How Ignoring Gender Identity Discrimination Harms Lesbians
Years ago, I had a good friend who’s a very male looking lesbian. From a distance, we couldn’t tell if it was her or a teenage boy. She was frequently being hassled in public rest rooms, when women would freak out, thinking a boy was in there. At the time, I looked a lot more androgynous than I do now, so whenever we’d be out in public together, people would assume we were queer, but not sure what kind of queer.We used to do clinic defense together at the local planned parenthood, and one of the tactics of the anti-abortionists was to try to engage us in conversation. They’d alternate from week to week, calling us “you guys” or “you girls.” We didn’t know for ages what criteria they used until I figured it out– it was always based on the third person in our group. If it was someone who looked obviously female, we’d all be girls. If it was someone who looked obviously male, we’d all be guys.
It became a running joke, to the point where we tried to find someone else androgynous looking just to see if we could make their heads explode.
Even though there were funny aspects to it, it was difficult at the time; as much as I wanted to embrace androgyny on a certain level, I would get verbally attacked from time to time for it, and I even got chased a few times while riding my bicycle. At one point, a group of kids in a car started screaming at me, and I had to do some fairly complicated maneuvers to get away from them and move to a spot where their vehicle couldn’t easily follow (fortunately, I was on an offroad bike or I would have been royally screwed).
She had similar experiences, though not quite as bad as mine. She worked for a university in a department where they didn’t care about her gender presentation, but I had real trouble finding work at the time. It wasn’t until I started looking a lot more “feminine” that I found gainful employment, and I did get fired for not looking clearly one gender or the other on at least one occasion (and probably others I didn’t know about where they were more covert about it).
In my case, I think it’s personal comfort; when I was trying to present in a more androgynous fashion, it wasn’t as much about me as it was about my politics. I philosophically believe in breaking down gender roles, but I personally just don’t seem as motivated to do it myself. I was trying to present in a fashion which wasn’t consistent with my identity. I’m a (very out) dyke, but I’m not a butch dyke. So when I started presenting in a fashion which was more reflective of who I was, I became more comfortable in my own skin. I think that that was part of why gainful employment followed, but I also think that being androgynous is disquieting to a lot of people. While I think of it as sort of awesome on one level, I know it can get you harassed, threatened, fired, etc., for no other reason than that subtle discomfort that some people feel when they can’t easily fit you into a box.
For me, it was really a phase– something I was trying out to see how it felt. It wasn’t me, and it doesn’t suit me, and the mere fact that it doesn’t suit me makes it easier for me to find steady work. Frankly, that angers me.
For those lesbians who would have to make a special effort to try to “pass” as less androgynous or less butch, etc., this hardship can sometimes make the difference between survival or not. Just as with the firefighters who refused to come to the aid of Tyra Hunter when they discovered that she had male anatomy, lesbians who look outwardly male risk danger when they are at the mercy of rescue teams, employers or anyone else who can wield power over them.
I will say again: this isn’t just about employment or abstract rights. This is about survival. I am not being hyperbolic here: I know people who have committed suicide during their transitions for reasons that seem related directly to these very issues. When we separate ourselves from one another like this, we weaken the movement tremendously and we do direct, tangible harm to the well being of human beings.
Stripping down ENDA plays directly into this sense that those of us who don’t fit into obvious and simple gender roles are somehow unworthy or less relevant. Treating the politics as though lesbians, gay men and bisexuals are entirely separate from the transgendered ignores the great deal of overlap in terms of where prejudice comes from, how it manifests itself and what it means. We can not allow ourselves to be so easily divided by right wing bigotry. We can not allow ourselves to be so easily manipulated by the talking points of religious wingnuts.
We have to hold fast to the position which holds us all together.
If we can’t do this, we’ve lost already.