Reflections on the Millenium March by a Transgendered Woman of Color
by Pauline Park
27 April 2000
As a national event, the Millenium March on Washington has provoked unprecedented controversy within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities.
I am currently active in the transgender community as well as in LGBT/queer Asian & Pacific Islander (API) communities, but here, I write in an individual capacity as an activist and a participant in the first national march on Washington in 1979, in order to share some of my concerns about the April 2000 Millenium March.
While I am writing as an individual, I am not alone here in New York in feeling some trepidation about this event. There is a decided lack of enthusiasm in this state for the MMOW, which is rather easily explicable in a community that was not consulted about the event in any meaningful way. I’m not aware of any New York-based LGBT organization that was asked for input at any stage in the planning process. The failure to consult with the Empire State Pride Agenda—which is not only the largest lesbian & gay political organization in the state, but also the largest statewide lesbian & gay political organization in the country—is a particularly glaring omission.
There was in particular no outreach to the transgender community here in the state or (as far as I know) anywhere else. The organization that I represent within the Federation of Statewide LGBT Organizations—the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA)—is well-known to the Human Rights Campaign, and HRC staff members known me personally; but at no time has anyone from either HRC or from the MMOW board approached NYAGRA about participation in the March.
Perhaps the MMOW board realized that outreach to transgender organizations would be difficult, given the Human Rights Campaign’s opposition to transgender inclusion in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the MMOW’s exclusion from its own mission statement of any concrete commitment to federal legislation that would protect people from hate crimes or discrimination based on gender identity or expression. In fact, NYAGRA has taken no official position on the March.
While we do not oppose it, we cannot support an event that does not reflect our mission to advocate on behalf of legislation that would protect people from discrimination or hate crimes based on gender identity or expression. I personally have the highest regard for Jamison Green and for Dana Rivers, who reportedly have been invited to speak at the March, and I fully respect their right to participate in the event; but I also have to wonder why the ‘inclusion’ of transgendered people was nothing more than an after-thought for the March organizers, apparently meant to appease those who had expressed concerns about the MMOW’s lack of diversity and inclusion.
There has also been no attempt to include people of color from New York in the MMOW decision-making process in any meaningful way. In addition to my transgender advocacy work, I am also very involved in the LGBT/queer Asian & Pacific Islander communities, but I am unaware of any queer API organizations in New York that were asked for their input by the MMOW board, which only approached queer API organizations in the last few months to encourage them to send members to the March and to make contributions to the MMOW board.
What I find disturbing is that small queer API (and other POC) groups that are almost all volunteer-run and without any external funding are being pressured to give money to an entity (the MMOW board) that has resisted calls for financial accountability to the community, for an event initiated by the wealthiest and most powerful gay organization in the country; such a transfer of funds—with no corresponding offer of genuine participation in the decision-making process of the MMOW board (which has taken place almost entirely behind closed doors) will have the effect of a significant redistribution of wealth from the least privileged to the most privileged in the LGBT community.
Here in New York, we are fortunate in having five openly lesbian or gay elected officials; but none of them were consulted in the planning process for this event, either. Four of them released a statement earlier this month announcing that they cannot support the Millenium March. (The fifth, Phil Reed, has indicated that he shares the concerns of his four colleagues who are signatories to the statement.)
Their concern is that the March will divert significant resources from state and local organizing efforts, the little ‘rebate’ from the MMOW proceeds notwithstanding. But even the claim that the MMOW will help us secure our rights is open to question; Barney Frank himself has said that marches like this have no impact on federal legislative efforts whatsoever. If a widely popular and unifying event such as the 1993 March on Washington did not move ENDA or any other federal legislation, it is all the more unlikely that a divisive event such as the Millenium March will have any positive impact on federal legislation.
The MMOW board’s new marketing campaign stresses the personal empowerment that a march on Washington may have on queer people outside the major cities with big LGBT populations; but no truly national movement can be created and directed from Washington, especially by those who do not understand the particular political context in which the LGBT movement operates in each state and locality. The comments that Dianne Hardy-Garcia (the March’s executive director) made in an article that appeared in the Village Voice in the last week of April would seem to exemplify the MMOW board’s attitude towards the LGBT community here in New York.
“We don’t have pride marches with 700,000 people, like you do in New York,” Hardy-Garcia says. “I’ve been to marches where people had to wear bags over their heads. Even if you have rights in New York, we don’t—and you have an obligation to provide a moment for us to feel we are not alone, so we can go back home to do some very dangerous work. You have a duty to support us.” (Richard Goldstein, Culturati: A March On Washington Spawns a Major Movement Rift, Village Voice, 4.26.2000)
It will be difficult for LGBT New Yorkers to understand why they have a duty to support an event that they were not consulted about; and the assertion that local activists in New York have an obligation to take directions from Washington in the absence of any meaningful consultation may strike many here as insensitive if not arrogant. Readers of the Voice article may also take note of the MMOW executive director’s apparent lack of familiarity with the legal status of LGBT people here.
While sexual orientation is included in the New York City human rights ordinance, there is no statewide non-discrimination statute that includes sexual orientation and there is no state or local law here that protects transgendered or gender-variant people from discrimination or hate crimes. While asserting that New Yorkers have rights that Texans don’t, Dianne fails to acknowledge (and seems not even to be aware of) the fact that our hate crimes bill has been stalled in the New York state legislature for 11 years now, and that the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) has been blocked for more than twice as long.
Dianne cannot be unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding HRC’s endorsement of Al D’Amato’s re-election in 1998, made without any meaningful consultation with the LGBT community here in the state, and for which HRC has steadfastly refused to apologize. Given HRC’s leadership of the MMOW, many New Yorkers naturally associate the latter very closely with the former. An organization that endorses a candidate who fails to win even a quarter of the lesbian & gay vote is clearly one that is out of touch with the community that it claims to represent.
And an event run by that organization that does not seriously address issues of social justice that are inseparable from the pursuit of legal rights for LGBT/queer people of color will not elicit their enthusiastic support. LGBT New Yorkers still remember Elizabeth Birch’s public denunciation of those (including people of color such as Carmen Vazquez) critical of the D’Amato endorsement as “maggots in the bottom of a barrel of rice.” As a transgendered woman of Asian birth, I was personally offended not only by what sounded to some like a racial slur, but by her feeble explanation of the expression as a reflection of her own appreciation for Buddhist philosophy.
At the Creating Change conference in Pittsburgh in November 1998, I was struck by the MMOW board’s unwillingness to respond even to the simplest and friendliest questions concerning diversity, financial accountability, decision-making processes, and other important issues.
It seemed to me that the March represented an attempt by the most privileged elements in the community to reassert their hegemony over the movement and to dictate an agenda that would further marginalize the most marginalized in our community, especially transgendered people and people of color. Nothing that the March organizers have done since then has addressed those concerns; instead, effort seems to have been put primarily into creating an image of a movement toward diversity and inclusion rather than working toward genuine diversity and inclusion in our movement.
After having read all this, it may not surprise you to learn that I have no plans to attend the Millenium March. However, I recognize that there are many people who have done a lot of hard work on the March, and I hope that they find the event to be a fulfilling one. Above all, I hope that those involved in this March, if they participate in the planning for any future such events, take seriously the need to include the transgender community and communities of color as well as local and statewide LGBT organizations in the decision-making process in a meaningful way so that future events enhance our appreciation of inclusion and diversity as well as the importance of state and local organizing efforts rather than undermining them.
Pauline Park co-founded the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (the first statewide transgender political organization in New York) in 1998 and is the NYAGRA representative to the Federation of Statewide LGBT Organizations. She also co-founded Gay Asians & Pacific Islanders of Chicago in 1994 and Iban/Queer Koreans of New York in 1997, as well as Queens Pride House (a Center for the LGBT Communities in Queens) in 1997. She served on the steering committee of the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) in 1998-99. And she served on the planning committees for both TransWorld I & II (the first conferences specifically by and for transgendered people of color). The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the organizations with which she is associated.
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This open letter to the community (4.27.00) originally appeared on the website of the Ad Hoc Committee for an Open Process, which challenged the process by which the Millenium March of 2000 was organized.