22 June 2009

The Right to be Sexual; The Need to Be

Yesterday, my friend Sonia Pressman-Fuentes forwarded me a Times article about the leadership of the gay-rights movements. You can read it here:

Essentially, the article says that the ever since the Stonewall Revolution of 1969, there has been no singular dominant leader of the LGBT rights movements in the way that Civil Rights had Martin Luther King, Jr. and Women's Rights had Gloria Steinem. The article makes sense, although it quotes one scholar making what I think is a not-completely-accurate statement. Dudley Cleniden says that one of the reasons the LGBT rights movement hasn't had that sort of leader is that the movement is "fundamentally about the right to be sexual" and because of that, "it's hard for the public to see it as a moral issue."

I agree on his second point. But on the first, I wrote this to the editors of the Times:

Dear Editor,

In "Why The Gay Rights Movement Has No National Leader," author Jeremy W. Peters includes historian Dudley Cleniden's claim that the gay-rights movements is fundamentally "about the right to be sexual."

I think that what Professor Cleniden described is the way much of the public perceives the gay rights movements. That perception reduces homosexuality, or any sort of gender non-conformity, to a mere "lifestyle choice" and insinuates that if people like me simply put on a pair of pants or "butches" got lessons on wearing make-up and skirts, all would be well.

Rather, the struggle is about our rights to express ourselves and love other people as we are. Frankly, I don't care what most people think about my sex life (such as it is!); what I want is the right to live the kind of life I want and can fashion for myself as the person I am. In other words, if I want to marry someone who wants to marry me, why should it matter whether or not I've had my gender-reassignment surgery yet, what the gender of the other person is or which state we live in? And, if we were to hook up, why shouldn't we have the rights (e.g., in declaring taxes and such) other couples have?

It comes down to this: What right does any government or any other institution (or individual) have to tell someone whom he or she can or can't love? And, whatever our love is, why can't we express it as other people do? Why is it that other people can have pictures of their spouses and kids (or boyfriends or girlfriends) in their offices, but we can't? That, to me, begs another question: Why should someone be forced to submit to an institution (heterosexual marriage) that will not work for him or her simply to stay in the favor of one's employers or country? (Yes, there is a "glass ceiling"--or the door--for people who aren't in M-F couples.)

But I think Professor Cleniden and others are right when they say that for much of the public, gay rights doesn't have the same moral imperative that the racial equality and women's moments have had. So, it is harder to find a leader like MLK whom most people are willing to respect. And that, I believe, is the reason why the modern civil rights and feminist movements, which started within a decade before Stonewall, had until recently made considerably more progress than the LGBT rights movements.

Let's see whether the Times publishes it. Maybe it's too long; maybe they won't like my tone; perhaps it's not quite their style. Or maybe...who knows?

Once, a loong time ago, I wrote a letter or an op-ed article--I forget which--that they didn't publish. I think I was drunk or high or both when I wrote it; I don't even remember what I wrote about. I recall only getting a very polite rejection letter that was probably more skillfully written than what it was rejecting. It was the sort of document that expresses gratitude for your interest in their institution but leaves absolutely no room for interpretation (or misinterpretation) of the letter's intention. In other words, it was seemingly airtight. In This Boy's Life, Tobias Wolff describes a letter like it he received from a prep school to which he'd applied.

Back to the business about LGBT leadership: I think one thing Cleniden implied is that most straight people, even the more open-minded ones, simply can't or won't identify with a gay, lesbian or transgendered leader in the same way they can relate to someone who's of a diffrent race or birth gender from themselves. Many religious people could, in Martin Luther King, see someone who shared their values. And, of course, plenty of women identified with Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan. Sonia never became quite the public figure that either one of them became (She didn't want that.)but many women can see something of their own struggles in hers. I know I can. Now, if only I had her intelligence....

This year's Pride March will take place on Sunday the 28th, which is the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. I was almost eleven years old on that day in 1969; I don't recall hearing anything about it back then. I would not learn about it until much later. I guess I feel a bit like those women who were young girls when the modern feminist movement started or all those African-Americans who were children when MLK led the march on Washington. All you can do is to be thankful that those events happened at all, and adopt them as part of your own history and heritage.

Now I see there is an odd synchronicity in my life as a trans woman. As I was going to a therapist and support groups, working with Housing Works and holding on for dear life to my life with Tammy, I breifly met Sylvia Rivera. She's supposedly the one who threw her red high-heeled shoe at the cops who surrounded the Stonewall Inn. Shortly after I met her, she died. I attended her wake and funeral and was welcomed as if I were an old friend by people who didn't meet me until that day. Another irony is that in that funeral's guest book, I signed my name immediately below Charles King's. He's the co-founder and president of Housing Works and, shall we say, had a bit of a history with Sylvia. And there I was, with the only people in this world to whom I was "out" at that moment.

Then, when I came out for good---that is, when I started to live and work full-time as a woman--Sonia reached out to me. I'd written an article about "coming out" at work for Women's eNews. Of course Sonia, as one of the co-founders of NOW, reads that site every day. So, you can only imagine my surprise when I received a very warm and affirmative message from her.

Sometimes I think that maybe movements don't always need leaders. But I am certain that each of us needs our own leader or leaders, if you will, no matter how self-directed we may be. For me, they are women who have shown me how it's possible to be a woman. Of course Sonia is such an example for me. Sylvia's tactics may not have been the best, but she did show how possible and necessary courage are for us. Millie's kindness has not only helped me through a few situations; it has provided me with yet another example. And, of course, I have my mother.

I wonder whether I'll be such an example for someone. Of course, no one ever sets out to be one. It just happens when one who has integrity does what she needs to do for herself and her world. Sonia certainly had dreams of an education and career that few women could attain in her time, but I don't think she grew up thinking she'd help to start NOW or draft workplace policies that are used as models. Sylvia, as near as I can tell, was thinking only about surviving her abusive father and the Times Square streets on which she found herself at age 11. That is, until she and other trans people, cross dressers and gays were harassed by cops. As for Millie and Mom: Does--Can--any woman ever imagine some of the sacrifices miracles she will be called upon to make and perform, sometimes simply to sustain her husband, her children--or herself?

Really, all I've done so far is to keep myself--my true self--alive. For me, it hasn't been about being sexual or even of one gender or the other. It's been all about my spirit and loving and being loved as the person I am. I guess, in the end, there really isn't anything else.