BY MONICA ROBERTS
Why does the transgender community hate the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)? It’s a question I get frequently asked in GLBT settings. Considering the recent GLBT family feud erupting over ENDA, it’s an appropriate one to ask as well.
Before I get started trying to shed light on it, I need to point out in the name of journalistic integrity that I was the Lobby Chair for the National Transgender Advocacy Coalition (NTAC) from 1999-2002.
The roots of the animosity start after Stonewall. In an effort to appear more ‘mainstream’ to the straight community, Jim Fouratt and friends bounced Sylvia Rivera and other transpeople out of New York’s GLF (Gay Liberation Front). Jim Fouratt’s anti-transgender comments culminating in a 2000 one at a Stonewall observance in which he called transpeople ‘misguided gay men who’d undergone surgical mutilations’ also added insult to the injury.
In a pattern that persists to the present day, The GLF had protections for transpeople removed from a proposed 1971 New York GLBT rights anti-discrimination bill under the pretext that it wouldn’t pass with such ‘extreme’ language.
Ironically the bill failed anyway and the New York City GLB-only rights bill wouldn’t pass until 1986. Transgender inclusion was fought at that tome by Tom Stoddard, who would later head Lambda Legal. Transgender people didn’t get added in the New York City bill until after Sylvia Rivera’s death in 2002.
In 1979 Janice Raymond poured more gasoline on the fire with her virulently anti-transgender book The Transsexual Empire.
Raymond also took it a step further in 1981 and penned a quasi-scientific looking report that was responsible for not only ending federal and state aid for indigent transpeople, but led to the insurance company prohibitions on gender reassignment related claims. Germaine Greer’s anti-transgender writing combined with Raymond’s led to involuntary outing and harassment of transwomen in lesbian community settings. It also sowed the seeds for the anti-transgender attitudes in the lesbian community that persisted through the late 90’s.
So what does this have to do with HRC since it didn’t get founded until 1980?
The problem is that the senior gay leadership is still influenced by the Fouratt-Raymond-Greer negative attitudes towards transpeople. That sentiment is concentrated disproportionately in California and the Northeast Corridor. The early gay and lesbian leadership also sprang up from those areas as well.
The transgender community around the late 80’s renewed its organizing efforts to fight for its rights. The early leadership was also concentrated in the Northeast Corridor and California as well and regarded the gay community as natural allies.
One thing they didn’t take into account was how deeply entrenched the anti-transgender attitudes and doctrines were amongst gay and lesbian leaders. Barney Frank (D-MA) is a prominent example of it. They still persisted in holding the view that transgender people were ‘crazy queens’ who would cost them their rights. Gay leaders were still trying to use the 70’s assimilationist strategy to counter the Religious Right campaign against gay civil rights fueled by fear of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
In the 90’s the transgender leadership became more national in scope and more diverse by the end of the decade. In addition to the founding core leadership from California and the Northeast corridor, transleaders emerged in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, Ohio, and Illinois. The emergence of leaders from what was derisively called ‘flyover country’ by the peeps from Cali and the Northeast Corridor changed the dynamics of the transgender rights movement.
The addition of leaders from these states brought people into the movement who not only believed in the principles of Kingian inclusion and non-violence, they practiced those values. The rise of the Internet gave them efficient communications links to exchange information and tactics, coordinate strategy and inexpensively talk to each other.
They were also people of faith who had ringside seats to the Religious Right takeovers of the Republican parties in these regions. The Texans watched their state be used as a laboratory for the tactics that would be used in the South and later the rest of the country.
As people of faith who were mostly Southerners, the new transleaders correctly perceived that the Religious Right was the same coalition of 60’s racist anti-progressive forces masquerading in ‘family values’ drag and urged coordinated efforts to defeat them.
Unfortunately, while the Religious Right was using the 80’s and 90’s to organize for culture war and develop their Machiavellian playbook to power, transpeople were fighting a pitched battle with the gay and lesbian community just to be included. This civil war against the GLB transphobes sucked time, energy and money from the transgender community that could have been better spent combating the Religious Right.
The predominately white and bicoastal-based gay and lesbian leadership didn’t see the Religious Right as a threat because they not only didn’t have fundies in their backyards, they let their anti-transgender biases color their perceptions. They dismissed the threat because it was transpeople who were sounding the warning bells about it. At the same thime they were cavalierly dismissing their concerns about GLBT unity and the Religious Right threat, they arrogantly demanded that transpeople work to pass gay-only rights bills.
According to legal scholar Kat Rose, such laws have the effect of creating a regime in which the same gays and lesbians who fought to prevent trans-inclusion have the de facto right under the resultant non-inclusive law to discriminate against trans people. It also allowed them to keep their leadership ranks and employee populations in these organizations transgender-free without fear of facing discrimination lawsuits.
When transgender leaders would balk at those demands or point out the hypocrisy of leaving us behind, they would state they would ‘come back for us’.
So far the only states in which the gay and lesbian community has ‘come back’ for transgender people are Rhode Island (2001), California (2003), New Jersey (2006) and Vermont (2007). In New York they are still having a difficult time passing GENDA after transgender people were cut out of SONDA by gay rights advocating the same ‘we’ll come back for you’ incremental rights spin.
The first gay only rights bill, passed in Wisconsin in 1982 has been that way for 25 years now. There’s no indication by the GLB leadership in that state if they’ll move to rectify the omission of their transgender brothers and sisters or if they’ll assign it a priority as high as the one they place on marriage equality.
We also heard the excuses during the 90’s to justify the gay and lesbian strategy that ranged from ‘the country needs more education on transgender issues’, we need ‘incremental progress’ to the mean-spirited ‘it’s not your turn to get rights yet’. Ironically there are now more transgender inclusive laws on the books than gay-only ones, and those numbers are increasing.
And where does HRC fit into this equation?
One of the people most responsible for excluding transpeople from an attempt to pass a gay rights law in Minnesota in 1975 was a gentleman by the name of Steve Endean, who in 1980 would leave Minnesota to help found the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the proto organization that later became HRC. Some Minnnesotans assert that it’s not a conicidence that the same year HRCF was born in DC, Minnnesota’s gay rights proposals became T-inclusive and eventually lead to the first T-inclusive law in 1993.
In 1995 Elizabeth Birch took over as Executive Director of HRC at atime when there was an epidemic of gays and lesbians cutting transpeople out of civil rights legislation.
In many cases gay people who sat on various HRC boards either nationally or regionally led the efforts. In 1999 Dianne Hardy-Garcia, who was the executive director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby (now Equality Texas) at the time and an HRC board member, led the succesesful effort to cut transpeople out of the James Byrd Hate Crime Bill (to mine and TGAIN”s vehement opposition). That bill was eventually killed in the GOP-controlled Texas Senate but passed in 2001 as a GLB only bill and was signed into law by Gov. Rick Perry.
Elizabeth Birch for a while eclipsed Janice Raymond as Transgender Public Enemy Number One when she was quoted at a Chicago GLBT event as stating that transinclusion in ENDA (the Employment and Non Discrimination Act) a top legislative priority of transgender leaders would happen ‘over her dead body’.
That sowed the seeds to the growing perception amongst transpeople that HRC was ‘The Enemy’. It got worse when transgender lobbyists were told by sitting senators, congressmembers and various staffers that HRC Capitol Hill lobbyists Nancy Buermeyer and Winnie Stachelberg showed up on the Hill accompanied by GenderPac’s Riki Wilchins before transgender lobby events in 1997, 1998, and 1999. They asked those members and staffers to tell the transpeople coming to Washington that inclusion in ENDA wasn’t possible, but hate crimes was. That revelation so enraged the transgender community that a group of activists that included yours truly founded NTAC in 1999.
After doing an investigative report during the summer of 1999 that determined the extent of HRC co-option of GenderPac leaders, NTAC decided to pursue a multi-pronged strategy to deal with it. They decided to explore partnerships with other GLBT organizations, made it clear that transinclusion in federal ENDA and Hate Crimes was non-negotiable and during my time there I helped author a legislative strategy designed to go around the congressional barriers set up to block transgender inclusion in ENDA
In 2000 NTAC also began the ‘Embarrass HRC’ campaign to call attention to the hypocritical nature of the relationship between HRC and the transgender community. Activists across the country began protesting HRC dinners and calling them out at GLBT community events about their resistance to adding transpeople to ENDA. The campaign got the attention of people to the point where they started asking HRC leadership tough questions and their contributions started taking hits.
Despite this success, the transgender community didn’t embrace NTAC. It was a multicultural organization whose early leadership was predominately Southern. NTAC was relentlessly savaged by people for fostering what they called ‘horizontal hostility’. A group of white northeastern activists that wanted to push accomodation with HRC formed the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2003 and named Mara Keisling as its executive director.
But NCTE to some transpeople had uncomfortably close HRC links that caused people to question not only NCTE’s effectiveness in lobbying for transpeople but its independence. Transgender historian and legal scholar Kat Rose bluntly said that “I simply do not trust NCTE or Mara Keisling”.
The interesting thing was the timing. NCTE came into existence after HRC loudly proclaimed that they didn’t want to talk to NTAC. There were unconfirmed rumors that some of NCTE’s startup money was provided by HRC supporters.
Not long after NCTE’s startup, the shift of the gay and lesbian rights priority from successfully passing inclusive rights laws on a state by state basis to marriage equality started. Transgender leaders such as NTAC’s Vanessa Edwards Foster warned that this was a mistake to push the issue a year before the 2004 elections, but once again transgender concerns were brushed aside.
When the Religious Right backlash resulted in gay marriage constitutional bans overwhelmingly passed in 18 states during that election year, the transgender community was proven correct once again.
This irritated the transgender community on multiple levels. The marriage-as-a-priority gays refused to acknowledge that not only did their actions cause the backlash to gay marriage and possibly generated enough conservative voters at the polls to help propel George W. Bush to a second term, despite the evidence of dozens of state DOMAs and anti-marriage constitutional amendments, they are in severe denial about it.
Transpeople are also miffed at the lack of HRC concern as to how this backlash specifically affects our lives. Transpeople were never consulted and had no input whatsoever regarding the push for gay marriage, but the Religious Right anti-gay marriage laws get interpreted by the courts in such a way that they had the negative affect in some cases of wiping out existing pro-trans marriage and even identity rights.
We’re also pissed that the same people who demanded (and still demand) that we accept ‘incremental progress’ when it comes to trans rights hypocritically have no intention of accepting ‘incremental progress’ when it comes to legal recognition of same-sex relationships.
In conclusion, the drama between the transgender community and HRC (which sadly flared up last week after Rep. Frank introduced a non-inclusive ENDA) is a forty-year-old stew flavored with historical hatred, arrogance, political miscalculations, communication failures, misunderstandings, mistrust, and Machiavellian duplicity.
HRC also has a pathetic history of refusing to deal with trans people as equals not only in terms of civil rights legislation but even in hiring talented transgender people for their organization. This historical negativity keeps transpeople from working with HRC in any capacity. (Don’t even get me started about the African-American community beefs with HRC, that’s another post.)
The sad part is that this animosity is preventing HRC and the transgender community from effectively working together to defeat their common enemy despite the desires of people on both sides to do precisely that.
The flare up this time may have not only burned the bridge that people like recently resigned HRC board member Donna Rose and others were trying to build towards a working partnership with HRC, but made any talk of doing that in the transgender community moot for years to come.
Bill Wilson is a veteran freelance photographer whose work is published by San Francisco and Bay Area media. Bill embraced photography at the age of eight. In recent years, his photos capture historic record of the San Francisco LGBT community in the Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Bill has contributed to the Sentinel for the past three years.
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