The First National Gender Lobbying Day
Nancy R. Nangeroni, Jan 1996
Sunday evening, October 1, 1995. They came from all over the US, from the hillsides of Seattle to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, from the backwoods of Vermont to the swamplands of Florida. They gathered at an inexpensive motel in College Park, Maryland: the bulldoggedly tenacious lawyer from Texas, the willowy programmer with the gift of gab from New York City, the well-connected churchgoer from Kentucky, the charismatic businessperson from San Francisco, the artistic design engineer from Cambridge, and many more, representing not just different places of living, but different ways of being. Some knew each other as friends, while many were strangers prior to this meeting. But they gathered with a common purpose, as stated by co-organizer Riki Anne Wilchins in her welcoming speech:
“Welcome to the First National Gender Lobbying Day!”
These were not the exorbitantly paid, professional lobbyists employed by moneyed commercial concerns. Nor were these the earnest, experienced staff members of one of the many lobbying organizations fighting for social, environmental, or other righteous concerns. Rather, these 90+ people were each a testimony to the hopes and dreams of a movement just awakening. For the most part, they were people who had never before done such a thing. They were stepping outside of their everyday lives, to be part of a bold step by a community which has historically been among the most shy. Each of them gave up several days and hundreds of hard-earned dollars to be part of this revolutionary event, to take action at the highest possible level against an oppression that has held sway over too many lives for too long.
The event’s organizers had done their work well: at a preparatory meeting, each lobbyist was handed a stack of information packets, each of which gave the lobbyist all the tools they needed to speak with confidence to the representative named in the packet. The tools included the proposed ‘Standards and Policy for the Imprisoned’, and the ‘International Bill of Gender Rights’. Each person started with six packets, but some people ended up taking as many as 20. There was one packet for each of the 435 Representatives and 100 Senators: 535 doors to be knocked on, 535 hands to be shaken, 535 breaths to be drawn before mustering resolve and entering yet another parlor of power.
Monday morning dawned bright, clear and warm, perfect for the group photo on the south steps of the Capitol building. Mariette Pathy Allen did the honors, while ABC’s 20/20 camera crew recorded the proceedings. Photographic record satisfied, the group then flanked a podium set on the south lawn for a press conference. In attendance were camera crews from CNN, Fox, Reuters, 20/20, and more. Riki Anne Wilchins started it off:
“Why are we here? Why have so many people traveled so far from across the country at great personal expense…? We are here today at the first National Gender Lobby day, to begin the long process of saying a resounding NO! to discrimination and violence based simply on the way one expresses their gender.” Added co-organizer Phyllis Frye: “We are here to destroy stereotypes. To allow members of congress to see our faces, and see that we are not caricatures… We’re not out for special rights, other than if special means that somebody gets extra sensitivity training on a police force, so they don’t automatically think it’s fair game on transgenders…”. Jamison Green, director of FTM International, spoke of the FTM experience: “We hear every day stories of oppression and horror and murder that are so torturous that we just have to come forward and say that we cannot endure this any longer.” Dawn Wilson shared her perspective: “It’s hard enough being an African American in this country. It’s very hard to face the hatred every day because of your color. But try one more time to face it as a transgender person.” And Deputy Sheriff Tonye Barreto-Neto added: “We join with you in solidarity this morning, our voices and the tens of thousands we represent, I just want to say to you America, we are here, we won’t run, and we won’t hide…”
During a brief question and answer period, this writer briefly took (elbowed her way to) the podium and summed up the feelings of those present: “This is not about getting weird. This is about just being ourselves, and disconnecting the gender that we portray to the world from what’s between our legs and what’s decided for us when we’re born. It’s our decision to make for our lives, it’s what feels comfortable to us, not what’s comfortable for the world for us.”
By this time local police had taken notice and politely asked the group to disperse, since there was no permit for the press conference, and without incident, the lobbyists set to work.
It took two days for the small swarm to find each and every office. In those two days, Washington was not turned on it’s ear. The halls of power did not tremble at the presence of the Gender Day Lobby; but for two days, they did echo with the voices of crossdressers and transgenderists and transsexuals. For two days, it was not at all unusual to see transgender folk walking the halls of congress and dining in the congressional cafeterias. For just a little while, The Hill was full of open transgenderism.
The eyes of those legislators who look down upon genderqueers did not turn friendly overnight, but those eyes did see something new: they saw a genderqueer who is not afraid to ask for – and one day, no doubt, demand – their rights. They saw genderqueers in business clothing, doing business with preparation, courage, and tact. For the first time, when the mind behind those eyes considers the transgender, it has images other than nightclub performance and sex play to draw upon. It has an image of a respectable, law-abiding person instead of a tawdry stereotype, to consider when it comes time to vote on adding the category of transgender to hate crimes statistics tracking. It has an image to recall not of sequins and five-inch heels, but of reasonable business attire, when it comes time to vote on an Employment Non-Discrimination Act which includes protection for transgenders. It has an image to recall of a transgender person engaged, not in narcissism, but in productive effort, when it comes time to vote on whether to call for humane treatment for transgender incarcerates. It has food for thought, fodder for change.
And the many eyes of those who would vote in favor of equal rights for transgenders saw, for the first time, a constituency willing to stand up and be counted, a constituency willing to pull it’s weight, a constituency recognizing the need to earn political respect, and doing something about it. The Gender lobbyists encountered a fair share of support on the Hill, thanks in part to the hard work of the gay community over many years. In many congressional offices, lobbyists were greeted by staff persons who were openly gay, and who gave strong welcome and encouragement to the new kids in town. In other offices, while the staff member meeting with the lobbyists expressed no personal identification with the gay community, they nonetheless expressed genuine support for the new lobby. Some even went so far as to suggest strategies for future effort. Most, though, agreed: the present congress would not pass new acts in support of transgender or gay rights, and any work towards passage of new legislation should be conceived of as a long-term effort.
As Riki said, this was the First National Gender Lobby Day.
On the morning of the second day, almost half of the lobbyists got up early, and gathered on the sidewalk outside of Mayor Marion Barry’s office to protest the DC Fire Chief’s cover-up of the EMS personnel actions which contributed to the death of Tyra Hunter. Many of the protesters wore the ubiquitous Transexual Menace T-shirts. They handed out flyers until their supply was exhausted, then they chanted slogans while marching in a circle (meeting the legal requirement for demonstrations without a permit). The demonstration was peacefully conducted, and the participants, when it was ended, changed from their Menace wear into business attire and returned to their lobbying efforts. A little later, Mayor Barry met with several of the protesters and agreed to take action on the case if the fire chief did not provide satisfaction.
The halls in Washington reek of power. The ceilings are high, the corridors wide, the floors and walls of marble, and the decorations lavish. The scale is so large, it dwarfs the individual, and could easily intimidate the meek. When entered with purpose, though, as we did, the effect was quite opposite: it heightened our sense of mission and bolstered our determination. Rather than making us feel out of place, it made us feel more at home: our purpose is why this place exists, and this is why it was built to impress, because the work to be done here – our work – is important. That feeling will not be soon forgotten.
Walking down those hallways, one of my lobbying companions, Jamie Stowell, spoke her mind: “This is wild. Ten years ago, I could never have imagined being here in Washington, lobbying Congress, [while] wearing a dress.” Funny, I was thinking exactly the same thing. The best part about it was that it didn’t feel strange. Rather, it felt especially right. Neither radical nor religious, but most certainly right.