Roberts Provides A Brief History of the Trans / HRC Schism

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Oct 9, 2007
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Monica Roberts at has posted a blog containing an illuminating, timely, and comprehensive, history of the tensions between the GLB part of the GLBT community and the transgender people who feel that they’ve been shunted aside--most recently by the Human Rights Campaign.

Roberts, served as the Lobby Chair for the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) for several years, from 1999-2002, maintains her blog as a source of "News, opinion, commentary, history, and a little creative writing from an African-American."

Roberts writes that the schism between transgender people and gays, lesbians, and bisexuals run as deeply as those of the GLBT equality movement itself, to the episode in which Jim Fouratt, a founder of the Gay Liberation Front, excluded Sylvia Rivera, a fellow GLF founder and trans activist, from the GLF. Fouratt, whom Lynn Conway writes of as "A classic example of transphobia" in a 2006 essay posted as the University of Michigan website, continued to antagonize the transgender community as late as 2000, when he called M-to-F transsexuals "misguided gay men who’d undergone surgical mutilations" at a Stonewall observance.

Barney Frank’s recent maneuver to muster votes in Congress for ENDA by splitting it into two bills, a GLB rights measure that would theoretically be followed by a transgender version later on, is especially stinging for the transgender community given that the GLF saw to it that protections for transgender people were stripped out of a 1971 bill in New York that would have offered protections against discrimination. Then as now, the reasoning was that the bill would not be able to pass as long as it included protections for transpeople.

The bill, scrubbed of any trans-protections, did not pass until 1986, when Tom Stoddard, who would in later years head up the Lambda Legal Defense Fund, also opposed inclusion of language that would offer protections to transgender people. Protections for transgender people were added later on, but not before Sylvia Rivera died in 2002.

Janice Raymond, a professor of women’s studies and medical ethics at the University of Amherst in Massachusetts, wrote a book titled The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male in 1979, in which Raymond claimed that men receiving sexual reassignment surgery were attempting to enter and dominate the women’s rights movement; according to Roberts, a paper later authored by Raymond was directly responsible for the eradication of government aid for the transgendered poor, as well as to insurance companies dropping coverage for sex reassignment procedures.

Germain Greer, Roberts wrote, also authored anti-trans writings that, taken together with Roberts’ work, led to transgendered people being rejected by the lesbian community.

When the HRC was established in 1980, Roberts wrote, gay leaders at the time were still under the sway of those anti-trans voices.

As the religious right began its long and damaging ascent, using GLBT persons as their scapegoats and whipping boys, the GLB community tended to look at trans people as "crazy queens," Roberts wrote, and the fact that coastal urban GLB leaders viewed the country’s midlands as "flyover" country (that is, fit to be disregarded), when trans leaders were coming from those parts of the country, heightened attitudes of mutual distrust.

This meant that as the religious right emanated from Texas and then spread into the country at large with their field-tested agenda in which "family values" were flouted and GLBT people rhetorically flogged, the GLB and trans communities were too busy fighting each other to join forces and mount a more effective defense against the Bible-based anti-gay prejudice that was being actively promoted.

According to Roberts, the early warnings about the religious right were largely ignored by the GLB community because, in part, the warnings came from the "crazy queens." Another source of resentment was the fact that GLB leaders pressed transpeople to back them up on legislation that would promote equality for people who were subjected to prejudice based on their sexual orientation, while still not acting to include any legislative language relevant to people who experienced bias based on their gender identity.

Roberts cites legal scholar Kat Rose in saying that efforts to promote such bills created a culture in which GLB people could discriminate against trans people in the workplace and elsewhere, even as they played the anti-discrimination card to benefit themselves.
Wrote Roberts, "When transgender leaders would balk at those demands or point out the hypocrisy of leaving us behind, they would state they would ’come back for us,’" much as Barney Frank did with the ENDA bill.

Historically, however, such returns to help transpeople onboard with supplemental or trans-specific legislation are long in coming, if and when they come at all.

The HRC commands special resentment from the trans community partly because in 1975, Steve Endean was largely responsible for excluding trans people from a bill to provide a measure of GLBT equality in Minnesota. Endean went on in 1980 to co-create the Human Rights Campaign Fund, which later coalesced into the Human Rights Campaign.

The pattern of GLB leaders blocking trans people from inclusion in equality legislation continued on through the 1990s, including Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby executive director Dianne Hardy-Garcia’s successful bid to exclude trans people from James Byrd Hate Crimes Bill. The bill was killed by Texas Republicans, but was eventually resurrected and signed into law as a GLB-only measure, by Gov. Rick Perry. Hardy-Garcia was, at the time, also a board member for the HRC.

Elizabeth Birch became the Executive Director of the HRC in 1995, but, Roberts wrote, was quoted as saying that trans inclusion in ENDA would take place over her dead body.

Seeing that not only board members, but also the executive director of the HRC was given to anti-trans attitudes convinced many trans people that the HRC was not only not helpful to their cause, but out to hinder their progress toward equality.

Roberts wrote that HRC lobbyists Nancy Buermyer and Winnie Stachelberg effectively sabotaged tans-inclusion in ENDA throughout the late 1990s, and that this led to the creation of NTAC in 1999 by trans leaders including Roberts herself.

NTAC began to view other GLB organizations as more compatible and cooperative potential allies, and in 2000 launched what Roberts referred to in her essay as an "’Embarrass HRC’ campaign" that included protesting at HRC events and publicizing HRC’s recalcitrance at allowing trans people to be included in ENDA. HRC felt the impact in its pocketbooks as donations to the organization were affected by the campaign.

Later on, trans leaders warned that the HRC’s shifting from state-by-state passage of equal rights laws to a pursuit of marriage equality was dangerous given the timing, just before the 2004 election. Those warnings were not heeded, and some commentators say that the marriage equality push, happening when it did, was a major factor in energizing evangelicals and other right-wing religious factions, leading not only to the election of George W. Bush in 2004 for a second term, but also to constitutional amendments in 18 states specifically denying marriage equality to gays and lesbians.

Trans people were angered by the result, given that anti-gay laws are often extended in ways that impact the lives and rights of trans people as well.

Last week’s attempted sleight-of-hand by Frank, with the quiet non-condemnation of the HRC, was one more taste of what Roberts characterized as "a forty-year-old stew flavored with historical hatred, arrogance, political miscalculations, communication failures, misunderstandings, mistrust, and Machiavellian duplicity."

Concluded Roberts, "The flare up this time may have not only burned the bridge that people like recently resigned HRC board member Donna Rose and others were trying to build towards a working partnership with HRC, but made any talk of doing that in the transgender community moot for years to come."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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