Warning: Some in the transgender community won’t be pleased with this column.
A few weeks ago, I was at Macalester College where the very popular Dean Spade spoke. Spade, a well-known transgender scholar-activist, has done many good things, including founding the Sylvia Rivera Project in New York City.
Spade’s talk was well attended, with seventy people in the audience. His topic was “Trans Politics,” his view of what it would take to achieve equality and racial and social justice. Spade spoke of the “oppressive system” that subjugates transgenders and routinely enforces gender norms. He also talked about systemic racism, and how enacting new hate crime laws doesn’t really help save lives because “criminals don’t look at law books before they assault someone.”
I was with him on all of this. I too, believe that the system is flawed. Simply consider that Minnesota’s prison system disproportionately incarcerates people of color in comparison to their overall percentage of the population. More concretely, the next time you walk the downtown Minneapolis skyways, take note of how lily white everybody is. Something’s wrong, that’s for sure.
However, Spade lost me when he shifted to how transgenders (and other oppressed groups) need to “break the system and dismantle it.” By “dismantle,” Spade actually seemed to mean, “destroy.” He talked about closing prisons and decriminalizing the sex trades; he argued that cops should be out of inner-city schools; he even said there should no longer be borders between countries.
Wow. I looked around the room and saw a lot of head-nodding. I thought, This kind of talk would scare the crap out of any straight person.
Listening to Spade reminded me of another transgender speaker-activist whom I heard at a Coming Out Day luncheon last year. She too called for an uprising. She too railed at “the system,” only she included gays and lesbians within those who oppressed transgenders. I was appalled at her exceedingly—and unwarranted—broad-brush approach. I felt her speech did nothing more than confirm the horrible stereotype of that “crazy transgender person.”
Here’s my perspective.
I’ve been lucky to have had two completely different lives. When I lived as a man (which was most of my life), I was a part of that system transgender activists love to hate. I owned a business (a law firm), and I employed people. I made money and drove a fancy car. I lounged at the local country club pool.
Still, my heart was always good. I volunteered for various nonprofits. I worked to institute a diversity program in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, of all places. I helped people who needed money or things.
Once I transitioned, everything flipped. I’ve gone from capitalist to non-profit executive director. Instead of working for me, I’m now helping low-income people find lawyers. I’m well past the days of big paychecks. I drive a Honda.
I share this to make a point: it’s not necessary to destroy something in order to change it. Sister and fellow transpeople, I get it—you’re angry and hurt. Hell, so am I. Just like you, I’m mad that prejudice and fear caused me to delay transitioning for decades. I’m pissed that some people very dear to my heart can’t accept me as female. I’m hurt when someone reads me in public and says, Sir.
Even with anger and hurt, I don’t believe the way forward is to rail and yell “toss it all out.” There are way too many good people in the system who will work for meaningful change. If you destroy the system, you destroy them, too.
So, what is needed?
In a phrase, responsible leadership. The transgender community needs articulate and brave leaders—not reticent anarchists—working for change. Some of those leaders have already stepped forward, and others still need to. True leaders must speak the truth regardless—to the straight community (we’re human too; we’re here to stay; we deserve a place at the table) and to the transgender community (take responsibility; recognize the hurdles and work to jump them; be positive role models).
Another thing: try as they might, straight people will never fully understand. That means we transgenders have to try harder. It will take more work, and more effort for us to succeed.
In the end, Spade’s way isn’t the only way to meaningful change. We owe it to ourselves to remember that.