by Kirstie Haruta
When mainstream LGBT organizations put the bulk of their energy and resources into the fight for marriage equality, for whom do the wedding bells toll?
For more people than ever, equal marriage rights for same-sex couples seem like a no-brainer. So in March, when the Human Rights Campaign urged supporters to change their Facebook profile photos to the HRC equality logo, the simple request turned into a viral meme across the country. But not everyone was moved by this display of support.
“It’s so easy for people to be like, ‘Let me just post this equality sticker,’ [but they] know nothing about the campaign,” said Graciela Mesa, a women and gender studies student at SF State. “People are just like, ‘Yeah, I support!’ But what are you supporting? You don’t know.”
There is a trend of exclusivity in mainstream LGBT organizations like the HRC and It Gets Better, which leaves a large portion of the queer and trans* community alienated from the organizations that are supposed to be empowering them. For many trans* people, queer people of color, and queer homeless youth, these organizations’ spotlight issue of marriage is hardly a priority.
“There’s been different surveys among different populations of queer folks, and among queer Asians, marriage is not even in the top five [most pressing issues],” said Amy Sueyoshi, Associate Dean of Ethnic Studies at SF State. “It’s really about the LGBT folks who are in power, primarily the white gays and lesbians, and what they think is the most prominent issue.”
Queer people have been having marriage and commitment ceremonies off the books since the 1980s, but Sueyoshi attributes the more recent focus on marriage to money, and the country’s need to amass wealth, as well as societal pressures to be seen as successful.
“Buy a home, get married and have kids. These the signs of success and happiness. When you’ve been progammed to think these things are the ideals you need to strive for, it gets really hard to deprogram yourself, to think that someone might be happy not getting married,” said Sueyoshi.
For those who are more concerned about their health, safety, and survival as queer and trans* folks, it can be easier to see how narrowly tailored equal marriage rights are.
“For those of us who are already lacking in so many privileges, we have very little to gain from gay marriage,” said Mesa. “But for a lot of folks, it’s one more privilege they can get and they’ll be accepted. Or at least, their sexuality won’t be such an issue.”
But with marriage continuously in the spotlight, it falls to the queer and trans* people who have been sidelined by these organizations to educate people about these multifaceted issues.
“I think the only thing we can do to educate people is to talk to people one on one, or become teachers,” said Sueyoshi. “I do also believe in the power of the Internet, in social media.”
Big organizations aren’t the only ones with power to send a viral message. On May 14, Eli Thistle, a 20-year-old from Canada, reblogged a Tumblr post about a Target ad featuring a same-sex couple, and added his own story of acceptance at the Target where he is employed. Thistle disclosed in his job application that he is a transman, was interviewed, hired, and never once misgendered at his job orientation.
With as many as 90 percent of transgender people facing workplace discrimination, Thistle’s story could potentially inspire hope for trans* folks looking for employment, and set an example for employers. And yet, these types of victories don’t get nearly as much attention as marriage equality does in mainstream media.
“Transgender individuals have the highest homeless rate and the highest suicide rate per any minority, yet we have pro-advocacy groups left and right saying it’s OK to be who you are,” said Thistle. “But where is the proof?”
Arguably some of the best proof would be widespread efforts to end violence against trans* people, and assist with health care and the process of identification change. To get one’s name legally changed on all forms of identification, let alone their documented sex and gender markers, is an arduous process that requires a lot of time and money.
“If you were going to vote and you didn’t have all your [identification documents] changed because you don’t have the money to do it, because you don’t have the time to go to court, it might not match what someone might think when reading your name or seeing that little sex marker, and they might not believe it’s your I.D., even if it is completely,” explained Frankie Ochoa-Kaup, a Latino/a studies at SF State.
With such immediate legal and medical issues to resolve and such high rates of discrimination, where are trans* people when it comes to public events and fundraisers for popular LGBT organizations?
“They are no where to been see because they weren’t invited,” said Thistle. “They were too busy not having a job and being homeless.”
It would appear that the HRC still hasn’t taken the necessary steps to repair its failure in supporting the trans* community, even after the fallout from their support of the non-inclusive Emplyment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007.
Still, singularly-focused organizations that are at the forefront of LGBT right movements could perhaps be a stepping stone to more radicalized thought and greater change, if folks take the time to do some research before going all in with a popular organization.
“Creating change can be daunting, but the first step is to bring the issue into the spotlight and demonstrate widespread support,” said Brenda Luna, a Berkeley student who participated in HRC’s Facebook campaign. “By simply changing one’s profile picture, you are letting the entire World Wide Web know that you support their campaign.”
At the end of the day, significant change for a large and diverse queer and trans* community is going to take a lot more than changing your Facebook photo for a few days, or buying a rainbow flag. It takes compassion.
“I just wish we could have a little more compassion in the world for folks who may not be doing as well as we are,” said Sueyoshi. “And when I say compassion, I’m not talking about, ‘Oh, I feel sorry for them, let me send them this check in the mail,’ but real compassion that forces people to act and change their lives.”