Feature Story: Chloe Schwenke On Another side of Pride
June – the celebratory and festive month of LGBTQ+ Pride – slipped by so quickly. For me, it started on a less than ideal note, as the threat of someone in the crowd of spectators brandishing a weapon disrupted the very end of the massive Pride parade through Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. I was one of those end-of-parade marchers; as such I had my first experience watching a vast panic-stricken crowd careen straight toward me and the marchers around me (including some very young children). It was a terrifying moment, and for those of us marching at the very end of the parade, our parade was over.
That disappointment was somewhat assuaged by having seen more transgender flags than ever before (not counting the one that I was using as a cape). Even more remarkably, many people seemed to even be aware of what and who that pale blue, pink, and white striped banner represented. I took note, and I had to smile. We have a flag. We’ve arrived. Despite our minuscule numbers, we’ve claimed a recognized space in a far larger movement for equal rights and universal dignity. That movement – the gay rights movement – has room for us under the tent.
But not really, unless we who are transgender are happy to be subsumed under the “ally” banner, or are willing to be classified in terms that say very little about us. I would guess that most of us are indeed strong allies of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, or asexual, and many transgender people wear one of those labels too.
But not all of us. “Transgender” does not equate to “gay”. But try telling that to the media.
For all of us who claim the “T” under LGBTQ+, it’s our gender identity and not our orientation that distinguishes who we are and what the contours of our struggle for equality and respect consist of. Placing us under the narrative of “gay rights” takes that away, and makes us invisible in the most important aspects of who we are and what we are about.
This isn’t a new problem. Read nearly any newspaper article or listen to almost any media story on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and similar constituents of “LGBTQ+”, and it’s about people and issues related to sexual orientation. Even when the journalist or media person invokes the LGBTQ+ acronym (or variation thereof), that story is often exclusively about those whose sexual orientation isn’t (or is only partially) heterosexual. In short, it's about gay rights. A few enlightened writers or broadcasters will make a passing reference to the plight and realities of transgender persons, but very few make any effort to identify why the “T” is different, or what the “T” is about. In most cases, the “T” only shows up in the facile use of the LGBTQ+ acronym, without really being present at all.
As a transgender woman, I’m not alone in knowing that the gender identity struggle is very different from those who have fought fiercely, bravely, and persistently for freedom to love whomever they love, and to acquire legal and growing societal recognition for formalized same-sex relationships. The legalization of same-sex marriage, and the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” were monumental milestones on that American journey; they cannot be celebrated too much. But they aren’t my personal milestones, or my personal story.
Transgender people in this country face phenomenal levels of violence, stigmatization, exclusion, abuse, and discrimination. Transgender women of color are particularly at risk of extreme violence and death, and the tally of murders of such women grows remorselessly larger. While the victories of the gay rights movement are legion, and the celebrations of such hard-fought-for accomplishments make the month of June so very special, that path to measurable improvements in universal human dignity eludes us who are transgender. Yes, the gay rights movement continues to face enormous challenges ahead, but that movement has acquired momentum and a clear sense of inevitability. The gay rights movement will win.
For those of us who are transgender, however, we have very little to celebrate for ourselves this month. Gay rights are not trans rights. Gay rights are gay rights. What must we do to foster the conversation about the rights and dignity of transgender people, on our own terms?
Bring out that flag please.
But maybe not. Maybe owning that “T” is now too risky, not that we can do much to hide our identities, (although many transgender people adopt that strategy when they can – and who can blame them?). Our government progressively is doing all within its power to distinguish us from our dear comrades and allies within the “gay rights” movement, effectively separating us from the issues of sexual orientation. That strategy has enabled them to sharpen their discrimination against us as a tiny and very vulnerable minority of “freaky” or “confused” (or worse adjectives, often much worse) transgender people. Those transphobic denizens of the far right were quick to learn that attacking us was easy, effective, and politically very advantageous in playing to their base. Under the Trump administration and in numerous Red State legislatures, we’re suddenly facing an avalanche of harsh policies and legislative initiatives adversely affecting our safety in schools, our access to healthcare, our acceptance into the military, our ability to find an appropriate homeless shelter, or our likelihood of being sexually assaulted in prison. In each of these aspects, things for us are much worse now. And, pre-dating the odious Trump presidency, finding a job, a place to live, and acceptance in many social settings remains very hard indeed for those with the "T". Still, the sheer exhaustion of daily Trump outrages makes our issues fade into obscurity – the “T” disappears again – except when that “T” makes us into a convenient target.
Where are our victories? What should we be celebrating in Pride month? Yes, cisgender people are gradually learning more about us, and recognizing that our lives and stories are diverse but very human. We are not a threat. And be sure, we are also not eager to claim the “victims” label. To the contrary, our resilience is legendary. We’re not going away.
And that may be cause enough to celebrate, and to be proud of. But please don’t disappear us under “gay rights”. We have our own flag; just watch us as we march to it with pride and determination. We're still at the end of the parade, but we are determined to get to the end with our heads held high.
|DC Pride March, Ted Eytan|