It's All About Gender -- Discrimination
Keynote Speech -- Pikes Peak G&L Community Center
I presented the following keynote address, which has been edited for this publication, at the Pikes Peak Gay and Lesbian Community Center Awards Dinner on February 7, 2004. It addresses the idea of community -- something we all need now in the face of current political efforts to tear us apart. Now, more than ever, we all need to stand strong -- together. The complete address can be found at my Web site, www.mattkailey.com.
We're here tonight to celebrate the achievements of our community. We talk about, celebrate, fight for and fight about our community a lot. But, in reality, do we know what "our community" is?
Some call it the "gay and lesbian community." Others say the "GLBT community." And still others, after taking a deep breath, say the "GLBTQQI community -- gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex-- GLBTQQI." That's a lot of letters and there are still more that we probably can and will add. In fact, we can keep adding on letters forever, just to show that we're inclusive, but unless we are ready to make a solid commitment to the word "community," that's all we will have -- a string of letters. No matter where any of us are with relationship to that commitment, we each need to constantly examine and reexamine what "community" means to us.
When I started my transition and began working as an activist in the GLBT community, I met a great many wonderful, open and accepting people. I met people from organizations that had formed as GLBT organizations, without any debate as to whether or not the T belonged there. I met others who began as GLB organizations and later added T to their names when they realized the commonalties -- the community -- that we all shared. But I also met some who were fighting tooth and nail to keep the T as far away from their GLB as possible.
It was a struggle to figure out where I fit in my new community -- especially because I discovered that my new identity was, in fact, often in conflict with itself underneath the banner of GLBT. The "problem," you see, was my attraction to men, something that is perfectly acceptable when you are a heterosexual female. But because of this attraction, when I transitioned from female to male, within a matter of months, I went from being what society saw as a straight female to being what society saw as a gay male.
I went from straight to gay. I changed my sexual orientation, something that has never been successfully accomplished by anyone in Exodus, International. But when I thought about it, I realized that I hadn't changed my sexual orientation at all -- I only changed my label. My attraction, which was to men, remained the same. What I did change was my gender. And that's when I realized then that sexual orientation has very little to do with the gender you're attracted to and everything to do with the gender that you are. The label that you receive from our culture -- straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual -- based on who you love has to do with your gender.
So based on my gender, I was suddenly gay. But as I went merrily along my way, trying to assimilate into my new community and my new gay identity, two phobias reared up in front of me -- transphobia and homophobia. I had expected to experience these things from outside my new community, but I never expected that they would come from within it.
Transphobia. When I tried to claim my new status as a transperson under what I thought was a GLBT umbrella, I discovered that trans people are the stuff of some GLB nightmares. You're trans? You don't belong here. You're different; you're strange; you're not one of us. You're weird. You're sick. Please stay away from us; you'll only bring us down. We've worked so hard to get where we are, to prove we're just like "them," and if "they" think you're one of "us," you'll destroy everything we've worked for. This wasn't coming from straight people, folks. It was coming from some members of what I thought was "my" community. What did that mean? Was the T on the end of GLBT some kind of trick? Was I really not wanted here?
Maybe I could find solace with "my own kind." But when I turned to some members of "my own kind," I got hit with something else. Homophobia. You're gay? You don't belong here. You're different; you're strange; you're not one of us. You're weird. You're sick. Please stay away from us; you'll only bring us down. We've worked so hard to get where we are, to prove we're just like "them," and if "they" think you're one of "us," you'll destroy everything we've worked for. We're not gay. We don't want T on the end of GLB. We don't want to be there at all.
Well, by that time there was no turning back, so I realized that I had some serious thinking to do. And that's when I came back to gender. Both sides were wrong. Yes, the T does belong on the end of GLB, no matter who wants it there or who doesn't. It belongs there because it's all about gender.
GLBT people all share a common problem -- we are discriminated against because of our gender.
First, we are discriminated against because of our gender expression. Trans people who are born with male bodies but are really female are discriminated against because they express a female gender. Trans people who are born with female bodies but are really male are discriminated against because they express a male gender.
Gay men and lesbian women also experience the same kind of discrimination. If a man is walking down the street alone, no rainbow flags, no T-shirt with a cute saying -- just walking down the street by himself, and some stranger leans out of the car window and yells out "Fag," it's not because this stranger knows the man's sexual orientation -- it's because of the way the man is presenting his gender. It's in the way he's walking or the clothes he's wearing. He's presenting his gender in a way that's inconsistent with what is expected of a straight American male -- and because of this, he's perceived as gay. He might be gay. He might not be. But he's perceived as gay because of his gender expression.
If a gay man or a lesbian interviews for a job and doesn't get that job, he or she might believe it has something to do with sexual orientation. And it might. But if sexual orientation isn't discussed in the interview, and it better not be -- that's illegal -- the only reason it could be a factor is because of gender presentation. If this person is presenting his or her gender in a non-traditional way, the assumption is that he is gay or she is lesbian. The discrimination isn't due to sexual orientation, it's due to perceived sexual orientation based on gender expression.
Even the comment, "Gosh, you don't seem gay," is based on the way a person is expressing his or her gender and the expectations that go with gender expression and sexual orientation. Our society has come to expect that gay men and lesbians will express their gender differently than straight people, and when they don't, it's always a surprise to the straight community. Even that is discrimination.
But this thinking isn't limited to gay men and lesbians. Those of us who are trans are well aware of the stages that we go through, as adults, to try to act like the gender into which we are moving. Many of us go overboard, trying to be as "feminine" or as "masculine" as we can, and the ones who most believe that they are succeeding, the ones who most desire assimilation into the "straight community," are the ones who shy away from any identification with the gay and lesbian community. We suffer from the same stereotypes and the same fears. Those of us who identify as straight once we transition, and that happens to be the majority of transfolk, are so concerned about our own gender presentation and our need to fit into our new male or female roles that we become blinded by our own insecurities and move into our own brand of homophobia without realizing that the discrimination that many gay and lesbian people face is the same discrimination that we face and are struggling so hard to move away from -- discrimination based on our gender expression.
Another reason that the T belongs with GLB is that we are all discriminated against because of our bodies -- our bodies don't match the traditional expectations of gender in our society. Trans bodies certainly don't match these expectations. A woman with a penis? A man with a vagina? Sorry, no (fill in the blank here -- job, apartment, loan, insurance, benefits, wedding) for you.
But gay and lesbian bodies are "correct," right? They're "normal," right? But they still don't match the gender expectations of our society. Two penises in bed? Sorry. Two vaginas in the shower? Uh uh. Gay men and lesbians are being discriminated against because they turned up with the wrong body parts -- the parts that match those of the person they fell in love with. Remember, it's not the gender you love that's the problem. It's the gender you are.
It's our gender. Our gender denies us the basic civil rights that others enjoy. Our gender causes others to reject us, to hate us, to assault us, to murder us. Our gender causes others to pass laws to deny us even basic human rights. It's our gender that is being used against us.
But those who would keep us down, those who would pass laws to literally make us less than full human beings, don't know something that we do know. It's our gender that links us together and gives us community. It's our gender that makes us strong. It's our gender that keeps us fighting -- our right to be the gender we are, to express that gender however we choose, and to love the people that we love, whatever their gender.
But what about loving? What about those basic civil rights that we are being denied? Everyone knows that there is a Constitutional Amendment afoot to prevent gay men and lesbians from ever marrying -- a Constitutional Amendment that will tell us that we are less than complete and whole human beings. And gay men and lesbians are fighting this hard, as well they should be. With fifty percent of straight marriages failing, somebody has to show them how to do it right.
But with all the arguments, all the protests, all the truly eloquent speeches that are flying around out there, I have not heard one that points out the fact that trans people make a mockery out of the entire marriage amendment, and that no matter which way it goes, there will be gay marriages. Think about it. The phrase "a union between a man and a woman" is being tossed around like a football out there, but nobody has bothered to define "man" and "woman." And that can and will be their downfall -- as long as we have the foresight to use it to our advantage.
Look at me -- take a good look -- and then think about the answer to this question. Who can I marry? That's the one thing that the backers of the marriage amendment haven't thought about. Because who I can marry depends on how they define man and woman. And they have failed to do so.
Let's look at the ways they could do it. They could define man and woman by chromosomes -- XY and XX. And if they do that, I can marry a man -- I have an XX chromosome. Now look at me again -- I look like any other man. Picture me in my wedding suit with a snappy boutonniere, my groom by my side. Picture us kissing at the altar. If I marry a man -- instant gay marriage.
Now let's say they decide that "man" and "woman" are defined by genitalia. Here's a little secret I haven't told you yet -- I don't have a penis. I still have a vagina. If "man" and "woman" are defined by genitalia, I can marry a man. One vagina, one penis -- but look at me again. Instant gay marriage.
And even if those terms are defined by what our personal papers say -- our driver's license or birth certificate, I can marry a woman. I had those things changed. Two vaginas -- instant gay marriage. No matter what they do, and no matter who I fall in love with, if I decide to get married, they'll have an instant gay marriage on their hands.
A few months ago, I e-mailed Marilyn Musgrave with these very situations. I asked her how she would define "man" and "woman." I explained the conflicts that trans -- and intersexed -- people presented to her marriage amendment. Not surprisingly, I never heard back. Yes, she's busy, but I can tell you why I didn't hear back. Because she doesn't know. She doesn't know the answer to my questions. None of them know how they would define "man" and "woman," and I can tell you that no matter how they define those terms, they will have so many "gay" marriages on their hands that they won't know what to do about it. To gay and lesbian people, I say, we can help you with this. Just let us. We're all in this together.
Which brings me back to community. We are in for some hellish times over the next few years if things continue in the direction they are going. But we are also in for some glorious times. We are in this thing together, all of us, everyone here, and we are all working toward a common goal -- civil rights for all, freedom for all, justice for all. Humanity for all. We cannot afford to be divided. We are all united under a common bond -- discrimination based on some aspect of our gender.
Little chromosomes, invisible to the naked eye, are the only thing they've got in their arsenal to use against us. Those little invisible chromosomes are the things that define our bodies and the gender expectations that go with them. Well, the chromosomes might be invisible, but we aren't. And if they want to use letters against us -- XX and XY -- then we'll haul out all the damn letters we've got -- and we've got a lot of them. Together, we -- GLBTQQI and whoever else wants to come aboard -- together, in community, we can make it work. This is our time. Let's start now.
Matt Kailey is a author, freelance writer, speaker, and workshop facilitator, focusing on gender and transgender issues. He is also an outstanding thinker! He is a member of the Resolute! Editorial Advisory Board. He may be reached through his website at www.mattkailey.com.
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This article was provided by PWA Coalition Colorado. It is a part of the publication Resolute!.