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March 24, 2010

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Comparing Discrimination: TRANSGENDER vs. LESBIAN.

Anna Clark's article did something wonderful: it presented clearly and in honest terms the simple fact that, though all GLBT discrimination may be hurtful, not all GLBT discrimination is equal. Permit me to explain why this somewhat-uncomfortable comparison is so important to recognize.

This is not some idle academic comparison for me: In my early life I was seen as a masculine white American male, and a respected university professor. Then, for five years, I was a visibly-transgender woman. And now, for the last five years, I've simply been perceived as a lesbian (no longer detectable as transgender). So, I'm in a decent position to compare the discrimination faced by each group.

As lesbians, my partner and I have had to hide our relationship from our employers, with some legitimate fear that coming-out could hurt those work situations. We've had to cover up the nature of our commitment when out in public. We've faced some small hostility from neighbors who disapprove. And when I was dealing with cancer treatments, I didn't have the benefit of my partner's insurance plan. Of course, all of that is difficult and wrong.

BUT, to be honest, those difficulties pale in comparison with the violent, threatening hostility I faced every day as a visibly-transgender woman. The job discrimination was blatant; my career was over. And when coincidentally my wife was laid off, that ended up meaning she and I and our 5 year old son were homeless. Eventually, in spite of multiple graduate degrees, after numerous job-interviews, I was forced to turn to sex-work just so we could eat and save for an apartment. Meanwhile we could not stay at the local "women's shelter" -- transgender women were not allowed. And being visibly transgender, it was unsafe to sleep at a homeless shelter. So we lived in our van, sleeping at truck stops, for months. During the next five years, I couldn't safely even go shopping for groceries because approximately 25% of the time I would be literally threatened with violence (some of those threats were carried out). More than 50% of the time I was followed and harassed, even with my young son in hand.
Every public place was threatening: I couldn't go to a restaurant, or even into a store without exposing my family to abuse and real danger. It wasn't worth it, and eventually I became nearly a recluse. Fortunately, some further medical changes made my transgender status imperceptible and now we're just a lesbian couple hoping for the right to be married (again).
Of course, like most women, I bristle at sexist condescension, and like most lesbians, I'm put off by the occasional ugly looks from strangers. And I DO wish we had the full legal rights of other families, and I DO think it's awful that we can be fired for being lesbian in most states. These kinds of discrimination should not be belittled.

But I cannot tell you how much better life is ONLY being discriminated against because of sexual-preference.

So when Anna Clark points out the special tragedy that is daily life for transgender Americans, I applaud. Perhaps the "T"s in LGBT will finally be protected first, instead of last, simply because theirs is truly the greatest need ("TBGL" anyone?).

Thank you so much for sharing this, Paige. Really.

Anna, congratulations on your first piece for The Nation! You've framed these issues well and shared truth in an area of discussion often distorted by myth. I didn't realize the Kalamazoo ordinance was so... toothless, is the only word that seems to fit.

Paige, thanks for your honesty. I have no idea why, but I am still amazed by the blatant inhumanity people suffer over the simple desire to be themselves. I admire you and your family for persevering in the face of such overwhelming discrimination.

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Isak

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