Beyond He and She: A Transgender News Profile
"Never have pronouns been so provocative."
So begins a column in the San Francisco Chronicle about the difficulties journalists had writing about Gwen Araujo, the transgender teenager killed in Newark, Calif., in October. In their quest for accuracy, reporters stumbled over pronouns, some calling Gwen he, some she, while others dodged the issue entirely by referring to her as simply "Araujo."
As the Chronicle columnist put it, "Our problems with pronoun use are just one manifestation of lives not written about."
She?s right. Unless they are killed, transgender people almost never make the news. Even then their identities can be blotted out by family members or reporters who erase "her" and revert to "him," or vice versa. But the rich details of their lives are rarely depicted in the media with any depth, and we all lose as a result. Transgender is a broad term for people whose gender identity and gender expression are different from their biological sex. This term can encompass transsexuals, cross- dressers, drag queens and kings, intersex people, and other gender variant people.
Many transgender people know what it means to move through the world as men and women, while others transcend the male-female binary altogether and live their own, yet-to-be defined genders. Dating, family relations, marriage, sex, parenting?they?ve lived it all from multiple perspectives. Think of the wisdom.
If women are from Venus and men from Mars, transgender people travel the cosmos in ways most of us never dream about. But when skilled reporters are bedeviled by simple pronouns, the compelling stories of transgender lives get lost in the shuffle.
"The fact that there continues to be so much invisibility and silence around this issue keeps it pathologized," says Lee Maranto, a transgender man living in Santa Cruz. "Because there isn?t enough information in the mainstream media to substantiate that I?m normal. I?m still out in the margins."
Gwen Araujo?s killing may change that. Since her murder, at least eight U.S. papers published lengthy, sympathetic portraits of transgender people. From Buffalo to Berkeley, the Chicago Tribune to Teen People, transgender stories have been making news lately like never before.
The news, however, is not all good.
Killings and Police Brutality
Take the story of Justen Hall, for instance. He?s a 21-year old Texan charged with killing Arlene Diaz, an El Paso, Texas transgender woman. A witness saw Hall and Diaz arguing early one morning. Shortly afterward, outside a convenience store, police say Hall shot Diaz twice in the back. Because police believe the killing was motivated by prejudice against transgender people, Hall was charged with a hate crime.
Unfortunately, a judge set bail low enough ($75,000) for Hall to be released. While awaiting trial, police say, Hall killed a second time, allegedly strangling Melanie Billhartz. Police nabbed him again, but rather than holding him without bail, as is appropriate with multiple homicides, the judge just raised the bail. If Hall can post $125,000, he?ll be out on the street again.
"I told them, ?You?re going to let him loose, and he?s going to kill again,?" said Rosa Diaz, mother of the first victim. "Why did they give him bail?"
It?s a fair question. Why was Hall given bail at all, and why was it set so low? What does this say about the value placed on transgender lives?
Violence against transgender people is rampant nationwide, and the criminal justice system does not necessarily offer relief to victims. In fact, countless assaults against transgender people are committed by police officers themselves. According to reports by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects, for the last four years, almost half the assaults against transgender people in San Francisco? including verbal, physical and sexual assaults? were committed by the police. Their post 9-11 heroism notwithstanding, police officers in San Francisco have been terrorizing transgender women for years. Yet in the clamor of reporting about Gwen Araujo?s death, no newspaper mentioned this widespread police brutality.
Transgender women, however, are not the only targets. In August, 2002, 37-year- old Jeremy Burke, a transgender man, filed a $25 million suit against three San Francisco police officers for their brutality. According to his suit, Burke was severely beaten by police, stripped at a police station and made to wear a dress, laughed at by nurses who made derogatory remarks about his genitals, and was left untreated in his cell for eight days. Vomiting and urinating blood, he was finally taken to San Francisco General Hospital and treated for a kidney injury and internal bleeding.
"I think that anybody that suffers like this should stand up," Burke said, at the press conference announcing his lawsuit. "The more people that stand up, the more chance we have of stopping this kind of behavior."
Who Needs Protection?
Ironically, though trans people are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators, many people feel the need to be "protected" from them.
In St. Louis, Mo., Vickie McMichael complained to the school board when she learned one of the chaperones on her daughter?s school trip was a transgender woman. The trans woman, also a parent in the district, accompanied 180 fourth- graders on a day-long trip without incident.
"The sad part," McMichael complained, "is people are accepting this as normal behavior, that he [the trans woman] has a right to do this. The school is supposed to be protecting our children."
Protecting them from what? From the reality that transgender people exist?
"It seems to me," a gay activist told the press, "you could start, at that age level, saying that not all men grow up to be cowboys and construction workers, and not all women grow up to be ballerinas? there are all different ways to be a boy, and all different ways to be a girl, and they?re all right."
San Jose transgender activist Dana Rivers says "The whole notion of protection is a metaphor for this base fear people have because they can?t fit us in a box."
Because transgender people defy the strict categories of male and female, Rivers says, they demonstrate a fluidity of gender that is frightening to a lot of people.
"We represent an openness and a spirit of free thought and free expression to such a degree that we challenge cultural and social paradigms. Our society is afraid of that," she says.
"Protecting" the public often entails harassing transgender people, as happened at a Six Flags amusement park in Dallas. Last month a transgender woman was taken to a park security area and interrogated after someone complained about seeing a "man dressed as a woman." The trans woman, who, fearing more harassment wished to remain anonymous, was accused of violating a park policy that stipulates "if clothing is deemed inappropriate for our family atmosphere" a guest can be shown the door.
Security guards allowed the woman to return to the park only after she produced identification validating her female identity.
"There are still those who would just as soon see us in a grave as be alive," she said, adding, "I try to live a normal life as much as I can, and Six Flags is part of that."
This is no small task when you can be hauled in for questioning because someone complains that your clothes and gender don?t match to their liking.
The Right Gender on Paper
Having medical or legal documentation?"proof," that is, of actually being the gender they are presenting themselves as?may save some trans people undue harassment, but the right paperwork is often still insufficient.
Case in point: Sean Brookings, a 56-year-old transsexual man living in Ohio. Since 1988, Brookings has been granted three marriage licenses by Judge R.R. Clunk. Last year Clunk learned Brookings was transsexual and had him arrested for allegedly falsifying his gender.
But after his 1991 sex change surgery, Brookings had changed his drivers license and obtained a new social security number to reflect his new name and gender. None of that mattered to Clunk. "This is a terrible sham on the court," he said. "The marriage licenses were issued by fraud. He said he?s a male, and he?s not a male under Ohio law," Clunk said.
Brookings? ordeal, however, was just beginning. He was segregated from other prisoners in jail, allegedly for his own protection, and forced to drop his trousers so two sheriffs could check out his genitals.
All charges against Brookings were eventually dropped. In October, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the judge and sheriffs for, among other things, wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution and invasion of privacy.
Brookings? case is not unusual. Marriage licenses vex transgender lives nationwide and cause legal wranglings that have wound their way to the Supreme Court. Well, almost. In October, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of a J?Noel Gardiner, a transsexual woman whose husband died without a will, opening a legal dispute over her late husband?s estate between Gardiner and her husband?s son, Joe. Joe claimed that since Gardiner is transsexual, her marriage to his father was invalid.
In 1994, Gardiner had sex-reassignment surgery and transitioned from male to female while living in Wisconsin. Under Wisconsin law, she was able to have her birth certificate changed to reflect her female identity. But in 1998 she married her husband in Kansas, where changes in birth certificates are not legally recognized. In other words, J?Noel Gardner was still considered male in Kansas, and same-sex marriages had been banned in that state in 1996.
As her attorney, Sanford Krigel, astutely argued, "Once Wisconsin declared Mrs. Gardiner a woman, she should be considered a woman in the other 49 states." But the Kansas Supreme Court disagreed, ignoring laws in almost 20 states that recognize amended birth certificates.
Instead, the Court based its analysis of male and female on definitions found in a 1970 Webster?s Dictionary emphasizing reproduction. In a complete disavowal of transsexual lives, the court declared the gender you?re born is the gender you remain for all time. And since same-sex marriage is illegal in Kansas, the court ruled the Gardiner?s marriage was indeed invalid.
In refusing to hear the case last October, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand this Kansas ruling, ending J?Noel Gardiner?s four-year battle to have her gender, and therefore her marriage, legally recognized. Gardiner also lost all claim on her husband?s $2.5 million estate.
Cross-dressing Off the Job
Marriage is not the only arena rife with legal landmines for transgender people. Getting and keeping jobs can also be monumental tasks, particularly for those who do not "pass" as male or female or who choose to reveal their personal histories.
According to a report by the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, nearly 70 percent of transgender people are unemployed or under-employed. As this next case illustrates, so prevalent is transgender employment discrimination that even cross- dressing off duty can cost people their jobs.
Peter Oiler, of New Orleans, had worked for 21 years as a truck driver for Winn- Dixie, the nation?s sixth largest supermarket chain, when he confided in a supervisor that he occasionally wore women?s clothes when not at work. Shortly after this revelation, Oiler was fired, and Winn-Dixie officials were explicit about the reason: they fired him solely because he cross-dressed, which they believed could "harm the company image." Never mind that he cross-dressed on his own time, or that he had an unblemished work record.
"To be told that after 21 years with the company felt like a knife in my chest," Oiler said.
He and his wife of 25 years lost their health insurance, Oiler?s retirement pension, and almost lost their home. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) then sued on his behalf, claiming the firing violated federal sex discrimination law since Oiler "did not conform to the company?s stereotyped notions of how a man ought to look and act."
As with J?Noel Gardiner, however, the law was not on Peter Oiler?s side. In September, a federal judge ruled that, since transgender people are not protected under federal anti-discrimination law, it was perfectly legal for Winn-Dixie to fire Oiler for cross-dressing off the job.
"Sooner or later courts will recognize that people who do their jobs well should not lose their jobs simply because they are transgendered," said Louisiana ACLU Executive Director Joe Cook. "But people like Peter Oiler will suffer until that day comes."
Transgender Rights and Wrongs
In light of widespread harassment and discrimination, the cities of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Key West and San Jose have all recently passed laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people, joining 51 other municipalities (including the city of Santa Cruz) and two states (Minnesota and Rhode Island) with similar laws. According to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, 2002 was "a banner year for transgender equality," with more laws passed last year protecting trans people from discrimination than ever before.
These victories come after years of ardent activism by transgender people who understand they will not be protected by a gay rights bill unless the bill specifically includes them (by saying, for instance, that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression is to be outlawed.)
But despite well-publicized discrimination cases, resistance to trans inclusion in such laws is considerable. Last November in Eugene, Ore., for example, Mayor Jim Torrey threatened to veto a gay rights bill unless the City Council removed provisions that would allow transgender people to use the public bathrooms of their choice (an ongoing battle for trans people everywhere). The provisions were removed and the bill became law.
Even more distressing is when resistance to include transgender people comes from within the gay movement?as it often does.
The largest gay lobbying group in New York, the Empire State Pride Agenda, drafted and, in December, helped pass a landmark bill that protects lesbians, gay men and bisexuals from discrimination, but does not include transgender people. Despite intense lobbying by the trans community and its allies, the Pride Agenda refused to make the bill more inclusive.
"The bill we are voting on today excludes those who surely could use its protections most," said openly-gay Senator Thomas Duane during the bill?s debate on the Senate floor. "There are those small, but powerful groups in the gay community who are willing to turn their backs on the transgendered community," Duane said.
When the bill was signed into law, Matt Foreman, the Executive Director of the Pride Agenda, called it "simply extraordinary for our community."
But who?s included in "our community"?
Perhaps what?s extraordinary is that a gay organization could draft and support a bill that excludes transgender people in the very state where the modern gay movement was started?by transgender people. Drag queens, butch lesbians, and transsexuals were the among the first patrons who stood up to police brutality in 1969 at a Manhattan bar called the Stonewall Inn, igniting a riot and a nationwide outrage that is cited as the birth of modern gay activism.
Thirty-four years later, the conservative wing of the gay movement displays a profound cultural amnesia, forgetting transgender leadership in the struggle for gay civil rights and relegating trans people to second class citizenship within the larger gay community.
"We think the gay and lesbian community has screwed us for too long," said Rusty Mae Moore, co-chair of New York?s Metropolitan Gender Network. "If you?re going to go around talking about GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender], then you better put the T in your legislation."
San Jose activist Dana Rivers agrees. "There?s a persistent reticence to include transgender people in lesbian, gay and bisexual politics. We create an observable difference?it?s harder to hide us. And so much of the gay movement is drawing great strength from a middle of the road, ?I?m-just-like-you, straight-person? approach."
The passage of New York?s bill may portend a similar battle on a national scale. The Human Rights Campaign, the most powerful gay lobby in the country, has for years been at the fore of the struggle to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a federal bill that provides protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation but not gender identity or expression.
Such bills force transgender people and their allies into an impossible choice: support a bill that excludes them, or oppose a bill that will advance the civil rights of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. It?s a choice they should not have to make.
Leave it to Europeans, however, to put to shame this slow, piecemeal approach to transgender rights and the strife that goes along with it. Last month Great Britain passed a law granting a panoply of rights to transsexuals, allowing them to marry, change their birth certificates, and be legally recognized as their chosen gender. The law on transgender rights in Britain was shown to fall "far short of the standards for human dignity and human freedom in the 21st century."
"If democracies are measured by how they treat their minorities," said Minister Rosie Winterton, "then I believe it is absolutely right that the 5,000-strong transsexual community be afforded the same rights enjoyed by the other millions of us in the UK."
America, are you listening?
The Elephant Behind the Pronouns
Though pronouns continue to be hotly debated in the press, what merits greater attention is the rigid gender binary system they represent, and its complicated impact on transgender lives.
As author Leslie Feinberg explains in the book, "Trans Liberation: Beyond Pink or Blue," "That pink-blue dogma assumes that biology steers our social destiny. We have been taught that being born female or male will determine how we will dress and walk, whether we will prefer our hair shortly cropped or long and flowing, whether we will be emotionally nurturing or repressed.
According to this way of thinking, masculine females are trying to look "like men," and feminine males are trying to act "like women." But those of us who transgress those gender assumptions also shatter their inflexibility."
All the stories reported in this essay can be distilled down to that male-female dichotomy and the people who shatter it:
violence against people who transgress conventional male or female behavior; harassment of people who don?t conform to male or female dress codes; denial of marriage or employment rights to people who transcend the gender binary by moving from one end of the spectrum to the other?or somewhere in between; and the willingness of non-trans people to acknowledge that people who live outside traditional gender categories need and deserve legal protection.
The gender binary is "the elephant in the room," says Santa Cruz?s Lee Maranto. "You try to avoid it, you don?t talk about it, and everyone tries to ignore it. But the elephant is screaming," he says.
"Until we start to break that system down," says Dana Rivers, "and to see that it?s OK to be one, the other, in between, or none, and that God made us, too, we won?t see change."
Patrick Letellier teaches Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Politics and Culture at UC Santa Cruz.