Movements are like rivers. Dipping into them is never the same twice.
Remember in 2007 when the then president of Iran told students at Columbia University, “In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country?” The response was laughter, but I had a sinking feeling that something more serious than denial was going on. It did indeed turn out that Iran’s “solution” to freely chosen same-sex relationships was to criminalize them and to subsidize and even compel sexual reassignment surgery. I doubt I would have been so suspicious if his words hadn’t hit memories of four decades ago when I began traveling as a feminist organizer.
In 1974, Ms. Magazine published a long excerpt from Conundrum, the autobiography of the writer Jan Morris, and her transition from her life as James Humphrey Morris, a British army officer. Hers was a brave voyage to authenticity and a story I was glad to play a role in bringing to this country.
The reaction was mixed. It caused some to think that Ms. or I was recommending sexual reassignment surgery as a way of dealing with bias, and others just to be reaffirmed in their idea that we were unnatural women. I remember an outraged professor at a Catholic university standing up in a lecture hall and reading aloud the closing lines of our excerpt: “I do not for a moment regret the act of change. I could see no other way, and it has made me happy."
Feminists must be right up there with bartenders and therapists as recipients of personal stories, because I also began to hear from gay men and lesbians surrounded by such lethal homophobia that they were considering — and in a few cases proceeding with — transitioning, not to align their bodies with their internal identities, but because of society’s bias against their sexual orientation.
Such stories led me to write a 1977 essay reminding us that, in addition to supporting informed choices like those of Jan Morris, Renee Richards, and others in the news at the time, we also needed to change society to fit individuals. It asked the question: If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?
Years passed the Internet arrived, and words circulated out of time and context. Last year one young transgender student on campus assumed that old essay’s use of the word “mutilate” for surgeries performed because of societal pressure meant I was against sexual reassignment surgery altogether. He didn’t consider that it had been written two generations before he was born, and also in the context of global protests against routine surgical assaults, called female genital mutilation by some survivors.
So now I want to be unequivocal in my words: I believe that transgender people, including those who have transitioned, are living out real, authentic lives. Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned. Their health care decisions should be theirs and theirs alone to make. And what I wrote decades ago does not reflect what we know today as we move away from only the binary boxes of “masculine” or “feminine” and begin to live along the full human continuum of identity and expression.
Obviously, there is much similarity among the challenges of transgender people and all women — from health care to harassment to discrimination in the workplace. And there is always the basic patriarchal bias against any sexual expression that can’t end in conception, which is why kids on campus are sometimes mystified by the fact that the same groups oppose both, say, contraception and lesbians. I also think we have a lot to learn from original cultures that often didn’t even have “he” and “she” in their languages, taught girls how to control their own fertility, and routinely accepted and had special roles for the “twin-spirited.” These facts may remind us that patriarchy, racism, and nationalism have been dominant for less than 5% of human history. Maybe they are an experiment that failed.
I know we’ve all worked hard on and are celebrating the Supreme Court marriage rulings this spring, but there is so much work to do to reach full LGBT equality — and ensuring that transgender people also have equality under the law has been the most left out and therefore should become foremost on that list. A stunning 90% of transgender employees have faced discrimination or harassment at work — and no federal law explicitly protects transgender people in the workplace, though nearly 80% of voters in the U.S. support such a law. In weeks, the Senate is expected to take up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would provide basic protections against workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity – ensuring that no one can be denied employment or a promotion, or be fired, simply for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. It’s time that law passed. Obviously, no LGBT person should be denied the ability to be who they are because their boss disagrees. I’m grateful for this opportunity to say that I’m sorry and sad if any words floating out there from the past seem to suggest anything other than support, past and present. As feminists know, power over our own minds and bodies comes first.
Together, we are learning the deepest lesson. Families are not about form but content. Humans are not ranked; we are linked.