In order to illustrate transgender invisibility and the pain that can accompany coming out, I told the following story to participants in a meeting of an international advocacy group for LGBTQIA people.
My wife and I were visiting with a cisgender heterosexual couple, and our conversation began to focus on personal relationships. Because we wanted to be authentic about our life experiences, we came out to them as a couple, and I came out as a trans* woman. Almost immediately, both of them said, "That doesn't matter to us." The intent of their statement was to be affirming, but the statement's impact on me was profoundly different. Though it's important to know that people respect and accept you, it's also important that they honor the lifelong struggle that you have faced as a trans* person.
When my story ended, some of the participants at our meeting found it difficult to understand why my immediate reaction to the statement was negative. After all, aren't trans* people looking for acceptance? Aren't we longing for welcome and inclusion? It was at this point that one of the participants, an African-American woman, spoke out. She exclaimed that when people say, "I don't see color," they are deluding themselves. Furthermore, they erase a history of oppression, slavery and Jim Crow laws and ignore the burgeoning gap in wealth and the huge disparity in incarceration rates between black and white people. They erase the work of Dr. King and all the struggles for civil rights in our country. They ignore the presence of systemic oppression that affects everyone in society, because we are all part of those systems, oppressed and oppressors alike.
Of course, the couple who said that the fact that I'm trans* doesn't matter to them probably intended to be accepting, or they may not have wanted to talk about it, get into a disagreement, sound uninformed or say something wrong. I tell this story because the impact of the statement on me was to make my trans* identity invisible. It's important that people recognize the lifelong struggle that you have faced as a person whose birth-assigned sex and gender identity are not the same.
Erasure of trans* identity may occur at the interpersonal level, as in the example above, but it most certainly occurs by omission in the media, in legislation at all levels of government, in faith communities and on and on. I recently served as lector for the contemporary readings at the 2013 Reconciling in Christ Festival service in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. One of those readings, a selection from President Obama's second inaugural address, is a recent example of this erasure.
Because of its emphasis on justice, particularly for marginalized groups, the president's address brought great joy and hope to many of us in the LGBTQIA community. But it also left many of us in the trans* community feeling empty. The invisibility of the trans* community in this speech was probably unintended and may have occurred because the president was perhaps unaware of the participation of trans* people in the Stonewall riots. Perhaps the president and his advisors don't recognize that sexual orientation and gender identity are entirely different human attributes. But by not naming gender identity and expression alongside sexual orientation, by not mentioning trans* people along with our "gay brothers and sisters," the president did not write trans* folks into the history of the LGBTQIA collective.
Just the other week, Sadie, an 11-year-old transgender girl, responded to the president's erasure of trans* people by this omission in his speech. She wrote a beautifully heartfelt handwritten letter to President Obama and concluded by saying, "It would be a better world if everyone knew that transgender people have the same hopes and dreams as everyone else."
When the media helps to write the history of the LGBTQIA movement, that history is often changed by what the media leaves out of its conversation. This rewriting of history by omission was certainly the case when NPR explained the history of the Stonewall riots of 1969 for those not familiar with this historic event that President Obama included in his speech. Cara, blogging on the website Autostraddle, writes:
NPR gave a quick primer on what happened when gay men resisted police harassment at the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York city. In doing so, starting with that very first sentence, they struck a bunch of main players from the historical record. What about Stormé De Larverie, the "Stonewall Lesbian" who spurred the crowd's initial surge when she resisted police outside the club? What about Tammy Novak, the trans* woman who threw some of the first punches? And what about David Van Ronk, a straight ally who hit an officer "with an unknown object?" Maybe, as the NPR article says, Stonewall itself "was not filled, as some accounts have it, with drag queens and street hustlers," but perhaps that's because, as trans* history blogger Zagria points out, a lot of them "could not afford the entry fee... [and] were often found in the parkette across the street, which turned out to be an ideal place to join in the riot." In any case, it wasn't only gay men resisting -- not even close. And now everyone who heard Obama's speech, cared enough to look up the reference, and trusted a generally good-hearted news source [NPR] to educate them about it has missed out on a huge part of the story, and is still living in the dark about this and (presumably) many other hugely important contributions that trans* people have made to queer history and to America as a whole.
It's up to trans* people to be proactive and make certain that our individual and collective voices are heard loud and clear by the public and the media, and that we continue to be written into the record of queer history.