Gender at its Core (GCN, 11.5.03)

Gender at its Core

Freedom of expression and the debate over identity politics

By Pauline Park

Gay City News
5-11 September 2003
Vol. 2, Issue 36

Ever since engineering a fundamental shift in strategic vision for the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) in late 1999, Riki Wilchins has stirred controversy among trans political activists. At that time, Wilchins declared that GenderPAC, the group she heads, was no longer a ‘transgender’ organization but was instead pursuing a new vision of creating a ‘national gender civil rights movement for all Americans.’

Wilchins’ most recent column in The Advocate (“Freedom of Expression,” September 2) has re-ignited that controversy, creating a firestorm of protest.

Are there issues here for the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community?

I believe that there are, and that those tempted to view the current controversy as a tempest in a transgender teacup would do well to reconsider those issues.

“More than 55 cities, states, and municipalities have passed laws outlawing gender stereotyping on the job. Yet these heroic changes, which have largely been driven by transsexual activists, focus solely on transsexuality and gender identity. They disregard gender expression,” asserts Wilchins.

To illustrate why those efforts fall short, she cites the example of Darlene Jespersen, “who was fired after two decades at the same job when she refused to wear makeup and high heels as required by her employer’s dress code.”

Here in New York City, the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and a broad coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender organizations as well as non-LGBT groups led the campaign for Intro. 24—commonly referred to as “the transgender rights bill”—a city law enacted in April 2002. Intro. 24 protects not only transsexuals (usually defined as those who seek or have obtained sex reassignment surgery) and transgendered people (those who present themselves in the gender opposite their birth sex, whether part-time or full-time) from discrimination, but also provides full legal redress for anyone who experiences gender-based discrimination.

The statute defines “gender” as “actual or perceived sex and… gender identity, self-image, appearance, behavior or expression, whether or not [it]… is different from that traditionally associated with the legal sex assigned to that person at birth.”

That language would cover someone facing the discrimination confronted by Darlene Jespersen, or, for that matter, any non-transgendered man––gay, straight, or bisexual––denied employment, housing, or public accommodations for being “too effeminate.”

In fact, gender expression is explicitly included in virtually every one of the 55 state and local “transgender” rights laws that Wilchins claims fall short, information certainly available to her when she wrote her piece for The Advocate. One wonders why Wilchins––herself a post-operative transsexual––would be so intent on distancing herself and her organization from transsexuals and even from the transgender rights movement that GenderPAC was founded to represent. A cynical interpretation of Wilchins’ latest move might be to posit some sort of marketing strategy at work to differentiate GenderPAC from transgender organizations.

GenderPAC’s current strategy seems premised on marginalizing transgender organizations as exclusionary bastions of old-fashioned middle-aged transsexuals out of touch with genderqueer youth and others who reject the sex/gender binary premised on the assumption that there are only two sexes and two genders. Those who have attended GenderPAC’s annual conference have noted that it is dominated by white, middle-class, female-born college students––many of whom refuse to identify as either women or as men, some calling themselves “bois”––who appear to be GenderPAC’s market “niche” these days.

But is there more at issue here than an aggressively competitive organizational marketing strategy?

At the heart of the controversy is a real debate about how to define a movement. Wilchins’ stated aim is to move beyond “identity politics,” which she views as limiting and exclusionary.

“It would be easy for us to stay in the LGBT model—to continue to assume that all of our community’s issues can be pegged to one gender identity or sexual orientation,” Wilchins declares. “But maybe it’s time to look outside that model.”

One may rightly ask whether the strategy of a “post-identity politics movement” that Wilchins is touting is a viable alternative; to date, it has produced no concrete results in the legislative arena. Significantly, GenderPAC is an organization without an integral connection to any community, and the mistake that Wilchins makes is in failing to see the creation of community as an important and even necessary part of building a movement.

History shows that great movements are often rooted in community. Forty years ago last week, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the historic march on Washington that helped enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation clearly aimed at enfranchising the African American community. King saw community as a necessary foundation for the civil rights movement, but neither that legislation nor the movement excluded anyone.

So it seems to me that it is Wilchins who is creating a false dichotomy between “identity politics” and an inclusive civil rights movement, rooted in the notion of a transgender community, supported by the organized lesbian and gay community and their allies.

Our experience with Intro. 24 shows that this binary—this false choice that Wilchins presents—is irrelevant to understanding the significant progress achieved.

It was important that City Council members saw that there was a real constituency behind this legislation, that it meant something to an identifiable community. And supporters were able to rally the transgender community and the larger LGBT community by calling Intro. No. 24 a transgender rights bill and by making clear just who—transsexual, transgendered, and gender-variant people (both transgendered and non-transgendered)—would benefit most directly by its passage. Our ability to mobilize a wide swath of the LGBT community—especially for the first public hearing at City Hall, in May 2001—played a crucial role in securing passage of the bill. By that fall’s municipal elections, leading candidates for mayor and a large majority of City Council candidates were on board with the bill, which passed the following spring with a 45-5 majority.

Our experience with Intro. 24 also belies Wilchins’ assertion that the transgender rights movement is run by transsexuals who exclude non-transsexuals from participation.

The work group that organized the campaign for Intro. 24 included transexxuals and non-transsexuals alike. The group was coordinated by a non-transsexual transgendered Asian American woman and included a Latina lesbian, gay white men, and gay and straight African American men, all of whom were excited by the task of working for passage of a transgender rights bill. The same was true of the diverse coalition behind Intro. 24, which included organizations of color and civil rights and social justice organizations, labor and women’s organizations, and people of faith.

Our experience with Intro. 24 demonstrates that articulating a transgender rights agenda—firmly rooted in a visible and organized LGBT community—is a crucial element in enlisting the support of non-transgendered people and in building broad coalitions that help enact nondiscrimination legislation beneficial to everyone, regardless of gender identity or expression.

Pauline Park is co-chair of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA) and coordinated the Intro. No. 24 work group.

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