Thursday, January 03, 2008

Please Susan, step out of the spotlight

I have to say I'm disturbed by the latest profile on Susan Stanton. First off I'm really sorry that she's lonely. That sucks no matter what. And for someone who undoubtedly is ambitious (you don't get to be a city manager if you're not) applying for 100 jobs and not getting one of them has got to be crushing. And facing a massive loss of male privilege is a tough thing. But I've far more disturbed by this:

"…Susan has said all along that she’s not like other transgender people. She feels uncomfortable even looking at some, “like I’m seeing a bunch of men in dresses.”

Eventually, she decided it was too early for transgender people to be federally protected. People need more time, more education, she says. “The transgender groups boo me, now, when I speak. Isn’t that ironic?

“But I don’t blame the human rights groups from separating the transgender people from the protected groups. Most Americans aren’t ready for us yet,” Susan says. Transgender people need to be able to prove they’re still viable workers — especially in the mainstream.

“The biggest issue against the federal legislation is that politicians think the ladies’ rooms will be invaded by guys in drag,” Susan says, “instead of someone like me.”


I've heard from those who know Stanton that she's distressed by the article and feels that many of her remarks were edited or taken out of context. It's possible she was misquoted, and I'm willing to hear her version of it. But the thing is... she's said these sort of things before, albeit not as bluntly. She's been chided about the "men in dresses" comment before, and at a Human Rights Campaign event last month she defended Barney Frank pulling gender identity from ENDA, implying the community hadn't done enough educating.

At best Stanton appears to be woefully unprepared for the position of spokes-trans that she's intentionally put herself in. As a post-op acquaintance noted, much of what she's been through is typical for transitioning MTFs: the unexpected support and the unimaginable cruelty, the loss of work and marriage, the feeling (of various durations) that you want to be thought of different that those folks who give you the creeps. But the thing is... if you're going to be a "community leader" you've got to have your shit together. In my non-trans life I once led a major grass-roots lobbying effort and it's hard because in many ways you have be a Jackie Robinson -- always be calm, cool and collected in public; as well as always careful with your words (to minimize them being misquoted or taken out of context) and aware of their impact. And if you can't do that, then you don't belong in the job.

If I'm being harsh on Stanton, it's because having been a city manager she ought to have known that. (While city managers are careful not to outshine their city council members, they're definitely political critters who deal with the press and public regularly, and know the weight that their words carry.)

I'm sure she's well-intentioned -- and as I said earlier I'm sorry that she's having such a rough personal time of it. But there's a saying that you can't manage others until you're capable of managing yourself -- and frankly I'm not sure she's doing the latter at the moment. In other words, she shouldn't be trying to represent the trans communities until she's sorted out her own issues, including what appears to be a fair amount of self-acceptance issues that are getting projected outwards. So in suggesting that she needs to step out of the spotlight -- both for her own good and the communities' good -- I don't think I'm being any harsher than Stanton as city manager would've been on an employee whose personal problems were getting in the way of doing their job effectively.

At worse, Stanton could cause a lot of damage for the trans communities, given that she's reportedly being courted by HRC, who's seemingly eager to anoint a "trans leader" without bothering to consult the trans communities. Barney Frank has already said he plans to strip gender expression protections from the next ENDA because the American public (i.e. Barney Frank) finds trans people too icky and the last thing we need is Stanton giving Frank and the HRC political cover. But again, Stanton appears to be incredibly naive about LGBT politics and unwilling to listen to those who've been in the trenches.

I guess one of the things I find saddest is that Stanton doesn't seem to be reaching out to other trans people for support (nor other anyone else), nor listening to the advice of people who've got her best interests at heart. To be honest, I think she'd benefit tremendously from being part of a place like the My Husband Betty forums (even if she felt the need to do so pseudonymously).

BTW, I just finished reading Steven Seidman's "Beyond the Closet," which looks at gays and lesbians and the closet -- but which is applicable to trans people as well. Seidman notes that the gay rights movement has had two competing schools of thought: the assimilationists, who have typically framed things in narrow terms of civil rights; and liberationists, who've sought to change the system entirely. Seidman sees faults with both positions and advocates a blend of rights-based agenda as the starting point with a push towards changing society (since legal equality can co-exist with social discrimination). Seidman critiques the "we're virtually normal" argument made by folks like Andrew Sullivan:

A narrow rights agenda ignores the way ideas of sexual citizenship establish social boundaries between insiders (good citizens), and outsiders (bad citizens). And, while same- or opposite-gender preferences is surely one boundary issue, there are many other dimensions of sexuality that are used to separate the good and bad sexual citizens... In particular, a rights-oriented movement does not challenge forms of social control that sexual victims and outsiders of individuals who sexual preferences are between consenting adults. By narrow its agenda to gaining equality and integration, a rights-oriented movement leaves the dominant sexual norms, other than gender preference, in place and removed from the political debate.

The strength of a liberationist perspective is its understanding of hetrosexual dominance [as in being the "default"] as being deeply rooted in social life and as part of a broader pattern of sexual and social inequality... [A] rights agenda can't avoid being implicated in broader patters of sexual and social inequality; it should, then, be blended with a liberationist politic.

To which I'd add is that the "virtually normal" argument invariably leads to tossing someone over the side -- or at least distancing oneself -- in an effort to prove one is not like one of them.

I think it's worth noting that the article mentions Stanton was a "conservative man" before her transition. I'd be willing to bet she's still got a lot of self-acceptance issues, and her statements are all-too-reminiscent of the "we're virtually normal" crowd of gay conservatives.

Anyway, if you're reading this Susan, please step out of the spotlight for the time being, for your own sanity and for the good of your peers.


Unknown said...

Where do these self-appointed "leaders" of the trans community come from? Can people just appoint themselves a trans spokesperson? And why do we accept in this country that just because someone rises to a managerial position (and working for a state entity myself I can attest to how little that means from a "success at the job" standpoint) or, even worse, gets some degree of fame or notoriety, that that automatically qualifies them to be a spokesperson for something or some community?

Or is it that the media is lazy and willing to give the mic to whoever is already in the public eye and willing to step up and claim leadership? I just don't get it. I would bet that if we polled working people in this country and asked them what percentage of their managers they actually saw as competent or what percentage would trust a movie or sports star to be a good manager, the percentages would be pretty low. So then why do we assume these people can speak for us? Are we that enamored of celebrity and power? Why don't more of us speak up like you've done so eloquently Lena?

-julia said...

hi Lena,

Thanks for the post. I am not familiar with the things that Susan has said in the past, but the entire situation brings up something that has bugged me for a while.

There are a lot of amazing, insightful, & inspirational trans activists who have spent years (for some, decades) advocating for trans people, familiarizing themselves with the diversity of our communities, and respectfully & forcibly fighting for trans rights. Only rarely do their voices reach a mainstream audience.

But then as soon as someone who holds some kind of status/power/notoriety comes out as trans, they suddenly gain all of this media attention and are dubbed spokespeople for the entire community. Part of the reason is that the media/mainstream is infinitely more interested in the minutia of the transitioning process than they are in trans politics and trans rights.

Some trans people who get shoved into the spotlight do a wonderful job. Others - particularly those who are largely unfamiliar with trans politics and communities - can do a hell of a lot of damage.

Frankly, I'm grateful that I was able to transition without having to deal with the media or interviews, etc. (as Susan did). It is surely a lot of pressure to have to deal with (especially when dealing with the more day-to-day aspects of transitioning). But the other reason why I am glad that nobody interviewed me when I was first transitioning is that I didn't know shit back then (pardon my french). I had only met a relatively small number of trans people pre-transition, had only read a handful of trans-themed books, and was only just starting to navigate moving through the world as an out trans person.

Speaking as a representative of the entire trans community is difficult and dangerous enough when you *are* familiar with trans communities and politics. It's a shame that not all newly coming out trans people recognize this...

just my two cents,

Mrs Madrigal said...

I think this person's conservative background has much to do with her attitudes and current predicament. Those of us raised by liberal families and having liberal friends tend to face less or even no rejection. Her insights are valuable for us to learn from but she should not be considered a spokesperson for us.

Karen said...

As an advocate and organizer by trade, and beginning my transition, I've been scared as hell I'm going to end up in this category. (Of people doing inadvertent damage.)

But all I can say is that she must be a terribly undisciplined politician to have said things like that.

They sound like things that belong in therapy. To say nothing of how damaging and WRONG they are, and way way (way) off base. And not to mention that castigating others isn't going to move anyone's causes forward.