250 days after the referendum debacle in Houston, when trans persons were denied the civil rights their elected officials had previously provided them, the national LGBT community is rolling out a 60 second commercial, to be aired during the Republican and Democratic national conventions over the next two weeks. Produced by FairnessUSA, and already seen by 2,000,000 viewers, the ad was produced by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) and funded by a coalition including MAP, the Freedom for All Americans Education Fund (FFAA), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), and the Equality Ohio Education Fund, with support from the Equality Federation Institute, the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (HRC), and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR).
Beautifully crafted with professional production values, the ad portrays Alaina Kupec, a North Carolina trans woman who also sits on the board of New York's Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), which recently hired trans employment attorney, and former Ramapo College professor, Jillian Weiss, as its new executive director. The ad is focused solely on Alaina using the women's bathroom after sitting at a meal with friends at what appears to be a restaurant open to the public.
The ad has received rave reviews in the LGBT community, and is as classy and tastefully done as any marriage equality ad of the past five years. It has been called "flawless" and "groundbreaking," and was reported upon this week by The New York Times.
While my initial response was, "It's about time," since my activist colleagues and I have been pleading for just such an effort for five years, after reviewing the ad and speaking with colleagues I want to discuss a number of points in the hopes of improving the product for the next go-round.
First, as I wrote in my first column this week about the language our adversaries are using to demonize us, the precise language we use to frame ourselves is critical. In some respects it may be too late; as one learns when running for office, you had better define yourself before your opponent does or you may spend the entire campaign just trying to redefine yourself in a positive manner. Because of the manner in which trans persons have been treated for the past half century, much of what passes for opposition talking points remains fixated on genitalia. The most recent 180 degree distortion comes from the arch-conservatives in Fairfax County, Virginia, who again prove they know nothing about science. That does not mean, however, that we need to accept that situation and resign ourselves to playing defense. Just as liberals should not have acquiesced to conservatives and reactionaries arrogating "patriotism" and "freedom" for themselves alone, we should not allow them to define us in the derogatory and inaccurate way they choose.
Fortunately, the Department of Justice, in the brief it filed against the state of North Carolina's HB2, the law which prompted this and its predecessor ads, took the first step to clarify the science and reality for the courts. We need to follow up in our ads, because an ad like this one is not crafted solely to combat any specific law, but to educate an American public that is generally still ignorant about trans persons. This ad is not political, but educational, and in introducing America to trans persons, it should not be defining us solely by our bathroom needs. The previous ad produced by FFAA, which showed Zeke Christopoulos, a trans man, doing business with colleagues, would be more appropriate for a Republican convention composed of people who claim to be primarily concerned about business. That earlier ad was targeted at HB2, whose primary purpose was targeting trans bathroom use. Even so, it showed the trans man at work with colleagues discussing HB2, an important frame to show Americans that trans persons live just like them.
More importantly to me, and following up on my last column, the language used by Alaina (and Zeke in the previous FFAA ad) is problematic. Alaina says,
I was born with a male body, but inside I always knew I was female.
I know the producers anguished over this language, and did the best they could, but I believe we must do better. Similar language was used in the captions of the previous ad. The problem is we're buying into the euphemisms the Right uses (male body / biological male / anatomic male), and those euphemisms mistakenly characterize one's genitals as the sum total of one's biological sex.
If they would just say, "penis," we'd at least be able to get to the point, but not only won't they say "penis," we won't either. The point is that one's genitals are not the be-all and end-all of one's sex. One's anatomy and physiology are not defined by genitalia; they include, first and foremost, one's brain, and then, in no particular order, one's gonads, chromosomes, histones, genes, hormones, hormone receptors, and secondary sex characteristics.
I don't know Alaina's history, so I'm not speaking of her, personally, but of the typical trans woman she is meant to represent. In all likelihood Alaina's body looked male at birth, because the pediatrician assigned her sex by a simple genital inspection, i.e., by looking. As a result, she was reared as a boy. Had the pediatrician been able to look at some of the sexually dimorphic structures in her brain, she would have been assigned as a girl.
What this means is that her body - and her body includes her brain in which her mind resides - is intersex; it has attributes that are defined as male (her genitals) and female (her brain sex). For convenience sake, we define newborns based on looking at their genitals, and roughly 99% of the time that shortcut is accurate. But for trans and other intersex babies, that shortcut leads to a mistaken identity imposed on the baby.
That's all it is - a doctor's mistake based on a statistical shortcut. We should be able to educate the general population about that simple reality.
When she says she "knew" she was female, it is her brain sex which is driving her knowing. It is not, as our adversaries usually say, just a "feeling," or, "thinking your sex." It is an insistent, persistent, and consistent feeling, which takes it out of the realm of the colloquial meaning of "feeling" and characterizes it as "knowing." It is; it is part of being transgender, part of one's innate essence. There is nothing flippant, ephemeral or deceitful about it. Trans men and women know their sex as definitively as cisgender people do.
The difference in language may not seem significant, but I believe it's critical. It's critical because it will be repeated time and time again in efforts either to educate people in support of trans rights, or in an attempt to demonize us. The language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes the phrase, "because of sex," and sex includes gender identity and, therefore, trans persons. It is not about ephemeral feelings, or penises and vaginas; it is about the composite of being a sexual being, first and foremost lodged in one's brain. Trans persons' sex is no different, qualitatively, from cis persons' sex. We are all in this together.
Finally, I'd like to comment about some statistics reported by Mara Keisling in her Advocate story about this ad. The follow-up data to the 2009 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, now called the U.S. Transgender Survey, which has yet to be completely released, includes the following:
59% have avoided bathrooms in the last year because they feared confrontations in public restrooms at work, at school, or in other places.
12% report that they have been harassed, attacked, or sexually assaulted in a bathroom in the last year.
31% have avoided drinking or eating so that they did not need to use the restroom in the last year.
24% report that someone told them they were using the wrong restroom or questioned their presence in the restroom in the last year.
9% report being denied access to the appropriate restroom in the last year.
8% report having a kidney or urinary tract infection, or another kidney-related medical issue, from avoiding restrooms in the last year.
I personally have a hard time believing these statistics, because I don't know anyone who has avoided using a public bathroom. Who are these trans persons? How is transgender defined? Are these men or women? Is this a generational problem? Is this primarily a problem of school access? Is this a regional, or rural vs. urban, problem? Does "feared to use a public bathroom" encompass everyone who at one time during the year feared to use a bathroom in a specific area, but generally has no problem in her home town? Has the trans umbrella grown so big to become a canopy and now includes folks who never before identified as trans and are afraid to use public facilities?
More than 50% of the total U.S. population lives in jurisdictions with comprehensive trans protections, and it's quite likely that a large majority of trans persons (~75%) live in those cities and states. And yet 60% of all trans persons in the U.S. fear to use a public bathroom?
Maybe I'm in the same position as the liberal (Pauline Kael, if I remember correctly) who knew no one who voted for Nixon, and I just don't get out enough. If these numbers are accurate, we have a serious problem with self-confidence, and a willingness to take control of one's life, in our community. I don't remember this being the reality in my generation.
Regardless, however, I know that no group has ever obtained its rights, its equality, or its freedom, by asking for either compassion or pity, and emphasizing its victim status, yet we seem to do it quite frequently. The gay and bi community didn't gain marriage equality by presenting themselves in this manner.
As the social justice advocate and statesman from Talbot County, Maryland, famously said,
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.