Last month I discussed leadership in the context of Dan Choi's remarkable advocacy on behalf of repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The debate following on various listservs was very instructive, particularly dealing with the issues of privacy and mental health, and inspired me when I was attending the Victory Institute in frigid Denver three weeks ago. Before the holiday I focused on one particular leader of a much more private demeanor, Shawn Skelly, the fouth trans person appointed by the Obama administration. Today I will focus on leadership and professional ethics.
My favorite panel discussion at the Victory Institute occurred the first day, entitled "Building Legislative Coalitions." It was a remarkable panel, moderated by the very knowledgeable and engaging Daniel Penchina of the Raben Group. Panelists included Republican Ohio state representative, Tim Brown, Colorado State Senator and President Pro Tem Lucia Guzmάn and Bruno Selun of the European Parliament's Intergroup on LGBT Rights.
Much discussion revolved around giving activists who have the greatest stake a leading voice in determining the strategy for civil rights campaigns. This was forcefully advanced with respect to foreign communities, as we Americans have a tendency, because of our successes, to believe we know better than the local activists. The locals not only know their culture better, it is their lives which are at stake, and their courage which is needed. We must allow people an opportunity to speak for themselves whenever possible, particularly when there are those with the skills and experience who are willing to lead. Stuart Milk's presentation, later during the conference, of the increasing frequency of attacks on the LGBT population in Eastern Europe, highlighted those points very effectively.
Another example included suggestions on starting coalitions when no allies were immediately evident, such as in Africa. Others dealt with tools for reaching across the aisle in two-party states, and building coalitions where there is rarely a majority, a fundamental fact of life in the European Community. Each example requires a different approach with its own particularities, but a consistent message highlighted the need for situating leadership in the communities most affected.
I then asked about the situation of groups of advocates working on a specific legislative campaign who are unable to work together because of repeated violations of professional boundaries. I mentioned the long history, recently improved, of the U.S. gay community relegating trans issues to secondary importance, and the current problem of certain legacy LGBT organizations ignoring trans organizations or using them for their own self-aggrandizement. Most importantly, I said, was the persistence of a policy of either ignoring trans issues or trans persons entirely, as I wrote last month with reference to Rachel Maddow, or the usurping of the microphone from the trans persons who are far more qualified to speak about their own lives.
Having friends who have some understanding of one's particular painful experience, and are willingly to assist, is truly a blessing. But when we're not only present and willing, but have proven our ability by actually securing protections and passing legislation, then having others continue to meddle, is not simply rude, it is a breach of professional ethics. It shouldn't take much effort for those folks to put themselves in our place, and then realize they themselves would be offended.
A colleague whom I've been supporting in his effort to bolster comprehensive trans-supportive health care at Kaiser Mid-Atlantic, Dr. Ted Eytan, wrote, in reference to a TedMed panel on which I participated earlier this month:
In the world of inclusion, it is considered a turning point when those whose voice is often unheard are the ones speaking on their own behalf, instead of being spoken for. This in turn results in the community having control of its own health and life destiny, like so many other vulnerable populations are doing today.
Kellan remarked during the panel discussion that trans persons, and particularly trans women, live lives of paradox, in that we are at times highly visible in the general population, which may lead to violent assaults, unemployment and homelessness, while at other times being completely invisible to data collectors, health care workers and prospective employers. Similarly, sometimes we are both highly visible as physical beings, while being invisible as social beings who deserve the same dignity, respect and human connection as everyone else.
The solution offered by Bruno Selun of the European Parliament, who has to navigate shifting coalitions daily, was that we should just keep talking, which is probably all one can do. Maybe some sort of agreement can be reached. Or, it may be all that can happen is the creation of an opportunity to vent, in which case, we will at least have a clearer understanding of the situation and the position of the parties.
When all is said and done, the only ones who will care how the sausage was made will be the historians -- possibly -- and the participants themselves. And the best the dramatis personae can hope for will be to have a good laugh when reminiscing.
So, I would ask, going forward, that when such problematic situations arise within the community, that all the players respect professional boundaries, the experience and skills of those with actual political success in their recent past, and the right of those closest to the action whose lives are the ones at stake to lead with their own voices and efforts.