“that condemnation and judgment I got — that was important”

[Jared Leto] stars in “Dallas Buyers Club” as Rayon, a heartbreakingly vulnerable but business-savvy transgender AIDS victim.

“As soon as I got out of the van [the first day of shooting], I had my high heels on, and I was in it,” says Leto. “I was in character every day I shot.

“It’s not a new thing [this kind of immersion], but it was essential. There was too much to lose if I didn’t do it.”

Leto even stepped out in costume to a Whole Foods near New Orleans, where much of the film was shot.

“I got some … distinct looks,” he says. “One look was, ‘What is that?’ Another was, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it.’ But that condemnation and judgment I got — that was important to the role.”

Pros And Trans

When the pros meet the trans, there is bound to be frustration on both sides.   And because I am on both sides, it is a challenge for me.

New York State does not have protection for gender expression in law.

We do have protection for sexual orientation, passed some twelve years ago when the Empire State Pride Agenda cut a deal with Republican governor George Pataki to get it through the Senate.

We do have Marriage Equality, passed two years ago when the current Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo worked with a group of business leaders to sway a few Republicans to break ranks and get it though the Senate.  My local state senator was one of those, but he lost his seat in the next election to a conservative challenger who fueled the voters need to punish him for that action.

But GENDA remains stalled, passed in the Assembly but a few votes shy in a State Senate that just imploded last year with many senators charged with crimes, some senators leaving the Democratic caucus to vote with the Republican minority, and general messiness.

And this coming year is an election year when the Conservative party has a platform plank to grant no more “special rights,”  and GENDA is the target of that defence of their voters.   Voters fear their children being queered, stolen from the faith, and politicians feed that fear to keep the voters activated.

That’s very frustrating for those of us who keep coming back, trying to sway those votes and being given hurdles to meet that are just moving targets designed to keep us from satisfying them.   Get more cities in NY to pass gender protection, get him to agree, get more support, whatever.    Nobody wants to be against transpeople, they just want to be against “special rights” that stir the fears of right wing radio talk show hosts.

And so, in an undisclosed city there was an undisclosed meeting of which, according to the ground rules issued at the beginning,  I would be unable to blog the details.   Strategy sessions need to stay confidential, it was announced.

All I write here is my own understanding of how transpeople work together with political professionals, never disclosing any of the details of that undisclosed meeting.

Politics, especially at the scale of a state as large as New York, is a glacial game.  You don’t turn a battleship on a dime.  It takes time, money or both to make changes, because every change moves something in the huge interconnected web of government and the organizations who treat with the government.

Transpeople, well, we are few and far between.

There are very few benefits to publicly identifying as transgender, which is why we often choose to stay hidden, concealed as hobbyist crossdressers, drags and butches, passing transsexuals, or just closeted dreamers.

Gay and Lesbian people have to come out somewhere to meet new partners, have to be in relationship with others like them to get the connection they need, but that’s not the same for transpeople.

Transgender is, in the end, a very individual journey to a unique self.   And the start of that journey is always knowing who you aren’t, rather than knowing who you are.  That makes us touchy, because a reactive identity is always reactionary, on some level, marked with statements about separation rather than finding connection.

Add to that the overwhelming price we pay to face the stigma that supports gender normativity, the abuse, separation and isolation we suffer when we make people feel threatened and challenged walking away from norms and you get some hurting people who don’t hold much of a shared identity.    Our only connection is that we know that we are all hurt by a society that fears anything beyond the heterosexist binary to which they cling.

Transpeople are cats, very individual, but more than that we are abused cats, all coming with the heavy scars and armour created by a life outside the norms.

Trying to tell people about that life is very hard.   People outside that experience just don’t have any context to understand the depth and duration of the pain, and people inside the experience are bound up in their own viewpoints, their own challenges, their own pain.

We know that pain, harassment, challenge and abuse has shaped us, so when we don’t get what we need we often think that acting out that pain against others will influence them too.

Politicians in New York State have a number of things in common.  First, they are essentially political creatures, with political thinking guiding their actions.  The higher up the pecking order you get, the more true this is, because the way you move up is to be more political.    Second, they know that their base is in the mass of voters, not in the gadflies and crackpots who bang on about their cause.   Pols have learned to have a thick skin in facing these hecklers.

Politics is a retail game.   Barney Frank used to say to transpeople that they were wrong to target the top federal politicians just because they had the power.   Pols, he would tell us, are influenced by what is around them, so making change at lower levels, where change is easier, sets the ground for change up the chain.

When you are a small band, though, retail politics seems daunting.   Much easier just to bang on the points where you see the power, no matter how hard and deep that power is entrenched.

Because transpeople have so very little benefit in publicly identifying as trans, it becomes very hard to get them together into organizations and groups.  The hidden ones are still hiding, and the mature ones have decided that they don’t need the drama of all the coming out turmoil back in their assimilated lives.

This leaves the activists out there, trying to get action.   But because they are still claiming the way things should be, very few of those newly out activists really know how to lead, because leadership is service.

Some activists , for example, have high ideals about creating non-hierarchical organizations that follow dogmatic principles and believe that food and drink are the way to get people activated, to be their friends.    But these same activists don’t see how their dogma makes them judgmental and stops them from actually making the connections that create robust and flexible networks across class, race, age and other boundaries.

In the end, what transpeople want is what everyone wants.  We want to feel seen, heard and valued for our unique contributions, want to feel understood and cared about.  We don’t want to feel lectured and dismissed because we are insufficiently abject to be holy.    If we want to build organizations that help each other, we need to engage people from across boundaries to offer what they have to lift the entire group.  That is the basis of community, these shared goals and resources.

Inflicting our own internalized pain and drama on others does not help them connect with us.   It just baffles them and drives them away.  Our struggle is real, but acting out that struggle on others does not build connection, especially when we start separating between good transpeople like us and bad transpeople like them

Any meeting about legislation is going to be an essentially political gathering.   There may be lots of real, serious, concerns about how to build robust community between transpeople across the state, how to empower and lift individuals, but meetings about political issues are not the place to address them.

“Right idea, wrong room,” passed through my head often.   The problem, though, is that there are so few rooms where people come together to share and lead about all the range of challenges faced by transgender people across the state, across the country and across the room.

I really like professionals.   I like people who are good at their job.  When the local gay & lesbian centre had a building bridges workshop, I didn’t stand up as trans as my primary identity, I stood with the business people.  I love how organizations bring people together to solve problems, create the new, serve others and lift both workers and consumers.

This was obvious to me when I see that I dress like a woman who understands political action as work rather than like activists whose expression is very individualistic.    I don’t feel a need to tell you what pronoun you should use for me — my expression does that — or claim transgender privilege in contributing to the conversation.

Professionals who want to help transpeople have learned to be compassionate and receptive to what transpeople value.   Transpeople who work with professionals haven’t so much learned to be understanding and receptive to the real concerns, needs and demands of professionals.

To build organizations and structures that grow and thrive, professionalism is required.  Social justice is great, but to lift people, economic justice is also needed, and that comes from a professional place, building and contributing to businesses and organizations that create jobs, dignity and wealth.

In a recent training for trans leaders, the HRC helped them learn to tell their stories.  One of the key pieces was teaching them to stay on point, to keep on message, to focus on the story and not get distracted.   Narrative works well when polished into effective tools that change mind and create connection, but it takes a professional attitude to create those tools from our stories.

We are hurting people with a complicated message that others just don’t get.   Learning to approach the world past our own pain and mess is very hard for us, which is why it is so hard to simplify ourselves into a slogan, as some ask of us.

In the end, though, learning professionalism, service alongside others with a shared objective seems to me to be the only way to lift our community and ourselves.   When we just want to tell others what they should do without having to take on the obligation to actually do the work and show success, it is easy to be bitter about what we are not getting.   It’s easy just to stay a princess and demand that others do what we want them to do, rather than to own our own professionalism and make real change.

Transpeople have relied on allies for a long time while we were too scattered and too shattered to be professional enough to build the organizations and structures that we need to help each other.   Now, some of us can recognize the need for owning our own organizations and our own power, but the challenge of getting transpeople to come together is still great.

I don’t know how to live in a world where people say “Screw pragmatism!  Listen to me!”  I don’t know how to make an impact with people who love their dogma more than their successes.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was someplace transpeople were empowered and powerful, a place where we could seed the generation of new trans leaders to go out and really make an impact on a wider world?

I suspect the only way we can make that happen is  for transgender and professionalism to not be at odds with each other.   Until transpeople value professionalism over dogma and acting out, we can’t have the best of both worlds, the diverse vision of transpeople and the shared service of professionalism coming together.

And that leaves me right where I was at that workshop 15 years ago, standing with the pros and not the trans, feeling split one more time.