Yesterday I took part in Equality Ohio’s LGBT Lobby Day, a gathering of folks from all over the state descending en masse on the capital to lobby for LGBT issues. With Ohio ranking second to last in the country in terms of trans and queer rights, over all Equality Ohio is very successful in creating a safe space where our disenfranchised community can work with a conservative local government. What it hasn’t been able to provide is a safe space for our community to work with itself.
I was anxious about Lobby Day this year. My last Lobby Day experience was less than positive, but Equality Ohio leaders were surprisingly attentive to my feedback which, in addition to the over-all importance of this event, lead me to attend again, this time as a team leader. By the time the opening event was underway I was starting to feel that activist passion burning. Suddenly, I felt unfamiliar arms surround me from behind my chair and under a suffocating kiss to the side of my head I heard, “Thank you for reminding me of my daughter.” I turned to see a woman walking away from me. I remembered her… At the last Lobby Day I attended, I met this woman -correction, I never actually met her. She ran up to me, hugged me, and tearfully said, “Thank you for reminding me of my daughter.” And despite the mis-gendering and her slightly ageist tone, I was warmed by her emotion. She said her daughter was just like me: a “strong young lesbian” who dyes her hair. I didn’t correct her. I remember that year I was feeling particularly combative about my identity, and I was in no mood to out myself as trans. Besides, how do you stop a crying mother mid-sentence and tell her she’s wrong and being offensive? I didn’t want to make her feel guilty or uncomfortable – a bad habit I have when people get my gender wrong. Naturally I was irritated, she shouldn’t have assumed my gender, but I knew the conversation would end soon enough and I could walk away without facing any awkward trans identity explanations. I know now that was not the right decision.
The woman walked onto the stage, introduced as Nickie Antonio the 1st openly gay representative to ever be elected in Ohio. She started a good speech focusing on our community’s diversity, naming differences in the room of identity, faith, appearance… I knew what was about to happen and I was powerless to stop it. She raised her hand and pointed right at me. “And I’d like to especially point out the sister in the back with the fuschia hair!” Like a movie scene, all at once a couple hundred people turned and looked right at me, and there I was, outed and mis-gendered… but at least she got the hair color right… right? Sometimes gender/passing stuff rolls off my back, other times it soaks into the skin until my entire disposition is saturated in frustration, anger, and guilt. This event was the latter. Yes, I am used to this sort of thing. Like most trans and gender non-conforming folks, I experience public mis-gendering a lot – usually it isn’t over a microphone in front of a couple hundred people -though it does happen on occasion. I am used to it, but it never gets any easier, at least, it hasn’t yet. My emotional response to being mis-gendered is identical to whenever I am treated with an utter lack of respect. It makes me feel small, unimportant, disempowered, angry, and less than human. I didn’t want to be at Lobby Day anymore. I didn’t want to be anywhere other than alone. All my excitement about taking part in community, all my drive to make a difference crumbled beneath me in a heap of disappointment with my community. Representative Antonio walked back to my tabled and gave me another hug. Cradled in repulsion, I interrupted her motherly repeats speaking in my most polite voice, “I’m not a woman, I’m trans. I would appreciate it if you didn’t mis-gender me.” She took my hand apologetically, still keeping me unwillingly wrapped in her hug, “I’m so sorry,” she said, “I should know better.” Unable to think of any other response I said, “Yeah…” cutting myself off from curtly finishing with “you should.” I reeled myself in with a semi-excusatory “It’s ok, I mean, it happens all the time…” She smiled, “Oh, I’m sure.” A comment I’m sure she meant to be agreeable, but it had the opposite effect. She mentioned how her partner was mis-gendered all the time “but in the other direction,” which only strengthened the argument that she really should have known better.
I spoke to a head Equality Ohio organizer, who I deeply respect, about the incident. This organizer, in hearing who the offender was, also said that “[Antonio] should know better.” which was a positive validation of my experience. However this validation was short lived. The organizer asked me whether I had made my identity known to Antonio, and when I said no they presented the argument that if someone doesn’t know any better, and I don’t correct them, then it isn’t their fault… which I guess would make this whole situation my fault. So, I guess it doesn’t matter that Antonio should have known better because I wasn’t properly announcing myself. I don’t think this organizer was actively trying to say that it was my fault that I was grossly and publicly mis-gendered, but they did seem visibly confused as to why I would be upset that I was mis-gendered when I appeared to do nothing to stop it. I explained that I shouldn’t have to introduce myself identity label first just on the off chance someone might get confused, especially if I am in what is supposed to be a community safe space. Do gender conforming people have to consistently tell people their gender? No, they don’t, they just get the right language applied and go on their merry way. But because I am not visibly aligned to one gender or another, it is up to me to out myself compulsively, or else just not get offended when someone plays fast and loose with whatever label they choose for me.
Gender non-conforming people is have to re-assert our identity every moment of every day; when we meet a new friend, when we’re on a date, when we’re at work, when we’re at the grocery store, when we use a public bathroom… Eventually you have to make a choice; either you’re going to lighten up or you’re gonna burn out – for a lot of us the second is the result of the first. So no, I do not correct someone every time I’m called “she” or “lady” or “a young lesbian.” And because of that, is it my fault when someone mis-genders me? No it’s not, it’s the fault of a society that breeds people to see in a black and white gender-scape. I don’t automatically think that someone who mis-genders me is transphobic and out to get me, but depending on the person and the situation, I may think that the person is careless, irresponsible, or just plain lazy. Contrary to popular belief, it is not hard to be polite about gender. To quote the opening plenary from todays lobby day session “Don’t tell me what you believe. Show me what you do and I’ll tell you what you believe.”(quote attributed to an unknown Mississippi civil rights leader). Ironically, this was said right after I was mis-gendered in front of everyone. If people really care about trans folks and really know better than to disrespect us, they why don’t they do it? It’s true that when you are running an event, it is impossible to control what every participant says or does, however you can do a lot to promote safe spaces and educate folks who just don’t know any better. Activist leaders should lead by example by educating themselves and through inclusive language and behavior. An event like Lobby Day should have a brief spoken introduction to involve participants in promoting safes spaces, to use inclusive language, and to be cautious of their own privileges. And if the event has speakers or guests, talk to them about safe spaces and request that they follow the guidelines necessary to continue that safety and inclusion. Everyone is afraid of talking about privilege, but all recognizing privilege is, is recognizing our own humanity: our ability to make a mistake and our own responsibility to correct it. We are supposed to be striving for “equal rights” but if we can’t even form equality within our own spaces, how are we supposed to accomplish it in the rest of the world? I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but I do, as I suppose anyone does, hold my community up to a higher standard. I would like to think we know better.