Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Hero Worship

In 1999, Amanda Schrader and I journeyed to Washington, DC to lobby Congress for transgender rights as a part of a group gathered there by GenderPAC. It was my first time in DC and my first time talking to Congress people on anything, much less transgender rights. I had been living as Monica for just under two years and was about to get a major dose of what it was like being part of a minority.

That event was special because I met several people who would become long-time friends, such as AG Casebeer, Monica Roberts, Dawn Wilson, Jessica Xavier and Ethan St. Pierre, who was not “Ethan” at the time. I also met my idol at the time, Riki Wilchins.

Amanda and I raised money from LGBT people in Arizona so we could represent the transgender community in our state. We planned on this so perfectly that we had scheduled appointments in ever Arizona Congress person’s office, with the exception of Senator McCain. It felt good to be so prepared.

Through all of this, I saw how much attention and admiration Riki got from the rest of the community. After all, she had done a lot to help our community to become more visible. However, when someone heaped praises on her, she would act as if she deserved it. Like everyone else, I saw her as a hero and wished someday I could become a leader in the transgender community.

Be careful what you wish for.

Boy, was I an idiot . . . and in many ways, I still am. In later years, Riki fell from grace in the transgender community and our people went on to worship others for their accomplishments, or their perceived accomplishments. I met some trans people who truly deserved the label “hero,” but I also met many more who sought out the limelight for personal gratification and got what they wanted by those who didn’t know any better. In 1999, I didn’t know any better.

I have noticed that money makes our heroes. It’s a cruel thing to say, but more often those with the means to go places and make their bodies look perfect will do things to get their faces out in the limelight for all to see. Some of their fame happens accidently and they can make things happen because of it. Those are “heroes.” Others who seek fame actually accomplish important things in spite of it. But, most of the time, many aren’t really doing anything, yet people praise them for their “accomplishments” and they do nothing to point out where the praises should really go. Some have published books, while others have big important websites. And, if you challenge them even in a tiny way, you get the wrath of their adoring fans. “You dare to question the great and powerful Oz?”

In my opinion, the true heroes of our community are those people whose names you will never hear in blogs or in the press. Some are known in their local area because they help one person at a time survive from one day to the next. Some open their homes to homeless trans people, while others visit trans people who have been incarcerated for whatever reason. They work in HIV/AIDS clinics, run support groups for street people and interact with places of worship to educate them on who we are. When one of our inner city sisters or brothers is murdered, they are the ones pushing the police to investigate and not ignore. On their backs, this community rides.

For me, I have been called a hero for some of the things I have done, but as time progressed, I felt less like I deserved it and more like a glory hound. It is true my writings are visible, but I write because it is a passion of mine. I’m still active in the community, but I would rather people praise the organizations I’m associated with for what I may accomplish and leave my name out of it.

I have made transgender history and witnessed it first hand, but it is all meaningless compared to the lives of those in our community who cannot survive from day to day. My activism bio could choke a horse, but it does nothing to help the transgender veteran who is being mistreated by the VA. For ever minute of limelight I have had another one of my transgender brothers and sisters either lost their lives by the hateful hands of others, or by their own hands. It puts a whole different meaning on getting my “15 minutes of fame.”

Can anyone blame transgender people for seeking recognition? We are vilified by such a large portion of society and our families that we want to break out and show the world that we are people who deserve fair treatment. Being in the news or on a talk show can help to educate the general public on who we are, but it doesn’t make that person a “hero.” The line between being brave by appearing on television to tell your story and doing it for the publicity is one that gets blurred easily with trans people. To be at the top of the heap in the transgender community is like being the top worker ant in an ant hill. Some of the most well-known trans people in our community are vertically unknown by the rest of the world. A “big fish” in our pond couldn’t feed a guppy.

I am ashamed at some of the things I did to put myself front and center just to bask in the limelight. Today, when someone heaps praises on me for what I have done, I get uncomfortable. I always have my friend Alice staring down at me, making sure I get a dose of reality. She took her life because she could not get employment and her story should have been given to the Congress people at the recent hearings. Homeless shelters in Atlanta would not take her in and for a whole year, myself and a few others tried to convince them to change their policy, but to no avail. To me, it was one of my failures, one that has a devastating affect on other trans people in the Atlanta area. Hero? No. Never.

There is always the possibility I may once again find myself being interviewed on local issues or transgender veterans’ issues. I have to remind myself that I’m only the messenger and the primary focus has to be the issue at hand. If I deviate from the message, I know several people who will call me on the carpet, and deservedly so.

People need to step back and look at those they adore and praise in the clear light of day. Most are just everyday people trying to do what they can to help, but not all of them. Some work with people at high levels of government and others work in the trenches. None of us should be set on pedestals for anything we do, because the entire transgender community deserves a pedestal just for surviving.

To me, a military veteran, a hero is someone who puts their lives on the line to save the life of someone else. We have many in our community who have done just that, and none of them are ever asked to ride in the front of a parade. They just move on to the next person to help. These are the people who make things happen. These are the people who we should emulate. These are the people who deserve our praise, and much more. Yes, they are our true heroes.


Delightfully Imperfect said...

Every member of the transgender community touches the lives of others an affects them positively or negatively. The silent heros of which which speak have always cut new pahs that others have followed.

Some have been on one end of the telephone while another transgender member held a gun on the other end of the telephone - they were there for that person when it mattered most. They are silent heros too.

Some have spoken at professioanl groups on panel discussions educatng people without drawing great attenion and gaining any fame -- they too are the silent heros.

Some have maintained support websites and quietly helped those in need -- they too are the silent heros.

Others have lived model lives, leaving a very good image of transgender people behind -- they too are the silent heros.

I am thankful for all them.

shakay said...

"Every member of the transgender community touches the lives of others and affects them positively or negatively." DI

This is so true, but there are some in our community who present such an overwhelmingly positive image, the entire gender variant population feels inspired by them.

They are not seeking adulation or hero-worship, but their efforts on behalf of the entire community are recognized and appreciated. Few do so with a desire for fame and fortune, but rather to make a difference.

Some of us simply made a difference by going to work every day and understanding that we were setting precedents just by our existing. I made a difference in our movement, but I see the need for all of our efforts continues.

We will get further faster when we will be able to put our animosities against one another aside, to put the past squarely in the past, to stop this counterproductive pettiness, and just move forward with what needs to be done where and when it needs to be done. Nobody can be left out of this process. No one is more important or less important than anyone else.

We need everybody if we are to ever have the God-given rights enjoyed by everybody else.

If we all just got involved and addressed the pain and suffering wherever it exists in our community, the sooner it would be better for all of us

helen_boyd said...

thanks, both of you, for your comments.

I think 'hero worship' happens is because the need in the trans community is so great. I mean: I started a site for partners and trans people in relationships, and it became this whole other thing because it needed to be that for some people who showed up.

Still, not everyone got into it for the activism & certainly not for the politics. I think there’s a need for activists in every community, but you need the storytellers, and the theorists, and the educators, - well, everyone. IMHO, of course, even if I think there’s plenty of hero worship (everywhere, not just in the trans community) that’s hugely misplaced. (Like: don’t get me started on professional athletes.)