[Edited to add context: I am a trans woman. I have not yet publicly transitioned, so I still present as male. And I am a police officer.]
In “Milk”, the movie starring Sean Penn, there is a scene which haunts me. In a strategy meeting with fellow activists, Harvey Milk points out that they’re making no headway because most homosexual people are in the closet, and so almost all heterosexual people think that they don’t know any homosexual people. He says that everyone needs to come out, so that people can see that homosexual people are regular people, just like them. One of the other activists says, rather guiltily, “I’m not out to my father.”
Milk hands him the phone.
(I could not find a link to this clip. If anyone has one, please contribute.)
Harvey Milk had a good point. I have heard a senior member of my family declare that she does not know any gay people. Her college roommate, back in the first half of the twentieth century, was nicknamed “Butch”, and since college Butch has lived her entire life together with another woman. But this member of my family doesn’t know any gay people…
People have to stand up. They have to speak out. If members of a vilified minority don’t testify, if we don’t represent, then people are free to go on thinking any damn thing they want about us. Someone has to be first, on the tip of the spear, and even if you’re not first, well, someone has to be second. And third.
I’m a long way from being first. Whatever I do to advocate for trans people, I do by walking down a road paved by others, trans and otherwise: Christine Jorgensen, Sylvia Rivera, Becky Allison, Gwen Araujo, Linda Simpson, Julie Marin, Leslie Feinberg, Monica Helms, Kate Bornstein, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stephan Thorne, Robert Eads, Helen Boyd, Betty Crow, Pat Califia, Lynne Conway, Mina Caputo, Christine Daniels, Brandon Teena, Ina Fried, Autumn Sandeen, Buck Angel, Wendy Carlos, Andrea James, and too many others to list. (There are many thousands of such people who have gone before me. If you are trans and conscious of a debt to someone I did not name, please feel free to comment.) Many of these people are dead, and most of those didn’t die of old age. They are, and were, human; all of them are/were flawed, and some I don’t admire. But I have to give them this: they stood up. Some of them are activists, some are advocates, and some are “just” people who live their lives.
They aren’t all paragons of bravery, either. Some went right to the brink of suicide before they transitioned. See Jennifer Finney Boylan’s superb She’s Not There. Some did their best to transition and then committed suicide.
But they all stood up. I haven’t stood up.
It gnaws at me.
It’s an homunculus which sleeps in my gut. Every so often, he wakes up and demands an accounting: What have you done to justify the oxygen you used up today? He and I are on pretty good terms, generally. I work in a job where I can often help people, where I sometimes I even have the honor and privilege to stand between the abuser and the abused. But more and more often, he says, “So. When are you going to stop hiding? There are other people out there, you know. They’re taking shrapnel. You could be standing next to them, in front of them, and they need you, too.”
During his warm welcome to my first blog post here, Robert mentioned that he appreciated my bravery in sharing my stories and my life. Over at the My Husband Betty boards, I mentioned that I had posted at Alas, and a poster there also lauded my bravery.
That’s nice to hear. If you press me, I know that I’m brave to some extent. My job can be dangerous and unpleasant, but I do it anyway. I’ve gone through doors when I knew the person on the other side was angry and armed. I’ve searched places where violent people were hiding. I’ve arrested violent offenders at gunpoint.
One day, in a fit of overintrospection, I worried that I might not be actually brave, but simply too soft in the head to really understand the risks.
I asked my wife, “Am I brave?”
She managed to hide her amusement, almost. After our many years together, she knows better than to feed me the easy answer, because I’m cussed and I’ll play devil’s advocate against her. She used Socratic Judo instead: “When you’re about to do something which could get you maimed, are you worried?”
“Well, sure,” I said.
“Then, yes,” she said. “You’re brave.”
Oh. Well, when you put it that way… Fine, I’m brave. But I don’t feel brave.
So it’s not about bravery. It’s about strategy and tactics.
I’m a field training officer. I help train new officers. And one of the things I tell them is: “Don’t be a hero unless you must. We fight ethically, we fight legally, we fight within the rules, but we don’t fight fair. Call for backup the moment you think you might need it. Always take backup with you to serve a warrant. I’ve marched at the funeral of a friend who made a stupid mistake and got himself killed. Don’t do that to your fellow officers.”
(I want to link to that friend’s name in the ODMP, but for now I’m not going to. I’m in the closet. The choice I make, here, not to recognize my friend by name, will anger some of my fellow officers, who will believe me disloyal.)
Other trans police officers have said the similar things to me, most recently today: “Picking your time is wise. Remember a coward dies may deaths, where the brave only die once. You are far from being the coward.”
So, good tactics. My spouse and I feed a family. We have a mortgage. I won’t do them any good if I stand up and get my head lopped off.
“Ah,” says the homunculus, “But then why aren’t you an accountant?”
Okay, fine. I take risks. But you have to draw the line somewhere.
“That’s true,” he concedes, “But it’s also what every coward on earth hides behind.”
Oh, shut up.
But he won’t, for long.
I want to be Toni Maviki’s kind of brave. She’s also a trans officer. Last year in New Hampshire, the NH Judiciary Committee was debating whether to move a bill which would bar employment discrimination against trans people. Toni testified. She said, “I carried a badge, and I protected all you people, and there was no law to protect me from harm.”
(The Judiciary Committee unanimously voted the legislation, and therefore the human rights of trans people “inexpedient to legislate”. Remember, kids, sometimes when you reach out a hand you pull back a stump.)
Like Toni, I want to be able to hold people accountable, to their faces. I want to do it by pointing at myself, not by talking generally about trans people and letting people picture whatever trans stereotype they favor. I want to be able to look people right in the prejudice and say, “I’m trans. Stick that in your preconceptions.”
But it’s not all about me, is it? I’m not just restricting myself. There’s a cascade effect. Because I’m in the closet, my mother can go to a trans advocacy meeting (which she has done, because she is awesome), but she can’t say something as simple as, “My daughter is trans.” She can’t own her own pride in parenting a trans person. My friends can’t wear this button…
…At least, not if they worry that someone might connect it to me.
When I discovered that I was trans, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in a closet. It took me longer to realize that every time I told someone, I dragged them into the closet with me. The fact that I needed my closest friends to know one of the most important things about me doesn’t change the fact that now they have to be careful how they talk about me and refer to me.
I want them to be free to speak, too. And until I step up, they can’t.
So I wrestle with this. There is no useful conclusion, here. It’s just this thing I have to wrestle with from time to time, which saps my energy and helps me to doubt myself. But there’s no cunning ruse I can use to escape it. I just have to work with it until I’m out.