Friday, July 18, 2008

Why Governor David Paterson "gets it" (and an afterthought as to how he doesn't)

Ever since I met New York Governor David Paterson some years ago when he was the New York State Senate minority leader, I knew that he "got it" about the need for legal recognition of transgender rights under the state human rights laws.

Just yesterday (Thursday, July 17, 2008), Governor Paterson gave a speech to attendees at the national convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.) held in Cincinnati, Ohio. In an interview given after the speech, he indirectly explained the context of how he came to this understanding, as he is quoted in the New York Times article cited above:

Governor Paterson’s views on discrimination have been shaped by the fact that he is both black and legally blind. He said one of the most painful experiences he had with discrimination came from a black businessman who refused to hire him because of his blindness.

"That’s when I realized this is kind of a universal problem that exists, this fear of the unknown, fear of others displaying difference," he said.

[citation: Paterson, at N.A.A.C.P., Warns of Racism’s Power, by Jeremy W. Peters, New York Times, published Friday July 18, 2008]

The impact of this insight is precisely the reason Governor Paterson has embraced and supported the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) and the Dignity for All Youth Act (DAYA), as well as the bill to make New York’s Marriage laws completely gender-neutral.

People who are transgendered, or gay, experience discrimination for the same reason that African-Americans still experience discrimination – it’s this, as he put it, "fear of the unknown, fear of others displaying difference."

It’s the reason a major title insurance company fired me as its chief underwriting counsel in January 2000. Just before Thanksgiving 1999, on my own time and after work, I testified at a public hearing, imploring Westchester County legislators to restore language that would have better clarified coverage for transgender people to the then-proposed county human rights bill. My testimony was televised on local and regional news, some lawyer in Long Island realized exactly who I was and called the company headquarters in Texas and asked "what kind of pervert do you have working for you?"

It took two board meetings, one for the national company and one for the New York subsidiary, but despite an excellent history of job performance, I became persona non grata at that company because by being "different" I sparked that visceral and instinctual "fear of the unknown" in the hearts of the company’s management – the same management that only a few months earlier was effusively praising my work.

In the meantime, I am hoping Governor Paterson issues an Executive Order some time soon that provides employment protection to transgender people in state employment - this is something the governor can do without waiting for the legislature. It's something trans community activists and allies were working on obtaining from former governor Eliot Spitzer's administration before he resigned. Now that the legislative session is over, perhaps Governor Paterson will be able to turn his attention to this bit of work.

Afterthought: During his N.A.A.C.P. convention speech, Governor Paterson took the time to condemn the recent satirical cover illustration from The New Yorker magazine, that depicted Senator and presidential Candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle, as militant radicals seeking to destroy the United States. He called it "one of the most malignant, vicious covers of a magazine I have ever seen."

I wouldn’t condemn the magazine for running the cover – I know the magazine’s purpose was to show just how malignant and vicious the lies, innuendoes and false rumors some conservative Republicans have been spreading about Senator Obama and his wife – things like how he is supposedly a Muslim extremist, or that their "fist bump" is some kind of black radical secret handshake, or that the Senator was educated in a "madrassas" school (depicted as a fundamentalist Muslim school the teaches radical Islamost "Jihad against America" propaganda as part of its interpretation of the Holy Qu’ran, its only textbook).

By printing the cover, the magazine exposed the vicious lies to the light of day as exactly how ridiculous these are – and the reaction the cover has inspired is exactly the reaction intended by The New Yorker – except I think The New Yorker editors expected more sophisticated readers to understand that the cover itself, by being so "over the top" was intended as satire.

Governor Paterson is not alone in his condemnation of the magazine cover.

The reaction to the New Yorker cover is reminiscent of the reaction of abhorrence that another famous satire, a 1729 essay by Jonathan Swift, entitled A Modest Proposal, once evoked.

As with the cartoon cover, Swift had the experience of having some, including some rather sophisticated and intelligent people, take his satire seriously and react with abhorrence.

So in this instance, I’ll part with Governor Paterson, but only slightly, and condemn the malicious and repugnant lies that were satirized by the magazine cover, rather than the cover itself.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Photo from NYC Pride March 2008

I got to drive a convertible as part of the contingent for The LOFT, my local LGBT Center, based in White Plains. This photo taken by a friend from the sidelines, shows me also holding up a sign calling for transgender rights.


Paraphrased (and adapted to reflect the current struggles for gay and transgender rights) from the eloquent and beautiful Independence Day Speech at Rochester, 1841, given by Frederick Douglass. This is an homage to Mr. Douglass, who was a supporter of the rights of women, as well as the rights of African-American men. There is so much in the current struggle for gay and transgender rights that is similar to the historical struggles for women's rights and the rights of America's African-American minority.

Fellow citizens, pardon me, let me ask why have I been asked to speak here today? What do I and people like me have to do with this holiday celebrating national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in the Declaration of Independence extended to us? And am I asked to bring a humble offering to the national altar, to confess the benefits and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from the Declaration of Independence to us?

I wish I could truthfully look at you and say “yes” to these questions! That would be easy. Who would not be warmed by a nation’s sympathy? Who would be so dead to the claim of gratitude, and not be thankful in acknowledging the priceless benefit of those inalienable rights? Who would not raise up their voice in singing the America the Beautiful, or some other paen to liberty and freedom, when the rights freely granted and recognized have been recognized for us?

But I can’t do it.

I say this with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the ambit of this wonderful celebration. The celebration of freedom and liberty and justice which this holiday represents only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The rights of justice, liberty, prosperity, independence, and the right to pursue happiness, bequeathed by this nation’s forefathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brings light and healing to you brings me nothing but the taste of ashes. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may celebrate while I must mourn. To drag a third-class citizen without the same rights, into the temple of liberty and call upon her to join in the celebration, is both an inhuman mockery and a sacrilegious irony.

Is it to mock me for what I do not have, that I am here to speak today?

Above your celebration of joy, I hear the mournful wail those who are without joy, whose pain of rejection and inequality is rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. To forget them, to pass lightly over the injustice and intolerance, and to chime in with the popular theme would be a kind of treason.

My subject, then, is the matter of the human rights of my people, and the right of marriage. I shall see this day from the point of view of those who like me do not have our families recognized as legal relationships, who have not got the benefit of the level playing field of equal opportunity, who are shunted aside and called upon to live in the shadows at the edge of our society, lest children be exposed to us. I stand together with the homeless and the destitute who are forced by circumstance and the impact of societal disapprobation to the depths of despair. I stand with families denied the same rights as other families, with children denied the same rights as other children, and of individuals who are not welcome at the table of justice.

I cannot hesitate to state that the character and conduct of this nation in the past and even today, has never looked darker than on this Fourth of July. In the name of security, precious liberty is squandered, but it is often a liberty that has already been denied to me and those like me.

Whether we turn to the declarations of the past or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing here before you as a woman, as a woman with a transsexual history, as a lesbian, in solidarity with the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution which is disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate injustice and inequality - the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate, I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that anyone whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, shall not confess to be right and just....

For the present, it is enough to affirm the equal humanity of those who are different from the majority because of gender identity or expression or because of sexual orientation. Is it not as astonishing that, while we are trying to live our lives, to care for our loved ones and families, to work to provide homes and shelter and clothing, we must attempt to do so with great handicaps not shared by the majority? That we have our very humanity denied.

Must I argue that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of sex, gender and sexual orientation? Must I argue that a society that tolerates the bigotry and prejudice, not merely tolerates, but even institutionalizes it, is not truly a free society? That it is wrong?

No! I will not. I have better things to do.

So, what does the Fourth of July really represent to the LGBT American?

My answer is that it is a day that reveals to us, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice of which we are the constant victims. To us, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your parades and solemnity, are, to us, mere bombast, fraud, deception and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up behavior that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth that claims to be free and to cherish liberty, which is guilty of practices more shocking and hypocritical than those of the people of the United States at this very hour.

Search through the entire world for every abuse in nations claiming to be free, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting bigotry linked with shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.