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Taking a Moral
Stance on ENDA

Taking a Moral
Stance on ENDA

Riki_wilchins

The heart of a movement is judged by whether we fight for those who might easily be cast aside as "different"

I've been fighting for gay rights since 1974 in Cleveland, when I was part of GEAR (Gay Education And Rights) as we became the first gay group to purchase our own building. We were proud of that, although its windows were soon broken and swastikas spray-painted on the walls.

Back then, although most people saw me as an exceptionally effeminate gay man, I was largely accepted. Yet when I transitioned, my (female) lover and I were asked to leave lesbian meetings. I was publicly disinvited to women's events. I was twice thrown out of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. A National Organization for Women chapter told me I was welcome to join as a man. Even by 1995, when 40 of us showed up at a Falls City, Neb., courthouse after the murder of Brandon Teena, many gay newspapers ignored us, not considering Teena's murder "gay news."

Practically the only places where I remained consistently welcome were the gay bars where I had first come out, where other genderqueer gays, lesbians, and bisexuals were always sheltered. My family had largely stopped speaking with me (even today, I have yet to be allowed to meet my nieces and nephews, now in their 20s). I was forced out of my tutoring job through daily harassment by students and coworkers who refused to even speak to me. I began a new career in clinical psychology, but left after it became clear that few of my peers would refer patients to me. I began another career consulting on Wall Street, but even there gender sometimes cost me clients and accounts.

If you're a gay, lesbian, or bisexual person of a particular age, you may have had similarly painful experiences at some point. We've probably been in the same marches together, come out in the same bars, fought many of the same battles.

Yet for the past 20 years there has been ongoing debate over whether people like me belong -- over whether this is really an "LGBT" movement.

How could it be otherwise? We are all still uncomfortable around gender nonconformity. There is a reason our personal ads start with "straight-looking and -acting only" or "no butches or fatties need reply."

The gay movement -- which should have found it impossible to avoid issues of gender -- has made enormous strides by doing so. Instead, the movement has pointed to sexual preference as a single immutable characteristic -- arguing that we are "just like everyone else," except that we sleep with same-sex partners.

Unfortunately, this has worked to the disadvantage of gender nonconforming gays and lesbians and transgender people, who could presumably exercise at least some choice over how they express their gender, and who -- since they are "visible queers" -- are not "just like" everyone else.

In fact, as legal scholar Kenji Yoshino points out, the right to be different ought to be something we care deeply about. But this is one of the problems of identity politics.

We like our categories simple -- unmarked by messy intersections with race, class, or gender. It is one reason our movement has often done a poor job of addressing the double discrimination of sexual orientation and race.

For the most part we have also done a terrible job of talking about effeminate gay men and butch lesbians. You will never find them mentioned on the Web sites of national LGBT organizations. Yet they are often among the most vulnerable -- and most visible -- members of our community. They are individuals who need protection not only because of their sexual orientation but because of their gender, because they can be fired for either one.

As a community, we remain in deep denial about who among us is really genderqueer. As Carmen Vasquez is fond of saying, If you are a man having sex with a man, or a woman having sex with a woman, then by definition you are transgressing gender norms in a very profound way, and in some ways we are all genderqueer.

Yet as a movement, we have gotten good at including gender nonconformity only by carefully segregating it as a problem affecting transgender people. I have sat in congressional meetings with gay lobbyists who were wearing smart suits and ties, wing tips, and short, combed-back hair -- female lobbyists -- who, when the conversation turned to gender, spoke with deep compassion about how gender is a problem "for transgender people." As I say, deep denial.

So, now that the time comes to strike gender identity and expression from ENDA, it is difficult for us to explain why not only transgender people are affected. That effeminate gay men (like Medina Rene of Rene v. MGM Grand) and aggressive lesbian women (like Ann Hopkins of Hopkins v. Price Waterhouse) and even straight men who are not quite as manly as coworkers expect (like Joseph Oncale of Oncale v. Sundowner) all face harassment and discrimination because of their gender as well.

So I would like to speak to you who support this stripped-down, non-inclusive bill that protects only sexual orientation. If you think this bill is about identity, about you getting your rights as one of those fortunate "straight-looking and -acting" gay people, then you have made a fine decision.

But if you think it is about a community, about the love, struggles, and experiences we have all shared, then I think you have made a terrible choice. I hope you will one day decide to speak out, as I am doing, about the need for a bill that includes all of us.

In the final analysis, the moral center of a movement is not defined by how well and how long we fight for our own rights. Important as that is, the moral center of a movement is defined by how well and how long we fight for those who are not us, for those more easily left behind.

And so I think we are not only being asked a practical question, "Can we cut loose some of our community?" but also a moral one, "Is it the right thing for us to do?"

Don't let it happen. Don't buy into the "we will revisit this later" rhetoric. There will be no "revisiting" -- this abandonment is a dry run for that one. There will be no later. There is only this bill now.

Join me in working to pass an inclusive bill and, until that day comes, in opposing anything less.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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Riki Wilchins