Monday, November 30, 2015

LGBT Champions of Change: Transliterature at the White House

"Many transgender and gender nonconforming Americans 
have braved tragedy, discrimination, and violence 
simply for being who they are"

President Obama
Transgender Day of Remembrance

Goes to Washington

On November 23rd, 2015, I attended the White Houses's event to observe the Transgender Day of Remembrance and to honor LGBT Champions of Change in the arts. I was contacted earlier in the month with the invite in recognition of my scholarship, particularly my work with Transliterature and the Transform Talks. Despite numerous official documents being sent my way, it was not until I passed through the second of two security check-points, twice body-scanned, and twice interviewed that I began to believe that the White House was really allowing me - even inviting me - to enter. The security guards gave me a green pass-card with the letter "A" emblazoned on it in black. The card had a metallic chain that allowed it to hang around my neck so everyone could see at a glance whether or not I was welcome inside our national locum sanctum. As a transgender woman, I often am made to feel unwelcome in many places but here, today, this green card was an affirmation that I am accepted at the White House. I was invited to attend the national transgender day of remembrance and to celebrate those LGBTQI Champions of Change working in the arts. Until recently, this meeting would be unthinkable. It was not until 2015 that the word "transgender" was even spoken publicly by a U.S. president, much less would there be an event at the White House with the word prominently posted on it and named as the target demographic of those invited, remembered, and honored. This meeting was one powerful sign that the "Change" President Obama promised back in the 2008 election is underway. The change was not complete. Nor was the change embodied in a single candidate. Rather, change was being invited to the White House. It was brought in the present collection of activists and artists.

Ahead of me in line to enter the White House was members of the cast from Amazon's Transparent. The crowds shifted and I lost sight of them, unable to make out particular persons as we were shepherded down hallways and through locked doors. I began to fall back, not wanting to wander the halls of the chief executive building alone, I mingled in with those who were the next in the door. Behind me, I gathered, were producers of the Danish Girl. Only later would I come to realize how intermeshed the creative talents are making these groundbreaking pieces of transgender media. The drive to reclaim transgender stories and tell the untold histories brings together film and TV makers to share resources, struggles, and successes. With goals beyond merely entertaining an audience or profiting a production company, people are eager and willing to work with anyone who can help further transgender discourse and justice. I learned all this in our conversations on upcoming media and scholarship. I also learned this as we burst through a door into a coat-check area and I almost fell right into Jeffrey Tambor, the lead actor of Transparent (2014-), a show on Amazon Prime based on the true life story of a trans parent who transitioned later in life and her family's reactions. As soon as I walked in and found an empty space to stand, he acknowledged those I had entered with as colleagues and then came over to me. Hand extended, he said, "Hello, my name is Jeffrey. Honored to meet you!" In the discussions and meetings to follow, the openness to affirm and collaborate with the work of those present was evident.

During our conversations I was thrilled to discover that the production team for Transparent aimed to further the penetration and integration of trans creative workers into the TV and film industry by designating that at least 20% of their hires would be from the transgender community. This included writers, actors, and producers but also technicians, set builders, lighting experts, and assistants. "Many trans people have a desire to work in film but aren't given the entry level or advancement opportunities required to make a living in the industry," said one of the producers. "That is why we make it a point to hire, train, and promote trans talents. We want to make sure that they leave our production team with experience that will serve them as they continue on in their careers." This is the sentiment of artists and activists who understand that social justice is not just about changing narratives and representations but the systematic structures that determine what bodies are allowed to succeed financially, socially, or politically. Each of the speakers for Transparent and the Danish Girl echoed the intersectional and systematic calls for justice of the other speakers. Throughout the day, the LGBT Champions for Change demonstrated that society will never be able to fully affirm #translivesmatter without also affirming #blacklivesmatter, without crip allies, without intersex siblings, without straight, cisgender, white women, without men of privilege stepping from secure places of authority to redirect their power towards collective justice. Change is antithetical to polite politics as usual. Change means that the safe and familiar may have to pass away in order for a better world to be forged from the remains.



Systematic Change

After an hour of coffee and mingling, the official event began as the group filed into seats for a series of panels where guest speakers recounted the histories, literature (including film and TV), and activism currently being explored in LGBTQI politics. While the panels were framed by official and mainstream projects, including a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by Alex Newell who played the transgender woman of color, Unique, on Glee, nonetheless, the content of the event pushed radical and intersectional social justice agendas. Among the most radical calls for justice was a thread that ran throughout the day on reparations for oppressed minorities. The discussion began, as it should, with the still pressing need for reparations for African-Americans to further the realignment of society after the nation's violent history of chattel slavery. The White House continues to stand as one of the countless American institutions built on the backs of slaves who are yet to be properly compensated for generations of exploited labor and abuse. Echoing a theme of the event, social justice demands more than representational concessions but seismic structural reforms that forever changes the map of cultural powers in the country. It is not enough to affirm, like, or speak support for #blacklivesmatter. Rather, society needs to shake ups in police protocols, hiring practices, and cultural orientations. The White House's Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, a transgender woman of color recently hired to direct outreach and recruitment for the Office of Presidential Personnel, noted the ways the White House affirms the call for systematic changes through strategic hires and training for members from across marginalized communities.

Aditi Hardikar, the LGBT Liaison to the White House, stressed the intersectional scope of the day's discussions in her opening remarks on the use of the term transgender and LGBT in the event's title, which she admitted represents in limited language an eye towards a wider discourse on other queer, gender non-conforming, and intersex communities. Indeed, the call for reparations was taken up later in the day by intersex activists seeking justice for the innumerable intersex children currently and historically surgically altered by doctors at birth. Such doctors follow an intersexist belief that a child must match expected ideals of cisgender male/female embodiment. As a result, doctors have and continue to alter the genitals of children born with non-normative intersexual embodiments in order to bring them back in line with norms. In the process, doctors make decisions about the gender expression that child should be raised to emulate. This surgical alteration and cultural limiting of intersex children's lives can cause significant gender dysphoria and other anxieties about the body - in many cases resulting in depression and suicide. A keystone of intersex activism is the demand that such medical practices be stopped immediately and children allowed to develop outside the gender binary and to chose their own gender presentation. Furthermore, the champions for change called for reparations from the doctors and hospitals who surgically altered the intersex children's sex and gender - often causing a lack of sexual sensation and trauma for the rest of their lives. By holding the medical industry financially responsible for these systematic malpractices, the intersex community can rebuild lives and the place of non-binary persons in society. Throughout the day, the concept of reparations was reimagined as a way to reorient cultural narratives and power.

While remarks and promises were fairly measured from the official representatives of the White House, notably Senior Advisor to the President, Valerie Jarrett, and the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro, there was an evident ownership and pride in hosting scholars, activists, and artists to say the things that need to be said, to point where we need to go, and to provide the muscle to get there. Jarret spoke on the President's recent observance of Transgender Remembrance day and the specific emphasis was given to the tragic stories of trans women of color being killed at an accelerated rate. As Castro concluded in his address, America needs to stop seeing people of color as a problem for the LGBT community and instead see people of color as an undervalued, underutilized source of power where LGBT change can erupt. Of the many statements that summarized the radical statements not only said in the White House that day but the statement that the occurrence such an event embodied, Alexandra Billings perhaps put it the most succinctly, "I think we need to be really mindful," Billings said. "This is not only historic, all of us in this room, but this is divine intervention at its most astonishing. I am of a generation where this would not only be impossible but illegal." Indeed, for all the flaws and failures of government, an African-American President of the United States, the first in the office to utter the word transgender publicly, to support an event where artists and activists called for radical change, solidarity, and reparations is significant. Yet Billings reminded everyone present to remain vigilant. "I think in order for us to continue to change the world," Billings added, "we need to remember there are people on the outside who need to be comforted, educated, and honored; especially the voiceless." Even as we remember our fallen and celebrate our champions, we must ever press forward into the margins.



A Day to Remember

Beyond the formal meetings and panels, the event kept to the goal of remembrance, bringing people working along different ends of art and activism to weave together the disparate threads of transgender history. With Jeffrey Tambor, I discussed family. As the lead in Transparent, Tambor plays Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman who transitions late in her life after having three children, who call her Moppa. The show is not only about Maura but rather - as my own mother has observed - more about her family as they experience the transition together. Transparent understands that no trans person's experiences, no life, occurs in complete isolation. Even the points of conflict and separation demarcate another place our lives take shape. We become like life-sized statues, brought into shape both by what is preserved (highlighted) and what is removed. Tambor's family lives in New York and is awaiting the upcoming winter. He asks about my family. I tell him about my partner and our two young girls. We talk about the difficulty in raising children who recognize and value their queer, trans family in a world that does not reflect their lives back to them. Art is often more of a mirror than a window and raising children with so few representations on TV or in the movies that allow them to reflect back on the particularity of their family can be difficult. This is one reason queer, femme, trans, crip, people of color are often better at creativity and understanding metaphors in literature, I often say. We know the world is not built for us and does not tell our story, so we must always translate things for our own use and contemplation. In this way, the lives of children with a trans parent at once suffer a loss but also gain an acute power that will allow them to better understand and transform the world around them. At the end of our conversation, after I shared about the girls, my voice was cracking. Stepping forward, embracing me, Moppa gave me a big hug.

In another moment, I got to have a conversation walking down the halls of the White House with Bradley Whitford about transgender politics and the history. Whitford is well known for these "walk-and-talks" from his role, Josh Lyman on the West Wing. But today the discussion progressed through a shared interest in the erased pre- and early modern history of transgender. "This is nothing new," Whitford said. "I just saw a great production of Twelfth Night and I kept on thinking, 'this is nothing new.'" That is interesting, I replied. I pointed out that Shakespeare not only imagines those assigned women bucking the system to live as men, but specifically had Viola call themselves Cesario, "an eunuch." Shakespeare's London was no stranger to trans and non-binary genders. Castrate and effeminate boys were a staple of the London theater, playing primarily female roles. Then again, there were the trans men of London, such as Moll "Cutpurse" Frith who was so well known that nearly every other major playwright included him or referred to him in their productions of London Comedies. But in creating roles such as Cesario, Shakespeare pointed to the many trans masculine personas that filled his world and creative environment. Eunuchs and other castrates, while different than current day trans women or men, constituted a unique gender - physically, socially, legally, and theologically. Cesario the Eunuch is a singer because while London knew few eunuchs in person - they may not know one by sight - the eunuch/castrati voice was a staple in English theater to such an extent that plays included the stage direction "eunuchs play music off stage" without the audience needing to be told it was eunuchs singing. "This is nothing new," I agreed with Whitford. In so many ways, what we do on this day in the White House is not the forging of a new path but the remembering of an old, long, hard fought road.

At the end of a day that seemed to occur all at once in some kind of temporal ball of yarn, I felt the weight of histories many crossing trajectories leaving me floating as others flew off in diverse directions. Time is sprawling, time is deep. Henri Bergson called the inconstant lived perception of time "duration" to distinguished it from the ordered clock-work of measured time. We punctuate our lives with moments, progressions, and cycles. The repetition of events occurs through rituals, where we are brought back again and affirm a shared experience with others from different points in history. Together, across time, we endure.  We call such temporal quilting points where disparate threads of life are woven together "days of remembrance." On these days we passively remember - we bring the forgotten parts of our past back into lived memory. On these days, we actively re-member - we bring the discarded, lost, and erased members of our community and our bodies back together. In our search for that which has been cut off and rejected, we become like Chaucer's Pardoner, digging through the trash heaps of history and society to reclaim and re-narrate the forgotten parts of the past back the world. Some may call this literary dumpster diving, selling trash to an exploited market, but by rebranding the discarded and refused, these projects in historical activism set a new value for lives in the present. In this way, the restructuring of time becomes a critical project of activism. The front line of our activism may be in our past, marking the endurance of lives and imagining a history for a people too often isolate in and by the time of a hateful world. On such occasions when we get to momentarily step aside from our timelines to remember, honor, and observe, we come to recon how much comes into being out of and remains interdependent on relationships to create, sustain, and resurrect them. Another way to say this is: all things endure or fade behind the walls of time's oubliettes because of love or the lack of love.



"I think we need to be really mindful. This is not only historic, all of us in this room, but this is divine intervention at its most astonishing. I am of a generation where this would not only be impossible but illegal. So I think in order for us to continue to change the world, we need to remember there are people on the outside who need to be comforted, educated, and honored - especially the voiceless"

Alexandra Billings


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