This is the text of the talk I gave in Denver on Tuesday. It probably won’t surprise anyone that I’ve been busting at the seams wanting to have a say in all of the dialogue going on about ENDA. At least I don’t think it should surprise anyone, not by now.
First, let me thank Ed and Jordan and all the students who asked them to bring me here. It’s a pleasure to be here in celebration of National Coming Out Day, a pleasure to see all of you gathered, celebrating who you are. Thanks to all the crossdressers, the gays, the lesbians, the genderqueers, the trans men & women, MTF and FTM, & to their partners. Thanks to all of you who are family, or friends, or allies, for being here.
Betty and I have been on tour a lot this year because I had a book published in March, and we’ve gotten a chance, once again, to meet a lot of people and to talk to a lot of trans people and partners, and this year, we’ve met more gay and lesbian people who aren’t trans than we did before. And it’s been a pleasure all around in hearing people’s stories of their own gender variance, or the stories of how they came out to loved ones, or of their first big crush or the moment when they realized they were trans or gay or lesbian or how they came to understand the first identity they understood themselves to be was not quite accurate in the long run. What I love to hear the most is about how queer people find one identity fits for a while and then not at all; like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ chambered nautilus, queer people build themselves bigger chambers, bigger categories, labels that are not so confining, over time.
That’s how it’s been for us, certainly. By the time people get used to what we’re calling ourselves our identities have shifted a little, changed usually by experiences we never expected and wouldn’t trade for anything.
We went to Clevelandthis spring over Memorial Day weekend, and while we were there, we went to a fundraiser for a local gay group. We had a nice time exchanging jokes with one of the guys for a few hours in someone’s backyard; he’d never met us before and we’d never met him before and we were there as just two friends of a friend, with no mention of my books. He hadn’t clocked Betty as trans. So at some point during the afternoon, maybe after noticing we were the only women present, he leaned over and asked, “So you two are lesbians, right?”
And we both nodded yes.
Later in the day, because we were there for a fundraiser, I donated a copy of my book, She’s Not the Man I Married, and the host read the copy on the back. And one of the men, who was trying to wrap his head around the idea that the lesbian couple he’d been speaking with were not quite who he thought we were, asked for clarification. “So you guys are really heterosexual, then?”
And we both nodded yes, though then we clarified with a “kinda, but not really, well we used to be…” and for a while he was more confused than he’d been before. Our identities are not really something to introduce once someone has had a few drinks.
It’s only by explaining who we were & how we came to be who we are as a couple that we get to see the light bulbs go on over people’s heads, where they start to understand not just trans, but queer, and then they see, slowly, how trans people really screw up the tidy binary of Same Vs. Opposite which summarizes the way we think about sexuality.
The thing is, we met when we were presumably heterosexual. And I say presumably because Betty, even when she presented as a guy, was the nice guy, the guy her straight women friends talked to about the jerky guys they were dating. And she was the kind of guy the gay men she acted with assumed was in denial. And me – well let’s just say I’ve always been assumed to be a lesbian even when I was dating men, and that friends of mine told me I was queer long before I met Betty and long before anyone could put their finger on how exactly I was queer.
So we met, and we fell in love – I asked her out, of course, which made us kind of odd for a straight couple to start with – and not long after Betty told me that sometimes she dressed as a woman and sometimes she wished she’d been born one. And I thought to myself, like the guy at the end of Some Like It Hot, “well, nobody’s perfect.” Because the idea of falling in love with a man who was really a woman was such a remote, impossible idea. It wasn’t that the idea of gender transgression was new to me: I’d known plenty of men who did drag. I had a close friend who was butch identified. I’d grown up a tomboy, & I’d been a faghag. But gender transgression and transition were entirely different things to me, and the idea that the man I fell in love with might want to live as a woman was about the equivalent of someone telling me I’d be living on Jupiter in a few short years. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I was willing nonetheless. I thought I had met a man who was confident enough in his masculinity to play with gender, and really, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was only over time that I realized exactly how wrong I was, that Betty’s gender wasn’t about transgression or rebellion but about being who she felt herself to be. And like a lot of partners of trans people I wished it were different, that her transness didn’t cause her so much pain, or cause our relationship so much change, and – ultimately – that the world wouldn’t suck so much when it came to people who weren’t normally gendered or as mean to the people who love them.
Because even the people who thought Betty was nuts saw it as her problem, and reserved their real judgment for the looneytunes who’d stay with someone who was so obviously nuts. That is, me. But I knew, like a lot of trans partners know, that trans people are not crazy, that they’re sometimes confused – as are we all – and sometimes they’re depressed – as are we all – and sometimes they’re angry – as are we all. And they had their reasons, and in fact were astonishingly rational considering the hand of cards they’d been dealt.
So not long after we met, I found myself being seen as a lesbian by other people, or just plain crazy by people who knew Betty when she looked like a guy. That is, I discovered, as a lot of partners of trans people have, that I was often more than one thing at a time, that I had come to occup multiple identities at once. One partner of an MTF I know likes to use “nickel” – spelled NQAL – for “not quite a lesbian.” I’ve met femmes who met their dream butch only to find – after that butch transitions – that the world has started to see her as straight and has taken away her hard-won femme identity. We partners find ourselves privately feeling like one thing – in my case, that was something like heterosexual – and find ourselves being seen as another entirely – again, in my case, as a lesbian. That is, our own experiences start to echo the trans person’s before they express their internal gender, or before they crossdress or transition. You find the world seeing you as something you don’t think of yourself as. For me, I was fine with queer, since I’d never been what anyone considered normal. Believe me, meeting Betty explained a lot of things about me that had confused my friends – and me – for years.
But the thing is, there’s plenty of people out there who are like that 2nd gay man we met at the fundraiser, who hear we are still genitally configured as Tab A & Slot B, and think, “heterosexual.” But the thing is, even if Betty thought of herself as a transvestite, or a crossdresser, and I as her wife, we still wouldn’t be straight. Heterosexual, kinda. We make a distinction between the two terms – straight being something more like a political identity, the way queer is, and heterosexual just being a description of what our sexual orientation looks like. And straight is a much narrower category – as any out crossdresser & his wife can tell you, losing straight privilege is a long walk off a short cliff, once that you can’t get back onto no matter what kind of mental gymnastics you do, which is why most crossdressers and their wives aren’t out, of course. You lose so much, and yet you find yourself not really anywhere at all.
Because there are plenty of people who think of queer as same sex, only. A film by Ray Rea called “The Sweet New” was deemed not queer enough by Frameline – the LGBT media organization – because the storyline concerned a trans man’s exploration of his own immigrant family’s story of assimilation into America. Another book, Origami Striptease, by Peggy Munson, got deemed “too straight” for featuring a romance – and hot sex – between a bisexual woman and a trans man. A part of me, when I heard about both of these stories, didn’t need to question anymore why Betty & I could be made to feel uncomfortable in certain queer spaces, or why we felt like we were nowhere at all for a time before Betty identified as female fulltime and before I got my head around not mentioning my heterosexual history.
And yet, you know, there’s just a part of me that has to mention it in queer spaces, because I’m perverse that way.
And because that’s what trans has done in ways both large & small to queer spaces. Because if you define queer as same sex and straight as opposite sex, then a lot of us in trans spaces don’t belong in either category. We’re not straight. For those trans guys who are coming from lesbian identities, who date femmes or butches or soft butches or other trans men, they live queer. They breathe queer. If they’ve lived as masculine women in the world, they know queer. And you don’t just get to toss all that, even if you’d want to, once you start masculinizing your body and changing your ID if you can.
For the other end of the trans family, MTFs who’ve started out straight guys who crossdressed sometimes who had to tell girlfriends about their crossdressing and who start to pluck their eyebrows and at best pass as metrosexual – well, they’re not quite straight ever, either. I mean, straight guys don’t think about what kind of mascara their girlfriends use or how they manage to put on their lipstick without a mirror, and emerging MTFs do. When I called Betty to ask her out for the first time, she had the phone in one hand & an eyeliner in the other. And believe me, I can guarantee that’s the only time I’ve ever asked a guy out that that’s been true. J Guys who are really women who date women who feel safe in drag bars and at fetish events aren’t really straight in the way the Family Values folks think of it, let me put it that way.
So trans has created this whole group of people, often going in opposite directions, who aren’t straight and aren’t “same sex” queer. But queer? Yes, the lot of us are. When you, as the partner, are tripping over pronouns and don’t really know which gender most of your friends identify as, you’ve left straight land. Like I said, it’s a steep drop off a short cliff, that one.
On a recent radio show, our femme host said plainly, “Because when you’re queer, the world isn’t made for you, so your day is about making decisions about how to be in the world every minute.” And in that sense, trans couples – whether they’re trans/trans, or trans plus female, or trans plus male – are about as queer as queer gets. Because even the queer world, half of which thinks the whole gig is about being same sex, doesn’t get us. The straight world doesn’t either. So in some senses we’ve got two worlds that aren’t made for us, & no matter which one we’re in, we have to decide who to be & how to be in either. In queer spaces I can play down the guys I’ve dated and leave out being legally married & monogamous, because none of those things are cool there. They’re like demerits, really. And when we’re in straight spaces, we can’t talk about our sex life and how we decide when and if we can hold hands in public, because those are demerits there and because – well, because straight people don’t want to hear about it a lot of the time. So what we end up with is not getting to be who we are in either space.
I know partners of trans men who fit in fine with straight women when it’s time to talk about makeup or shopping but not when it comes to sex. And MTFs who go home & revel at the sight of any breast development but who bind those budding breasts in order to go to work in a suit and hope no one notices their lack of facial hair. Any version of gender transgression you can think of is out there, living quietly a lot of the time, with only a few close friends – often other gender transgressors – cued into what they’re doing, how they’re living, & who they’re dating.
Because the thing is, what Betty used to get asked a lot – before we got asked if we were lesbians – is if she was gay. And in a bar, where you can’t hear above the thump of the music, she’d say yes, she was a lesbian. It summarized two big chunks of who she was – she likes girls, and she thinks of herself as female. And people could get it in a way that a half hour conversation trying to clarify exactly what they thought of as a lesbian & who got to use that label and what makes a person a lesbian or a woman… well, you can’t do all that over the thump of the music in a club, can you? So she’d say yes, because it was easy, but she wouldn’t necessarily say she was a lesbian around lesbians because she doesn’t like to step on toes, and neither do I.
Which is why we told that guy at the fundraiser yes when he asked. But the reality is that Betty has never dated women as a woman, and I’ve never dated women as a woman. We’ve both kind of arrived at lesbian through the trans tunnel, so to speak.
But interestingly, if you take someone like Rosalyne Blumenstein, or any number of trans women who grew up identifying as gay men, who often lived in drag communities and had drag mothers and who hustled as boys first and stripped as girls later, they’re not really queer enough either once they find husbands or boyfriends and want to get legally married. Which they can, sometimes, in some states, depending on the state and its laws about how they recognize gender and how they feel about same sex marriage. Roz Blumenstein explains her identity by calling herself a woman of transsexual experience, which is what lead me to call myself a queer woman of heterosexual experience. But you know, that’s a mouthful too. & Most people, really, just want to know who’s doing who, and whether or not they have a chance with you if they try barking up your tree.
Sometimes in a bar it’s a lot easier for both of us to say we’re monogamous instead of trying to clarify either of our genders or sexual orientations, because what we like and who we are takes – well, how long has it taken so far? 45 minutes? J to explain.
My experience talking to a lot of partners of trans people is that we become queer, not because we were or intended to be or because we’ve been repressed or in denial or anything like that. We become queer because all of a sudden gender becomes this amazing selection of genders, way beyond male and female, with endless variations and exceptions and bodies that come in so many different shapes and types and sizes. So we realize – as I have – that once you’re with a trans person, you don’t see things the same way again. You start to see the world differently, and you see sex differently, and you definitely start to see identity differently. You see how easy it becomes to be more than one thing at the same time, even categories that are mutually exclusive, like “queer” and “heterosexual.”
So you could say we’re queer heterosexuals or queers of heterosexual experience or you could just say we’re a trans couple, and if anyone you’re talking to knows anything about trans couples they’ll know they don’t really need to know all the details. We have complex relationships because our identities are complex and often feel like more than two people, but certainly there’s more than a few gender roles at play, no Cleaver family roles going on here, except maybe for fun & when I want to see Betty in pumps. But eh, she’s getting so liberated these days she barely wears anything sexy anymore… which is the kind of thing I think when I’m watching TV waiting for her to be ready for a night out, wondering when exactly I became her boyfriend.
But I did, somewhere along the line. Now when I tell people I asked her out on our first date, and I expect the kind of nervous titters I used to get when I said it, people just kind of nod, wondering when the weird part kicks in. Because now when people see us, it seems perfectly normal for me to have asked her out. What was once eccentric bordering on unnatural and immoral is now completely – well, exactly what people expect.
Mostly when I talk about feeling not being part of either world, straight or queer, I’m talking more about our social lives and what we make of them, how we fit in or don’t in various kinds of spaces. It’s about the kind of support we’ve felt from others, the kind of community we do or don’t feel a part of. But suddenly on the national level, not being straight and not being “queer enough” have become incredibly important. Because right now, in DC, lobbyists and trans people and feminists and gender variant types of all sorts are trying to convince the very “same sex” minded Barney Frank that we need employment discrimination protections. And suddenly what felt like a private matter – of who we hung out and which bars or music festivals we felt welcome in – has become a very public matter, and a matter of which LGBT community we want for ourselves, for our peers, for our queer friends and neighbors. Because right now the intention of Barney Frank is to present a stripped down version of ENDA that would remove all the “gender identity” stuff they think people – and congress – are too ignorant to understand.
So let me explain a little about ENDA.
A lot of LGBT organizations worked together to have the bill be inclusive of gender identity protections. That version, HR 2015, was the one that was supposed to be voted on a week or so ago. But at the last minute, Barney Frank decided to split the bill into two bills – one that would only offer protections based on sexual orientation, with the other to protect based on gender identity. The idea of the first, inclusive bill is to keep people from being fired for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, gender variant, genderqueer; for being femmes or butches or queens or tomboys or bulldaggers or sissies. It was supposed to protect all the beautiful variations of queer – and gender – we can come up with.
The second version – HR 3685 – would only protect gays and lesbians and bisexuals. But even that, only theoretically. Because when a femme-y man who happens to date men gets fired, his employers can easily explain he wasn’t fired for being gay – of course not, we’d never do that! there’s federal protections for gay people, he was fired because he just didn’t dress right, you know, he didn’t act or look or dress enough like a man, they’d say. We don’t care who he dates, they might explain, but we do have dress codes, and we expect men to – well, act and look and dress like men.
And the new version of the bill will offer him no recompense whatsoever, exactly because he didn’t get fired for being gay. Theoretically, at least.
I understand the gay male classifieds are full of calls for straight-acting gay men and that some of my femme friends who are partners to trans men have an easier time passing as straight than I ever did. But how hard is it to understand that the people who are most vulnerable to being fired for being gay and lesbian are the people who “look” gay and lesbian, or whose gender is non-normative? If the fabulous Rufus Wainwright felt uncomfortable in his clogs at Millbrook, are we really going to conclude the place wasn’t gay-friendly, or that it just wasn’t okay with a man who was so unapologetically not straight-acting? Crossdressers have been fired for crossdressing – not on the job, but on their own time. Don’t they need the protections too? & Does Barney Frank really believe they’re not queer enough to need laws on their side?
Because what’s happening, and what has happened, as historian Susan Stryker has pointed out, is something like revisionist history. Lee Brewster isn’t around to remind us all of the way drag queens were not so politely asked to be quiet and get into suits for the sake of gay liberation – nor is he here to tell us how much he wasn’t having it. It’s pretty much accepted that a butch woman was the one who first resisted arrest at Stonewall, and that her resistance sparked the drag queens around her to up the ante of their own resistance, which lead in turn to Sylvia Rivera throwing that first bottle. But sadly she’s not around to remind us of that, either, nor of the way she was asked not to speak at the 1973 commemoration of Stonewall.
But even if you’re skeptical of the way a complicated event like Stonewall is reported, by people who were there & maybe by some who just knew someone who was – the very fact of it is that cops at that time went into gay bars and arrested people for BEING CROSSDRESSED, that is, for expressing their gender variance. The law at the time was that men had to be wearing at least three articles of men’s clothing, and women three articles of women’s clothing. That is, the gay bars were targeted by police not for the homosexual activity going on in them but for the gender transgressives who went to them.
And as someone who has passed as a lesbian for most of my life, I can tell you that I was never clocked as a lesbian because I had a woman on my arm. Now, sure. But not then – then, it was because “I looked like a lesbian” and that means – to the people who don’t understand the difference – a woman who looks like or acts like a man. And then, well, I wore combat boots and flannel and shaved my head a lot.
One of the reasons that’s often given for removing gender identity protections from ENDA is that trans people haven’t been involved in the rights movement for long enough, or visibly enough, but you know: Lee Brewster tried, and they didn’t want him involved. And Sylvia Rivera tried too. And so did the other people who rebelled at Stonewall, as did the people who rioted at Compton’s Cafeteria in 1966 – and at Dewey’s Lunch Counter in 1965. Trans people even did their own thing, forming organizations like Tri Ess in the 1950s, which was formed by and for crossdressers and which separated itself from the gay movement of its own accord, and by the 1970s there were the Radical Queeens in Philly and the Queens Liberation Front in New York and a bunch of other organizations as well. Trans people were getting organized around the same time, but the thing is – same as now – we are a tiny percentage of the larger LGBT. Tiny. We have always needed allies, and as of the 1970s – the era of difference feminism, the beginnings of backlash from the rebellions of the 60s – trans people lost all their allies. Trans women were kicked out of lesbian orgs and drag queens were asked to step down. The logic was that if gay and lesbian people didn’t act so weird and maybe wanted kids and homes in the suburbs – that if they acted straight – they might one day be considered citizens.
Sadly, that’s what we’re seeing all over again, that trans and gender variant gay and lesbian people and gender variant people who are straight are just not worth protecting.
If we go even further back in history, we’ll see we’ve all been in the same boat the whole while. The fathers of the homosexual rights movement – Karl Heinrich Ullrichs and Magnus Hirschfield – put us all together. Ullrichs called us “Urnings” and Hirschfield used “intermediaries” – meaning people who were intermediate between sexual orientation and gender role norms – but we were all in the same boat according to them. Even then, there were people who didn’t want to be in the same boat; there were gay men who didn’t like the implication of gender “inversion” implied in their theories. But both of them – as do most of the Family Values set – seem to see homosexuality as, oh, the biggest, baddest of the gender transgressions possible. Sometimes, you know, the enemy of your enemy is your friend, no? Sometimes it’s easy to tell who’s on your team by knowing who else the people who beat you up like to beat up. By that logic, the LGBT as a boat for both sexual orientation and gender variance, makes perfect sense. The one thing I’m sure of is that there are a whole bunch of people out there who are willing to sink it, and all of us with it.
But there is this: there was a long time when Betty and I were riding the front of that boat, enjoying the spray and the sunset, completely oblivious that we were on any boat at all, & that there had been people working to keep it going the whole while. We had to become aware – to become conscious of who we were & where we were, & of our community – to realize that all we had to do was ask what we could do. & That, in turn, was what gave us our sense of an LGBT community, of feeling part of something larger than us, and larger than trans too.
For us, that act of saying, “What can we do?” meant coming out. And as much as it’s great that there is a National Coming Out Day, most people who come out know you don’t do that in a day. You do it more like every day, or when you meet someone who needs to know. And this week, this month, with the gender-inclusive ENDA hanging in the balance, people need to know. Voters and congresspeople and Senators and their aides need to know. Your local gay and lesbian orgs need to know; social justice organizations like the ACLU need to know, and so do your feminist orgs and professional associations and unions. Everyone needs to know that we – as a group of American citizens – can still be fired for who we are and how we look. And that is un-American. I don’t think there’s a group left besides the LGBT who don’t have federal employment anti-discrimination laws in place. And while it’s great that we finally have a national law protecting us – or our families – from those who would commit violence against us – we also need jobs. Believe me, you’ll find out when you have to pay your student loans back.
So this year, for National Coming Out Day, we have one really good reason to be out. You don’t have to write an op-ed to your local paper announcing how queer you are. You don’t have to say anything about yourself at all. But what you do need to say is that LGBT Americans not only deserve discrimination protection based on their sexual orientation but based also on their gender identity. And once you say that out loud, or write it somewhere, on a blog, in the cafeteria, at your church or temple or at work, you start to realize there are people all around you who are terrified of coming out because they can still lose their jobs if they do. Which is, of course, exactly the reason to say it out loud.
Betty and I came out because we could. We’re legally heterosexual. We also both work in worlds that are – if not precisely trans-friendly – then eccentric-friendly. Artistic careers are good for that, even when they don’t pay the rent. So when we looked around, & realized we were dyed in the wool bohemians, who live in a neighborhood jokingly referred to as “dyke slope,” we knew we could be out. We didn’t have conservative jobs to lose, or children to feed. We only had us. We had the keen sense of our former straight privilege to guide us; we know, as they say, how the other half lives. And there are a bunch of trans couples going in the opposite direction, who have gone from being visibily and publicly queer to feeling invisibly queer and publicly straight – who know too how huge it is to go from straight to queer or the reverse. They know, as well as we do, what it is not to feel like you’re counted, to not feel like you belong, and to feel, that if someone knew who you once were, that you, too, could be out of a job.
I’ve never been someone who would advise anyone throwing caution to the wind or coming out because it’s some kind of moral or political imperative. I’m just not that sort. I think people come out when they can, if they can, as much as they can. & Really, that’s all anyone can do; we all have lives and careers we want to protect, we want to thrive and flourish, and someone, after all, has got to fund the organizations that fight for our rights. But like I said, coming out is never just a simple thing of announcing yourself as gay or lesbian or trans or queer. It’s about redefining the space you live in, the community you want to be a part of, and about creating a society that will allow us bigger and bigger categories and labels that will begin to feel like they aren’t labels at all. It’s about recognizing who your allies are and who wants you to have your rights as much as you do.
In the past week or so we’ve seen 150 groups who only recently added the T to the names of their organizations speak up against Barney Frank and against expediency and in favor of a larger, more inclusive community. And all the naysayers I’ve known over the years – people who say there is no trans community, and no LGBT community, or no queer community – really must not be paying attention. No, we’re not all best friends. Some of us want suburban lives with children and pension plans, and some of us want artist collectives and revolution and to queer the binary every chance we get. But the reality is none of us want to be second-class citizens. Betty and I work for gay marriage because we’re married by a legal loophole – really, because our genitals are heterosexual – and we don’t believe anyone should be denied that right whether they want it or not. And it turns out, as of this week, that a lot more gay and lesbian people have figured out their own gender variance, or that of their friends; they’ve figured out that not only do they know trans people but sometimes they fall in love with them or give birth to them or are their children. Feminists – among whom there’s an awful history of transphobia – have thrown themselves into this fight. Gay groups. Lesbian Groups. Trans groups. It is, as Nadine Smith of Equality Florida just wrote, The Moment of Truth. It’s this moment where we get to decide whether we’re all in this together, whether we’ll let the divide and conquer strategies that have divided us, win, or not.
It’s about deciding who we are, not as a community, not even as activists or as citizens, but as people who have historically wanted social and legal justice for people who are not like everyone else, but who do have something in common with each other: we don’t have federal protections against discrimination. If there is nothing else we have in common, there’s that one, & that’s exactly what ENDA would provide – for all of us.