by Andrea Gonzalez
I feel so conflicted.
I recently received an email, forwarded to me by one of the major U.S. national gay and lesbian lobbying groups, informing me of a then-upcoming candlelight vigil in memory of Matthew Shepard.
I don't suppose I have to explain to many people who Shepard was. He was a 21-year-old gay man in Wyoming who was essentially tortured to death for threatening the heterosexuality of a few other young men. The buzz is that it was a hate crime, and that he was killed for being gay.
I agree, in a way, with that assessment. However, I maintain that none of the people who killed Matthew -- or yelled "faggot" at him while he was alive, or avoided him, or even looked at him funny -- had ever seen him actually have sex with another man. I say he was killed, in a manner which I still cannot bring myself to recount, for failing to "pass" for straight.
A national AP wire story quoted one of Shepard's friends as saying, "He walked into a room, and you just knew he was gay." How does that work? Gender, and assumed gender identity, that's how, and that's why I feel so conflicted right now.
As I read the email, I wanted so badly to run into the street with my candle lit and my fist in the air, to scream with the cacophonous choir of the converted, that we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it any more. The problem was, the group sponsoring the vigil does not support including "gender identity" protections -- protections based on what gender an individual self-identifies as or is perceived as by others -- in the very legislation for which we continue to scream our demand.
That is an offensive, shortsighted sellout to "straight" normalcy. By not including "gender identity" protections in an important legislation such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, you essentially tell a large portion of the queer community that they don't deserve a chance. What is "effeminate," if not a gender? What is "butch?" How does so-called "gaydar" function, if not by gender cues? Does everyone have to "pass for straight" to get a job? To be protected by hate crimes legislation? Is this progress?
I'd call it insulting to tell "too-queer" gays and lesbians to correct their gender presentation to be somehow socially acceptable, essentially forcing them into a closet of sorts in order to get a job, as part of the legislation meant to allow them to be "out." It's alienating to bisexuals as well -- a bisexual must split the issues of choice of sexual partner and external social identity into the two separate issues that they really are. By far though, the people who get it the worst are the ones against whom these exclusions were targeted: the trans community. Transpeople, particularly transwomen, already take it on the chin in this society. They have to admit to having a mental disorder in order to get permission to make decisions about their own bodies -- a diagnosis which could be used against them later, yet one for which they cannot claim disability.
The assault and suicide rates in the trans community, while virtually impossible to pin down, are anecdotally astronomical. I have seen apparent serial murders of transgendered women here in San Francisco, as recently as 1996, go virtually uncovered in the gay and straight media alike. Am I supposed to accept, "They were prostitutes; it's not our issue" from the same gay mainstream that writes transpeople out of employment legislation, thus helping keep them out on the streets? If they'd put as much effort into legislation as they do into such cognitive dissonance, we'd probably have more and stronger laws right now!
I really am anguished over the Matthew Shepard incident, and I really want to do something to help -- it's just that I want to do something to help everyone, not just those who "pass for straight." Ultimately, I made it to that march, with my candle lit and my fist in the air. I just wish I could feel better about it.
Andrea Michaela-Gonzalez is a staff member of Anything That Moves.
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