Category Archives: Alturi

An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

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Last night I shared the stage with prominent politicians and activists: Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Neera Tanden (president of the Center for American Progress), Helene Gayle (CEO of McKinsey Social Initiative) and others of note. It’s not my usual crowd, granted, but we were all there with a common purpose – to rally the troops in these final “get out the vote” days of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and to help move her forward to claim her place in history. The first woman President – it’s been such a long wait!

Humility aside, I was delighted to be invited to speak to the large crowd gathered at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C.  But as I began my address I paused; I had to share with them the obvious: that there almost certainly would not be a Republic campaign event anywhere in the country that would have an openly transgender woman at the speakers’ podium.

This was special.

My invitation to speak – while special – was no accident. Instead, my presence was clearly intended to underpin a central message of the Hillary Clinton campaign: “stronger together”. I was included, alongside the political and activist luminaries, because “stronger together” means all of us – even those whom society typically places at the fringes.

There is also some personal history here. For me, the invitation first came from President Obama, when I was asked by his Administration to become one of the first three transgender political appointees in this nation’s history, and the very first in the foreign affairs agencies. More invitations followed, including a monthly invitation to all three of us to come to the White House. Once there, Amanda Simpson, Dylan Orr, and I were invited to suggest how they – the White House – might best address the plight of transgender people. And they listened, and each month they reported back to us!

At those monthly meetings, the three of us each had much to share. The daily realities faced by this highly-marginalized group – my people – remain bleak. We struggle to be accepted, to avoid persecution and violence, and to access things that most people take for granted…a chance at a job, the ability to rent an apartment, insurance coverage that doesn’t exclude our health needs, and a future free from becoming just another statistic in a worsening epidemic of murder of transgender women sweeping this country, especially for my Black transgender sisters.

Despite this profound set of challenges, it’s not all bad. In many important ways, things have been getting better. Under President Obama, the Democrats have had our backs, and the transgender-specific campaign promises that Secretary Clinton has placed on her website make it very clear that this will continue, and will gain even more momentum. We’re counting on that. Continue reading An endorsement for Hillary – from the fringes

A “dream career”?

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I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.

Is it?

First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.

As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.

Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.

In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.

Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.

We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.

We can no longer plead ignorance. Continue reading A “dream career”?

A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

Hande-Kader-a-young-Turkish-transgender-sex-worker

Turkey now is synonymous with turmoil, so it’s hard to take notice of one more life lost. After all, the recent coup attempt is linked to almost 300 deaths. To make matters worse, this latest death was of a sex worker. Many people, in Turkey or anywhere, will be challenged to find much sympathy for the fate of such women whom they view as morally deficient, or “unpleasant” to talk about.

Indeed, there’s not much news content in such deaths. The brutal murder of sex workers is all too commonplace in most countries, and in Turkey violence against women is an embedded part of the culture. Just last year, Nuriye Kadan who leads the Izmir Bar Association’s Women’s Rights and Legal Support Office, observed that Turkey’s last decade has been characterized not only by increasing cases of violence against women, but that such violence has become more extreme and barbaric, “bordering on torture.”

Despite that disquieting view, Turkey appears to be giving the topic of violence against women and gender equality more generally a very low priority. And if the plight of 51% of the Turkish population receives such paltry focus, what about the tiny fraction of Turks who are a special kind of woman – transgender women? In a very conservative Muslim country where any dialogue about sexuality and gender identity is stilted at best, that’s a topic that makes most Turks squirm. So what can we expect to see change with the death of one more transgender woman who also happened to be a sex worker?

Hande Kader was hardly just any woman. Only 23 years old, she died a horrible death by being gang raped, mutilated, and burned, but those grisly details are not what makes her special. After all, her demise is hardly unusual; according to anecdotal but largely reliable information, transgender women around the world face appalling levels of extreme violence and murder. Very few countries bother even to record such deaths under a disaggregated category of “transgender women”, or rarer still, “transgender sex worker”. Who’s going to pay for recording and analyzing such recondite data?

Yet this past Sunday, an unexpectedly large crowd of protesters in Istanbul memorialized Hande Kader with their shouts of outrage and indignation. She had become something of a national celebrity for her strong and inspiring activism on transgender rights, but it is remarkable that Turks would come out onto the streets in such numbers to protest her death. Those Sunday protests are now over; will Hande Kader be remembered? Will her short life and intense, impassioned activism on behalf of transgender persons become just another sterile, forgettable statistic?

Forgettable – I think not. She was a special kind of special. Her life and her example challenges us all to deal with her death in ways that make a positive difference. We dare not forget her. Continue reading A very special life lost, and one we must not forget.

What is America’s voice – after Orlando?

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We gathered yesterday evening at the geographic center of what had once been Washington D.C.’s LGBTQ neighborhood. A speaker was quick to point out that while Dupont Circle still signaled that legacy, Washington’s LGBTQ community was now spread all across this city and this region. We all smiled. Just in front of me, a silent man with a tall tripod and camera was very busy: there were so many images worth capturing, so many faces that told stories of deep emotions, the weariness of grief, the inability to make any sense of what had happened. There were tears, and hugs, and some who stood – just like me – all alone with our candles, yet not alone at all.

Those who had come to Dupont Circle are our community and our allies. For a brief but precious moment of time, we held hands with the people at our sides. In the warm feel of those hands that evening, I sensed that this gathered community embodied, more than any words or prayers or names that were spoken, what solidarity and empathy and love consists of.  In the face of so much hatred and callousness in this larger world, there we stood united – a community of love and dignity, poignantly aware of our place in the well-defined battle lines of a war that seems never-ending. We are vulnerable, but we are also resilient .

I settled in to hold in the Light each of the 49 names being read aloud, and I cried, and then I finally noticed that the cameraman was from the Voice of America. What images and message would he be sharing with the world? What is America’s voice in the midst of such a tragedy?

As already noted by wiser and more eloquent commentators, there isn’t one voice. Millions of Americans, feeling especially emboldened by a very dangerous and divisive demagogue whom they have chosen as their leader, are seeking to make Islam the enemy – and Orlando is convenient for their purposes. I know, love, and respect so many Muslims whom I have met, befriended, worked with, and shared my spiritual journey with, to know the utter absurdity of blaming that or any religion.  Others point the blame at the National Rifle Association, and the pervasive national insanity of the gun culture. That particular mindset is morally tied to so many senseless killings, but the American “thing” about guns is beyond my understanding. The fact that there are more places to buy weapons in America than there are Starbucks in the entire world fills me with dread, sorrow, confusion, and anger. How did we ever get to this place?

Still others remember that it was LGBTQ people, mostly Hispanic, who were targeted in Orlando – and some Americans believe that such killings have something of “God’s justice” in them. I pray for their souls, and that some Light might find a path to lighten such bleak inner darkness. LGBTQ people are people, just like any other people. Attacking our dignity and our humanity only diminishes all of us…straight, cisgender, or LGBTQ.

So, what is America’s voice?

Continue reading What is America’s voice – after Orlando?

How’s this for a job pitch?

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What does “human dignity” mean to you? Does it elicit warm and fuzzy feelings? Is it an inspirational term – a call to a higher moral standard perhaps? Or is it instead some ill-defined intellectual notion, associated vaguely with what it means to be a human being, but not something we can operationalize?

Vague? Not for me. Human dignity is the existential core of who I am, and why I – and every human being – deserve to be respected. And no, I’m not claiming some special status. Human dignity is shared in equal measure by every person, but some of us need to remind others of that fact. For anyone who is transgender, reminding the world around us that we’re as deserving of respect for our core humanity and our authentic identity as they are is a daily undertaking. I’m not sure we’re winning…if transgender people are not busy each day having to advocate for our dignity, we are fighting to have our authenticity recognized. That advocacy takes place both morally and legally, but given the near vacuum around secular moral deliberation the public conversation is much more heavily weighed on the legal. Sadly however, law is a field of battle that is only marginally productive in this context, at least in the absence of an equivalently robust moral engagement.

While there have been some legal victories for the human dignity of transgender people in some countries and some American states, that’s the exception and not the rule. We are generally simply classified as “gay” (which many of us emphatically are not, in terms of our sexual orientation) and left to join our beleaguered L,G,and B allies to face the opprobrium of homophobia that is so virulent around the world. As transgender folk we are mostly invisible, unless we’re among those who are struggling to survive in one of the few avenues open to transgender women – as sex workers – where we face extremes of violence almost beyond comprehension. We seldom get the chance to take our public stand on our own terms or on our priority issues, advocating – legally or morally – as dignified and authentic human beings.

That invisibility is slowly being swept away. Too slowly, yes, and often very awkwardly, but through the rising assertiveness of transgender people we are becoming more present. The world is being called to awareness of our existence through our solidarity in advocating a vigorous, in-your-face claim to human dignity. That’s a claim that is spiritually edgy,  morally profound, and legally troubling, and societies around the world are awkward and resistant, or downright abusive, regarding our assertions of human dignity. But human dignity is what we’ve hung our lives and our futures on – and it’s vital to us that we have that conversation with our respective societies.

After all, we’re not going away.

Human dignity however may not be an ideal tactic. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to detect a significant vein of cynicism about human dignity. Law professor David Hyman of the University of Illinois, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy back in 2003, was dismissive:

Human dignity is an abstract aspiration, but policy decisions are necessarily concrete. These decisions must therefore be created and implemented by those “in the trenches,” but there is little evidence to suggest that anyone in the trenches really wants to use human dignity as the touchstone for decision-making or has any particular expertise in this area.

Continue reading How’s this for a job pitch?

Is it time to take on the world?

LGBTI globe in hand

During an unseasonably warm December visit to the School for Global Inclusion and Social Development in Boston, Massachusetts earlier this week, I paused to reflect on how sweeping the changes have been in the eleven years since the Goodridge decision that allowed same-sex civil marriage in that state. Most of us thought that decision was an aberration – a very welcome aberration in a very liberal state – but we never dared hope that the entire country would come to a place any time soon where the majority would support same-sex marriage. Suddenly we are there, and we’ve earned a collective sigh of relief as we take stock of this dramatic social change. Satisfaction however does not justify complacency; we are all too aware that strong opposition remains institutionalized among some very powerful churches and other social institutions. Still, I can’t imagine that this remarkable change in America’s collective consciousness regarding the concept of marriage  will be rolled back. As a society we’ve grown – deepened – to a point where human dignity is recognized even in those people who traditionally the majority labeled as “the other”.

So much hard work, energy, commitment, and passion went into getting the United States to this new plateau of social consciousness and equality. It’s only reasonable then that the activists who’ve given so much of their lives to the struggle for so many years would now want to take a well-deserved rest, and bask in the glow just a little. Yet, at the risk of being a niggling or even irritating presence, there are people such as me who are still beckoning the stalwarts onto the field yet again. Not only do America’s transgender and intersex communities urgently need the help, experience, and advocacy smarts that comes from our lesbian, gay, and bisexual allies (and from the numerous allies who do not identify as L,G, B,T, or I) but there’s also another constituency crying out for our concern.

That constituency is the rest of the world, especially those nearly 80 countries where LGBTI status is currently criminalized.

Whoa! Is this our problem? And even if we entertain that ambitious notion, can we really make change happen at a global scale? You bet we can, if we partner with the burgeoning community of individual and civil society activists in these countries. They are – quite literally – putting their lives on the line, and that is a call we simply cannot ignore. Continue reading Is it time to take on the world?