Salvadoran Trans-identified Intersex Human Rights Activist Nicole Santamaria and Whitman-Walker Health Supervising Attorney Cori Alonso-Yoder with The Atlantic’s Scott Stossel at #AtlanticLGBT | Photos by Kristoffer Tripplaar
According to Andrew Sullivan, the LGBT movement is an artificial construct. Gay women and men share no common ground save for our common romantic interests in the same sex, he says, and more than that, the LGBT civil rights movement has become an industry. With leaders who have made a career at fighting LGBT oppression, and who make six figures and upwards doing so, Sullivan says this “paradox of progress” means that in order to sustain an LGBT community, the community must keep itself oppressed.
Sullivan’s words were spoken shortly after a dire plea from Nicole Santamaria, a transgender-identified intersex woman from El Savlador, who is living in Washington, D.C. as an emergency refugee after a friend of hers was murdered and she was left, battered and, she says, for all intents and purposes dead.
“They left me for dead,” Santamaria said, her voice breaking under the weight of the memory, “and I am not dead. Actually, I am reborn here in this country.”
Cori Alonso-Yoder, supervising attorney from the Whitman Walker Clinic, said that Santamaria is presently fully dependent on community organizations like Casa Ruby to meet her most basic needs: she won’t be able to work, access food stamps or any other support for at least six months due to policies regulating her refugee status. Yet life as a refugee in the U.S. seems to be a better–and her only–option: “We don’t know [who to be more afraid of],” Santamaria said, “the police or the gangs.”
Sitting in the Woolly Mammoth theatre in Washington, D.C. last Thursday, my emotions ran the gamut as I watched a spectacular rotation of speakers talk about the “unfinished business” of the LGBT movement at a summit convened by The Atlantic. I’ve been to similar events over the years, but never with such a range of diversity that resonated so strongly.
And never in our history has the T part of LGBT seen such strong focus among community-wide events like this one that aren’t specifically dedicated to telling transgender stories: now-thriving college student Nicole Maines (born Wyatt), who by the age of three was insisting on wearing girl’s clothing while she played with her identical twin brother. Nicole was bursting with confidence and an admirable natural wit, while her father Wayne was moved to tears every few minutes as he spoke about Nicole’s struggles growing up. GetEqual Central Region Coordinator Elle Hearns dominated a panel on trans issues with the outspoken voice of an activist who doesn’t allow people not to receive her message. When a co-panelist suggested that transgender people must affirm their lives, Hearns shot back, “Trans people have already affirmed our lives. Everyone else just needs to follow suit.” Her delivery might be interpreted as either assertive or aggressive; either way, she’s right.
I am a gay man, not transgender–so by Andrew Sullivan’s estimation, my interests should be so radically removed from those of trans people that we shouldn’t have a great deal of common ground. Yet I found myself magnetized toward the T stories more than, for example, a panel called “Coming Out in the Locker Room” (which still proved to be more engaging than I had suspected). It was not easy to choke back tears as I listened to both Nicoles’ stories–the little girl from rural Maine whose school disallowed her from using a girl’s bathroom after complaints from her peers and their parents were lodged, and the El Salvadorian woman one year my junior who barely made it here with her life and who has a certainly difficult life ahead of her–but a life nevertheless. And then there’s Ruby Jade Corado, also originally from El Salvador, whose Casa Ruby gives shelter to and nurtures countless people who would be relegated to the streets without the support.
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and former Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), both gay, discussed the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, both reminded the audience–Baldwin optimistically and Frank rather more cynically–that the court’s ruling could be rolled back without legislation. “We need to change hearts, minds, and laws,” Baldwin said.
So what of Andrew Sullivan’s observation that the LGBT movement is dependent on ongoing oppression to sustain itself in the long term?
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a sponsor of the event, used her allotted time to speak about what, in all honesty, has been my top concern for months: the frightening growth of hateful rhetoric in this country–directed at Muslim people, but isn’t the subject irrelevant? There’s always an excuse to be made for hating the other; it’s only who the other that changes, not the sentiments. We–lesbian, gay, bi, transgender–have been the other, and now some of us (some more than others) have made significant progress in being accepted as other, but not dangerous and not the enemy.
Adolf Hitler urged the German people to blame Jewish immigrants, gay people, and others for bringing down their economy and damaging their pure blood lines: needing someone to blame for their problems, the majority of German people either agreed with Hitler’s ideas and proposed actions or did nothing while others agreed and carried out these atrocities. Denying history altogether, many people laugh off these exact same ideas–make America great again/make Germany great again by placing blame on others–as being spoken by “a clown” or “a joke.” The point is not the speaker, but what those who are spoken to do, and we’re seeing a growing movement toward acceptance of hatred. Sullivan called Donald Trump “a fascist,” but also noted that Trump hasn’t included LGBT people in his hateful rhetoric.
Weingarten said because of our history, LGBT of all people have an obligation to speak out against it. We can’t stand by silently as any other group of people is persecuted.
Being a gay man who came of age not that long ago, but still long enough to have lived through a time when it was generally not socially condoned to freely express who I am, Weingarten’s message and the stories of the remarkable transgender people at The Atlantic‘s LGBT summit resonated strongly with me. And all of this is given greater context by a couple of repeated concerns from audience members–that to this day, the B of the LGBT acronym isn’t even underrepresented in these sorts of panels and in publications: it’s unrepresented altogether. Sullivan argued that bisexual people half a “straight half” with all the privileges given to straight people and a “gay half,” and though he didn’t use the word “choice,” his remark suggested that bisexual people have the ability to choose either a straight lifestyle or a gay one…which, though I am not bisexual myself, I understand to be no different than the Bachmanns claiming that gay people can choose to live straight lifestyles: it’s a total and complete misunderstanding of the nature of sexuality based on the idea that sexual practice and identity are the same thing. They’re not.
So again, what of Sullivan’s argument? Is there an LGBT industry? There is, clearly: many organizations and several publications exist primarily to advance civil rights for LGBT people. Were we to receive full and equal rights, those under the employ of these organizations would need to scramble to justify their jobs. That’s true.
It’s also a premature argument. We aren’t anywhere close to having to deal with Sullivan’s paradox of progress because the rights that have been secured by lesbian and gay people are new and tenuous. Transgender advances have only recently been introduced, much less accepted into the mainstream culture and certainly not codified into law. And bisexual people–well, sadly, the LGBT community at large does prove Sullivan’s other point here, generally rendering bi people to the sidelines because we don’t understand what it means to be bi any better than many straight people can understand what it means to be gay: we assume it’s about chosen sex partners and nothing more. We know better.
Still, the point is that we are all in this together by virtue of all of us being (generously speaking) misunderstood and (less generously speaking) intentionally marginalized and deprived of full acceptance and equality (two different things: the former is based on whole human understanding and the latter is based on social code). And even if we received our full rights–as unlikely as that is to happen anytime soon, given that women are still fighting for equal treatment despite being the technical majority and despite laws guaranteeing equal access–we’re still all in this together, we still belong together as a community, not because we share interests but because we know what it’s like to be targets of collective hatred, misunderstanding, and dehumanization.
“There was a time in our country,” Weingarten reminds us, “when we had to hide who we are or who we love. Matthew Shepard was tortured, Stonewall was raided, Harvey Milk was shot. We were raped and institutionalized, abandoned by our families, afraid to walk the streets in our own neighborhoods. And we took our own lives. We know, our community knows, what intolerance looks like. We know how it tastes. We know how it feels. And we know how to break through intolerance even when it’s giving everything it’s got to break us. When they came for us, people spoke out: straight people, working people, immigrants, people of color, people of faith. And together, we told a new story: a story about how we live life like anyone else…”
Transgender people in many places–perhaps most–have reason to fear walking down streets in their own neighborhoods even today. Forty-two (42) to 46 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide, according to a 2014 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention/Williams Institute survey. An equal percentage (40%) of gay and bisexual people have done the same, although bi people are rarely brought into the discussions. (Call this unfinished business.) Not many people are publicly forcing gay men and women to hide who we are or making us feel unsafe (in this country–don’t forget how close we are to El Salvador, where lives like those of Nicole Santamaria are the norm and not the exception), and within the past couple of years there have been huge strides for transgender people in these capacities, yet non-European immigrants and especially those who practice Islam are being publicly diminished, dehumanized, and even threatened while ever-greater numbers of supporters of these ideas rally. How do we justify not banning together as a community and rallying against this hatred?
Even if LGBT+ people were equal in the eyes of our fellow human beings and by law, as Weingarten said, when leaders preach hatred toward any group of people, we are morally obligated to speak out against it because of our collective history as the hated and targeted group. Lesbian and gay people don’t have to have similar hobbies, transgender and bisexual people don’t have to have the same life experiences, for all of us to be cemented together by history and by the obligation we all have to keep history from repeating itself.