I have been debating whether I want to step into this (regarding Victoria Brownworth’s series about African-American transgender sex workers). I have been stepping away from activism because there are other things I want to do with my life.
A part of me is tired of talking about being a transsexual. I have tried not to make the fact that I am a transsexual the most important part of my life. I can go weeks without talking about being a transsexual. Longer. I regard myself as a woman who happens to be transsexual. I don’t wish to be called a transwoman because that suggests that I am something other than a woman.
While I am a feminist, I don’t believe that being transsexual/transgender has anything to do with feminism anymore than being gay/lesbian has anything to do with the devil or automatically making a person more creative or sensitive to the rights of others. Many transsexuals regard transsexuality simply as a medical condition, or an occurrence that happens to a certain percentage of the population. No more, no less. We are just as likely to be good, evil, concerned for others or sociopathic as anyone else.
I have known Victoria Brownworth almost forever. We shared a mutual old friend, Stuart Horn. We attended (and danced with him at) a notorious New Year’s Eve party he gave in his Old City loft when only artists went to Old City and lofts weren’t chic. We know each other’s original teenage street names. We know a lot of personal information about each other. This is what the United States and the Soviet Union referred to as mutual assured destruction.
Victoria, Mark Segal, Tommi Avicolli Mecca and I have known each other since the early ’70s gay movement in Philadelphia and I think we have an affection for each other despite our differences. Some people have accused me of hating Mark, which isn’t true. I described my feelings about Mark to Tommi as a family member I disagree with.
When I was having an issue regarding the reading for the anthology “Smash the Church, Smash the State!” Victoria volunteered to read my chapter about Radical Queens for me.
Transgender covers large groups of people with different demographics, identities and issues. At the risk of creating another schism to the LGBTQI communities, there are differences between people who were never able to hide their gender differences and those who could pretend to be straight and cisgender. People who could not hide their gender identity and were obviously effeminate in school were bullied and frequently forced to drop out of school. These people often wind up on the streets as teenagers and prey to predators. This often happens with masculine women but there is more social acceptance of tomboys. People who could pass as straight masculine men often come out as transgender after living as straight men, finishing college, playing sports, joining the military, having a career, marrying and fathering children. Transgender people who could pass as cisgender men are no less authentically transgender than transgender people who could not pass, but they may have different issues from each other. It might be a stretch to assume that they will automatically understand each other because they are both transgender.
I am perturbed by how quickly the discussion turned from African-American transgender teenage girls who are bullied out of school, put out on the streets and forced into prostitution, raped and worse to arguments about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I don’t care about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. I would rather see Nancy Wilson at the Kimmel Center. My life is not on the line because of whether or not I can go to MWMF. The fact that transgender teenage girls are forced out of school, beaten, raped, forced into prostitution to survive and often murdered should have the respect of being treated as a single, solitary issue. If it happened to girls in Afghanistan, Asia or a third-world country, it would be a serious issue. The issue here is not MWMF. It is not about whether disadvantaged people with college degrees may be forced into sex work. You should be ashamed of yourselves. If you are not specifically a member of the demographic that Victoria is writing about, then perhaps you are not the injured party here.
Victoria and I discussed the Leslie Phillips/Sisterspace incident when it happened. There is a nuance that is overlooked. Victoria was asking specifically why Leslie had to be in a leadership position at Sisterspace as opposed to simply being a member. She was questioning whether the need to be in a leadership position was a result of Leslie’s history of white male privilege. If a transgender person benefited from a successful lifetime of white male privilege, can she suddenly authentically become a feminist woman? Why was it necessary to be in a position of power?
I understand the danger the young women Victoria wrote about are living with. I was severely bullied in high school as well as suffered violent child abuse and had to drop out and run away from home. I survived being sexually assaulted, raped several times and repeated murder attempts from men. I knew I couldn’t go to the police. WOAR asked me to leave. The Feminist Therapy Collective refused to counsel me. A counselor at Eromin brought up my depression and suicidal feelings at a political meeting. This left me permanently suspicious of people’s motivations. Another tried to seduce me during a session and acknowledged that he used his counseling to sleep with his black clients. Eventually, I realized that I was going to have to find my way out of that dangerous place by myself. Still, I was lucky. My parents didn’t want me on the street and never told me not to come home. Because my father owned houses, I was never homeless.
I have written about violence and discrimination against minority (and other) transgender women for decades. This was long before anyone was interested in this topic. It has usually been very difficult to get articles published about the murder and abuse of black transsexuals. Most newspapers aren’t interested in the subjects, and it took a lot of patience and persistence to get the articles into print. I am happy that Victoria wrote the series. My concern is that blacks and transsexuals are often hyperssexualized by white cisgender people. Writing about the specific sexual acts that the sex workers perform feeds prurient interests and stereotypes in readers. When I worked at Au Courant, a white woman decided to write about the African-American ball scene and refused any input from the black people on staff. Her article was insulting to many black gay and transgender people, including the staff. She wrote about a transgender woman who was having sex in alleys and also wanting to work with transgender kids. I don’t know if she realized how damaging that was but for months afterwards, I was harassed about having sex in alleys by white gay men. At the time, gay men were having public sex all over Center City and near the Schuykill River. Another issue is that very often white LG people write things about black LGBT people that aren’t true. Tommi Aviccolli Mecca and I did a speaking engagement about Radical Queens. A gay man wrote an article that quoted me saying all these sexual things I did not say. I wondered for years why he did that. Then he told me that he had always been sexually interested in me. What happened is instead of listening to me he transferred his thoughts to his article. George Lakey fabricated a conversation with me for the book “No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the ’80s.” Referring to me as “G,” he wrote about how I gave up transsexuality because I discovered androgyny. This wasn’t true. I took a step back because I survived being raped and murder attempts and needed to collect myself. He was uncomfortable about the subject of transsexuality and instead of interviewing actual black transgender people, he made up a statement from me that supported his views. Larry Gross gave a glowing recommendation for the book and “No Turning Back” was taught in college classrooms. As a result, I refuse to be quoted or interviewed.
Another issue is the treatment of transgender victims versus gay male victims in the media. In the ’80s, Anthony Milano was nearly decapitated and murdered by two straight men in Bucks County. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine wrote sensitive articles about the murder and the trial. At about the same time, Tanya Moore and Tina Rodriguez, two minority transsexuals who were alleged to be sex workers, were found murdered, their bodies cut up and set on fire. The newspapers and Philadelphia Magazine ran lurid, sensational articles about their depraved lives. They all but suggested that these minority transgender women deserved to die. There was no uproar in the lesbian and gay community.
Simply having a transgender writer on the staff will not create change unless the editors and management are on board. I used to write freelance articles for PGN. A former editor at PGN told me transsexuals cannot write about transgender issues because we are not objective. He then said he would let me write a commentary during the first HRCF scandal during the mid-’90s and proceeded to lose the only copy I had of the article. I was not allowed to write about transgender issues at Au Courant. One of the reasons I began publishing articles about transgender issues in mainstream newspapers is because there was little interest in these issues in lesbian and gay publications.
Barbara Gittings used to say, “You’ll never have the comfort of our silence again.” I think the lesbian and gay communities are experiencing that now from the transgender communities. As I said, I am very happy that Victoria wrote this series. We need more people to take up this issue. There needs to be outreach and a way out for these children on the streets. They don’t even understand that they are supposed to have rights as citizens. A person can’t lobby for an anti-bullying bill and inclusive ENDA if she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from and she is trying to keep from being murdered. The fact that transgender people face the highest hate-crime victimization is very well-documented.
These people aren’t playing the victim card. They don’t have any cards to play.