I've written countless articles and essays about trans people over the past twenty or so years, including some recent ones in Teen Vogue, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. But lately, I keep thinking about the first time I ever wrote about the politics and meaning of transness.
From roughly 1999 to 2002, I was on the editorial staff of Anything That Moves, a magazine for bisexual folks, which also did a surprisingly decent job writing about politics, gentrification, transphobia, fatphobia, racism and other issues that affected a lot of communities that intersected and overlapped with the bi community. It's kind of forgotten now, but ATM was a hugely important magazine that was sold in every Borders, Barnes & Noble and Tower Records in the United States, along with tons of indie stores.
Anyway, as the news editor of ATM, I got asked to write an article about a controversy that was rocking the trans community. I'm going to summarize the twenty-year-old facts the best I can:
1) GenderPAC (Gender Public Advocacy Coalition) was an organization, founded in 1995, that advocated for equality for gender-nonconforming folks.
In late 2000 and early 2001, the organization's executive director, the well-known author and editor Riki Wilchins, appeared keen to move away from advocating for transgender people. Instead, Wilchins wanted the organization to advocate for anyone who faced discrimination or violence based on their gender presentation. (For example, a butch cis woman, or a feminine cis man — but also, a cis woman who is assaulted while wearing a short skirt.)
2) As part of this push, GenderPAC allegedly scrubbed references to trans people from its website. And when members of the organization wanted to lobby to include trans people in the Employment Non Discrimination Act (ENDA), the GenderPAC leadership said this was the wrong move, sparking controversy.
3) Trans members of the GenderPAC board resigned and criticized the organization's leadership publicly. Also, there were claims that trans staffers had been purged from the organization, though these were disputed.
4) GenderPAC remained in existence until 2009, but it's worth noting that the Transgender Law Center was founded in 2002 and the National Center for Transgender Equality was founded in 2003, within a couple years of this controversy. This could be just a reflection of an increasing concern about trans issues, but it could also indicate that people felt there was a need that GenderPAC was not meeting, for an organization that advocated for trans people to have legal protections.
When I talked to Wilchins twenty years ago, she told me she felt it was a mistake for the organization to be representative instead of issue-based, and added that "identity politics is so twentieth century." GenderPAC leadership also argued at the time that there weren't enough openly trans people to support an advocacy organization, and a broader focus was needed.
Former board member Julie Ann Johnson told me that she agreed the organization was always meant to take a broader focus, but she insisted that trans people were now being erased as a means of "mainstreaming." Others pointed out, rightly, that the trans politics of twenty years ago excluded Black and Brown people who were gender-nonconforming but didn't feel represented by the trans leadership of the time.
When I look at the finished article and what remains of my notes, there are a lot of disputed facts, and it's not worth re-litigating a controversy from long ago. I tried not to take sides then, and I'm definitely not going to take sides now. At the same time, I've been thinking about this debate recently, because in my 22-year-old article I didn't really find a way to delve into the philosophical issues at the root of this argument. (Partly because in 2001, I was fresh off the turnip truck.)
The way I see it, both Wilchins and Johnson had some valid points. Do we fight for protections for specific vulnerable groups (trans people, but also non-binary folks and other gender-nonconforming people who embrace labels like genderqueer or gender-fluid)? Or do we push a general principle that nobody should be penalized for their gender presentation, even if that person identifies as a cis straight man but happens to wear pink?
Before anyone else says it, I will: these two approaches are, of course, not mutually exclusive. We can do both. That said, I get why many people felt like there were limited resources, and we needed to pick a strategy.
When it comes to "protecting specific vulnerable groups," the best argument in favor is that certain groups are being singled out for discrimination and violence right now. And fighting for civil rights for a clearly defined marginalized group is a time-honored strategy, which has clearly worked in many cases. Our current moral panic is directly aimed at trans people, especially young trans people, and transition healthcare is being attacked. (There are also a lot more out trans folk than there were in 2000-2001, to be sure.)
On the other hand, the world I want to live in is one where absolutely everybody is free from gendered rules and expectations. And there's plenty of evidence that binary trans people benefit when cis people are allowed to break gender norms. A lot of the protections that trans people now enjoy stem from the 1989 ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Supreme Court ruled that "gender stereotyping" is a form of sex discrimination. Without the Price Waterhouse ruling, trans people wouldn't have gotten the non-discrimination protections we won in 2008's Schroer v. Billington. Also, a lot of the state laws that are designed to eliminate trans people from public life are so broadly drawn that they would also affect anyone whose gender presentation differs, even slightly, from accepted norms — and this appears to be intentional.
Transphobic jerks sometimes act as though there's a contradiction between supporting trans rights on the one hand, and carving out a space for less clear cut forms of gender-nonconformity on the other. If a cis man is free to wear flowers in his hair and lacey clothes without judgment, the argument goes, then he won't feel the need to transition — as if trans people were merely trying to escape one set of gender stereotypes by embracing another. (These transphobes never seem to acknowledge the large numbers of butch trans women and fem trans guys out there, not to mention the many non-binary and genderqueer folks.)
So yeah, I do kind of feel as though we need to fight for specific protections for trans people, especially trans kids. But legal protections for trans people have often gone hand-in-hand with more broadly-written protections against discrimination based on gender non-conformity. Here in California, for example, trans people gained protection in 2003 with AB 196, which was designed to "prohibit discrimination in housing and employment based on gender stereotypes and to extend the protections of existing anti-discrimination laws to transsexual and transgender individuals." (Emphasis added.)
So on balance, I feel like we've moved past the GenderPAC debate which tore the trans community apart back in 2000-2001, for a few reasons. First, most of us now recognize that gender-noncomformity comes in many forms, including some which don't have labels yet. Also, everybody — including binary trans people — is better off when there is freedom to express one's gender identity in peace, even among people who'd never consider themselves gender-nonconforming. (Rigid gender roles are a toxic nightmare, and almost nobody fits into them perfectly.) And finally, if there's one thing I've learned in the past twenty years, it's that the broadest coalition we can build, the likelier we are to win, and the notion of winning rights for one group at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, others who are suffering is bad strategy as well as bad behavior.
I no longer believe there's a meaningful choice between fighting for trans people and fighting for freedom from gender conformity for all people. I feel like it's all one fight, and we're all in it together. Let's smash the gender binary and be free.
Randy Crawford scored a big hit with the Crusaders in 1979 on "Street Life," and then worked with the Crusaders' Joe Sample on her brilliant 1980 album Now We May Begin, which just slaps. So. Hard. (I also highly recommend Crawford's 1995 album Naked and True, where she works with Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and Fred Wesley to do jazzy covers of "Purple Rain," "Forget Me Nots," "Give Me The Night" and a ton of other soul/funk classics.) Anyway, in the 21st century, Crawford has reunited with Joe Sample for two collaboration albums, credited to them both: No Regrets and Feeling Good, plus a live album. I've been listening to all three of these recent Sample/Crawford joints lately, and they're really cool, with a mixture of jazz standards, soul covers, blues songs and the occasional surprise. You get the feeling of two old friends hanging out and having fun together.
I'm still promoting the stuff that I was promoting in my previous newsletters! Albeit with a few differences.
The first issue of my new Marvel miniseries, New Mutants: Lethal Legion, came out the other day, and you can still get it everywhere. (If your local comics shop is sold out, they can order it for you, I promise. But there's also the internet.) I was so gratified that AIPT Comics placed it at number one in their list of the week's best comic issues. Issue #2 comes out in mid-April, and you can still pre-order. This miniseries features Escapade and Morgan, the trans mutant characters I co-created last summer, in a story about heists and monsters and the evil Count Nefaria. Featuring gorgeous art by Enid Balám, Elisabetta D'Amico and colorist Matt Milla. Here's a rundown of everything you need to know to read this series.
Also, my three issues of the regular New Mutants comic, also featuring Escapade and Morgan alongside Cerebella, Wolfsbane and Leonara Eng, are being collected in a trade paperback coming out on March 21, featuring art by Javier Fernandez. (It also includes two other wonderful issues written by Danny Lore and Vita Ayala, with some incredible artists involved.)
Meanwhile! I wrote a young adult space opera trilogy that contains a ton of queer and trans and gender-nonconforming characters saving the galaxy. The first book, Victories Greater Than Death, is currently just $2.99 in e-book format (Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc.), so this is a great chance to jump on the series if you've been curious. And the third book of the trilogy, Promises Stronger Than Darkness, comes out on April 11.
I like silly action and queer characters and tons of feels, and these books are absolutely chock full o' those things. There are some bits of all three books that still make me tear up when I re-read 'em. I can't wait for people to be able to read the whole trilogy with no waiting!