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Today is Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Gwen and I

On the murder of transgender woman Gwen Araujo and our imperative to challenge transphobia.

In a grainy black and white photograph, taken when I was about 8 years old, I'm standing in the family living room in shorts, a knit top, cowboy boots on my feet and six-shooters in a holster around my waist. The photo virtually screams "tomboy!" And a tomboy is what my parents smilingly called me. This was gender-nonconformity, but of a type that to my parents seemed harmless enough. As a now lesbian- feminist adult I look back at my baby dyke beginnings and thank my parents for allowing me some latitude. At the same time I felt the subtle and not-so-subtle cues and nudges, attempts to assure that I did not stray too far.

When I hear of the violence and murder visited all too often on our brothers and sisters who live outside of our culturally imposed gender spectrum, I see myself at 8. When I first heard about the murder of Gwen Araujo, so close to San Francisco, I couldn't help but think: "that could have been any of us." Gwen, a 16 year old from Newark, California, represents all queers - even those of us who "pass" as straight.

Despite what some media outlets want you to believe, Gwen wasn't killed because she was a "boy wearing women's clothes." Gwen was killed because a group of young men felt threatened by her defiance of strict gender roles. These roles, ones that most of us were raised never to question, are the societal rules that prop up homophobia and transphobia.

To some degree, they can be bent. Growing up I enjoyed the rough and tumble play of the neighborhood boys. When I was 16, I asked for a basketball for my birthday. My Mother was dubious. I did get the basketball, but for good measure my Mother also gave me "Young Womanhood," a treatise on how to be prim and proper. Apparently I had strayed too far.

Gwen was fortunate to have had a supportive family. From all accounts, Gwen's mother in particular supported her expression of her real identity, not the one imposed on her by society. This desire to "be herself" is something that should unite all of us who defy the convention of what is "proper." As lesbians, gay men and bisexuals we all had to overcome the onslaught of messages from sports, school, books, magazines, movies, sermons, TV ads and sitcoms and family about how "real girls" and "real boys" should be. Deep down, we knew these messages weren't about us. We rejected this avalanche of popular culture and pressure.

Isn't that really what coming out means? It doesn't matter if you're a "straight acting" man or a "high femme" woman, every time a person of the same sex gets your motor running you're transgressing gender. I would bet that even those people who never acknowledge this desire begin to understand that the gender roles we are taught are only a couple of chapters in a long and interesting novel.

The young men who murdered Gwen did so in order to enforce and defend existing gender roles. Maybe they felt that their sexual identity was being threatened by Gwen because they were attracted to her. Maybe they attacked her because her transition from male to female threatened their understanding of themselves as male. Regardless, each of these young men is now likely to spend a considerable amount of time locked away in prison because of his fear of gender transgression. And, make no mistake, this is a tragedy too. Like so many other social maladies, imposition of strict gender roles harms people who conform to those roles as well as those of us who transgress them.

This is especially true of people identified as men at birth. As a woman, I have some flexibility in gender expression. I am convinced that had I been a 16-year-old boy who wanted to be a ballet dancer, my parents and others would have barraged me with numerous social signals that this was "wrong." A young woman shooting hoops is one thing. A young man dancing around in a leotard is something else altogether.

This difference is manifest in the social and cultural inequality between men and women. As a culture that values men and masculine traits over women and feminine traits, many Americans reject and punish men who refuse to fully access male privilege. That is why feminist ideas and philosophy are integral to overcoming homophobia and transphobia. Progressive feminist theory, which advocates for the equality of all people regardless of gender, undercuts the need to protect male privilege by enforcing strict gender roles. If no one is viewed as getting benefit from being male (or being masculine), no one will be threatened when the definition of maleness is loosened.

As people living outside the "norm," it is imperative that we, especially non-transgender queers, stand strong in protecting and expanding our freedom to express gender in diverse ways. Gwen is not alone. In the last twelve months, activists have documented 25 people who have been killed because they were transgender. Who knows how many murders have gone unrecorded? In the few surveys that have been done, transgender people report high rates of unemployment, homelessness, school-based harassment, and incidents of hate violence. The emotional, physical and economic harm represented by these dry statistics is overwhelming.

Advancing our movement without grappling with gender would be disrespectful of the pain and suffering gender oppression causes for so many of us. While many of us may bend the gender boundaries on occasion, we must recognize that transphobia creates a uniquely threatening challenge. As a non-transgender person, I have access to gender privilege that transgender people don't have. It is important to recognize our privilege even as we work to create a more equitable society, where such privilege is eliminated. We must work for a world where the tomboys and the Gwen Araujos are secure, safe and free to be fully who they each are?at 8, at 16, and for a lifetime.

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