Category Archives: Transgender

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?

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”

Distracted.

It’s becoming progressively more difficult to persist in enjoying my longstanding daily ritual of reading the Washington Post, particularly when juxtaposed with the increasing number of desperate email messages and Facebook communications coming to me from Kakuma, Kenya.

It’s 7,209 miles from this frigid winter in Washington to that baking hot refugee camp in Turkana County in Kenya’s northwest – a formidable distance to be sure – but we now appear to be planets apart.  The United States of America, the world’s most powerful and wealthiest country, now wallows, disempowered. We are transfixed and immobilized by the latest daily disclosures of our broken presidential governance, and the alarming tally of damage it is doing to us as a nation and to our place in the world. Trump commands news cycle after news cycle, and the plight of the rest of the world barely warrants a mention.

It wasn’t always so. Until quite recently in fact, the care, compassion, and generosity of Americans was evident in our internationalism, our staunch (if still inadequate) commitment to foreign assistance, our stand on human rights, the hard and selfless work of our Peace Corps Volunteers abroad, and our solidarity with human rights defenders. All have been weakened in the era of Trump. Yes, even before Trump it should have been much better – too frequently we chose to let the State Department justify funding of very narrow “strategic targets” at the expense of sustainable development. While the truly urgent demands of humanitarian emergencies still command some attention among American policy makers and among individual and non-profit donors, the level of funding remains woefully inadequate.

And that’s for the emergencies.

What about the chronic needs of the more than 35 million refugees (80% of whom are women and children) currently in camps in more than 125 countries? What about the nearly 180,000 refugees at the Kakuma refugee camp? What about the approximately 200 refugees at that camp who happen to be LGBTQI? But then again, why should we care about 200 sexual and gender minority refugees in northwestern Kenya (95% of whom are Ugandan)  compared to the needs of 35 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world?

We should care because they are all human beings. We should care as a way of respecting their human dignity – and the universality of human dignity. We should care because we can afford to care, financially, with such caring (were it to be properly funded) imposing an almost negligible impact on our relatively comfortable quality of life . We should care because there at Kakuma, but for the grace of God, you or I could now be one of those 200. Yet the grace of God shines brightly in each one of them, in their courageous resilience in the face of enormous hardship, and in the strength and clarity of their voices reaching out to me, and to us all. I cherish each one of their messages, although I feel deep discomfort in my relative inability to offer them any meaningful support. Continue reading Distracted.

Erased, by presidential decree

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” This statement in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was challenging the first time I read it, many years ago, but I never imagined that the words being destroyed would be about particular human beings. Human beings who are like …

Me.

In the latest in the incessant deluge of outrage upon offense upon indignity, the Trump administration has dictated that I be made invisible – at least in official documents being prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of next year’s budget process. Yes, the word transgender is no longer permitted, as are six other presumably highly provocative words: vulnerable, entitlement, diversity, fetus, evidencebased and science-based.

In some ways I feel that as Chloe, I’ve only just arrived, so it is unsettling now to find myself about to be erased. Have I been getting too complacent, having managed to get 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 why should I be concerned if President Trump has launched yet another flagrant attack 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 is no specific human right to be yourself. Part of being myself includes owning the fact that I was born into a male body and was once classified as a male, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone who ever argued the need for a specific human right to recognize that fact of one’s 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 U.S. states and of the world’s countries either refuse fully to accept people such as me, or they make it nearly impossible bureaucratically to transition to one’s authentic gender. Here in Maryland, I am Chloe, a woman who was never a girl, and 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 (the absurd presumption of a binary itself being highly contentious) has been grueling and enormously difficult. But I’m here now. I have 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 act to impose barriers in accessing government-funding for CDC programs affecting transgender persons. Health programs.

Being made invisible is the starting point for dehumanization. In my on-going work at ICRW on social inclusion around the world, I see so many countries with laws that make it impossible for transgender persons 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 even taxpayer 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 descibe you, as you know yourself to be. So your choices are few, and your chances of having your human dignity acknowledged – must less respected – are scant. Continue reading Erased, by presidential decree

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent