IFGE Attlanta Action, March 1995
Welcome to IFGE Atlanta Action 1995. It's a new name for an old conference. Why a new name?
I heard Don Hewitt, producer of 60 Minutes for 25 years, and a legend in television, talk about his success. "I don't know the secret formula for success," he said, "but I do know the formula for failure. All you have to do to fail is to sit on your laurels." Why Atlanta Action? Because it's time for us to get up off our laurels. We need some changes to get us ready for the future.
Transgendered People At A Certain Time in History.
This is a very exciting time in history. The iron curtain has fallen, the cold war is over. The information revolution is here, with live pictures in our living room from a coup in Moscow, thanks to Altlanta's CNN. And gender bending? It's out there, bigger and bigger, with Priscilla, Mrs. Doubtfire, Ru Paul, Wang Foo and lots more. The next millennium is fast approaching, and life will be different, different in ways we cannot yet even guess about.
I was talking about this with Leslie Feinberg. The key phrase in our conversation was "We are transgendered people at a certain time in history." Not, as Leslie pointed out in the past, during the time of the berdache, nor in the future, whatever that's going to look like. We are transgendered at this time.
An old question is history class was Does the man make the time, or does the time make the man? While I might change man to person, it is a question worth pondering for each of us. We are transgendered people at a certain time in history.
What does the world look like at this time? It is a world on the precipice of change. Old models are falling of their own weight, models of religion, economics, politics, relationships, of gender, of everything. Many are trying to stop this change, but there is no way the tide of history can be stopped. We can only attempt to shape change, to accommodate it, to ride it.
Myths and Reality
Maybe the biggest changes we will have are in the myths we build our lives on. Myths are the central part of our belief structures, crucial to who we think we are. Shaping the myths at the core of this culture shapes the way that we all act.
Joseph Campbell, when asked about myths for the future, replied that our future myths will resemble our older ones, carrying the same essential and eternal wisdom, but will be told in the style and the symbology of our time. Yes, even myths, tales of humanity, change to accommodate the time. Today's myths come to us in colorful animated pictures directly into our home, directly into our lives.
I realized how important myths are when I heard Dr. Sheila Kirk talk about the medical advances in understanding the roots of transgender a few years ago at Southern Comfort. By accepting that certain things are born in us, that humans come with a wide range of predisposition, including sexual orientation, we are changing the creation myth of our culture. This movement, started with monks in the 1600s who were trying to become more godlike by understanding God's handiwork, has lead us to a scientific creation myth. A myth that changes to meet new and evolving knowledge - and new and evolving needs, a myth that scares the hell out of fundamentalist Christians, and I mean that literally.
Myths are ways to express what we believe, but cannot quantify. Even that master salesman, Zig Ziglar, has said that "Storytelling is the key to learning." The question is, what stories do we hold in common, what shared vision do we keep to connect us? What common threads lie under our diverse individual expression?
Mythic Demons or Mythic Humans?
Most of us grew up in the cold war era where the stories were about "them." We knew that having a common enemy could pull us together. I recently read a great book MIA: Mythmaking In America, talking about how the myth of live POWs was invented by the Nixon administration to sell our actions in Vietnam. This POW myth has been used for years to highlight the moral destruction of America, the shame of leaving our soldiers, our honor in Vietnam. It keeps the legacy of Vietnam, this enormous psychic wound in our history, alive.
Myths with an enemy are classic, and we are in a period where the Right is using them powerfully. Bill Moyers talks about the demonology of Newt and others, who develop lists of words to demonize their opponents: sick, pathetic, anti-family, and others. The message: Anyone who disagrees with me is a demon, not a human. I have the right, the perfect answer, and any technique to make it happen is OK. My positive ends justify any negative means. This is bad thinking. Always remember that evil flourishes when good people think they are perfect, when they think that they have the only right answer.
The premise of these enemy myths is to create a separation between us and them, to divide people into groups. The only reason to divide people is to gain power over them. Why does Jerry Falwell beat up on queers? To solidify his own power with the scared. He understand that old military manouever of Divide and Conquer, one where you weaken opposing forces by splitting them, either physically or emotionally. If you get white exploited people to fight with black exploited people, they both are weakened in their challenge to the common power that exploits them. Simple. If you get women to fight with men, then their power to fight the common roots of their oppression is crippled.
If we want to lessen the power of Jerry Falwell, the only way is convince his followers that they have nothing to fear. Change is just change, not the evil trick of the devil. This is something that Robert Schuller has already been doing in his ministry, telling his flock that boundaries are changing, and that is not bad, just part of a natural process of growth and opening. To quote him: It's not Odd. It's God.
We need a new vision, one based on love, not on fear. To fight fear with fear is to let the old paradigms win.
Building On Our Continuous Common Humanity
We must go into the world and announce boldly that there is no them, there is only us. We are all solidly the same at the core, no matter how diverse we are on the surface. We need to learn not to share a common enemy, but rather, to share a common friendship. Anything which divides us is merely flavor, not substance.
This is the growing center of the new myths in this country. We can trace this to the Civil Rights Movement, a movement that was strong right here in Atlanta, whose primary message was simple: We are all the same, and should be treated that way. To listen to Martin Luther King's speeches again today is a revelation, with the messages sounding clear and fresh: Respect all people, remove the arbitrary limits on them.
Martin Luther King had a dream, a dream of freedom and equality that we are all still working for today. Our brothers and sisters in the Gay & Lesbian movement have that same dream, and over the past 25 years since Stonewall, they have changed a lot of attitudes, gained a lot of acceptance. They came out, stood up for their rights, and through the course of time, they have been winning them, though the challenges are far from over, especially with Cobb County's own Newt in the house.
This is the challenge for transgendered people, to build a dream we all can share, and that we can share with society at large. A vision that talks about our continuous common humanity. A vision about how linking sex and gender roles limits everyone in this culture, man or woman, girl or boy, male or female.
The women's movement has already laid the seeds for this, declaring that "Biology is not destiny." Genitals are not destiny. Our goal must be to work with the women's community and with all other communities, building on our shared visions of empowering people to be whoever and whatever they want to be. We must connect, as Leslie Feinberg reminds us, with all the people who are limited by this gender system, whether they call themselves transgendered or not.
Bill W, who many of you may know as the founder of AA, used to recall the words his grandfather shared while walking in the woods near their home in Dorset, Vermont. As a Civil War veteran, he had seen the country ripped apart by a bloody war, one that is vividly remembered here in Atlanta.
On those walks, Bill's grandpa used to tell him: "Democracy only works when we focus on what we share in common rather than on what divides us." Focus on what we share in common rather than on what divides us. Simple to say, hard to do.
When Anne Bolin says "In cultures that have rigidly bi-polar gender systems, rituals of crossdressing show our continuous common humanity," our role is clear. We are here to remind people of what we share in common, what we all share in common regardless of race, gender or other social constructs.
Casting Out Shame
To be effective in connecting with other people, we need to focus on the same things our gay brothers and sisters have done. We need to cast out the layers of shame that have been heaped on us because of our transgendered nature, the long tail of shame that we carry with us.
Let me take a moment to describe what I mean by shame. Shame is a deep seated feeling that something is wrong with you. It is a feeling that you should be ashamed of who you are, that somehow inside you are not worthy, are diseased. When you are ashamed inside, when you have internalized the "shoulds" that this heterosexist culture lays on us and believe that somehow you are less of a person, then you are controlled by your shame.
When you are controlled by shame, it is almost impossible to have a happy life. You may think that you have to be who others want you to be, say what others want you to say in order for them to like you. You may think that you have to manipulate people into liking you. You may try to destroy yourself, try to fail because you think that you deserve it. You may be unable to let people close to you because you are scared if they know who you really are, they will hate you. If you cant let people in, you will always have an empty place inside of yourself that you may try to stuff with food, drugs, rage, sadness.
Codependency, lack of intimacy, destructive behavior. Shame is the root of all of these things, and many, like John Bradshaw and Merle Fossum, have talked about these issues. I encourage you to look at your own shame if you have not yet done so.
We need to cast off the shame we feel so that the humiliation that the gender defenders (as Kate Bornstein calls them) use to control us just doesn't work. We need to unwire the buttons that are connected to our shame, whatever they cause us to do. People can smell shame at 30 paces, and when they smell it in us, they run. The goal is not to become shameless, but rather to refuse to be ashamed, to let go of our shame.
How have the gays & lesbians refused to be ashamed? They have focused on one of the few things that can cast out shame: Pride. To learn to be proud of their actions, proud of their work, proud of their caring, proud of their honesty, proud of their lives, proud of who they are. We are all God's children. They know that only by living in a way they can be proud of can they stand up without shame and be effective. This is one reason this gathering next year will be called IFGE Minneapolis Pride 1996, dedicated to the ways we can build pride in the gender community.
We all know lots of people in this community who are crippled by shame. They may cover it with a macho swagger, a healthy dose of denial, or bold and brassy behavior, but in any case, it is behavior from shame. As long as we cover for people who come from their own shame and dysfunction, as long as we enable them, we do a disservice to the entire community, perpetuating a model that has oppressed us, held us all back.
Who are our oppressors? I think if you look, you will find that we have been trained to oppress ourselves. Until we break that pattern of internal oppression, oppression that comes from shame, we will always be oppressed. We need to have the gumption to actually let people agree with us, to be winners, the strength to let people in, see us whole, and love us. This is not simple. I know how much easier it is to talk the talk than to walk the walk, but we all have to try to actually face our fears, and accept our own beauty, strength and power.
Some people accept shame as natural. One leader said that "Everyone in the gender community is dysfunctional. It's just the way we are." While, to the degree that everyone in this culture has some level of dysfunction, that may be true, please do not include me in that generalization, for I am actively working to heal. If we expect to find dysfunction, we will find it. We need to change our expectations to health, and encourage others to come from their inner beauty & strength, not their dysfunction.
Some try to use shame for control. For example, anyone who says "Not in front of the children!" is trying to tell us that our nature is shameful, wrong and should be hidden from the innocent who can't yet handle evil. There are those who have an agenda to limit transgender, to keep it closeted, "for our own good." Those people are perpetuating the dysfunction, the illness, and we must have the strength to stand up to them and claim our own lives and experience.
I have seen so many people who are trying to heal their own shame, but as they expose the wounds of shame, they immediately get attacked in the community. I am not the first person who has wanted to "leave the gender community." When our choice is to sustain our own shame, enabling others, or to open up our own awareness and then to be assaulted by the things we are trying to walk away from in our life every time we go to a gender event, this is very difficult. We end up working to create separation from others with shame as we heal, and often we never go back, leaving others in their own shame laced world.
This overwhelming reaction to the sea of shame we see around us is one of the most difficult things we go through. Too often when we show the pain of this response, we are isolated, cast out, disconnected specifically because we are healing. This is something that must stop if we want to promote healing of ourselves, our gender peers, and our world. We must support each other in healing, not in shame.
Changing Our Models
One of the first steps in abandoning shame is in abandoning the old medical models of transgender. Transsexuals who claim that "I have always been a woman, I just had a little birth defect that I fixed" and crossdressers who claim "We are all just guys in dresses, and that is all that any of us will ever be, even if some get their dick bobbed," are both part of the problem. They are taught to deny their essential transgendered status, the status that holds them together, in order to appear as better men or better women. These people all propagate the fear of separation that comes from not being firmly entrenched in the system of gender. They end up supporting a gender system that keeps all of us limited.
We need to understand the bi-polar system of gender, intended to be a system of heterosexist pressure, a system that comes naturally to a society where reproduction is the most important thing. We need to understand that this bi-polar system is designed to separate and divide us. Being firmly entrenched in the system of gender means that we are already separated from a large group of the population, separated from the "opposite sex."
Any models that try to get us to fit into society by forcing us to move from one gender box to another are just plain wrong. It doesn't matter if it's the "Now I'm Biff, Now I'm Suzy" model of crossdressing, or the "Are they a he or a she?" model of transsexualism. They are both dead ends, both perpetuating the gender system, not liberating us from it.
Any model that forces us to deny who we essentially are is a dead end, a path to shame and to segregation. There has been discussion on the Internet about the concept that passing as something we are not is passť, and many have seen the parallels in the ends of passing in other movements. On 60 Minutes, I saw Ed Bradley ask Lena Horne: "Did you ever think of trying to pass as white?" Lena replied, eyes widening "My grandmother would have killed me! It never occurred to me to be anything but what I was!" It never occurred to me to be anything but what I was! How many of us can stand up and say that?
Riki Anne asks the same question: Can you imagine gay conferences where they teach gays to pass as straight? While some of us can remember that the original Daughters of Bilitis had a skirts-only dress code, we also know that the movement did not take shape until gays could stand up and simply be who they are.
The last 30 years of the Benjamin/Prince model of transgender has been an important start, but it is time to move to new models that acknowledge and celebrate our deep, consistent transgendered nature. Imagine a button, This Is What A Transgendered Person Wears, and it doesn't matter if you wear it on a suit or a dress. You are transgendered, and that is important, not simply what you wear or how you act.
The other thing we have to drop is the fear of victimization. We need to understand that we have responsibility for our own life, and the only way to change our experience of life is to change the way we choose to see it. If we see ourselves as powerless and dysfunctional, we will be.
If you think you can OR if you think you can't, you are right. As long as we think that other people have the power to shape our experience, they will.
This is a very hard lesson for many of us to learn. We are so used to thinking that somehow it is "their" fault. But in the long run, it doesn't matter whose fault it is, it is your responsibility to create your own happy and productive life. We need to stop blaming "them," stop being victims. While there still will be events where we are victimized, if we reject victimization, we will not be controlled by others, but by ourselves.
In order for terrorists to win, they only have to make you afraid to act in ways that might challenge them. You have to be afraid of being a victim. As long as you act from fear, you let the gender defenders win in their war of terror, controlling you with the terror of separation.
What Is Transgender?
Transgender is a living, breathing thing: you. How you create your life as a transgendered person is an act of personal expression, a work of your own art.
The Prince often reminds us of the invention of the word transgenderist, which is supposed to simply echo the definition of a non-op transsexual, someone living full time in one gender box or another without surgery.
This is a very limited and restrictive view, a sop to the bi-polar heterosexist system of gender we were taught was normal. But as Harry Benjamin said to Christine Jorgensen, "We don't know what normal is. We only know what is customary." We must have a model of transgender that is much more broad and inclusive, bringing in all who actively shape their own gender expression without regard to society's conventions of what is pink and what is blue. We must redefine the customs of this society to allow unique customization. Get the pipes chopped & channeled, or new upholstery, and we are still the same.
Maryann Kirkland knows well that even in her boy clothes she is still seen as transgendered. I know that my staff has seen my feminine side even when I am trying to live at my most macho. I know that the women I am attracted to are women who have embraced their masculinity, just as I have I have embraced my femininity. They may not choose to wear glue-on mustaches, but they do see themselves as full and complete people working to build a balance in their lives.
We are always transgendered, always with one foot in each world. Is being forced to choose one gender or the other really a choice? You can be a woman. You can be a man. You can be who you are in this moment. You can be who you are in this moment.
The Gender Revolution
We are at the edge of a revolution. What kind of revolution will it be? I think it will be a revolution not like the violent revolutions, like the Soviet revolution, but rather a revolution in thought and ideas. Like African-Americans or Gays, we need to first share a vision of our own pride, and take that vision to the public. The public needs to know that encouraging expression of gender variations between individuals will not destroy the world, but will allow freedom for all. The revolution is coming.
The US is struggling with this issue in the post cold war period: how do we pull together in a world without a common enemy? As I have said, I think the answer is simple: we start learning how to be common friends. We come from love, not fear. We have to stand up and start taking responsibility for getting along in our lives, not just pointing fingers at "them." The only way we change "them" is to change the ideas of our neighbors, change our world.
There are those in this room who will say that this is a clear point, and that everyone already knows this. I want to say one thing to them: never underestimate the time it takes to educate the American public. Heck, most TG people don't even know about our common humanity. We have only scratched the surface of those who are constrained by the gender system.
We know that most TG people have never joined the organizations of the gender community, that they are alone and silent. Our messages of how to cope with shame through bi-genderism or transsexual surgery have not resonated with most transgendered people, for good reasons. I know they never resonated with me. I wrote a piece on The Tyranny Of Passing ten years ago in 1985, soon after I came out into TGIC in Albany.
No, the tools of our revolution will be shared dreams, shared visions, shared stories, & shared myths that we can tell other people in the language and media that they understand. This focus on their language may be as uncomfortable as the boring dark suits & ties that all the first Civil Rights leaders wore, but it is a step in our existence. These dark suits were an understanding that you have to pick your battles carefully, to not reject the entire world, but rather to focus on what must be changed. Change comes one step, one mind at a time.
Terry Murphy said it best when she said "What we need are some sane, healthy, bright TG people to be out there telling people why TG is just another expression of humanity." Others have made the same point. Eve Burchart has noted that "The era of talk shows for TG people is over. We need to be out in our churches, out in our families, out in our communities, out in our lives." We need to be out.
We have a long history of transgendered clowns, even the wise and witty fool, and we need to play on that history, not simply play into it. The clown often draws attention, but not respect. We need to merge the fool with the sage, to give our neighbors a message of sharing that they can embrace, not one of shame and shouted demands that will keep us down, keep us isolated.
William Dragoin, who has done work on gynomimetic, or transgendered shamans, notes that the imagination, creativity and spiritual strength of TG people has long been an important part of human cultures. Dragoin says: "It's like a baseball team. We all have a part to play. And as long as transgendered people spend so much time dealing with stigma, they won't be able to play their important role, and we will all suffer for it."
As long as we come from our shame, we will always be isolated and apart. Let's face it. The old models of transgender were designed merely to help us survive in a world of stigma and shame. We must create new models that allow us to thrive, be whole, authentic, healthy and happy. We must not settle for being walking wounded - we must learn to heal ourselves.
Have A Coke and A Smile!
(drinks from Coke bottle) Excuse me. I just wanted a sip of Coke. When I am here in Atlanta, I like to go to The World Of Coca Cola museum. Why? Because I think it is the most potent symbol of revolution anyplace in the world, including the Kremlin. The East may have been red for a time, but Coke painted the whole world red, with Drink Coca Cola signs -- and people are still clamoring for more.
The revolution of this time in history is the information revolution. What do we call changing ideas, opinions and behaviors through information? Today, we call it marketing. The World Of Coca-Cola is an shrine to the most successful marketing campaign in the history of the world, one that put fizzy flavored sugar water on everyone's lips. If we are looking to change ideas, opinions, and behaviors, we could do far worse than looking at Coke.
One interesting book is For God, Country & Coca-Cola by Mark Prendergast, a nice 1993 corporate history of "a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." Oh, sorry -- that's anthropologist Clifford Geertz's definition of a religion.
Prendergast notes "The most powerful Coca-Cola appeal has not, ultimately, been sexual or psychological, but communal: if you drink Coke, the ads suggest, you will belong to a warm, loving, accepting family, singing in perfect harmony. If we can't quite succeed in finding that stress-free society today, never mind -- we'll find it tomorrow. We'll build a better world for you, and me, and everyone. It's a beautifully seductive message, because it's what we all want." Isn't it though?
Yet even Coke had to deal with gender. Coke had to figure out if their soft drink was masculine or feminine in French. Le Coke/La Coke. Quebec, masculine, France feminine. You figure.
There is much more to be said about how marketing messages are the key to long lasting revolutions, seductive messages of connection and acceptance. But it is clear to me that anyone who wants to call themselves a revolutionary at this time in history can learn much more by studying Coke than by studying Marx & Lenin.
How about this for a starting slogan: (singing) "Always Transgendered."
Healing Our World
Think about this. Can our means be separated from our ends? If we choose to approach things in a dysfunctional way, to reinforce gender stereotypes, to come from our shame, to use the tools of the patriarchy, can we ever transcend the limits we now struggle with?
The answer to this is clear. It is not sufficient to talk the talk of love, acceptance, consensus, compromise, and respect, it is crucial that we live those things everyday. The only way to heal our world is to heal the people in it, and the only one that you have the full responsibility of healing is you. You have to clear yourself of the old patterns, or they will continue to recreate the old problems. One definition of insanity is to repeat the same action over and over expecting a different result.
Change can only come to our world if it comes to us first. Our means are our ends, for what we put out is what we shall receive. Simple. Too many people are trying to heal the world before they heal themselves. That's just impossible.
Passing On The Dream
But I remind you that this is the conference of the International Foundation For Gender Education. The work we most need is the work of education, of creating and passing an infectious dream, a dream of freedom of gender expression that will free everybody to be the best that they can be. We need to market our vision to the world.
Our primary action must be education. We need to understand our shared vision, and go forth and share it with the world. We need to talk to our family and our friends. We don't need to storm the ramparts, we need to ring the doorbell, show up proud and clear and share our dream. A revolution of Avon ladies. Ding, Dong. Transgender Calling.
Alison Laing says that she is educating people "One by one. One on one." That's the way that it works.
The marketing & education revolution won't be instantaneous, but it will be effective and long lasting, and this is crucial.
I recently saw a PBS special on women's suffrage. It's hard to remember that it's only about 75 years ago that women got the vote after a 90 year battle, 1840-1920. That was part of a major change in the way we see gender. Changes in social constructs like race and gender are not speedy, but they are inevitable. We need to change the ways people think, and this takes time.
My all time favorite gender story is simple. James Green was at the APA with the IFGE, and a big old shrink came up to him, choosing to talk to the "man" at the table. "What's this all about?" he asked. James told him it was about transgender, transsexualism. "I don't need that. I don't believe that God makes mistakes."
James simply replied "Neither do I." Did the shrink get it? Maybe not. But James said it, and the guy heard it. We are not mistakes, we are all perfect children of God.
Share your vision here. Be proud. Educate each other, invigorate each other to take the most important action of all: opening our hearts and sharing with others the story that all humans are the same. We share 98% of DNA in common with chimps! How different can we be? Our race, our history, our gender expression are only flavorings, not substantial differences that can be used to divide us as groups. We need to remember that they is us, and the only way true change comes is when enough people know that it is time for change to occur, and agree on what must come next.
Doris Lessing said that Learning is when you finally understand something you have known all of your life. People know that judging people on any thing but the quality of their individual behavior towards others is wrong, but they may need your help in understanding it. You can help them.
Go out and take some Action. Educate someone: a legislator, a talk show host, the local League of Women Voters, your local gay pride committee, your block association, anyone. And suggest something that you can do together to help make the world a better, more open and supportive place for all of us.
Remember that as we heal ourselves, we heal our world. Be healed, be proud, be strong, be open and be compassionate, and share your dreams. You just might find, as some of us in this room have, that there are many who want to help, from all sexes, genders, races & walks of life.
It just may change your life - and change your world - for the better.