I have quite an honorable week ahead of me, and it’s giving me pause.
On Tuesday evening, after the genuine honor and delight of teaching my “ethics and international development class” at the University of Maryland, I’ll make my way to a gathering in Washington that is admittedly a political fund-raiser, but also a moment of deep solidarity among Hillary Clinton LGBTI supporters and our allies, organized by the Foreign Policy Professionals for Hillary. I’ll be on the speakers’ panel with some truly distinguished folks – an activist who was once the openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Romania, the former senior LGBTI staffer at the White House, the former Special Advisor on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, the Executive Director of Gender Rights Maryland, and a Research Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. These are smart, committed, thoughtful, caring, determined, and honorable people, and yes – it will indeed be an honor to be counted among them.
Later in the week, on Thursday night, I will again be in Washington at Center Global’s 4th Annual reception and fund-raiser. This organization works very hard (on a too-modest budget) to assist, welcome, care for, and stand in solidarity with LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Such refugees and asylum seekers often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, and with their hearts and minds bruised and burdened by histories of deep trauma, persecution, and even violence. They need to heal. Center Global provides the essential welcome and safe refuge for that healing to begin, as well as much practical guidance to ease them through their adjustment to this new country. Among the Annual Reception’s three awardees that evening will be one who never expected to be there, and who is – quite frankly – overwhelmed at this recognition and enormous honor: the recipient of the Global Advocate Award.
The following day I will fly to Rhode Island, where on Saturday morning I will give a talk at the annual American Electrology Association‘s Convention. Electrology? Yes – for many transgender women, electrologists are an essential resource on the gender transition journey, and this profession has been at the forefront in accepting, welcoming, and providing quality services to transgender women. Given the fact that facial hair removal can easily exceed 300 hours of (painful!) treatment stretched out over many years, we often develop very good friendships with these caring and professional frontline service providers – our valued allies in the transition process. Still, being honored by this invitation from a national association is remarkable, and I am humbled.
There’s a certain irony to all this honorable attention. While I’m very comfortable in public speaking situations, and believe that my relatively unusual journey as a transgender person has bestowed upon me some important messages that warrant sharing, I’m also by most prominent economic measures a failure. Why would I be honored? Like so many transgender people in the United States and around the world, I cannot find full-time employment.
As my “long and distinguished” resume will attest, that hasn’t always been the case (especially since I transitioned later in life), and there’s no doubting that ageism also is exacerbating my plight. Yet despite many publications, prior senior positions, a demonstrated record of leadership, a doctoral degree, excellent health, and a sharp mind, the evidence of the past 22 months and the scores of job applications made – and rejected – is that I am almost unemployable. So yes, I am down but not out – and the applications will continue, but my plight isn’t at all unusual among transgender folk. And no, being among the long-term unemployed is not an honorable status.
Still, I have it lucky. I stubbornly have hope for a better future ahead. After all, I’m the beneficiary of Global North privilege – or more precisely, State of Maryland privilege. I was able to obtain a new birth certificate in my authentic name and gender. After some protests and struggles, I got a proper “Chloe/female” drivers’ license, credit cards, bank account, etc. It all took a very long time and more bureaucratic battles than I care to remember, but I exist legally as Chloe, as a woman. I’m here, I’m me. And while my deep digital footprint as a former Obama Administration openly transgender political appointee makes my “gender history” easy enough to find, at least I cannot blame my employment challenges on the lack of proper documentation in my authentic name and gender.
Such cannot be said for my transgender brothers and sisters in most of the world. Even in modern, cosmopolitan western Europe, sixteen countries refuse to provide any possibility of a legal change of name and gender, and in the vast majority of countries around the world that is also the case. Having the wrong name and gender in official identity documentation condemns transgender persons to legal and economic invisibility. Such people do not exist in “the system”. There are no jobs, no leases, no bank accounts, no home purchases, no airline flights, and no honor for people without authentic identity documents.
Is this just an awkward and “unfortunate” problem for a relatively tiny group of people at the fringes of their respective societies? Many would wish to think so. Remember, we are “those people” who make so many of our fellow citizens painfully uncomfortable. They’d much rather ban us from using public toilet facilities, and they feel indignantly self-righteous about that stand. They’d happily leave us vulnerable – legally and in so many daily indignities that we suffer – to exclusion, persecution, and violence. We’re gawked at, poked fun at, ignored until we “go away”, refused services in health facilities, and even imprisoned in the wrong jails. As a group, and as individuals, we are not honored. To most cisgender people, having us “invisible” is just fine.
So, as a relatively rare (and not shy) visible transgender woman, what do I say at these upcoming events?
First and foremost, I must communicate that I am not a victim. I am Chloe, a transgender woman, and that is what life has handed me. Somehow I will make it work. Just being Chloe is an honor and a privilege I will never make light of. I shudder to think of the many transgender people stretching back throughout history who were unable to transition, and I have a deep sense of the suffering that they must have endured throughout their lives. There’s no honor in such suffering. I shudder even more to think of how many of my transgender sisters and brothers now – in 2016 – are dishonored by being made invisible persons by societies and by laws that refuse to recognize their authenticity. I know many of their names and faces, they are my friends, and they are a part of me. They inspire me in their lived authenticity – against the odds – and in the tenacity of their grip on their self-respect and dignity.
They cling to their honor. As they should.
My heart is with LGBTI people and their allies everywhere. Yet right now, as I reflect on the invisibility of transgender people, not only legally and economically but also in the multitude of instances where we are simply dropped from the conversation, forgotten about altogether, or subsumed under a broad “gay” label (that doesn’t even correctly describe the sexual orientation of many of us), I know that for me this coming week must emphatically be about the “T” of LGBTI.
So here is what I will try to say.
I will call upon the world to honor all of us who own the “T”; through laws, attitudes, values, social practices, care and concern, and particularly through action. Bring us into “the conversation”. Make space for us, recognize and respect our dignity and worth, learn about us and our journeys, learn to see yourself in us, and open your hearts to our humanity. Maybe even be proactive in helping our fledgling advocacy and development organizations get off the ground, around the world. Honor us all. Yes, even honor us with employment.
No doubt you’ll be amazed at how hard and how well we work.