Gwen and Matthew
Even after Gwen Araujo's brutal murder, gay people can still be heard to whisper, "I just don't think `they' should be included with `us.'" But can a movement for acceptance and equality survive by excluding people from its ranks? How is Gwen different from Matthew Shepard?
What does Mathew Shepard, who was left to hang crucified on a fence, have in common with Gwen Aruajo, who was brutally murdered and buried in a shallow grave?
Aside from the fact that they were both senselessly killed, if you were to believe my friend John, as I'll call him, they have nothing else in common.
In late October, on one of our weekly walks from Polk Street to the heart of the Castro, he told me, "I just don't think `they' should be included with `us'."
"Who are `they'?" I asked.
"They," as it turned out were transgender people, and "us" were gay people.
His comment not only caught me off guard, but it also pointed out a very painful distinction. It is one thing to hear an extremely closed- minded comment from homophobic people such as Jerry Falwell or Jessie Helms, for we expect inane expressions from those we consider to be ignorant and hateful. We can even afford family members or distant relatives a certain latitude for occasionally offensive remarks. But it is an entirely different matter when verbal bombs are dropped so close to home?by one of our best friends. Suddenly the impersonal is made personal.
As someone who identifies as a gay man, I'm always appalled when exclusionary comments come from someone within "my" community, and worse yet, from a close friend in "my" community, especially those friends I consider to be accepting and all-inclusive. At these times, I'm reminded of how deeper the hurt is and how much sharper the sting is when hatred springs from the mouths of the marginalized towards another disadvantaged group. A disturbing pecking order is revealed. In this hierarchy, by excluding transgender people from the GLBT spectrum, transgender's position in society is weakened.
The attitude of, "I'll grab my rights, while I leave you out to defend yourself," is dangerous for everyone's freedoms.
As a life-long activist, what I've noticed about convincing the world to engage in breaking down barriers in order to protect all classes, all people, all races, and all groups, is that there are two main levels upon which we must tirelessly work: the societal level and the personal level.
Of course, growth on both levels needs to occur in close synchronicity, but without first having affected change at the personal level?human-to-human, friend-to-friend, family member-to- family member?change cannot occur at the larger societal level. Well before the first high-heel was thrown at Stonewall in 1969, we as gay men and women knew that the establishment could not change until we first came out to our friends, families, and co-workers. First we had to say, "I matter," then the "I" turned to "we" and we could fight for the rights we all deserve.
We as a marginalized group know that laws can be enacted, but if individuals don't support the laws then they are useless. Forcing laws on people without first having performed the work on the personal level backfires.
It is with this in mind that I took my friend's comments not as simple passing remarks, but as the very beginning and seed of social change.
As we verge on 2003, transgendered people are finally making front- page news not in some sensationalized way, but in a way that send the message that their lives matter. Today their stories of injustices are taken seriously, and their murders are viewed with outrage.
We've come a long way, and we still have a long way to go.
As progress is being made?more and more cities passing anti- discrimination laws to protect transgendered people, for example?one would think that the lines between "us" and "them" would be moving in the direction of being more inclusive, not exclusive. But even after all this progress, my friend was expressing a view that I sensed was not just his own but shared by many others. His comments brought to light that there are many in "our" community who still want the T kicked out of GLBT.
As we continued our walk, John went on to tell me that transgendered people should not be included in "our" movement since "they" are neither straight nor gay. As he put it, "they" are like bi people?"as if they even exist," he threw in as an aside. Wow! A double-whammy!
John went on to argue that "they" should not be included in "our" movement since "they" have nothing in common with "us." I mentioned Eddie Araujo, who identified as a girl, Gwen, and had been murdered earlier in the month in California. John's response? "I hope people learn something about transgendered people from this senseless murder."
Hey, wait a minute. What exactly did he want society to learn from Gwen's murder? Perhaps he wanted others to learn more tolerance for those we perceive to be different from ourselves? Maybe he wanted others to come into a fuller understanding of how we are all connected even though it looks like we are so very different? Was it that he hoped everyone would someday come to see that all of us deserve to live our lives the way we want without fear of harassment? Could it be that he wanted others to allow everyone to identify as they wished without fear of being murdered?
I was confused. Is it that?as a class?transgendered people represent to him something different than an individual like Gwen does? How does he not recognize that he is, in fact, one of the very people he wishes would learn something from her death?
Instead of asking him that question, I just let it pass, knowing I wasn't going to change his deep-seated beliefs in one conversation. Not confronting him was not, I decided, a sell-out but a strategic move. I wanted his alarming statements to be a wake-up call for me to examine my views on transgender people: Sure, it's easy to blame John for his statements, but what about my own? Do I still hold opinions that alienate and discriminate?
Lorna Strand, director of The Laramie Project at University High School in San Francisco, highlights the need to be slow in jumping to blame and quicker to understanding and compassion when she describes her journey to Laramie, Wyoming:
"My journey to Laramie helped me to grasp what an important piece of theatre The Laramie Project is for us today. The play holds a big, wide, and glaring mirror up to all of us. Laramie is an American community. As much as we might want to dismiss it as being `over there' in some vast unknown called Wyoming, it is our community. Every one of the characters we see on stage exists today, and their emotions and opinions resonate in conversations, attitudes, and actions that surround each and every one of us on a daily basis.
"The spine of the play is a deep and honest examination of what constitutes the American community as it responds to individual differences, an important issue for all of us. The style of the play, like the beautiful skies of Wyoming, is clearly open?extremely honest. ?While we may be tempted to dismiss the characters who make us feel uncomfortable and fence them in with derogatory labels, the actors and the flow of the play simply won't let us do this. We are challenged to consider the fact that as Zubaida Ula says, `We are like this.'
"The spine, style, and structure of the play force us to look at the events that surrounded the murder of Matthew Shepard and invariably look at ourselves. Laramie becomes our town, our America?an America of which we must take ownership if we hope to change it."
I took a long look at myself as my conversation with John wound down. I began to recall the many times I disparaged a transgendered person, or how I laughed not with them, but at them. For a couple more blocks, I walked in silence observing how my self-hatred has lead so many times to oppression of those different than myself. Humbled and ashamed, I saw the countless ways I have excluded others so that I could fit in.
I also noticed that the idea of someone wishing to switch his or her birth gender challenges the very foundation of what it means to identify as male or female. Put more eloquently by Karen, the Lafayette mother of an adult transsexual child, as reported in The San Francisco Chronicle, "As my daughter says, in all the world's turmoil the one absolute we have is that we look in our pants and tell who we are. Transsexuals challenge this and it scares people."
If we all look, it scares all of us to some degree, and until we deal with that fear, we will continue to discriminate.
This "looking into our pants" awakens in all of us issues that most do not wish to examine. All of us can find within us hateful and damaging beliefs, but self-examination can transform hate and misunderstanding into love and acceptance. I also realized that I have, like my friend John, been walking around within a "holier than thou" framework. Everyone else needed to learn more acceptance, yet I had never stopped to see how I needed to be more open-minded.
In that walk up to the Castro, I realized that I was not holier than John. I knew that I, too, could benefit from asking myself how my attitudes contradicted each other, of how I allow these contradictions to remain in place for my own benefit and at the expense of others. As much as I wanted to lash out at John, I realized, as they say, "It has to start with me."
I've always thought it odd that this nation is obsessed with trying to figure out just how many gay people there are, as if somehow the more of us there are, the more rights and freedoms that will extend to us. Yet American law is designed to protect the individual?not just any definable minority group?against the tyranny of the majority. In our system we have freedom of speech, and neither the individual nor the majority can take away our inalienable rights. That is the ideal, at least in this activist's "perfect" America.
Rebecca Hilliker, head of the Theater Department of the University of Wyoming, puts it this way: "You know, I really love my students because they are free thinkers?and you may not like what they have to say, and may not like their opinions, because they can be very redneck, but they are honest and they're truthful?so there's an excitement here, there's a dynamic here with my students that I never had when I was in the Midwest or in North Dakota, because there, there was so much Puritanism that dictated how people looked at the world that a lot of times they didn't have an opinion, you couldn't get them to express an opinion. And quite honestly, I'd rather have opinions that I don't like?and have that dynamic in education."
Finally, then, what do Matt and Gwen have in common?
There are no differences between Matt and Gwen; between transgendered people and gay people; between transgendered people and anyone else, for that matter. Our identities seduce us into believing we have nothing in common; it is the notion of identity that props up my friend John's wish to oust of "them" from "us."
The lie: we are somehow separate from one another.
The truth: Difference is the illusion.
We are all the same. One day we will learn to use identities for nothing than more social interaction instead of using being part of a group as a weapon against another group.
Although he did not know it, my friend John was merely pointing out there is still work to be done to bring all of us together; work that must be accomplished within ourselves and throughout the world.
I want to leave you with the wisdom of Kate Bornstein, a transgendered activist. For a moment I urge you to contemplate the truth spoken through a title for one of her plays: The Opposite Sex Is Neither.
David Gutierrez is a freelance writer and lives in San Francisco. His book AIDS Has Taught Me encompasses true stories taken from his journals on how AIDS has affected his life and the lives of those he loves over the past 20+ years.