As I near completion of my third year with the Huffington Post, I've been asked a number of times to speak about the state of trans and LGBT America. In the lull following the dénouement of the campaign for marriage equality, some are hungry to learn what's next. As I ponder the current situation, I'm doing so at a time of my life when I'm struggling with the last phase of my mother's life. It lends a very personal hue to most of my thoughts these days, and takes me back to contemplating the impact of public actions on private lives, and the interplay of realities within the context of expectations.
The intense interest of the gay community in marriage, often to the exclusion of other more fundamental issues of concern to both trans and gay persons, particularly those struggling economically, covered from public view the successes and challenges happening on a smaller scale. Media attention was riveted on gay issues, until Caitlyn Jenner's transition in Kardashianland left them no recourse. Aside from all the celebrity focus of the media, trans (and gay) activists have continued to make significant progress. Examples include the near universal acceptance of the Obergefell marriage decision (the critical aspect of the Kim Davis fiasco is that she's been the only such example), the expansion of Title VII employment protections to the gender-conforming gay community in the Baldwin case, the backlash against the trans community evident in referenda in Houston and California (yes, being explicitly targeted politically is a sign of progress), and the expansion of trans rights in New York through the regulatory and legal process announced by Governor Cuomo last week.
Most of these cases have been pursued quietly, behind closed doors in meeting rooms, with little media fanfare even following a positive outcome. The legal successes of trans persons filing suit, both with the EEOC and on their own with some remarkable representation from the likes of Jillian Weiss and our legal impact organizations, also generally occur out of public view. People go about their lives and are having an easier time of it. They are having an easier time of it because change has come, and continues to come in spite of some unspeakable tragedies. A recent example has been another horrendous murder of an African-American trans woman, but this time in my home county in Maryland. Zella Ziona was gunned down last week in Gaithersburg in a domestic dispute, another in our country's long history of endemic fatal violence suffered by the black trans community, which we remember each year during the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20.
I had been appointed to my county's hate crimes commission, known as the Committee on Hate/Violence, just a few days earlier by the County Council, after having been nominated by the County Executive. Within a week there was this tragedy. And yet, thanks to the groundwork laid by local LGBT activists over the past decade, the county police and prosecutors made an arrest within 24 hours and charged the man with first-degree murder. There was no hesitation from the Chief of Police, who had helped us enormously in support of all the county anti-discrimination laws we had passed which then led us to the passage of the state law, nor from the state's attorney who is dedicated to bringing Zella's killer to justice as expeditiously as possible.
But because of misgendering of the victim by Fox News, which should come as no surprise to anyone, certain trans activists lost their cool and attacked those county officials who were working nonstop to find the shooter. This brings me to my main thesis.
Everything is personal. The political is personal. For trans persons, when you've suffered multiple slights simply for being who you are it's hard not to view every insult, even when not directed towards you, as a personal affront. I see this as the root of the "microaggression" and "trigger warning" campaigns on campus which I believe do more harm than good. Not only is it imperative that you don't take everything personally, it's critical that even when it is personal that you steel yourself and not respond in kind. Failure to do so gives power to your adversaries.
This is a common tactic in political campaigning, which I know well. We all know that "all's fair in love and war," and the same holds for politics. Changing the world is political action, and the battles that are fought - the necessary battles such as HERO and California and all those that preceded them - can cause grievous harm to the participants and bystanders if they allow it to happen. Particularly today, given all the progress we've made, it's important to dampen one's own expectations. Failure to do so can lead to tragic consequences.
I became an activist because I didn't want any child or adolescent to suffer the way I did. I had the tools, time and resources and felt an obligation to change the world for the better. During my youth I came out to very few people, and remained closeted for decades because I knew the world wasn't ready. My goal has been to make the world readier than it has been.
That doesn't happen overnight. We see, thanks to social media, suicide notes from adolescents who cannot deal with the stress which results from their transition, or the statements of public officials whose hatred drives them to despair. We see trans persons of color continually attacked because the men in their community have not been affected by society's slowly changing mores. We hear stories of employment and housing discrimination in spite of the legal advances. We are even hearing more stories of detransitioning from people who simply couldn't make it in this society. In these respects we are seeing victims of our growing success in being an accepted part of America.
The expectations of many have simply gotten too high. It is getting better, but it might not be good enough for any given individual just yet. The optimism of children and adolescents is understandable, as they have little sense of context and history, but even when you find community on the internet you cannot simply assume that your parents and peers will support you. In many cities around the country, and particularly outside of urban areas, they won't, or at least not without your dogged perseverance and a willingness to endure many slights along the way. It's just as important today to have a plan for transition as it was twenty years ago, and that includes the discipline to plan and proceed with caution. Support groups and therapists are generally no longer necessary to help individuals understand their identities, but they are extremely important to help persons navigate a still hostile world.
It would be helpful if those who've completed the process would support those at the beginning of their journeys instead of lashing out at our cisgender neighbors who struggle to adapt and often still have a hard time coping with this change. It's a tough world out there for everyone, and it's compounded if you're trans. You won't succeed if you live with a chip on your shoulder, and you certainly won't be of much help to your friends and acquaintances. We make up less than 1 percent of the population, and the other 99 percent won't just "get us" and fall in line, however much we'd like that to happen. It requires time and education, both in schools and without, and that education requires trans persons with thick skins who recognize that they will probably be "coming out" for the rest of their lives. It's our obligation, and with a bit of luck the next generation will be more likely to live their lives as they choose, without the necessity to constantly revisit their gender histories.