Thursday, July 28, 2016

Queer Disability Day: Transliterature Returns to the White House


"There is no way we will ever achieve justice
without recognizing these intersections...
that are written all over our bodies, our souls, 
our minds, our life experiences"

Finn Gardiner
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History

Today, July 28th, 2016, I sat beside my partner and listened to Sarah McBride become the first transgender person ever to address the Democratic National Convention. While she marked the significance of this moment in history, her primary concern was to call on Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to keep to her promise to bring the nation back from the deep hatred being directed at the transgender community, "in our laws and in our hearts." An important part of McBride's address was the intersection of disability and transgender in her family's life and politics. During McBride's short speech, she remembered her husband, a transgender man, who died of cancer only days after they became married. For them, the terminal status of illness compounded the terminal status of being transgender in America. This is their truth but also the truth of countless members of the LGBTQ and disability community. Each of these cultural identities and circumstances come with social prejudice as well as needs that require a wider community for support. By the end of the address, lasting only a few minutes, both my fiance and myself were fighting tears. We understood first hand how the intersection of transgender, queer, and disability politics on the national stage has the potential to change history, policies, and community.

A month ago, on June 27th, 2016, I was handing my identification to secret service personnel at the gates to the White House as they pulled up my invitation for the Forum on LGBTQ and Disability Issues, nicknamed LGBTQ Disability Day. In many ways, my return to the seat of the Federal Government was an uncanny replay of my first invitation. I was trying hard to maintain a professional, confident look while being wracked by uncertainty as I waited in line, asking myself, "did the White House really mean to invite me to discuss the state of the country?" In other ways, this second visit was substantially different both in terms of the event and my role. In my first meeting, Champions of Change, I was invited as an author and literature critic to discuss my story and the stories of other transgender persons among a room of writers, filmmakers, and television professionals. This time, I was invited as a scholar and consultant on the intersection of transgender, queer, and disability issues, to share ideas and tactics with policy makers and community leaders. The freshly of the experience for me was echoed by the event. This was only the second time that such a forum was being held at the White House. It is only recently that the President's White House would call for such an event where transgender and disability are given such a central place in discussions of the Federal Government.

Marking the recent breakthroughs in the politics of LGBTQ and Disability communities, our forum also served to mark the President's declaration of the Stonewall Inn as a National Monument.  This was the first time that a specifically LGBTQ site was honored as an United States monument. Furthermore, the new status meant that  as a part of the national park service, the site would be preserved and curated by a specially devoted staff for perpetuity. This ensured that the progress towards justice was not just full of moments but enacted an ongoing movement connecting the past, present, and future. As the declaration was announced, I looked around at the room filled with LGBTQ and disability activists from across many generations. There were those with friends and family at Stonewall, those who fought for HIV/AIDs research, those who fought over the policies that became the American's with Disability Act, those who pushed for and ushered in Marriage Equality, as well as those fighting for causes in the transgender, intersex, and disability community that are yet to gain wide recognition in the public. It was evident that this is not the room where history is merely celebrated, those in this room make history happen. As a historian myself, I've long felt that a historical perspective is not one of passive recognition but of active participation in a web of ongoing struggles that implicate us across time.

It becomes more certain every day that my children will grow up in a country much different than the one I inherited. As mothers, my partner and I try to curate for them history as it is being made and remade. We will take them to the Stonewall Monument and give it to them as a piece of their history. This will involve assisting them in getting to the site as well as understanding the text they cannot read or images they cannot understand. And we will fight alongside those at the 2016 Forum on LGBTQ and Disability Issues to ensure that such locations continue to become more accessible to peoples with a wider range of embodiments. Because when we are older, maybe not even much older, our children may be taking us to the monument with the hope that their blind mother, hard of hearing mother, or their mother in a wheel chair can continue to experience that history with them. The act of making history is always a collective one. History is reaching across boundaries of time, space, and differences in life experience. In this work, the work of assuring disability access is central to making history. The declaration of a monument is not the end of a road of progress but a commitment to an ongoing collective struggle.


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Policy

The Forum was split into two major topics: policy and community organizing. Speakers were chosen for each half to lead the conversation and introduce main topics. The first discussion to begin was government and business policy regarding LGBTQ and Disability issues. None of the chosen leaders were legislators but all had some direct role in consultation, advocacy, or the writing of laws. The moderator, Curt Decker, Executive Director of the National Disability Rights Network, humorously observed that the discussion was "a little heavy on attorneys... but that's okay." In a couple instances, such as Senior Policy Advisor from the US Department of Labor's Office of Disability Employment Policy, Day Al-Mohamed, their job was to advise the Federal Government, White House and President on issues relating to these marginalized communities. Also speaking was Professor Chai Feldblum, Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who was instrumental in drafting and negotiating the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Feldblum told the story of the development of the ADA from AIDs Initiatives led by the queer community and the conversations where gay leaders insisted that AIDS legislation could not be effective and just without addressing the disability community. Updates were given on where various initiatives have succeed and where they have failed. This included a variety of resources with the room, including best practice programs and recent research. Statistics were shared with the room, such as the current number of homeless youth that are LGBTQ in general (40%), nearly half, and transgender in particular, (7%). Likewise, the number youth in foster care who are LGBTQ (20%), around one in five. In the world of government, business, and policy, these statistics are powerful in pressing the gears of the system towards change. That is the value of holding a Forum such as this, where initiatives can begin, stories can be told, and these numbers can get to those who can do some good with them.

A moment of silence for those killed and injured at the Pulse Nightclub shooting set the tone for the first half of the discussion. With many of those present knowing members of the community in Orlando, the danger and need was freshly evident for such conversations happening at the highest levels. The leaders recognized how the tragedy and its relate conversations embodied the intersection of LGBTQ and disability issues. On the one side, it is only ever a brief time after a shooting before the media turns to "mental illness" or even "mental disability" as a root cause for such violence. This reinforces stigmas that holds that everyone with mental illnesses or disabilities are therefor prone to violence. Yet it also opens up the possibility to discuss the utter failing of social support and care for those with certain illnesses. What cultural forces may drive a person to consider violence? How might a society that instills hatred (even self-hatred) of queer and transgender persons incite someone to acts of destruction? How might shame around mental illness dissuade someone from getting help? On the other side, because of the shooting, many of those who survive will not experience first hand the intersection of queerness and disability. What does it mean to be gay in a wheel chair? How does one navigate sex with chronic pain? How might homophobia compound recent mental traumas? In any case, the shooting makes evident how support for disability justice is an import part of LGBTQ justice and how support for queer justice is a natural extension of disability justice. Now, more than ever, we need to use collectivity to overcome the symptoms of hate, fear, ignorance, and division.

Addressing the many queer victims of the Orlando shooting who will be joining the disability community for the first time, Feldblum asked, "will they understand their lives are still worth living?" In other words, one can become disabled yet not affirm membership in the disability community or affirming a positive, disability politics. The process of coming out and claiming pride in one's sexuality may now need to be repeated because of one's embodiment. This will begin with attending to the ableism in the queer community and in queer self-perceptions. Many of the speakers noted the long road in policy making that has required significant cultural shifts in order to move forward. Al-Mohamed noted how the disability and queer justice movements "share similar pathways" in the movement of these identities as (1) something (2) to hide to something (3) to fix to something to accept (4) to something to include. These turning points often hinge around the constant need to widen conversations from individual struggles to environment prejudices. LGBTQ and Disability Justice demands that we learn to see violence and marginalization on a systematic level, with interpersonal conflicts existing as symptoms of a wider disease. This means being able to see how systems are built with homophobia, ableism, transphobia and other biases built into how they operate or what their perceived goals are. "You can change all the structures in the world and if the people who make those structures continue to hold bias and animus and oppression and prejudice inside them, they will recreate those systems even if they don't intend to." She called for the redirection of the resources used to fight terrorism oversees to addressing the "body terrorism" in this country being directed at people with disabilities, people of color, bodies that are trans, bodies that are queer.

At the end of the policy section, a colleague of mine stood up and asked, "when will we stop applauding the White House and start annoying it?" It was a question asked out of frustration over the snails pace and often swerving away from justice on the road of change in government. Many in the room echoed the same groans. One response to the question came from a policy maker told his long history of activism beginning in the AIDs Crisis. "We have been annoying the White House for a long time and the change has come at an incredibly slow pace," he admitted, "but we need to keep up that annoyance and we can't despair." Another person responded to my colleagues demand for action but acknowledging the need for partnership between policy-makers who deal with the slow grind of government and grassroots organizers who deal with the immediate needs and suffering of communities. With that reply, the policy meeting broke up and we were able to exchange thoughts and feelings while the Community Organizer meeting was being set up. The question hit at tensions between the two groups: how we speak, who we are, and the rate at which we tend to get things done. The critique issued by my colleague was especially resonant with activists and scholars whose job is to engage with the immediate needs and stories of people outside the walls of government.  While we were lucky enough to be invited into the room where government conversations happen, most of us would have to step back out among our friends and family, those in need and those dying, and we will be accountable to them. We will have to answer for the government we advised and its slow responses. It is our job on days such as this to think the slow thoughts of government but to feel the immediate hurt of society. In the end, it is our job to be annoying and the White Houses's job to continue to invite that annoyance, and do something with it.


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Community

When the leaders of the Community Organizer meeting started, we heard the stories of many different activists, most of whom were transgender (including non-binary, gender queer persons), people of color, as well as crip. All of the leaders chosen to stand and tell their stories evidenced something most of those in the room already knew. Our political fights are intensely personal. A non-binary writer and librarian, Cyree Jarelle Johnson told how their life-sustaining medical care has been many times halted and insurance payments denied because healthcare providers refused to recognize the authenticity of documents that represented the complexity of Jarelle's gender. These systemic fissures around how gender and illness are managed often ignore the immediate costs of those abandoned in the cracks. "Their mistake could cost me my life, what does it cost them?" asked Johnson. Furthermore, Johnson stressed the high percentage of autistic people of color or queer homeless people with mental illness killed by police. These are not statistics on a legislator's one-sheet, these are members of Johnson's community. As another member and advocate in the autistic community of color,  Ma'ayan Anafi, policy consular for the National Center for Transgender Equality, echoed the same intimacy and immediacy. Anafi spoke on the pressing need to address the day to day discrimination of LGBT and disabled people which results in lives lost and lives locked away in a cornucopia of oppressive social mechanisms, "police brutality, mass incarceration, and the school to prison pipeline." Each day we wait to turn silence into debate, debate into policy, policy into laws, and laws into action, more lives are lost. If we seem frustrated or annoying, it is because we come to this Forum with friends and family at home dying.

Too often, misunderstanding the reason behind the anger, those used to the slow trod of government find the intensity of activists to be petty. "There is a stereotype of the crazy trans woman that is used to silent trans women," says Martela, "but it is true that trans women are suffering mental illnesses that is the direct result of the oppression they are faced." This pressing precariousness was repeated in the stories Greta Gustava Martela about her life and the life of others who call her Trans Lifeline network. With between 40-50% of transgender persons attempting suicide, the community does not have time to wait around for incremental change. If 40-50% of cisgender people were dying off, State and Federal governments would not be delaying help or actively worsening the conditions of the community. "Suicide is something that happens in isolation," Martela told the Forum. This means that it is not enough to address the concerns of those invited to a room in the White House. Because most trans people become isolated not by choice, because of mounting oppression, they could never travel to Washington DC if they were invited. "Many transgender people feel afraid to leave their houses," Martela reported. Despite the many travel demands of my word, this was a truth that I have personally experienced when I don't have the energy to risk myself or weathered myself against the antagonism of those I encounter on the streets or public transit, in homes or businesses. We must constantly be considering who is not in the room, who does not have the power or the time to travel and make their voices to be heard. That means going slow and listening when activists and community members speak, discerning the countless silenced voices echoing at their back.

Beyond the intensity of the speech, listening can be difficult because of the many different levels at which a voice resonates. A significant theme throughout the community organizing portion of the forum was about the role of intersectionality in the lived politics of LGBTQ and Disability issues. President of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network of the Greater Boston Area, Finn Gardiner, recounted the time spent homeless and otherwise abandoned outside government safety nets because he is a black, queer, trans, autistic disabled person. He told stories about being called rational slurs in a classroom for kids with disabilities, discriminated against by black and gay men in a homeless shelter for being trans, outcast from a community because he is autistic. "You think I would fit in," said Gardiner, citing how his many intersectional identities open many roads for shared experiences, yet he is too often marginalized because of other elements of his identity. There is expectations for him to be outgoing because he is black, he confesses Gardiner, but that conflicts with the whole image of who he is. Discrimination never happens because of all his identities at once but neither does acceptance ever cover all of his identities. These labels are often too quick and too small. Intersectionality is a complex word that signifies the complexity of every particular person by acknowledging how all these smaller words exist in a shifting constellation. This lived and every changing complexity means that we need to meet people where they are at and listen better to understand the many places they have been. Only by dwelling at intersections can we hear the many different directions a person is speaking. From this information, we need to make communities and policies with roads forward for each different person.

As the Forum came to a close, the issue of intersectionality exploded the conversation with Forum leaders taking turns to nuance the idea. It is a privilege not to have to talk about intersections, admitted Martela, "to be able to talk about the one thing." This is a privilege not possessed by most of the speakers at the Forum and many of those outside the White House. "I don't think that people are allowed to live at all their intersections," Johnson with a Pokemon reference. "People look at you like you are trying to 'collect them all,' like you have to have all the problems." Adding to this, Anafi warned against the 'collect them all' model of intersectionality, insisting that it does now come into being by merely adding one identity with all its baggage to another. These identities are directly linked. Currently proud to claim themselves as gender non-binary, Johnson recalls being allowed to live as a gender non-conforming person because they were diagnosed on the Autism spectrum at three-years-old. If we utilize these enfolded identities, where intersectionality is central, we can multiply the avenues through which we relate and care for one another. "There is not a sharp line between those calling the [Trans Life]line and those staffing the line... We are creating disability in the trans community by the ways we are treating them," declares Martela. "Overwhelming, the people who are staffing Trans Lifeline are disabled trans people." As a way to close the Forum, this last point strikes across the personal, immediate, and intersectional emotion at the heart of such work. Community Organizing is how a people who are suffering help each other and help themselves. Yet this is not enough, without allies in the policy world who have the privilege to offer different forms of power, these organizations will remain relatively small and contingent on volunteers. Until the local is able to better speak with the global, change will remain unacceptably slow.

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Afterward

It is a few hours later now, McBride has surrendered the stage to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. If Clinton is elected, her White House will be different than the one to which I was invited. We count on that when that unimaginable thing happens every four to eight years, when one President steps down and another steps up. We count on there being a difference, we count on change. It will be different because she is a white woman and President Obama is a black man. It will be different because 2008 to 2016 will not be the same as 2017 onward. We count on change, we hope for progress. In 2016, we hear the Democratic nominee saying things we did not hear in 2008. We hear a full throated commitment to LGBT justice. We hear more about disability justice. We hear her talking about the hard road to affordable medicine, mental health assistance, and social access. "To make real change happen," says Clinton on the right of disabled children to public education access, "you have to change hearts and you have to change laws." If we believe that voting a person into office matters, we need to believe that the next White House will be different. If President Clinton invites me, I will come back. If it comes to it, if President Trump invites me, I will come back. But whatever the White House, whoever lives and works there, I will not fight to make America *something* again. I want change. I want to make America trans, not cis again. I want to make America queer, not straight again. I want to make America crip, not decry "Crippled America." That was why I went and why I return to the White House, because who enters the room where things happen changes the nature of the room and what happens. And I hear that sentiment, the same sentiments expressed in both of my recent visits, just now be repeated at the DNC with the words, "Americans don't say, 'I alone can fix it,' they say, 'we will fix it together'." That is a mission that I want to continue to be a part.
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