnote.

When the NewsHour introduced their interview with the comedian Dave Chapelle, they did fleetingly acknowledge that he sometimes mocked transgender people. But having that footnote out of the way, Jeffrey Brown of PBS continued with his interview, with no further reference to this frequent practice by this stand-up comic. Why let this man’s regular practice of humiliating transgender persons get in the way of the bigger story: a comedian’s return to the spotlight? What’s so important about gender identity anyway? After all, there is no human right to a gender identity.

I would guess that even the term “gender identity” remains unfamiliar to many Americans, so speculating about a human right to one’s authentic sense of self is arguably premature. To most people, we’re the sex we were assigned at birth, and the state – which has unquestioned authority in such matters – records the observable fact of our sex. That’s it. Done. We are sexed and then society sets to work on making sure that we are appropriately gendered.

It’s all so obvious – except when it isn’t.

Short of incidents of hate-speech, intentional defamation, or libel, it appears that we also have no specific human right individually or as a group not to be humiliated or made the butt of humor due to who and what we are, even when who and what we are do not constitute choices. Freedom of expression prevails over the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of many marginalized persons, and those affected are supposed to shrug it off.

It’s no big deal – except when it is.

Arguably there do remain some social constraints on abusing the dignity of other persons, which in America we used to call “decency”. That concept may already be anachronistic for large numbers of my fellow citizens, who in 2015 not only tolerated watching then presidential candidate Donald Trump as he crudely mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski (who suffers from arthrogryposis), but then went on to vote this person into the highest position of power and trust in the nation. While most of us haven’t forgotten Trump’s appallingly insensitive portrayal of this person with disabilities, we’ve waved it aside. After all, Trump is Trump; he makes it a common practice to assault the dignity of others by using demeaning nicknames, calling human beings “animals”, branding entire ethnicities (presumably just the males) as rapists, and so on. Sure, some of us get upset momentarily, then we let it go, with perhaps a whispered aside about the national “erosion of values”.

So, making fun of some of us is apparently acceptable, or at least one would be forgiven if one reached this conclusion because PBS chose to feature a comic who makes transphobia an integral part of his act.  What are we who are transgender supposed to do? Is there a human right to having one’s dignity recognized and respected?

In fact, yes. Continue reading It’s funny, right?

Madness

Photo: Honore-Daumier-Don-Quixote.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

 

Not too long ago, I took my daughter Audrey to a Washington DC production by the Shakespeare Theatre Company of the play Man of La Mancha. It’s one of my favorite plays, and one that I first saw when I was her age. It is based on the famous novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, in which an elderly gentleman is deluded into thinking that he is a valiant knight – Don Quixote de la Mancha – who is sworn to uphold the strict moral code of chivalry in a cynical, brutal, violent world that is devoid of such ideals. Although long past the time of armored knights on horseback, he and his faithful squire set out across the plains of La Mancha and the mountains of the Sierra Morena on a madman’s quest, the virtuous and indefatigable champion of a better world.

Madness?

Perhaps, but for many of us Don Quixote is heroic, even if comically soft in the head. Does one need to be certifiably insane to yearn for a world in which decency, honor, love, and bravery speak to a man’s best character? Granted, chivalry is a problematic moral premise, given its machismo ethos, its disdain for the peasantry, and its relegation of women as chaste objects of beauty and purity. Still, considering what values prevailed four hundred years ago when Cervantes wrote this epic novel, chivalry was a monumental step ahead in moral evolution.

My musings are not only literary.

Given the full house at that play’s production, and the fact that this play and the novel itself have such continuing appeal to so many of us, it isn’t too much of a stretch to assert that many people yearn for a less cynical, more principled, more compassionate world…a world, for instance, in which the destruction of the planet’s environment for the sake of short term economic gain (by the few) would be recognized as the starkest madness. Our own children and grandchildren will pay a dreadful price for this morally indefensible position, and it is harrowing to even imagine what we are bequeathing to generations further into the future – if we have such a future at all. We know enough however to imagine such a dire future very clearly – yet still we as a nation respond tentatively, if at all. Madness.

Moral principles are important to me. In my decades of work in less developed countries, I’ve been face-to-face with those who are beset by intense poverty – poverty so grinding and debilitating that it is very hard for Americans to imagine. Still, we have poverty here too, yet despite being an exceptionally wealthy country we watch powerlessly as the gap between rich and poor widens inexorably, while curiously so many poor citizens celebrate a new tax law that exacerbates this trend. Simultaneously, we cut back on foreign aid and humanitarian relief. Then we wonder why the rich get richer and the refugee numbers swell. Madness.

Human rights are important. Human rights describe and set the “bare-bones” threshold conditions for how human beings ought to live, and what governments ought to do to make this happen. Demanding that human rights be taken seriously is to demand governance that is about public service, justice, duty, and empathy – and being morally responsive to the “oughts”. Instead, we see our government unapologetically abuse the most vulnerable people of all – young children – by ripping them from the loving care of their parents, to “discourage” asylum seekers who are desperate for a place of safety – America – where they believed their human rights would be respected. Instead, and acting in our name, we see our government demonstrate astounding callousness, a total lack of empathy, and a disdain for human rights as they use the intense suffering of vulnerable children and their bereft parents to make a political point. This is morally repugnant. This is madness.

America’s president has walked away from our once-celebrated leadership in human rights, to petulantly demand that a vast and expensive border wall be constructed to keep out those persons whose asylum claims are morally sound, and whose hopes, dreams, and needs are very human. Were we instead to spend the wall money on strategically helping to solve the problems that drive people to seek asylum far from their homes, we might see positive changes and a steep decline in asylum seekers. Instead, Trump and his base insist on a wall for us all to hide behind, while the human beings on the other side of that wall unrelentingly suffer. “Not our problem!” Madness.

Gender equality and fairness (equity) is important to me. While Don Quixote would have been ethically challenged to imagine such a thing, we now know better. We are reminded by the example of courageous feminists – women and men – that the principle of human dignity is for all human beings, regardless of gender (or race, or ethnicity, or age, or disability status, or gender identity, or sexual orientation, or…). Yet we have a President who has excused his boasts of sexual assaulting women as “locker room”, a Vice President who is hostile to women’s rights, and an Attorney General who has a long record of opposition to fundamental rights for women. In short, our political leadership undercuts any moral position that would recognize the worth and full humanity of the female half of the country, and of others who are marginalized. Still, more than 51% of white women voted for Trump in 2016. Madness, yet again.

Yes, Don Quixote de la Mancha was almost certainly the victim of a form of insanity. Still, it was an insanity that epitomized humanity’s idealistic struggle for a better world, a world that “ought to be”. I’m more inclined to follow the example of Don Quixote, tilt at the windmills of greed, callousness, ignorance, fear, arrogance, lies, bigotry, hatred, and cynicism, than accept – much less politically celebrate – the feckless, morally bereft leadership that now prevails in our once proud country.

Hopefully the Democrats can find better leadership than a modern version of Don Quixote. Leaders with a clear and transformative moral vision, leaders with a commitment to democracy and public service, leaders who are environmentally intelligent and wise, leaders who actually possess empathy and decency and integrity. Leaders who are sane.

As the November mid-terms approach, as we confront the grim prospects of the nomination (by an illegitimate President) and the confirmation (by a morally spineless Senate majority) of yet another hard-right Supreme Court Justice, and the long-awaited revelations of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation (as Trump heads off to have his summit with Putin), I have to believe that clinging to idealism isn’t madness.

It’s the definition of sanity, and hope.

Existential indifference

Existential, as the word implies, has to do with existence. Our existence.

Indifference is somewhat easier to grasp, since the sentiment of “I really don’t care” is so frequently on common display in America – most recently in large letters on the back of First Lady Melania Trump’s jacket.

Still, it isn’t accurate to say that we simply don’t care about the values, principles, and issues we hold to be important. For many of us, it’s more appropriate to describe our indifference in terms of being overwhelmed, confounded, even laid low by a comprehensive, intense, and unrelenting assault on those very values, principles, and issues that we once defined ourselves by. The hyper-nationalist, increasingly authoritarian, and deeply divisive discourse, policies, and direction in this country, as well as in once democratic (or quasi-democratic) countries like Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Turkey have grave consequences. We watch as Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam all sink deeper into authoritarianism. We see global inequalities rise more precipitously than ever before.

What does it take for ordinary citizens to withstand such a torrent of outrageous, destructive, self-serving, corrupt, often callous, and sometimes evil policies, actions, sentiments, language, and assumptions – and their dire consequences? What kind of ideologies can drive such disarray?

In the United States, labeling the politics of Trump, Pence, and Sessions as “ideologies” presumes a coherence, intelligence, and intentionality that would have to be more strategic and inspired than what we are confronting, yet the danger is no less real. Existential, even.

So, what’s the threat?

Well, the list is long…we could start (in no particular order) with human dignity and human rights. Trump regularly refers to human beings in language that denies any shared moral commitment to universal human dignity. He describes immigrants infesting our country, and members of the notorious  MS-13 drug gang as “animals”. Human beings do not “infest”, and even hardened MS-13 gang members are still human beings (after all, we seek to prosecute those who are proven to be criminals because we hold that all human beings – and not animals – are obligated to act morally and in compliance with just laws). Even Hillary Clinton’s election campaign indiscretion of labeling some Trump supporters as “deplorables” spoke about their racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and Islamaphobic values, not their lack of human dignity. Trump, Pence, and Sessions have similarly ganged up to humiliate, malign, and deny the equal dignity and rights of between 4,000 and 10,000 patriotic US active-duty and reserve transgender military service members, not to mention those transgender persons who are aspiring recruits. The transgender phenomenon seems particularly troublesome to these and many other Republicans, as they also have acted to deny basic equal human rights and legal protections to transgender students, and to push back on transgender people accessing essential health care. Obviously in their eyes, some of us – including people just like me – are not quite human enough.

A second casualty of the current assault is truth itself. We have a president who seems to be incapable, or at least indisposed, to be truthful. Trump is on the record in saying that lying in public is acceptable. He lives this belief every day; the cascade of lies is nearly beyond the best fact-checkers’ capability to count that high. With truth so battered and eroded, day after day, we finally grow numb, even indifferent. We grow complacent, no longer expecting truth from those elected in positions of public trust. What’s “public trust”? A quaint notion, it seems.

A third casualty is compassion. This administration equates compassion with leniency, weakness, and a lack of virility. We’ve had the most graphic example this past week in the boldly callous Trump policy of separating the children of immigrants charged with illegal crossings along our southern border. The reality of innocent, vulnerable, distraught, traumatized young children and even toddlers being ripped away from their parents’ arms does not appear to elicit a scintilla of care, concern, or compassion from Trump, Pence, Sessions, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, or White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders. Most Republicans in Congress demonstrate their own callousness by their silence. Continue reading Existential indifference

“Not acceptable”

Back in early June 2016, I posted a memorial blog about the tragic and violent deaths on April 25th of that year of Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, two remarkably brave and courageous Bangladeshi human rights defenders. They had fearlessly asserted through launching Bangladesh’s first LGBTQI magazine, Roopbahn, that the dignity and human rights of all Bangladeshis – not just those who are straight and cisgender – ought to be respected.

For that audacity, they paid a dreadful price.

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing a presentation from an openly gay Bangladeshi man who’d been a friend to these two men. Now Ahmed is here in this country, pursuing two ambitions. First, he’s sharing a remarkable exhibition of photographs (including the one above) to remind the world that justice remains unfulfilled for those who viciously took the lives of Xulhaz and Tonoy. Second, Ahmed wishes to have some hope for his own future – not to forsake his friends and family back home, but to find a safe space from which he can use his art and his voice to open the eyes of the world to the strident and unforgiving intolerance of his native land. He’s seeking asylum from those who would do him – and possibly his family and friends back home – great harm, because in their culture people like him are not acceptable.

“Not acceptable” is a perilous place to find oneself. Most of us who came to his presentation last week have looked that accusation straight in the eye ourselves, repeatedly, although seldom at the risk of violence or death.  For us, being “not acceptable” is even more abrasive when those holding such views are so unshakably self-righteous about their bias, and when they are empowered to bend the institutions of government to inflict harm on those marginalized groups who dare to express their integrity of self. The Bangladeshi government is now on the offensive, and since the brutal murder of Bangladesh’s two LGBTQI leaders, the movement has been forced to adopt a low profile. Not low enough, however; “not acceptable” asserted itself yet again last year when on May 19th an elite security force with the arguably glamorous name of the Rapid Action Battalion arrested 27 young gay men who’d gathered discreetly at a community center in Dhaka.

“Not acceptable” is rough company to keep. In 1995, well before I came out as openly transgender, I was working in Durban, South Africa. Nelson Mandela had recently become president, and the country was in a state of tectonic change and unsettling uncertainty. Many white South Africans felt great fear, as the historically subjugated black population rose up proudly to take their place in building the new Rainbow Nation. It all came into painfully sharp focus for me one evening; I was riding in an elevator filled only with whites (mostly older white South African men) who spontaneously struck up a loud, boorish, and unashamedly racist conversation about President Mandela and his supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). The simple assumption of this crowded elevator’s white passengers was that I was in solidarity with their views, because I too am white. The realization of this presumed fellowship sickened me. I pushed the emergency stop button, and when all eyes turned to me all I could say was “shame!”. I then pushed the button for the next floor, exited the completely silent lift, and left them to stew in their own fear-induced prejudices.

“Not acceptable” isn’t only about race, same-sex orientation, or transgender identity. I’ve also directly experienced “not acceptable” being regularly employed as a judgment by many men here in my own country as they exploited all-male meetings and gatherings (of which there are many) to make frequent sexist (and often wildly misogynist) comments deriding and disparaging women. Unlike my cisgender sisters, I’ve spent much of my life embodied as a man; I haven’t forgotten what I heard and saw. I know all too well the coarse and objectifying ways that so many men routinely feel at liberty to demean women and girls. As troubling as that banter is, what bothers me even more is the relegation of existential, urgent issues such as gender inequality, gender-based violence, and even violence against children as “women’s issues”. To this day, men are barely present among those who labor tirelessly to achieve progress toward gender equality and fairness among all genders. Continue reading “Not acceptable”

Moral Clarity Matters