Monthly Archives: November 2008

Isn’t Oppression Bad and Calling it Out Good?

Or did I get it backwards.

In an LGBT online support community I participate in a few participants were purposefully using the wrong pronouns for a trans person in the media who they did not like. When several people pointed out that that’s a very transphobic tactic and the discussion got heated the moderator stepped in – and told to stop throwing around “transphobic” because it is an ad hominem attack that only derails conversation.

It’s a tactic of shifting focus and blame in a lot of places. It’s the kind of logic that allows people to claim that calling someone racist is a “low blow” and off limits. Considering how often it is employed, this tactic deserves a little more attention.

The thinking behind this tactic relies on a world view where we are “past all that.” Whatever “ism” you’re looking at is no longer institutional, structural, or societal – if it ever was – and is only an issue of individual prejudices. From this supposedly even ground we are starting on, prejudices against minority and majority groups have equal weight.

A perfect example of this occurred in the comments section of a Bilerico reposting of an open letter addressing racist post-prop-8 behavior of white gay and lesbian activists. The letter writer, Alette Kendrick, complained about racist statements made at a post-prop-8 rally and all the white activists there who cheered for it. Instead of recognizing the power, pain, and impact that such a situation has on people of color in this movement, several commenters decided to focus on a statement that “dumb white people at large” could benefit from listening to this experience.

Several people suggested that calling white people dumb was the exact same (racist) thing that she was complaining about. That her acknowledgment of a widespread lack of awareness and understanding of racism in white populations was the equivalent of the rally speaker who ranted about the horrible African-American community and “all but outrightly called Black people ignorant and foolish.” Yet when we remove the central assumptions of this tactic, the argument falls apart.

First off, issues of racism are more than just prejudice. You don’t have to burn crosses or wear a white hood in order to be racist. Too often people who don’t want to deal with racism relegate it to the realm of the fantastic. It’s what those horrible people do, I’m not a horrible person, so it has nothing to do with me. Yet we all live in a racist society. We all hear racist messages our whole lives. We all internalize it to some degree. It’s impossible not to let it influence your behavior in at least minor ways. Claiming that most, if not all, white people are influenced by racism is not a baseless attack on white people, it’s not prejudicial generalization, it’s a fact supported by academia, sociology, not to mention the collective personal experiences of people of color.

Secondly, we’re not starting on equal ground here. It’s not just the prejudical statement that hurts, but the societal validation of that statement that gives it weight. Claiming that people of color are uneducated, that women are bitchy, that gays flaunt their sexuality, that trans folk are irrational and instable, that poor people steal, can have real impact on people’s lives. But no one will take you seriously if you say the reverse. Claiming that whites are uneducated won’t cost someone a job, claiming that men are bitchy won’t get someone’s perspective dismissed, claiming that straights flaunt their sexuality won’t get someone fired. Claiming that cis folk are irrational won’t get someone assaulted. Claiming that the rich steal won’t get cab drivers to refuse to go to wall street. That, incidentally, is why reverse discrimination doesn’t work.

It’s true that in liberal circles with a general anti-oppression value, labels like racist, homophobe, or transphobe, can tarnish your reputation. But it’s clear that this tactic is more about reputation than reality. Those who buy into this world view will get up in arms about an accusation of oppressive behavior and turn the focus of the discussion from the inappropriate behavior to the “inappropriate” accusations they face.

In the recent clamor around Julie Bindel, one of her main tactics was to refocus the issue around all the mean and angry trannies* who are unfairly calling her transphobic — as if calling her transphobic was a low blow as bad or worse than anything she had done. She might as well have been saying “I called you mutilated freaks and you called me transphobic, I suppose we’re even now.”

I’m sorry, but being called transphobic, sexist, homophobic, racist, etc may hurt but it’s nothing like the impact that sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, etc behavior can have. The discomfort of being called out for oppressive behavior does not make up for the pain that behavior caused. Being called out for an ism is not about revenge, punishment, or public shaming. The purpose of calling someone out is to interrupt and change the behavior, and in the best case scenarios, become an opportunity for educating others to be more careful and aware of their behavior. That’s where the discussion needs to be, and that’s what we need to be doing more of.

We could all improve the quality of our communication by learning better ally skills here. Everyone one of us has privilege in one area or another, and people who we could be better allies to. Being able to be called out gracefully, internalize the criticism you are getting, and learn from the experience without getting defensive is one of the best ally skills to learn. Because being called out might feel like being attacked, but in reality it’s a gift. When someone says something perpetuating the oppression about a community we belong too, we don’t have to say anything about it. Often getting involved in the drama around calling out oppression is itself laborious and frustrating. And usually, the more frustrating the experience, the less tact and civility people are willing to put into their attempts to call someone out.

When people are willing to tell you how you screwed up and what you should have done — especially when they do so in a calm and respectful manner, but even when they don’t — try to restrain the defensive knee-jerk reaction. Because they are spending effort that they don’t have to in the hope that you (or others around) might be able to listen, learn, and grow. The best thing you can do is just that.

* Considering that I wrote an article that goes into detail about the derogatory use of the word “tranny”, I feel I should comment on my use of it here. This is an example of the rare circumstances where I personally use the term — as a way to reference transphobic attitudes. You can read my article to see more about why I think it can be useful in this circumstance. Note that this is different from an attempt to reclaim the term.

Disposable People

Last night I gave this speech at Day of Remembrance, addressing the way trans identity, race, gender, immigration, sex work, and police brutality have all become major factors in anti-trans killings.

Every year we take this time to review the losses our community has faced.  And each year it feels like a slam in the gut.  In an attempt to make sense out of it all, we try to put the pieces together.  It seems so senseless, but part of why it is so prevalent is that to many people, trans people are the most sensible victims to choose. We are looking at the result of a society that treats certain people as disposable.

Don’t fool yourself, it’s not just trans people that we are talking about.  We’re talking about undocumented immigrants, the homeless, sex workers, people of color, women.  And this year as with every year, the trans people on this list are many if not most or all of the above.

The fact is, if you’re going to kill someone and want to get away with it, a trans woman of color doing sex work is your best bet.  I can only imagine that’s what Terron Oates was thinking two years ago the night he brought an illegally owned gun along with him to a strip club and cruised the streets known as an area to pick up trans sex workers. 

He later claimed that he didn’t know that Alexis King was trans, that she grabbed his hand and placed it on her genitals, and that in a panic, he shot her.  Despite the facts in disagreement – she was shot from behind, not the front, and paramedics testified that her genitals were firmly tucked away – this year he was convicted only of voluntary manslaughter.

It’s a common enough story.  When Angie Zapata was killed this year, her killer Allen Ray Andrade claimed that she never told him that she was trans when they met on a date.  According to his story, when he became suspicious of her body, he grabbed her crotch – an action generally considered sexual assault when the woman isn’t trans – then went into a rage.  He later told his girlfriend that “gay things had to die,” and that he “killed it.”  However, we later found out from Angie’s sisters that she was very careful to always disclose her trans status to dates.  It seems Andrade’s story is a lie.

All of us need to learn – and truly internalize – that the reason we hear so many cases like this is not because trans women are such bad judges of character, nor is it that calm and reasonable people generally respond to someone’s disclosure of trans status with murderous rage.  We hear these stories so often for one simple reason, because these killers are very aware that telling stories like these are likely to significantly reduce their sentences.

Whenever people don’t understand a crime, there is a tendency to simply call it horrid and set it aside.  It’s unthinkable, so don’t think about it.  But we’d be doing a disservice to the dead if we simply cast aside the monsters and ignored the circumstances that allowed them to act.

Earlier this summer, Duanna Johnson was beaten by the police while in custody.  One officer James Swain held her down while officer Bridges McRae maced her then beat her with handcuffs wrapped around his fist.  Other jail employees witnessed the event but did nothing to intervene.  It sent a clear message.  She’s black, trans, probably arrested for suspicion of sex work, and all that put together meant that she was obviously disposable.

When she complained, at first the police force refused to do anything about it.  It was only when video footage of the beating was leaked to the internet that they took action and fired the two officers.  And it was only yesterday, months after the fact, that charges were filed. 

Duanna filed a lawsuit against the city, and with the surveillance video footage, she had a good case.  That is, until she was killed, execution style, by three unknown people.  Just 11 days ago.  She was the third black trans woman killed in Memphis in as many years.

The police have claimed that they have no suspects and no motive, but I think the reality is that they have no interest in solving the case.  They didn’t respond to the assault until the video was made public.  They didn’t arrest McRae until after she was killed.  What reason should we have that they will act now?  Considering that Duanna Johnson’s death just saved the Memphis Police Department $1.3 million dollars, it’s not too hard to see how they might have a conflict of interests.

It’s no wonder that the police aren’t exactly trusted by the trans community.  We shouldn’t forget Aimee Wilcoxson who isn’t on this list but died last Thursday.  Her friends, including the person who found her, have reason to believe it was murder.  However, the police are insisting that it was a suicide with a flimsy story that contradicts evidence her friends have collected.

I could go on and on.  There are dozens of stories here –  where police have excused these murderers, where police have refused to investigate these crimes, and where the trans community suspects the police were involved in committing the murders themselves.  In fact, law enforcement agents themselves make up one of the largest sources of anti-trans harassment and violence. Consider the case of Elly Susanna who, while doing outreach to promote the Day of Remembrance last year, was arrested by Indonesian police who then gang-raped her and drowned her.  Or Ali and two others, who earlier this year were arrested, humiliated, and executed by US-backed Iraqi police just for being trans.  And if you think that’s just something that happens elsewhere, Amnesty International put together a report about all the human rights abuses of trans people by U.S. law enforcement agents.

Unfortunately, the attention the issue of violence against trans people gets is minimal.  Even in LGBT organizations, trans issues are consistently overshadowed by “more important” issues. 

When our organizations do address anti-trans violence, the only action offered is the passage of hate crimes legislation.  However, hate crimes sentencing enhancements only gives more power to a system we already know has anti-trans and racist leanings.

Sentencing enhancements won’t get police to investigate crimes they don’t take seriously to begin with.  They won’t stop police from harassing trans women on the street because they assume all trans women are sex workers.  They won’t have any effect against police officers who believe they won’t be held accountable.  They won’t sway the minds of jurors who think “I killed her because she was trans” is an adequate excuse. 

Sentencing enhancements will allow them to dole out harsher punishments against the people who they think are more deserving.  And we already know that the legal system sees people of color, women, sex workers, immigrants, and the homeless as more deserving of punishment.  Because, of course, they are the disposable people.

There are other options out there that could be a lot more effective, like San Francisco’s Proposition K.  Prop K would have decriminalized prostitution, prohibiting local authorities from investigating, arresting, or prosecuting anyone solely for selling sex. For a population that traditionally has been unable to go to police for help, passage would make it easier to report violence without fear of arrest and increase safety for sex workers.  Not to mention that it would put an end to police profiling and harassment of trans women as possible sex workers.

Despite his status as a hero among gays and lesbians due to his stance on marriage, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom spent the last week before the election holding a press conference not to campaign against the marriage ban, but to campaign against this proposition for sex workers safety.  We shouldn’t forget that he also opposed a homeless shelter for queer and trans youth on the basis that it might reduce property values.  Apparently he’s supportive of queer rights as long as we’re talking about queer people who are white, cisgender, middleclass.  Remember, it’s only after the disposable people have been disposed of and the city is “cleaned up” that property values rise.

Tonight is about remembering the pain of those we’ve lost, but it’s also about taking action.  Call the DA, Police Director, and Sheriff in Memphis and demand justice for Duanna Johnson.  Support organizations like the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP).  Refuse to support the Human Rights Campaign until they stop advocating for a trans exclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  Demand that your LGBT organizations begin prioritizing issues that matter to the trans community.  Together we can make a difference.  But change won’t begin until we stop fighting for our own rights and start fighting for everyone’s.  We must be clear that no one is expendable and we will not leave behind or forget the members of our community who would otherwise be considered disposable.

For information about how to advocate for Duanna Johnson’s case, follow this link.

If you appreciated this analysis and want to see a more in depth version, my DOR speech from 2007 was about three times longer and was able to do a better job flushing out the connections between these different identity issues.

If Not Marriage for All, How About Marriage for None?

The simplicity and brevity of same-sex marriage bans like prop 8 leave a lot of room to look at alternatives. I can’t help but see something like this and think, Okay, I can work with that.

Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California.
–Text of Proposition 8

We’ve still got the equal protection clause, and all the reasoning that brought the CA Supreme Court to make its original ruling around marriage. We’ve still got the freedom of religion. This creates an apparent contradiction where a court might have to decide which clause supersedes the others, however, the answer that recognizes all of these clauses seems obvious to me:

If only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized, then to ensure equal protection, the state must cease to provide rights and privileges to an institution that only allows some to participate – in other words, civil unions for all, marriage for none.

It’s a rather simple argument. Prop 8 and similar laws passed elsewhere never dictate that the state must provide special rights to those that are married or that those who are married must be given special treatment. This happened briefly in Oregon back in 2004:

But the [county] commissioners… simply made the only choice they could, they say. Had they granted licenses to gays, they would have violated a state statute defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman; had they continued to grant licenses to straight couples but refused to grant them to gays, they say, they would have been violating the State Constitution’s protection of equal rights. But if no one got licenses — at least until the state courts settle the issue, probably within a couple of months — no one could claim discrimination.

NY Times arcile from 2004

Marriage is often discussed as a religious institution, so it seems to me that the government should never have been in the business of regulating a religious institution in the first place. When my church performs a marriage and your church performs another marriage, then the government provides a series of rights and privileges for your church’s marriages but not for my church’s marriages, that seems like it’s a violation of both the establishment clause and my free exercise of religion.

If the government recognized marriage as a religious institution (albeit, one between a man and a woman as dictated by these laws) that they have no power over, and shifts to providing only civil unions, then we would achieve marriage equality in a way that even the legalization of same-sex marriage could not.

In addition to everyone’s marriages suddenly having the same amount of associated rights (zero), getting rid of the separate and unequal institution ties queer and straight people’s rights together, and conservatives would have to choose to either grant rights to queers or deny rights to straights.

If millions of heterosexuals could no longer rely on special rights from marriage and had civil unions as their only option, then I predict every state in the union and the federal government would scramble to quickly pass legislation recognizing civil unions — something that even California and Massachusetts same-sex marriages do not currently get.

When I’ve proposed this idea before, I’ve been accused of having a “I’m taking my ball and going home” mentality. Other activists have complained that they want a state recognized marriage and aren’t willing to settle for civil unions or take rights away from others. What they usually fail to recognize, though, is that same-sex marriage fails to provide equal rights for all families as well. There are many families that are headed neither by opposite sex couples nor same sex couples, and will continue to be barred the rights associated with marriage even when same-sex couples can get married.

Living with my two partners Alethia and Ronan, my family doesn’t meet the “couple” standard. Personally, I see this approach as the best chance I have for getting the state to recognize my family and all the others like it. Not even marriage equality organizations are willing to fight for my family’s right to have our relationships recognized. Virtually no one supports the right of marriage between co-parenting siblings, a single mom and her parents, co-habitating best friends who don’t have a sexual relationship together, polyamorous triads, quads, and so on. But in some of these cases the argument for civil unions has had traction.

In the meantime, is there any real reason that our government shouldn’t abandon marriage as the religious institution that it is? And with laws like Prop 8 now enshrined in so many state constitutions, to do so seems like the fastest route to achieve marriage equality.

Election Politics: Winning to lose or losing to win?

During any election it’s hard to have a long term vision for success. Everything is focused on the upcoming election day. I’ve been on so many campaigns where the goal was to win at any cost and unfortunately the costs tend to be high even when we do win. I’ve also been on campaigns where we were told we were going to lose from the get-go, yet we were able to leverage our efforts for a future victory down the road.

After this election, with many things to celebrate and many things to mourn, I’d like to look over not just what we won or lost, but how we won or lost. There’s a lot we can learn from that.

To begin with, let me leave the 2008 election and go back to the 2004 election, and a campaign that left a deep impression on me: Oregon’s fight against Measure 36, one of those constitutional amendments to ban same-sex marriage.

It was a campaign that held great meaning to me, with both my parents marriage my own left in the balance. But at the first volunteer meeting, I was crushed and not even sure if I was willing to work for the campaign any more. Word came down from above that we were not allowed to use the words “bisexual” or “transgender,” or even the term “same-sex marriage.” The focus groups had shown that swing voters respond better to phrases like “gays and lesbians” and “gay marriage.” And campaign officials said that we needed to get ourselves and others in the habit of that language by using it even when having discussions with our friends.

I see such exclusion as a clear biphobic and transphobic appeal to biphobic and transphobic voters. Yet the real problem for me wasn’t even the concession to biphobic and transphobic voters, I simply couldn’t bring myself to phone bank using biphobic and transphobic language, when the person on the other end of the phone, for all I knew, could have a bi or trans relative, or be bi or trans themselves. I wasn’t the only one. Among my group of strong activist friends, only about 1/3 participated in the campaign. As I watched our efforts fail and the ban take effect, I wondered how much of a difference those extra volunteers could have made.

As huge as they were, I didn’t feel that the potential short term gains were not worth the long term implications of perpetuating biphobia and transphobia. Indeed, I saw concrete results of that strategy just a couple years later. We were preparing to get gender identity non-discrimination, but were aware of a well organized opposition. Calling out to our base – the no on 36 voters – we found a disappointingly small proportion were supportive of and aware of the issue. I can’t help but see the connection between the decision not to mention trans people in previous LGBT campaigns, and the lack of awareness our electoral base had of trans people’s mere existence.

In this election, there was another Oregon ballot measure (61) that made it even more clear to me that this “win at all costs” strategy is really just another way to lose. Right wing forces put together a measure to create more mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, put more people in jail, and without any additional funding source, it was estimated it would require building three new prisons to hold everyone.

Where our justice system has a well known racial bias, not to mention others, this would drastically hurt the most marginalized populations. We already have one of the highest incarceration rates around, and we know that prisons are not an adequate solution to treat addiction and poverty. Yet progressive organizations were told that there was no way they could win this one, so the decision was made to propose a “compromise” measure. Another measure (57), that does similar things but to a lesser extent, was added to the ballot, along with the clause that whichever of the two won by the highest margin would be the one to take effect.

We have serious problems with taking away judges’ discretion and would normally vote no on both 57 and 61. But if Measure 57 passes and gets more votes, it will kill Measure 61 and avert a fiscal catastrophe. Since Measure 61 is seen as a sure-fire winner, a no on 57 would essentially be a yes on 61. We’re forced to put pragmatism before principle and urge a yes vote on 57.

Willamette Week Endorsement

It was a tricky political strategy, and at the time was considered the only way around a measure that was sure to win by a large margin. But it complicated the progressive message and left many voters confused. It takes a lot more time to explain why you need to vote for one prison measure and against the other – not to mention it’s hard for many voters to remember which prison measure is the good one and which is the bad one. On top of it all, the messaging gets shifted to support prison expansion (as long as it’s slow) as opposed to speaking out directly against prison expansion.

Now that the votes have been counted, however, 61, the bad prison measure failed, while 57, compromise prison measure, passed with a 22 percentage point lead. It seems like there would have been a decent chance that we could have still defeated the original measure in a direct no-prison-expansion campaign instead of a separate campaign for a compromise prison measure. Even if we fought a straight up no-prison-expansion fight and somehow lost, we would still have been building more of a base and educating the voters for next time.

Now we’re stuck with a prison expansion law that is less bad than the original but still bad in and of itself. Any future attempts to repeal this law or reverse the tide of prison expansion will be hampered by the strong margin by which it passed, as well as the fact that every progressive organization around endorsed it. The base of volunteers and donors willing to fight prison expansion isn’t much larger than it was before the election. Our measure passed and the right wing measure failed, so this is technically a win, but it feels like a loss.

In contrast with those two campaigns, I’ve been excitedly watching the results of Proposition K in San Francisco. Prop K would have deciminalized prostitution, prohibiting local authorities from investigating, arresting, or prosecuting anyone solely for selling sex. Passage would increase safety for sex workers and make it easier to report violence without fear of arrest.

Given the difficult chances of passing something like that anywhere, the Yes on Prop K campaign had a long term view in mind from the beginning. As a result, there has been a lot of media coverage, dialogue, and deeper analysis. Human rights advocates of all kinds have voiced their support for Prop K. When Mayor Gavin Newsom claimed that it would prevent law enforcement from addressing human trafficking, even NBC acknowledged supporters’ argument that police can still enforce laws against assault, rape, kidnapping, and extortion.

In a crucial way we are winning, because we clearly demonstrate that sex workers are in the forefront of the political process. Our coalition has been very strong!

Yes On K statement

Getting 42.4% of the vote is technically a loss, but it’s also significantly higher than a similar proposition that got 36% of the vote in Berkeley in 2004. Movement is happening and the safety of sex workers is finally being treated as a legitimate issue in the mainstream media. That’s something that I wouldn’t have thought possible ten years ago. The proposition lost, but I’ll definitely call this campaign a win. If only all our campaigns could be structured in such a way.