Up Close and Personal
by Nancy Nangeroni
About 60 transgender activists from across the country traveled to Washington, DC for the concerted lobbying effort this past May. The event, named and organized by GenderPAC executive director Riki Anne Wilchins, was more tightly focused in purpose than the first such event in October of 1995, which celebrated the right of transgenders to walk the halls of Congress and engage in lobbying activities. This time, Riki and GenderPAC lobbyist Dana Priesing, working with the help of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), established clear goals for the effort. Their purpose: obtain signatures from Representatives and Senators on a letter to Attorney General Reno asking for an investigation by the Department of Justice into violence against transgender people.
In preparing to write this article, I first spoke with Dana Priesing. While supporting herself through her private law practice, Dana patiently and relentlessly, by phone or in person, pounds the virtual corridors of Washington each week. She brings a pro-transgender presence to meetings with lobbyists, representatives, and other activists in the struggle for federal recognition of the need for advocacy and protections for people stigmatized because of their gender. On the day I spoke with her, Dana was feeling quite anxious about her personal situation. “I want to continue this work,” she told me, “it’s important to me personally, and to the whole community. But I’m running up thousands of dollars of debt, and can’t sustain this level of effort for much longer, unless something changes.” Fortunately, Dana is a lawyer whose earnings from a couple of good months could easily wipe out her debt. Unfortunately, Dana is a recently transitioned transsexual, whose earning power, without state and federal protection against discrimination, may depend on her ability to pass as a straight woman. Dana, though, is more committed to her work than to her ability to pass. She makes no secret of her transsexualism. “I don’t know if people will hire a transsexual lawyer. I’ve been operating my own office for about three years, but I’m worried. I need to continue in sole practice in order to continue this work, but my clientele is building slowly, and I might have to abandon it and seek regular employment in a law firm if my debt overtakes my revenue.”
Dana’s personal investment in the lobbying process that promises to one day provide legal protections for gender-variant persons is obvious. Her livelihood is at risk in her commitment to changing the way things are, as are the livelihoods of too many in this community.
This is what National Gender Lobby Day is all about.
Organizer and GenderPAC executive director Riki Anne Wilchins was very pleased with the results of our effort this past May. “I thought it was incredible. It’s been our goal for the last year and half to get someone to go on record… we expected it to take three years, but we had such a phenomenal effort from our lobbying team.” As a result of the concerted lobbying effort, a dozen congresspeople signed a letter recognizing the intense discrimination against transgender people, and asking the Department of Justice to take action to investigate. Said Riki, “The letter wasn’t just any letter, it was a letter to the Attorney General of the United States.” What comes next? “Now that we’ve gotten some people to go on record, we can move on to other things, like ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act).”
First time lobbyist Penni Ashe never expected to become this politically active. “I first discovered that transgender folk were doing serious political work when I found the copy of “In Your Face” included with TRANSGENDER magazine. The ad for Lobby Day ’95 was appealing, but I wasn’t in a position to take action then. Now that I’ve made such progress with my own self-acceptance, it’s important to give back to the community.” Penni first joined the central Massachusetts Sunshine Club in 1994. She is recently divorced with a 16-year old son who knows of her transgenderism, and apparently accepts it though he doesn’t like it.
“The Lobby Day was a wonderfully empowering experience that left me with a whole lot more courage than when I arrived. I felt that the LAs (Legislative Assistants) weren’t just simply going through the motion of doing their jobs, but that they really listened to us. I really felt that they were giving us respect. Thanks to that experience, I find myself feeling much more comfortable going to places where I would have felt uncomfortable before. I think everybody should do it. Plus it’s an opportunity to take advantage of one of the treasures of this country: the ability of ordinary citizens to talk directly with the people who make the laws.”
Miranda Stevens of Chicago “…was amazed at how accessible the offices were to us, amazed at the positive reception we got from some of the office staffs.” Mary Ann Harris agreed. “What really amazed me is the cordial reception we were given in the offices. Even the Republicans were polite, seemed genuinely interested and concerned, and they listened. We were not harassed or ridiculed once, and being accepted like that really felt good.”
Miranda, along with Tony Monzo, lobbied the Illinois congressional contingent. She had set up 8 or more appointments ahead of time, including both senatorial staffs. She made sure that they left each office with a copy of It’s Time Illinois’ Hate Crimes Report.
“We spoke directly with congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.,” (the son of the Reverend Jesse Jackson). “We talked for 20 minutes or more. He knew exactly who the community was and what the issues were. He asked all the right questions, like aren’t we covered by Title VII. Finally, he said ‘What can I do for you?’ When I said ‘sign the letter’, Jesse said ‘Of course we’ll do that.'” He later did in fact sign the letter. When Miranda then spoke to him about TG inclusion in ENDA, JJ was knowledgeable and frank. “The realities of the 105th congress are that this (ENDA transinclusion) will never fly,” he said. But, according to Miranda, he went on to say, “You know, as long as one person in the US is denied his human rights, none of us can be truly free.”
Miranda was impressed with the positive reception she received, as well as the level of knowledge of some of the people she met. When she was explaining transgenderism to Senator Durbin, he said “You don’t have to explain all that, I have a friend that is transgendered.”
Miranda credits two things with the success of the lobbying effort. “We had in-state statistics, and we had a simple, specific request. It was a very smart strategy.” Flying back to Illinois, she found herself sitting next to a woman who asked “I saw you in the halls, were you lobbying?” As it turned out, the woman had also been lobbying about women’s issues, and was sympathetic to Miranda’s cause.
Not every participant was completely satisfied with their experience. Mary Ann Harris enjoyed lobbying, but was expecting something a bit different than what happened.
“I felt unhappy that I came out to lobby for ENDA and was told instead to lobby about hate crimes and to give up on ENDA.” She blames HRC for transgender exclusion from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and claims that “…most of the TG activist community isn’t that forgiving – they are outraged that people claiming to represent the entire TG community have told HRC that the TG community accepts forced exclusion from ENDA. Most of us do not accept that exclusion and are fighting for inclusion.”
In fact, HRC was not told that the TG community accepts exclusion from ENDA (it’s been made painfully clear to HRC that there is substantial objection), and lobbyists were specifically encouraged (as I witnessed at the event) to discuss whatever they pleased. Confirms Wilchins, “We were careful to tell people that it’s OK to talk about whatever they want. We did, however, encourage them to talk about hate crimes and signing onto the letter, since we had the meeting lined up with Janet Reno’s staff. We also encouraged the lobbyists to talk about employment discrimination, as well as other issues. ENDA, though, is not going anyplace this year, while Hate Crimes inclusion is making real progress, and that drove our focus.” Friendly and knowledgeable GLB lobbyists in Washington suggested Hate Crimes inclusion as a good first step towards obtaining federal protections for transgenders, and this year’s effort has made substantial progress towards that end. Says Riki, “We need proof that there is a substantial need for protection for transgenders in order to approach ENDA inclusion with credibility. We need to do our homework.” Dana Priesing adds, “We made copies of the proposed ENDA TG-inclusion amendment available for people who wanted to lobby for ENDA inclusion, and spent considerable time discussing the issues surrounding ENDA inclusion.”
As I helped in the lobbying effort, one congressional staffer asked me how I felt about ENDA passage without transgender inclusion. When he heard that I would not like to see the transgender community prevent anyone else from gaining protection against discrimination, he was visibly relieved. “There were some people here a few months ago who had quite a different attitude,” he said with an indication of disapproval. Another staffer expressed concern over the divisions within the transgender community made clear by divergent lobbying strategies. “If the transgender community presents disagreement about what direction to move, that will make progress very difficult.”
Despite her discontent, Mary Ann did enjoy some aspects of the lobbying effort. “50 trannies marching to the metro, and onto the steps of the Capitol, was quite a sight to see. I want to see the group photo on the web!”
“One of my fondest memories is when Penni and I randomly walked into Ron Dellums’ office and asked to speak to the LA in charge of LGBT issues about ENDA. We were introduced to two people. One lady shook our hand as she rushed through to another meeting. The other fellow, Luis, explained “she’s involved because she’s labor, and me because I’m queer!” What followed was a half hour of the warmest conversation we’ve ever had – Luis is a gem, as is Dellums.”
“Overall I enjoyed it. It was a lot of fun. I was surprised how easy it was to educate people, to show that we are not freaks and monsters, but we’re real people, real taxpayers. I feel we really made a difference with every staffer we talked to.”
She expressed frustration with the limitations of what could be accomplished in a short time with limited numbers of people. “It became clear to me that we need more people lobbing more staffers. We need to cover all 535 reps and senators at least once, preferably multiple times.”
Roz Blumenstein, another first timer, was very enthusiastic about her experience, though her perspective was a bit different. She works for Manhattan’s Lesbian and Gay Services Center, to which she is grateful for sending her to Lobby Day as part of her work. Referring to the group expedition on the Metro and congregation in the House cafeteria, she observed, “It was really interesting watching 60 people across the TG spectrum, watching people’s reaction to us. Even if they had a reaction that was negative or unaccepting, they couldn’t do anything because there were so many of us.” Roz encourages transgender people to come out of the closet, saying “The more of us that come out, the greater chance that we’ll change the whole system.” She likes to go to the beach, and is tired of the attention she receives. “I wish I would see some of my sisters on this beach. I’m tired of being a commodity.”
Her lobbying experience left her reflective. She sees a lot of our community’s diversity in her work for the Center. “I saw how I’ve grown into being who I am. Five years ago it would have been difficult being with such diversity of transgender people because of my internalized transphobia. I would have wanted to be with TSs that blend, because of my shame about who I was. Being able to interact with all people on the TG spectrum and being comfortable with all people besides myself… it was really empowering. Definitely an amazing thing, and I would love to be able to do that more often.”
I asked Roz if it was different being with TG folk in that setting.
“I’d heard of many people who were there, and it was nice to meet them. I bring my own history, and it’s nice to share it with others. But there were not enough people of color involved, and that’s not OK with me. We need people across the cultural diversities of the transgender spectrum. They weren’t visible, but they’re alive and well all over the world, and they need to be there with us.”
She said it wasn’t hard talking with the legislative assistants. “It was easy, but I’m not sure if they’re just paid to be nice. Watching people’s reaction in the lunchroom, sometimes it was annoying. It kicks up different things in me, prides, shame, embarrassment, a sense that we belong.”
Roz was saddened by the split into two separate lobbying efforts this year. “Everyone in our community should read ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Friere. He writes about how the oppressed just keep fighting each other, and never move up because they’re too busy fighting each other. We’re too small a group to not stick together. And we have to come together with other queer people, because we’ll never get anywhere if we don’t. Our lobbyists were very white, educated, and privileged. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not the whole spectrum, that’s not all of us. We’re not just working for acceptance that lasts only as long as we look proper and act a certain way. That’s not what we’re after.”