Saturday, May 17, 2008

First Things First

This past Tuesday I had the privilege to participate in and present at a small conference/training day for adults who work with GLBTQ youth. The workshop I facilitated focused on supporting transgender and "gender variant" youth (their language, not mine). It was the only session focused specifically on trans issues; all the other workshops lumped the T in with GLB and Q.

Toward the end of the day I was chatting with the keynote speaker, a successful academic who does community-based research on GLBTQ youth and their families. I asked her a couple of questions about trans issues in her research. All of her responses could be summed up as "We don't know, because we didn't analyze the data on trans youth, and that's not our focus." I don't blame her, I guess, but on a personal level I felt disappointed.

Then she politely returned my interest in her work, and asked me what it was like to be a consultant on trans issues here in Western MA. I reminded her that it is still legal to discriminate against trans people in MA, and explained how that makes it difficult to tell organizations that they must/should be welcoming of transgender people. I said I enjoy my work as a consultant, but that part of the reason I'm self-employed at all is that most workplaces are hostile or at best clueless about trans issues, and therefore I have found I'm nearly unemployable except in trans-specific jobs.

She responded, "Oh, well you're such a great activist, you can fix that!"

Ouch.

It struck me that the speaker was not particularly comfortable with my being there as a trans activist. She does a lot of good work on behalf of GLBTQ youth, trying to improve their situations so that they can make free and healthy choices. And yet when a young(ish) trans person says, "I'm here in this room, doing this work with you, in part because I have gotten totally screwed over as a young trans person and this was one of very few paths open to me," she tries to change the subject.

"Be an activist," she says, "and it will be all better." And through her words I also hear, "Don't talk to me about how bad it is. It's not my department."

I mean, thanks for the vote of confidence. Truly, I'm glad you think I can change the world. But the compliment was almost totally overshadowed by the way it functioned to avoid acknowledging the emotional context of the problem. It's like saying, "It's no big deal that your community is totally downtrodden and disenfranchised. Just work real hard on your activism, and one day (maybe) you can be part of the regular job market."

On top of being tactless, the comment was also nonsensical. It doesn't usually work that way. People who are downtrodden and disenfranchised, who are living in poverty and being treated badly, don't have time or energy to show up on picket lines, to write letters to their congress people, or to be there for each other in a healthy, functioning community. They may not even be able to be there for themselves.

Instead of "Be an activist, so you can be employed," I'd like to be telling trans people, "We'll help you get employed, and then when you have some stability in your life, you can make your own decisions about being an activist."

In my personal philosophy, I tend toward the assumption that anyone who's not being an activist is not pulling their weight. I think it's my responsibility to be an activist because I'm a human who's conscious of my surroundings. However, it is not my responsibility as a trans person to do activism on trans issues because trans people are oppressed. Trans people have no particular moral responsibility to be activists, any more than people in general do. And like people in general, trans people should be able to come to activism of their own free will, because they see a need for change, and not because their immediate survival depends on it.

1 comment:

Dane said...

I've been trying to correlate this entry with my feelings about being a Jewish activist for whom Israel/Palestine is not a top activism priority. (It used to be, back when I marched in the NYC Salute to Israel Parade with my Hebrew school every year...but that was another time.)

Even though I know my thoughts and feelings about Israel are in opposition to a lot of American Jews, I haven't done much in the way of activism around it. And I *do* have the kind of stability that many transfolks don't have (whether or not they're choosing to do activism). I've been trying to write a response to this article ever since you posted it, trying to articulate why this might be so.

But I've got gornisht, nothing.