01 December 2012

Reagan, Wall Street And The Lost Generation of Transgender People

In previous posts, I've talked a bit about the Lost Generation of Transgender People.  I've mentioned a few of the possible reasons why, it seems, trans people you meet transitioned before the early 1980's or from the mid-90's or so onward.  

Among the things I mentioned were some of the ways in which LGBT-related movements were taken over by relatively affluent gay white men, and the influence of the so-called Second Wave Feminists.  There are, of course, many other factors, which I hope to discuss in this blog and in other fora.  In this post, I'll talk briefly about something that happened in the culture and economy of this country (and, in particular, New York City) that caused us to "lose" a generation.

Perhaps the recent death of Larry Hagman got met to thinking about the things I'm going to say.  (I don't mean to imply that he was a reason why the state of transgender people was worse in 1990 than it was fifteen or twenty years earlier!)  He, of course, was a star on the wildly popular TV series Dallas --which, for many people, epitomized the Eighties, a.k.a., the Reagan Era.

Now, of course, Reagan himself was certainly of no help to our cause.  For all of his first term, and the first half of his second, he wouldn't even say "AIDS" in public.  And he espoused a conservative right-wing "fundamentalist" policy that was, essentially, a code for racism, sexism and homophobia.  The latter, of course, included transphobia by implication because, to the extent that most people thought about it, we were just more extreme versions of gay people.

But what I've yet to hear is the ways in which the so-called economic "boom"--which was concentrated mainly in the FIRE industries--left transgender people even further from economic, as well as legal and social, equality than they were two decades earlier.  

One obvious reason why Reagan's economic policies were disastrous for trans people is that it all but eliminated the few services that were available to us. Believe it or not, some people diagnosed as transgender actually had surgeries for which the government paid during the 1960's and 1970's.  And folks like Sylvia Rivera found more of other kinds of assistance available to them in the years immediately after Stonewall than they would a decade later.

But there was something else in the zeitgeist of the 1980's that made American society--not to mention the country's legal and economic systems--noticeably more hostile to trans people (male-to-females in particular) than it was only a decade earlier.

From the end of World War II until the election of Reagan, Wall Street and its related industries were largely "gentlemen's" clubs.  Most of the men in charge, if not the floor traders, came from the same schools and, sometimes, families.  They were interested mainly in protecting the wealth they had and living off the interest; they tended toward safe, conservative investments and strategies.  Their demeanor and attire reflected their origins in the (mostly) East Coast elite classes.  As one old Wall Streeter told me some years ago, while there was a kind of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, the fact that Wall Street had its fair share of gay men was an open secret.  In such an atmosphere, this man explained, gay men could fit in simply by dressing well and maintaining an air of detachment, if not indifference.

All of that changed during the "go-go" years of the Reagan administration.  Deregulation of the FIRE industries (begun, ironically, under Jimmy Carter, Reagan's predecessor) led to more aggressive behavior in the boardrooms as well as on the trading floor.  Even the few women who were working on "the Street" engaged in hypermasculine behaviors that included excessive drinking and cocaine usage.  In such a milieu, not surprisingly, one could be more openly homphobic or transphobic than his father could have been.  

The "Greed Is Good" era disdained any sort of empathy for--let alone willingness to help--people who are subjected to bigotry and, too often, fall victim to violence for no other reason than their own identities.  People who were poor or otherwise disenfranchised were seen as somehow morally defective.  Transgender people, who were already at or near the bottom of the socio-economic ladder when the era began, lost even more ground during that time.   The ones who weren't destroyed outright were turned into shadows wandering through clubs and alleyways in parts of New York and other cities where neon and strobe lights masked how sad and dirty most of them actually were in daylight.

As I've mentioned in previous posts, too many young trans people didn't survive those years.  And the atmosphere of the era deterred many of us from coming out and transitioning until much later in our lives, if we did those things at all.

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