This post originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of SAGEMatters, and was later published by The Huffington Post, here.
From L-R: Mara Keisling, Executive Director, National Center for Transgender Equality, Kate Kendell, Executive Director, National Center for Lesbian Rights and Carmen Vazquez, Coordinator, LGBT Health & Human Services Unit for the New York State Department of Heath’s AIDS Institute
As we come to the end Transgender Awareness Month, SAGE CEO Michael Adams shares an illuminating conversation he had early this fall with lesbian and transgender rights leaders about identity, inclusion and a movement in transition.
Michael Adams: Kate, in recent months, as more trans older people are getting involved in SAGE, we’ve had pushback from a small number of constituents who believe that transwomen should not take part in programs SAGE provides specifically for women and lesbians. In essence, they argue that transwomen haven’t had the same gender experiences as cisgender women, given their different life histories and relationships with patriarchy, and that including transwomen in this programming denies cisgender women the ability to share their experiences with others like them. As a long-time feminist and the head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), what is your take on these arguments?
Kate Kendell: A dialogue about where there is allyship and commonality versus where there is difference is the place we should come from. All women, transgender or cisgender, approach any conversation in any space based on their own experiences. Rich women, whether cisgender or transgender, do not have the same experience around gender or patriarchy as poor women. Women of color do not have the same experience around misogyny, patriarchy and sexism as white women. It’s important that we do not have an oppression test, or some sort of code that you must conform to in order to be in a conversation as a woman. Approaching the conversation where women are open to accepting different perspectives is the way to overcome a sense of difference or alienation from each other. For example, some women of privilege may have blind spots, where they don’t understand the nuances of patriarchy. These blind spots exist for both cisgender and transgender women. In order for the space to feel open for all, there should be a cultural competency conversation about understanding how people come from different places.
Adams: Carmen, do these arguments surprise you? As a longtime activist and community intellectual, what’s your perspective?
Carmen Vazquez: It doesn’t surprise me at all. As a person who does not identify as transgender but is a gender-nonconforming person, I have been the target of individuals who have used my female masculinity as a counter to my feminism. I understand the places where some of these women come from. But I agree with Kate that a conversation about alliance and where we have commonality in terms of sexism in this society is much more useful than a conversation about differences. It’s really important that there be a way of understanding the place where these women live. I don’t know who they are or what level of privilege they come from, but there’s a conversation about gender that is very different from the conversation about the patriarchy 40 years ago. There is a desire to hang on to a perspective that isn’t looking at the reality of what our LGBT conversation and community is about in terms of gender.
We have to remember a time when “lesbian” wasn’t even a part of the lexicon. And we should remind our sisters of what it took to get to that place—the struggle with society to whom we were completely invisible. I certainly understand the necessity of bringing some intersectional analysis— also because I am a woman of color. We need to pay attention to what these women fear they will lose if they are in a place with transgender women.
Adams: Mara, SAGE’s organizational philosophy is that anybody who identifies as a woman is welcome in women’s programming, anybody who identifies as a lesbian is welcome in lesbian programming, and that we will not excludetrans people from any programming for which they otherwise qualify. NCTE is on the front lines of these kinds of conversations every day. Do we have it right, or is this approach and our thinking overly simplistic?
Mara Keisling: It’s easy to fall victim to a kind of transition anxiety—“transition” in the sense that society is changing. There is a new America emerging, and we’ve all been hesitant to say that because we’re afraid to face this transition anxiety. There are people who wouldn’t have been welcome in the world before who we want to make room for now. And that makes some people uncomfortable. Just when you think you’ve found your place in society, society changes again. And we’re seeing this now within the trans movement, and the trans communities (plural) where what it means to be trans is shifting constantly.
I don’t think your approach is too simplistic, unless you think it can be static. Because it feels like, at least for the foreseeable future, that nothing static will survive. Not only is society changing but the rules for how society changes are changing, and that’s exciting—when you can actually have a part in changing the rules. That’s where we can make some really big societal differences. Sometimes it’s hard as a marginalized person to be sensitive to other marginalized people, but we have a lot in common. No matter which group of us you separate out and look at specifically, that group is really not homogeneous at all. I think being as welcoming as possible will always be the right thing.
Adams: Kate and Carmen both noted this notion of the value of looking for the spaces of alliance and commonality for dialogue and discussion. I’m wondering, have any of you seen examples of similar situations that started in a fierce and oppositional place but ultimately became conversations that focus on alliance and commonality?
Vazquez: Part of the problem we have, and some- thing I think we are moving away from, is that ours has been an identity-based politics forever, not a politics framed by human rights. When things center on identity and people feel that their identity is somehow being trampled on or taken away, they get defensive. That needs to change. To give you an example of where I thought a successful transition was made is what used to be called the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. When we were in the process of rebranding in 1994, we focused on our core ideals, vision and values (which included inclusion). It became increasingly clear that we could not say that those were our core values unless we changed our name to be inclusive of an emerging community that needed an enormous amount of support and a space to claim as its own. We did eventually become the LGBT Community Services Center. That was an important process to go through.
We cannot underestimate the importance of shifting the conversation away from identity and towards what our vision is of an inclusive SAGE or an inclusive movement, and what role all of us play in creating that space for inclusion of transgender people. Not just a support group here and there but to have transgender people woven into the fabric of SAGE as an organization. Also, when we talk about SAGE, it’s an organization about people dealing with oppression on the basis of age. That is some- thing that’s common to all older women. A politics of gender and sexual rights is something SAGE should champion and be at the forefront of.
Keisling: What Carmen just said is so important. We have so many different kinds of oppression we have to battle right now. We should be trying to eliminate the oppression and not each other. That should always be the goal—to start thinking about the oppressions and not the identities.
Kendell: Also, sexism and misogyny exist so deeply for a queer-identified people. If we can make the world safe for a transgender woman of color in some small rural town, then lesbian, gay and bisexual people will be far better off. Recognizing the enemy of our liberation as the same enemy of transgender individuals puts us in a much better place now than we were when this conversation started.
Adams: Kate, you’ve been the head of the National Center for Lesbian Rights since 1996. Currently at NCLR what are the trans projects that are front and center in your mind, and where do you hope to be in the near future?
Kendell: One question we always ask at NCLR is: who is being left behind? The second question is: what kind of country do we want to live in? Neither is particularly driven by identity. Although the first one is connected to identity to some degree, because in a nation that still has white supremacy at its core—and racism obviously still entrenched everywhere, and transphobia and homophobia—I think there is still a place for understanding that there will be individuals whose very identity makes them more of a target for oppression.