Saturday, May 24, 2008

We Are Family

Sometimes politics, like life, is just not as black and white as we often like to think it is, especially for those of us who perpetually inhabit gray space.

Thursday night, I interviewed Hilary Rosen on my radio show. While I had no expectation or desire for a real fight, I did think it would at least be a pretty adversarial interview just because she works with and has been a member of the leadership of the Human Rights Campaign. I expected Ms. Rosen to staunchly defend the HRC view of things, and I prepared for the interview based on that assumption. The thing is, people aren't the organizations they work for, they're people, and people can surprise you.

I can't help but let my thoughts drift back to August 2004, and a silly little joke that taught me a lot about the nature of the battle we find ourselves engaged in today. It happened during the second protest of the year outside HRC's Washington, DC headquarters. We knew HRC's Executive Board would be taking a vote that day on whether or not to support only transgender-inclusive federal legislation in the future. A team of the best and brightest transgender activists our community could muster had made a presentation to the board, and those of us protesting outside were now waiting to find out the result of the vote.

It was midday, and the lunchroom on the ground floor of the building was filled with people we could see through the floor to ceiling windows eating a sumptious meal as we stood outside on the sidewalk with our signs. I have no idea who started it, but at some point several of the protesters stepped onto the sloping, grassy area along the side of the building with their protest signs in front of them, and began slowly creeping toward the windows. They made it about three quarters of the way to the windows before someone inside noticed them. This game was replayed several times over the next few minutes, with some inside even writing numerical scores rating an approach attempt that they showed us through the window.

At the time, it seemed almost surreal. Here, in the middle of a protest, protestors were playing a silly, lighthearted game with the very people we were protesting, and those inside were having just as much fun with it as we were. Everyone was smiling and laughing, even though we disagreed politically with each other so much that we felt compelled to stand in front of their building and speak out against their politics. The moment evaporated soon afterward, however, when then-HRC Executive Director Cheryl Jacques came out of the building to tell us that the board had voted that HRC would only support fully inclusive federal legislation from then on.

While just a silly little pastime in and of itself, the experience taught me a valuable lesson as an activist and as a community media creator: Political disagreement need not always include personal animosity and anger. You can respect and even like someone you disagree with politically, even someone you are actively opposing. It's not always possible, of course, but far more likely, far more often, than many of us seem to think. It's not, or at least it doesn't have to be, an either/or proposition.

So often when I read the words of fellow transpeople speaking out on the political issues of importance to our community, I see the same automatic assumption being made over and over: If an individual works for, works with, or donates to an organization or politician that's unpopular with our community, regardless of their position or actual level of responsibility for the actions taken by that group or individual, they must be held directly and personally responsible for the actions of that group or individual, and be just as popularly despised within our community as the original offender because of that association.

Certainly there are times when drawing such a connection is justified, as in the case of current HRC Executive Director Joe Solmonese's either shockingly deceitful or stunningly stupid promise to the transgender community at Southern Comfort last year that HRC would not support any legislation which is not fully transgender-inclusive. Either Solmonese knew full well he couldn't keep such a promise but made it anyway, or he made his promise not really knowing if he'd be able to keep it or not. Either way, it's dirty pool and underhanded politics. No matter how you look at it, Joe Solmonese was wrong to do what he did, and in fact so very wrong that you have to wonder how any political lobbyist who could publicly misrepresent himself and his organization so badly could credibly be the Executive Director of anything...unless, of course, he knew exactly what he was doing right from the start and he did it intentionally. That Solmonese fully deserves whatever backlash he and HRC receive as a result of this escapade is abundantly clear. The only real question left is whether he lied to us knowingly, or if he simply said what he thought the crowd in front of him wanted to hear, even though he really had no idea if what he was saying was actually truthful or not.

Barney Frank? Same thing. This is a man who did everything within his power to derail, demean, and disempower an intensive lobbying effort by the transgender community and our allies, up to and including denouncing his own bill and our activist community's efforts at attaining equal rights and treatment for Transgender-Americans speaking on the floor of the US House of Representatives. This is a man who proactively uses his power and position as a US Congressman as a club to publicly bash Transgender-Americans with to clear the way for straight-looking gays and lesbians to be protected from discrimination in the workplace while the rest of us are left behind to fend for ourselves. Frank knew exactly what he was doing and not only did he do it intentionally, but even enthusiatically, as evidenced by his demeanor during the many interviews he's given to LGBT community media on the topic. For the first time in our collective history, the American LGBT community rose up and spoke out, almost with one voice, to demand equal rights for everyone, with no exceptions and without concession to political convenience. Barney Frank, through his actions in Congress in stripping gender-variant Americans from ENDA and doing his best to convince his fellow members of Congress to support him in doing so, spit on that effort and denegrated the courageous men and women in our activist community and our allies in Congress who stood up and spoke out for what they knew was the right thing to do. Like Joe Solmonese, Barney Frank bears direct and personal responsibility for the damage he has done to our community and our movement, and like Solmonese, he too richly deserves all of the community backlash that comes his way as a result of his actions.

Yet, there are also times when the connections aren't quite so clear cut. Take Hilary Rosen for example. Yes, she's on the board of the Human Rights Campaign Fund. Yes, she works closely with the organization and its leadership. Yes, she's been the Chair of an organization that's probably even more despised by working, lower, and middle class folks than HRC, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). I've written reams about my problems with HRC and how they operate, and it was natural for me to structure my interview with her with that uppermost in my mind. Like many of us, I too fell victim to making assumptions about Hilary Rosen as an individual because she's so closely aligned with HRC, the Democratic Party, and big business.

What I wasn't prepared for is how many of my assumptions about Hilary Rosen proved to be either somewhat off-base or just plain wrong. Sure, there's plenty we don't see eye-to-eye on and probably never will, but you know what? I like her. I had a great time interviewing her, and I hope we do it again soon. I'm not just saying that as a radio host seeking another interview, but also that she's the kind of person I think I'd enjoy talking with over a drink in a bar as much as I enjoyed having her on my show. Regardless of where we each happen to come down on the issues, I just think she's cool people on a personal level, a terrific example for young women in general and for young lesbians in particular.

I can say all of these things about Hilary Rosen and still disagree with her politically, because when you get right down to it, our real disagreements are about the details, about how we best go about achieving our goals, not about the goals themselves. We all agree that all LGBT Americans should be protected against discrimination at the federal level. We all agree that every American should have the right to legally marry the person they love. We all agree that we should do whatever we can to discourage and prevent hate crimes. What many of us vehemently disagree on is the path we should take to accomplish these things.

Those on both sides of the ongoing debate over the future direction of our movement would be well-served to keep this in mind: For the most part, the actions against our community which we fight against are taken collectively, by HRC, by the Democratic congressional leadership, by anti-equality groups, by the Republicans, and on and on. Is it, therefore, truly fair in all cases to saddle an individual with all of the sins of the organization they are affiliated with?

Personally, I believe there are times, perhaps even more often than not, when we need to be able to separate people from policy and individuals from organizations. We can stand against HRC and their transphobic political games without blaming every single person connected to the organization in some way for everything they've ever done that we don't like. We can stand against the Democratic Party leadership and those members of Congress who are known to be directly responsible for promoting civil rights legislation that could ensure the continuation of legally-sanctioned anti-transgender discrimination in most of this country for as much as another generation or more without tarring the entire Democratic Party with that same brush.

As this election year wears on, and we look toward a hopefully brighter future for all of us, it's incumbent upon us to remember that there's a time to speak out against the injustice, discrimination, and politicial cowardice of those who have failed us so miserably, and a time to remember that if we ourselves resent being lumped into a large, homogenous, and disparaged minority group and would prefer to be dealt with and respected as individuals with our own ideas and beliefs that are all our own and not solely reflective of those we choose to align ourselves with then we must also extend that same courtesy to others when it's appropriate, no matter what we might think of the politics of the organizations they work with.

When all is said and done, underneath all the politics, the lies, the venom, the misrepresentations, and all the rest of the surface drama, there lies one simple fact: We call it the LGBT community, but at the core we're really a family, and because we're family, we never really stop caring, no matter how angry we may get with each other. We know we all want the same things, even if we disagree about how to get them. For all of the heat and all of the anger, there is no hate. There is no violence. We can be loud enough and angry enough to peel paint off the walls and righteously so, but this is a family squabble and we have to remember that and treat it like one.

For all of you who are now thinking to yourselves that you couldn't possibly ever consider the Human Rights Campaign as family, I'd agree with you. It's not the organizations themselves, regardess of how they're popularly perceived, that should have the right to expect that kind of consideration from any of us, but rather it's the people, the unique individuals who make up the memberships and staffs of these groups, who do deserve to be seen as part of our greater LGBT family every bit as much as we ourselves do, and who deserve to be judged on their own merits, not solely on the record of the organizations they work with. If we are to demand inclusion and respect for ourselves and for others like us, then we ourselves must go out of our way to extend that offer in the other direction just as fiercely.

No matter how much we fight, call each other names (valid or not), make accusations (valid or not), and refuse to be drawn onto the path the other is taking, at the end of the day family is still family, regardless of how much we might sometimes wish otherwise. If and when we again reach a point in the future when the true battle lines in this movement are once again drawn and we must re-engage in direct and public combat on a grand scale with those who are truly the enemies of the goals we strive for, we're going to need each other. It's not only in the gender-variant community's own best interests, but also in the best interests of the greater LGBT movement in general, that we take this time before the election and before the prospect of the passage of ENDA looms before us once more, to do what we have to do to get our own house in order and prepare ourselves to fight the war we know is coming sooner or later together, as one, unifed community.

It's only when we recognize these realities and come together as one, as the family we truly are, that any of us, regardless of how politically potent we might like to think ourselves, will ever have a real chance of winning. There's something to be said, a lot in fact, for setting a good example.


Karen said...

What a great article!

Rebecca Juro said...

The podcast of the Hilary Rosen show is up! Find it on I-Tunes or at: