Author Matt Kailey is the former managing editor of Out Front. He is an award-winning writer, college instructor and community activist focusing on transgender issues. He is the author of Just Add Hormones: An Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience and Teeny Weenies and Other Short Subjects. He currently teaches Transgender Studies at Metro State University and can be reached through his website, tranifesto.com.
Days before the 2012 presidential election, Vice President Joe Biden called transgender discrimination “the civil rights issue of our time.” He was apparently responding to a private question from a volunteer at a Florida field office, and whether or not he knew that his answer would make headlines, or even be overheard, is unknown.
Regardless, it was a bold statement, and there was likely not a trans-identified person in the country who didn’t let out a little cheer. But that doesn’t mean that all trans people voted for Team Obama – or that we will all vote Democrat in 2016.
Just like the LGB community, the T community is not a monolith. And even the most progressive politicians could hesitate to court a “trans voting bloc” that might or might not exist. We are a diverse population with sometimes little in common other than the fact that we have fallen into a particular category – or have been placed there – based on an official diagnosis or a specific self-identity. And even the idea of a shared identity is frequently off the mark.
“I identify as a man,” said Max Wolf Valerio, who began his transition from female to male in 1989 and documented his path, including the extensive effects of male hormones, in his book The Testosterone Files, “although I am aware that I am also, always, in some sense, transsexual. So I will accept the identifier of ‘trans man’ or ‘transsexual man’ if there is a reason for that label to be applied. Otherwise, in general, I am just a guy, a man.”
Valerio specifically dislikes the term transgender. “It casts such a wide umbrella, and so many different types of people, many of whom have very little, if anything, in common with me, are underneath that umbrella,” he said. “However, I also understand that it is an umbrella term, and that people in the media use it now. Frankly, I have better things to do with my time than argue about ‘transgender’ versus ‘transsexual,’ though, yes, I prefer the latter.”
On the other hand, Savannah Sanburg, a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver majoring in Speech Communications with an individualized studies minor in GLBT Advocacy, prefers the term “transgender” and rejects “transsexual.”
“I identify as a transgender female,” she said. “I do not embrace the term ‘transsexual’ because I feel as though our society has twisted it into a pejorative. It is offensive because of the shows like Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, who perpetuate and fuel stereotypes against trans people. These daytime talk shows label transgender people as deceptive, and they work to oversexualize transgender people for the purposes of ratings.”
Historically, “transgender,” a socially constructed term, has had several distinct meanings depending on who you talk to. The narrowest definition refers to a person whose gender identity and physical body are not in alignment, while a broader description includes anyone who transgresses gender norms in some way. “Transsexual” is generally thought of as a medical term defining those with a specific, diagnosable “condition” that results in gender/sex misalignment and can be mitigated through transition, primarily with hormones, surgery, or both.
But transgender and transsexual are just two of the diverse array of identities that are reflected in the trans community, a population that has had to adapt or create much of our own language – either because outside sources imposed inaccurate labels on trans-identified people or because there was no language to describe a particular identity until someone came along and created it.
And with the wealth of identities, along with vastly different personal interpretations of “traditional” terms in the trans vocabulary arsenal, comes a very diverse political spectrum as well.
While many of the most outspoken activists in the trans community lean left, measuring the “trans political response” can prove as difficult as determining the number of trans people that exist, for several reasons.
An unknown number of people who trans activists or community “insiders” might consider to be transgender or transsexual have medically or socially transitioned, changed all legal paperwork, assimilated into the mainstream community as men and women, and do not identify as “trans” in any way. They don’t take “trans-related” surveys. They don’t visit “trans-related” websites. And their politics are not influenced by “trans-friendly” candidates, issues, or policies.
An unknown number of people are not out as transgender or transsexual, even though they consider themselves to be such. They, too, are not visible or involved when trans-related political surveys, discussions or issues bubble to the surface.
An unknown number of people, particularly in younger generations, have an identity or presentation that might be considered “trans” in the traditional sense, but they do not see themselves as trans. Instead, they have created other language to describe themselves, and because of their age and outsider status, even within the more traditional trans community, their voices are not always counted – or heard.
But even within a self-defined, out-and-proud transgender and transsexual community, politics differ – and don’t always focus on trans-specific issues.
“I was one of those … Dems who were Hillary Clinton supporters but switched to McCain since they really were not happy with the choice of Obama for many reasons,” Valerio said. “Some went back to the Dems, others became Republicans or Independents. I voted for McCain/Palin and never looked back. … I voted for Romney and campaigned for him, even, in Colorado. I do not care at all for Obama.”
Valerio identifies as a “classic liberal, a soft ‘L’ libertarian, who is also a hawk.”
“I believe in individual liberty,” he said. “I’m a free speech absolutist, I believe in free markets. I support Israel and a strong national defense. I also am pro-choice from the standpoint of liberty, and think the government should stay out of the marriage business. First and foremost, I believe in individual liberty and freedom. The fact that trans people have become enmeshed in the claptrap and victim politics of the far left is unfortunate.”
Opposed to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Valerio said Obama Administration policies hindered economic recovery and failed in the Middle East. “The debt is insane,” he said, describing himself as “anti-tax” and opposed to government waste in particular.
“These are larger issues to my mind than trans politics,” Valerio said. “My life as a trans person is pretty easy in some respects, and I don’t feel the need for sweeping political change to brighten my way.”
Sanburg, also a Clinton supporter in 2008, remains steadfast in her party and candidate support.
“I am a very strong liberal,” she said, “even though I consider myself socially liberal but fiscally conservative. I identify with the Democratic Party and am a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton (for president in 2016). I maintain that if our sexist culture wasn’t so biased, Hillary would have been in office in 2008.”
Citing race, class and gender as important issues to her, Sanburg said the Democratic Party “works to fight for issues pertaining to these people better than the Republican Party can.”
For both Valerio and Sanburg, trans issues are but one of many concerns, demonstrating that our politics are not just confined to our identity – although membership in the trans community, and what that means for our rights as citizens and as human beings, cannot be easily dismissed.
Trans Identity Politics
It is sometimes argued (usually by LGBT Democrats, liberal thinkers, and the author of this piece) that any LGBT person who votes Republican is voting against his, her or hir own best interests.
Truly, the modern Republican Party has not been particularly friendly to almost any marginalized population. But, despite Joe Biden’s comment and some recent nods to both LGB and T communities, the friendliness of Democrats remains a matter of contention.
The Obama administration, having put into effect non-discrimination policies protecting gender identity and expression in housing and health care, and appointing an openly trans woman, Amanda Simpson, to a prestigious post in the Commerce Department, has proven itself to be the most trans-friendly presidential administration in history. But trans people still face ongoing discrimination, and even violence, with little to no institutionalized protections in place.
And while almost every trans person has political views and interests that transcend personal identity, in our case, the personal often does become political.
“I really want freedom and dignity for trans people,” said Valerio, “and I look at the fact that the United States is a leader in this regard. … We are really, in spite of our flaws, a wonderful country with an amazing Constitution that includes an empowering Bill of Rights – empowering to the individual – and we know that individuals make up groups. But freedom starts with the liberty of each individual, not with the empowerment of the collective, which too easily dissolves into mob action or groupthink.”
Valerio admits that answers are not black and white, and that there can be muddied waters between the two major parties when it comes to choosing sides. Valerio supports same-sex marriage and a pro-choice stance – issues that are more often aligned with Democrats and that affect the trans community. However, he said, the Democratic Party’s support of same-sex marriage only came after a shift in public opinion.
“Only recently did the Democrats change their official platform to one that endorses gay marriage,” Valerio said. “Frankly, once the fight was basically won in terms of public opinion, they got behind the cause officially, and so they are getting out of the way more than actually leading the way.”
Sanburg says her politics are heavily influenced by her identity not only as a transgender woman, but as a woman.
“I do not feel safe around Tea Party Republicans who wave the finger at so many people and shout loud, violent, racist and/or homophobic rhetoric,” she said. “Being transgender has given me a new perspective to view how people judge one another each and every day, because I also am held to a very strict and unforgiving standard – that of being a woman in the Western world.”
However, being a woman in the Western world is only one of Sanburg’s political lenses. Her trans identity still plays a role.
“I look at a candidate’s philosophy and vote for the candidate that best represents my goals for what direction the government should take,” Sanburg said. “Despite my support for the Democratic Party, I do not believe that any candidate has ever clearly advocated for transgender rights specifically, because if they had, the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, under which trans people are still diagnosed) would be a lot less transphobic, and we would not be so far away from true equality.”
And regardless of the progress that the trans community has made in recent decades – and particularly under the Obama administration – true equality remains a distant dream.
Change we can believe in?
What’s next for the trans community? How should politicians look at this growing, changing, and extremely diverse population who enters the voting booth not as one uniform bloc, but as tens of thousands of individual voices, each with its own story and each with its own idea about what should happen in the world? That will surely be a challenge for the candidates of the future.
“Transsexuals are pursuing happiness,” Valerio said. “We are following a path of radical individualism in our pursuit of our own truth and fulfillment. Because I am very indebted to the freedom-loving foundational principles of this country, I am very invested in making sure that these continue.”
Valerio said the Internet made a difference supporting and connecting trans people around the world. “We do need support and information, places where people undergoing medical transition can find friends, talk in person, find medical resources,” he said, adding – “Those don’t need government mandates. There is a lot people can do without the government stepping in.”
Sanburg said, “I see the transgender movement in dire need of strong leadership that represents the best interests of the individual members and the organizations that serve them. I see a future where organizations that purport to help transgender people develop a strong social security net and access to resources without limitations and status being an issue. … It is not beneficial to transgender people to hold events that they cannot attend because of their housing situation or lack of proper clothing. In the status quo, we are constantly preaching to the choir. We need to expand our thinking and reach out to those whose voices have not been heard and ask them, ‘What are you needs?’”
It seems that Mr. Biden was right when he said that transgender discrimination is the “civil rights issue of our time.” The most important thing now is to turn that idea into real action, taking into account the broad spectrum of identities, needs, and philosophies that exist in trans communities. The candidate who can do that will truly be able to say that he, she or ze has the “trans vote.”
Who put the ‘*’ in ‘Trans*?’
The identity of “man” or “woman” – or even “trans man” or “trans woman” – is not one that every person who self-identifies as trans can relate to. But those folks on the edges of the “trans umbrella” still go to the polls – and their voices are becoming increasingly loud and persuasive as a younger generation begins to take control.
Craig “Arch” Archuleta, a senior at Metropolitan State University of Denver who is combining Psychology, Genders & Sexuality and Feminist Theory into an individualized education program in Queer Studies, identifies as genderqueer, pansexual and trans*. Archuleta uses a plural pronoun (they, them) or a combination of male and female pronouns in the same sentence. They are also multi-racial.
For Archuleta, the term trans* “allows for that malleability and takes away the connotations of traditional masculinity and femininity” that “transgender” or “transsexual” can signify. A genderqueer identity involves “queering the nature of gender – doing things outside of gender norms in a way that’s comfortable for me.”
Archuleta says that their identity “definitely” informs their politics.
“I have to feel that people (including political candidates) can hear all of the facets of my identity,” Archuleta said. “I think I could have a drink with Obama and explain things to him and he might understand.”
But that doesn’t mean that Archuleta will always vote Democrat, even though they have primarily in the past. “If there was a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Republican, I might vote for them, as long as they weren’t a Reaganite,” Archuleta said.
Archuleta has taken a close look at the Green Party, which they feel is generally more trans friendly than either major party – but has a tendency to be “hippy dippy” and “not very organized,” they said.
Regardless of how they are voting now, Archuleta sees a shift coming with a younger generation, in terms of gender identity, gender acceptance and the language used to describe individual identities.
“Trans* is just a temporary thing,” Archuleta said. “Or at least I hope it is. Instead of using labels like gay, lesbian, trans, maybe we have a different way of talking about gender. When there wasn’t all the language, you could just express yourself the way you wanted and didn’t have to label it.”
Archuleta sees two prongs within the larger LGBTQ movement. The first is assimilationist prong, which is heteronormative and reflects more traditional masculine and feminine gender expression and roles. The second is the liberationist prong, which says, “We don’t want to emulate those at the top. We want to change the top.”
Archuleta sees that happening with the youth population, and says that it is actually a return to the days before so much terminology came into existence to describe every facet of every group. “They (LGBTQ people) were all cohabitating,” Archuleta said. “I think this is a return to that.”
In the future, Archuleta hopes that factions of the various communities can come together and work together toward real political progress for all people of all identities.
“What are the commonalities in our community over the differences?” they said. “Where’s our Queer Wonderland?”