A few weeks ago, the photo of a recent Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame inductee graced the front page of the Windy City Times. Was Lorrainne Sade Baskerville receiving some new honor for her work in social advocacy for transgender youth? Was she reporting on some new program in the service organization that she founded? No ... she had been on the receiving end of discrimination from one of the most respected museums in Chicago, the DuSable Museum.
The situation was puzzling, not only to me, but also to many others. The DuSable had been the site of numerous events put on by LGBT organizations. But the event that Lorrainne had scheduled to raise money for her organization, TransGenesis, was not to be. Her deposit was returned and she was told that there was no room at the inn.
Of course, the folks at the DuSable Museum didn't know whom they were dealing with. Lorrainne is no shrinking violet, and she made sure the story got the maximum publicity. I know that the museum was embarrassed, as they very well should have been! Now, granted the museum tried to make amends by offering to host Lorrainne's event free of charge. But the damage was done.
How can a respected organization, one that would never in a million years dream of discriminating against someone who is gay or lesbian, feel that it is perfectly alright to discriminate against a transgender person? How can an organization that was set up primarily to document the history of a people who have been subjected to the most hideous discrimination themselves, turn around and discriminate against another one of their own people simply because of gender?
A possible answer came to me today. I was participating in a training session for members of the GLSEN speakers' bureau. The purpose was to practice presenting the video, It's Elementary, to grade school faculties. This was the first time I had seen It's Elementary. I found the film to be a moving experience both in the sensitive way that the teachers were able present gay issues to kids, and in the intelligent, open-minded manner that the kids reacted to the topic.
The one thing I found disturbing was the dismissal of all things related to gender. When the kids discussed their stereotypes of gays or lesbians, gender expression was one of the frequently mentioned concepts. Stereotypes like all gay people cross-dress, or all lesbians wear butch haircuts, were common. The viewer is left to infer these are just ridiculous stereotypes, that gay and lesbians are not like that at all. But by saying what the gay and lesbian community is not, it marginalized another portion of the community, the gender variant community, and left them even more stigmatized.
What would a young transgender boy or girl think if they are being told that it is OK to be gay or lesbian, but not OK to have cross-gender identity? Even if they are not being told that in so many words, because their identity is left out of the discussion, they may be even more confused and isolated in despair. Why does one need to marginalize gender-variant behavior in order to obtain self-acceptance of a gay identity? Why does one need to substitute internalized transphobia for internalized homophobia?
That's why the DuSable can feel perfectly justified in discriminating against a transgender woman, while accepting money from prominent gay organizations for a Black Caucus reception just week or so later. That's why the City of Chicago can celebrate more than ten years with gay rights, but stall for time when it comes time to adding gender identity. That's why the Human Rights Campaign can praise the Democratic leadership in Congress for their historic gay-inclusive civil-rights package, while totally ignoring the fact that none of the bills in the package address the civil rights of gender-variant people.
As members of the broader LGBT community, we're sending out the wrong message to everyone from kids in elementary schools all the way to Congress. As long as the community has an "us and they" attitude when it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, then the DuSables of the world will feel that it is perfectly acceptable to discriminate against even the most respectable members of the transgender or gender variant community.
The first step is to stop defining yourself by what you're not. This goes both ways. If you are a gay man, it doesn't do any good to say "I'm gay, but at least I don't wear a dress." And if you are a cross-dresser, stop saying, "At least I'm not gay." We all have differences, but until we can look each other in the eye and recognize the common bonds of humanity, it is going to be very difficult to convince the non-gay, non-trans world that we all deserve the same respect and freedom from discrimination.