Gender, Identity Politics, and Eating Our Own
2001 essay by well-known trans activist Alexander Goodrum about a controversy over GenderPAC changing its mission:
Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #096, Winter 2001.
by Alexander John Goodrum
I come late to organizing as a transgender activist. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned transgendered people truly are everywhere and not just in New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. I’ve learned many want to quietly assimilate into the white, heterosexual, middle class status quo that is the dominant culture of our nation. I’ve learned quite a few of us have no wish or desire for such assimilation — that for some of us, our greatest desire is to shake up that dominant culture, to question gender and identity on every level — social, biological, political and personal. I’ve learned that perhaps right at this moment there is a transgendered person — most likely an MTF transsexual or crossdresser, most likely a person of color, being brutally murdered. I’ve learned people much younger than I are coming out as transgendered in ways I never believed possible when I was their age and are challenging not only the status quo, but also calling on “old” activists like me to take another look around and see the world through their eyes.
And I’ve learned that, perhaps like all other communities, we love to eat our own.
Some of you reading this are aware of the controversies and conflicts swirling within the transgender community, most of which focus upon the organization GenderPAC. For those of you who aren’t up on it, here’s an abbreviated version. A significant number of transgender activists and community organizations have taken issue with GenderPAC’s expansion of its mission and vision to incorporate a larger view of gender rights rather than a specific and focused emphasis upon civil rights advocacy for transgendered people. Depending on whom you ask, this reinventing of GenderPAC is either the logical extension of its organizational vision to secure the rights of all people to free gender expression — or the cold-blooded abandonment of the very community by whom and for which it was created, nurtured and financially supported.
Being the baby TG activist I am, I come to this drama late. Long after the battle lines were laid down. Long after sides were chosen, opinions formed and set in stone. Long after wounds (both real and imagined) were inflicted.
I’ve watched carefully for the past couple of years as the battle has played out online, in internet chat rooms, and on mailing lists. I’ve read statements from individuals and organizations that have taken a stand on the issue. I’ve received press releases and announcements from one camp or another; a battle of media propaganda that would make the veterans of the Cold War proud. And through it all, I’ve tried to be a rather casual observer, if one can be casual as they watch some of the best and brightest of their community consumed in an internal battle that threatens to tear the entire community apart.
Of course my being a casual observer hasn’t stopped a few folks from demanding to know where I stand. I’ve been pulled aside at conferences and been given “information,” primarily innuendo and accusation, so I am up to speed on the situation. I’ve been directed to websites that were little more than character assassinations in badly laid-out HTML. And I’ve been emailed privately and off-list by those concerned I was going to make the “wrong choice.”
Want to know what my answer to these people is? Okay, here it is — I really don’t care. That’s right. I DON’T CARE. You see, I believe almost everyone entangled in this controversy is acting in what they believe are the best interests of the community with which they feel most closely aligned. I believe they’re doing the best they can with what they have. I believe mistakes have been made by everyone involved, that the personal has become political in the most destructive of ways. I also believe in change and evolution; that even organizations that have had to be forced to listen to me and to consider my issues can learn from their mistakes and realize they must make a seat for me at the table if they are to truly realize the dream of civil rights for themselves and for others. But most of all, I believe in hope.
I was asked point-blank whose side I was on. This is my answer: I am on the side of whoever has the guts and initiative to end this thing and make a real effort to move our community forward out of this debilitating and destructive conflict. I’m on the side of anyone who is more interested in healing the wounds than in proving who is right. I’m on the side of those who have the ability and the willingness to put aside their personal and political animosities and seek some way to bring together everyone involved to begin a healthy dialogue, one without finger-pointing and name-calling.
Until that happens, I guess I’m on the side of those who are the most negatively affected by this dysfunctional family feud. In case anyone needs a refresher course as to who those folks are and the issues they are dealing with, allow me to introduce just a few of them. The transsexual FTM who has lost custody of his child when he began transition; the butch lesbian who lost her job because she refused to wear makeup or shave her legs; the crossdresser whose wife is seeking a divorce and custody of the children he adores; the effeminate gay man beaten to death and crucified on a fence on a lonely Midwestern plain; the 17-year-old MTF doing tricks in the back alleys of San Francisco because her parents kicked her out when they found “him” wearing dresses; the FTM who died of uterine cancer because he couldn’t get insurance approval for a hysterectomy after he had completed sexual reassignment.
Ultimately, it is these transgender, transsexual and gender- variant people who have the most to lose if someone doesn’t step up to the plate to end this.
Alexander John Goodrum is Director and Founder of TGNet Arizona , a transgender advocacy and education organization. He is also co-chair of the City of Tucson Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Commission. He has been involved since 1980 as an activist in GLBT organizing and social justice issues. He is African-American, transgendered (female- to-male), queer-identified (bisexual), disabled, and low-income, and has worked extensively in each of those communities.