Friday, November 28, 2008

Transgender Day of Remembrance-Vigil Speech

November 20, 2008
Portland State University

Portland, Oregon

My name is Jenn Burleton and I am the Founder and Executive Director of TransActive. I am the wife, spouse, partner and significant other of the woman with whom I’ve shared my life for the past 26 years. We have been the foster parents of two transgender youth.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, I traveled to Phuket, Thailand and volunteered whatever talents, skills and abilities I could to the recovery effort. I am old enough to have marched with Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and James Groppi in the fight for civil rights and fair housing in the late 60’s and I am young enough to have voted enthusiastically, idealistically and teary-eyed for President Elect Barack Hussein Obama. I am a middle aged, middle class social liberal.

My name is Jenn Burleton; I am a woman who happens to be transgender and today just happens to be my birthday. It has always been a special time of reflection for me.

Early on, it was the yardstick against which I measured the time it was taking my mother to accept and support the little girl that lived within me. During my teen years, it became the hourglass through which the sand that was my changing body flowed. And in adulthood, it is the day on which I take stock of how far we’ve come as a culture and how far we still have to go with regards to gender identity and expression.

Since 1999, November 20th has been the day we set aside to remember our sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, lovers, companions, friends and total strangers whose lives were cut short by violence, ignorance, misogyny and fear. This is our day to honor and remember those who died simply because they were or were perceived to be sharing our transgender umbrella.

We know that at least one trans person dies violently every month. Many of these murders remain unsolved. This does not include those who take their own lives after having been slowly but surely emotionally assassinated by intolerance, indifference, poverty and isolation. Those of us who share, to one degree or another, a trans identity are the survivors… and when I did the math with regard to my own life, I realized how very fortunate I have been. As of today, I’ve survived 496 months since first coming out as transgender at 12 years of age.

Lawrence King was not as fortunate.

I did not have the privilege of knowing Larry in life; however I did spend several weeks earlier this year in Oxnard, California speaking with Larry’s friends, teachers, counselors, mentors and neighbors.

Joined by my friends and colleagues, Hayley Klug, Mariette Pathy Allen and Esther Griffin, I met with school administrators, the Mayor of Oxnard and even Larry’s father and family members of the boy who shot Larry. I have taught classes at E.O Green Middle School… 20 feet from classroom #42 in which Larry was shot in the head twice from behind at close range. Several of the students who were there that day were in the classes I taught.

You may have read that Larry was a troubled and flamboyant gay teen who liked to wear women’s clothing and harass straight boys. That Larry flaunted his sexuality. That one of the boys Larry liked finally wouldn’t take it anymore and brought a gun to school and shot Larry twice in the head as Larry sat at a desk in the computer lab.

I’m here to tell you that the only true part of any of that, is that one of the boys Larry liked brought a gun to school and shot Larry twice in the head. The remainder is nothing more than a cisgender-centric manipulation of Larry King’s trans identity in order to fit his death into a politically useful, binary gendered model of what homophobic violence is.

An article in The Advocate even suggested that support and encouragement for Larry’s overtly feminine gender identity and expression and his presumptively "gay" sexual orientation contributed to Larry’s death. It’s time for the hijacking of Larry King’s identity to stop. Larry, who told friends he preferred the name “Letitia”, was transgender.

It’s true that Letitia had male anatomy and at 15 was boy crazy (as are many straight girls at that age). But as many of us in this audience already understand, our identity… her identity existed between her ears and not between her thighs. The inability of some cisgender people in ALL communities to understand and respect that simple fact lies at the center of the identity theft that Letitia King was subjected to in life and most tragically, in death.

Letitia ’s life was complex, challenging, inspiring and, in the days prior to her murder, even joyous.

Born on January 13, 1993, Letitia turned fifteen one month prior to being killed. She had been taunted, harassed and abused for being feminine from elementary school on. Long before she may have even had a sexual orientation, Letitia understood that non-conforming gender expression is at the core of LGBT oppression. And yet, this small for her age child never backed down from being who she was.

Everyone who knew Letitia said that the weeks after she began fully expressing her true gender identity were the happiest of her life. Far from being the outcast some have portrayed her to be, Letitia had many friends at school, mostly other girls, and was well-liked by many in the school faculty and staff.

She loved butterflies. A child after my own heart, she loved the music of Crosby, Still & Nash. Her favorite song though, was “Lean On Me”, which she confidently told her chorus teacher she wanted to sing the solo on at the Spring 2008 school concert.

Letitia was described as a sweet child who befriended stray animals. Together with her adoptive mother, she crocheted scarves to send to the troops in Afghanistan and she loved Archie, the dinosaur-sized therapy dog at Casa Pacifica, the residential care center she was staying in at the time of her death. When asked how she withstood the teasing, bullying, harassment, physical and emotional abuse of others, including possibly members of her family, Letitia would simply say; “I am what I am.”

While some have tried to co-opt, manipulate, pigeon-hole and minimize Letitia’s identity in order to serve political or social causes, the brilliance of who she was lights the way out of the shadows for those who were fortunate enough to have known her. Averi, one of Letitia’s friends wrote this poem a few days after her death:

“I was his friend
And loved him till the end
You all treated him bad
You made him feel so very sad
Now take your life and change it up

So God can fully fill your cup”

Whether one attends a church that believes in a Supreme Being, or worships as I do at the intersection of equality, justice, respect and hope, we must all keep our cups filled with the compassion needed to understand those who are different than us and the courage to, despite all opposition, stand together not just as men and women of trans experience, but as human beings first and foremost.

Another victim of senseless violence, Martin Luther King, once said:

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

We owe it to those we remember today, to Letitia King, to Cameron McWilliams who took his own life at age 10 after telling his mother he wanted to be a girl, to Ian Benson and Gwen Araujo, to Brandon Teena and Barry Winchell. To the transgender children of today and tomorrow whose quality of life and whose very lives hang in the balance of what we do on their behalf in the days, weeks, months and years to come.

To each of us who has traveled our own unique road to where we are, and to where we’re going. To all of these and to those whose names and lives may never be known, let us remember… and let us promise them that from this day forward, we will never again be silent about the things that matter.


Jenn Burleton
Executive Director

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Broken Youth: Why Gay Adults Should Be Able to Adopt

(I wrote this for my English class. I liked it so I decided to post it here)

A Broken Youth: Why Gay Adults Should Be Able to Adopt

The glass dish slams against the wall barely missing his face. The sound of the plate shattering breaks the screaming of the house. More then dishes are being broken tonight. A fourteen-year-old boy begins to run from his family. He runs with only one thing on his mind: an escape. He did not believe his family could hold so much hate. He cried and began to pant as his bare soles hit the pavement, and blood trickled down his face. He held onto his heart in sheer panic and collapsed next to the freeway entrance. It may sound unrealistic, but this situation is real for thousands of children. I know, because I am one of them.

When lesbian, gay, biseuxal, and/or transgender (LGBT) people come out to their families loosing everything is a real possibility. The state should allow LGBT parents to foster and adopt young people in need. According to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force on LGBT youth, “over twenty six percent of youth are forced to leave their home when they come out,” which is incredibly daunting (Ray). We are dealing with thousands upon thousands of children who become homeless. Young LGBT people who come out do not have a lot of options and there is a basic right, even for LGBT children, to have a safe place to live. Adults in the gay community become foster parents to give back and provide a safe place for these young people to live. Unfortunately, many do not think LGBT people are suitable parents (Rekers). In this paper I will use academic evidence and a personal example to disprove the position which proposes LGBT parents are unfit. If these young people do not find a safe, supportive place to live they can fall into the problematic foster care system, the criminal justice system, the homeless system, or even death. America is failing our young people, and we must increase tolerance and understanding if we expect to save our most vulnerable.

George Rekers, from the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, claims that “homosexual people are not fit to be parents.”His number one claim in his paper is that “homosexually behaving adults have more stress in their lives then heterosexual people and thus would be more damaging to young people in care” (Rekers). This claim exposes biased research because he claims LGBT people should not be parents because of the stress of an LGBT parental unit, while never addressing why they may have more stress. LGBT people have more stress in their lives, and in their family structures, because of society’s stigma, institutionalized discrimination, and rejection of LGBT people. They do not have more stress because gay people inherently have more tension in their lives. The APA, the American Psychological Association, agree by stating on their website,

“The widespread prejudice, discrimination, and violence to which lesbians and gay men are often subjected are significant mental health concerns. Sexual prejudice, sexual orientation discrimination, and antigay violence are major sources of stress for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (APA).”

Rekers also exposes his own bias with how he identifies LGBT people as “homosexually behaving” adults. The term used by Rekers is rejected by mainstream scientific organizations like the APA, as evident with the removal of homosexuality as a disease in 1973 (Bradly). He minimizes gay people by claiming that being gay is a behavior, that can be corrected, not an intrinsic identity. He also compares gay parents to “households with a pedophilic behaving adult, households with practicing criminals, households with drug dealers and drug abusers.” The irony in his statements is that no matter how he much he argues, LGBT people are not sex offenders, drug dealers, or, since 2003 (Lawrence vs. Texas), criminals of the state.

Rekers continues to infer in his paper that gay people can change their orientation and that the behavior is socially damaging to society. Rekers seems to be scapegoating gay people as carriers of destruction, disease, and wickedness. His statements are a reflection of the organization he represents and the organizations it aligns itself with.
I do not agree with Rekers research and conclusion and I have a personal example here to be shared within the context of this academic paper about the success of parents happen to be to be gay. LGBT people should be able to foster and help young people because LGBT adults may have gone through similar situations in their youth. They can accept, and support this specific group of young people on a different level then a heterosexual parent. I ran away when I came out because my family did not want anything to do with me anymore and it is interesting to note who exactly I lived with when I ran away. I lived with a lesbian couple.

There were a couple places I could have gone, but I decided to live with this specific couple because of the love they accepted me with. The reason I found support, acceptance, and love is because they were able to understand me. I wanted a family to cherish, nurture, and love every part of me, not cherry pick what they found acceptable and what they believed to be distasteful, especially an identity. I wanted a family who would not question if I had antagonized the bullying at school, or if getting spit on while I rode the bus was my fault. I longed for a family to stand up for equality, justice, and fairness, not just pass by with the status quo. This couple became my family. I lived with them because they were able to support me on a whole different level then my heterosexual rejecting parent. I believe this is a personal story that many young people hold to be truth when raised by a family member of similar characteristics. It helps to be able to connect with the youth you are caring for.

But it is not always this positive, it is disappointing that many people who provide a home for homeless youth, or youth in care, but do not recognize their own bias for getting involved in the foster care system. Many youth, as evident from the Task Force’s study on homelessness, happen to be LGBT. Between 20-40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT (Ray). Many conservative faith based institutions and families discriminate against LGBT youth who happen to wind up on their doorsteps. A youth who was rejected from their family may be further traumatized as another rejects them (CWLA). We need to make sure this does not happen by not only allowing all eligible and stable adults to be foster parents, but also invest in culturally competent and accepting adults to help our young people. Not all heterosexual adults are good parents, and neither are all LGBT adults, but that does not mean we should exclude an entire minority because of cultural bias.

Popular science further supports the fact that LGBT people are suitable parents and refutes the idea Rekers and other conservative organizations promote. The APA released a study in 2004 solidifying research from the 70’s that homosexual parenting is normal and suitable to a child’s development (APA). They found no evidence to suggest the contrary. The APA also stated that stress in LGBT homes are likely caused by external factors like society refusing to recognize LGBT people as legitimate members of society, then anything else (APA). They state that the rejection of the child’s family “sends a signal to the child and society that their family situation is unacceptable and subject to ridicule. “ This statement directly refutes the claim made by Rekers.

The APA expands on past research that LGBT parents raise healthy children on their website:
“Studies comparing groups of children raised by homosexual and by heterosexual parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in four critical areas: their intelligence, psychological adjustment, social adjustment, and popularity with friends. It is also important to realize that a parent's sexual orientation does not indicate their children's.”

So we know there is an overrepresentation of LGBT homeless youth but the question is what do we do now with this data? This academic paper exists to promote an end to bans on LGBT people being included in the general pool of foster parents. Research by the APA, scholarly journals, and respected researchers confirm that LGBT adults are capable of raising children into healthy and productive members of society (APA). LGBT adults may even be more likely to relate to specific groups of young people from similar situations, like gay youth and help them grow into productive members of society (CWLA). With bans on gay people adopting and being foster parents in states such as Florida, Mississippi, Utah, and now Arkansas, it seems the battle is heating up (Ruggeri). As American citizens it is our duty to respect everyone and to recognize that impartial scientific evidence must trump public opinion, otherwise we may as well live in a Stone Age theocracy minimizing all minorities and those who disagree. That is not a democracy. America was created on the principle that “all men are created equal,” and like Harvey Milk, a gay leader, said “no matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words from the constitution.” I believe in the constitution.

I conclude with a poem named London by the poet William Blake. It reminds me of the challenges facing our young people. In this poem Blake describes London with desolation and how it is infesting thoughts with negativity. He describes a London that is ignoring its civilians and turning a horrible situation even direr. London may not specifically be about LGBT youth in care, but it does represent a feeling that many LGBT youth find themselves in. The emotion they often feel is one of hopelessness. LGBT youth have daunting statistical data suggesting that they will break, fail, and die faster then other youth, but it is not just mind-forged manacles that Rekers suggests with his flawed data, but factual data of society’s intolerance and what it causes. LGBT youth should be provided safe, stable, accepting homes and LGBT adults should be able to foster and care for these, and other youth. Parents who can relate to these young people will be able to help them grow when no other adult would. Let us not neglect our most vulnerable.


Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Short Reflection of Community Organizations by Kyle Rapinan

A college education, this is the aspiration I knew would be an escape to a life of instability and hostility. I have a similar story to many youth that are abandoned by their families for convenience. When I was fourteen I ran away from home because being gay was not an option with my unstable mother and homophobic and violent brother. I floated from friend's house to friend's house throughout my high school career. Four years is a long time to live such instability. The bullying followed me to my school when I came out there. I turned to the Gay Straight Alliance at my school for help and found out that I was not worthless and had a purpose. I kept focused and graduated with decent grades and a surprising acceptance to the University of Washington.

Looking back at my negative and positive experiences I know that if it was not for community organizations, loving friends, and loyal teachers I would not be here today. I am a true example of a village raising a child. My village happened to consist of mostly LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender), or inclusive, organizations. It made sense that I would fall into the safety net of Seattle's LGBT community. This community happened to be the only place where I truly felt safe and accepted. The LGBT community in Seattle, and the allies who helped me figure out my purpose in life, truly saved me from a life of instability and homelessness. Organizations like the Lambert House, a queer youth drop in center, American Friends Service Committee, a social justice organization and speaker's bureau, Seattle Education Access, an educational advocacy organization, and of course, the Safe Schools Coalition, a international partnership for safer schools, helped truly solidify my future. I would not be here today, or the young adult I am presently, without these, and countless other community organizations. The people organizing for safer schools with Safe Schools Coalition have truly changed my life and I hope to give back continuously.

But then my dreams almost seemed unobtainable when my mother would not release her tax returns so I could receive federal money. My dreams came to a halt and I panicked. But then I heard about SEA and they worked with me to petition the University of Washington to grant independent status so I could receive federal funds. I was also able to receive a couple large scholarships from Pride Foundation, Colin Higgins Foundation, the GSBA and other community organizations. I utilized the Safe Schools Coalition youth website to discover doors to my future. Safe Schools is a great resource for our community.

I am happy to report that I have the next few years paid for and my dream of a college education is being fulfilled everyday. I plan on obtaining a law degree and becoming a civil rights lawyer for non-profit's and minorities. I can not thank LGBT organizations enough, like Safe Schools, for their empathy, love and care for the future leaders of tomorrow.

Kyle Rapinan
Past Intern for American Friends Service Committee and Safe Schools Coalition
University of Washington Student

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Civil rights and civics lessons ... marriage equality and Proposition 8

Adam R wrote today on a PFLAG National Blog post Olbermann on Marriage Equality:
Keith Olbermann of MSNBC commented on his show recently about the passing of Proposition 8 in California, and his dismay and disappointment with the results. He wonders why anyone would want to deny another person the right to the same things that they enjoy.
Keith Olbermann is thoughtful, powerful, and wonderful. He said:

You are asked now, by your country, and perhaps by your creator, to stand on one side or another. You are asked now to stand, not on a question of politics, not on a question of religion, not on a question of gay or straight. You are asked now to stand, on a question All you need do is stand, and let the tiny ember of love meet its own fate. You don't have to help it, you don't have it applaud it, you don't have to fight for it. Just don't put it out.

Please watch & listen to his whole commentary here:

Thank you, Keith Olbermann.


Join the Impact: A Protest for LGBTQ Rights in cities in EVERY state in America and some other countries.
Tuesday night was a bitter-sweet celebration. We came together to witness the first black man who will become our president, yet watched in sadness as Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, and California all voted down equal rights for all citizens.

This is not a 4 state issue. This is an issue of equality across America. Stand up and make your voice heard.
Join the Impact
This Saturday, November 15th
8:30AM HST - 10:30AM West Coast - 11:30AM Mountain - 12:30PM Central - 1:30PM East Coast

See for locations and more information.


Safe Schools Coalition friend Steve Schalchlin wrote yesterday:
Asking for the right to marry does not change society except in one way: It makes it more just.
Read the whole blog post Steve ended with that line: Why SoulForce Marches.


Also, see this post on my personal blog for a message from the band Rebecca Riots, and a link to a free song to download: Rebecca Riots - A Thousand Hands (Wedding Song '08).

Friday, November 7, 2008

It Was The Best Of Times...

A friend of mine posted this on a Yahoo! Group we both participate in:

"OK, let me state for the record that I voted for John McCain because I thought and still believe that he was better qualified. I don’t think that my vote makes me a racist (Besides, most of you who know me, know better than that)."

I don't believe for a moment that everyone who voted for McCain is a racist. I do believe though that, in general, the concept of and quest for equality for all Americans is further down McCain voters "to do" list than I am comfortable with.

I could never vote for any candidate that stood opposed to full equality for lesbian and gay Americans in committed relationships. So long as the Republican party (or any party) bases that intolerant and discriminatory aspect of it's political platform on evangelical religious doctrine, I will never understand how anyone professing commitment to human rights could vote for them.

Let me ask a question of McCain voters: If everything else about John McCain's campaign remained the same with the following exception; instead of opposing "gay marriage" the Republican party and its candidate opposed the right of an African-American to marry a Caucasian, would YOU still have voted for McCain?

I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I believed that our nation was finally going to see someone from the majority binary gender ascend to the highest office in the land. I believed that she was imminently qualified and ready for the job. Yet, despite my dedication to Hillary, I told anyone who would listen that our nation was so very fortunate to have (in my opinion) at least two highly qualified and visionary candidates running to be President of The United States of America.

I voted proudly and enthusiastically for Barack Hussein Obama because I believe he was the most qualified candidate. I believe his steadiness, good judgment, even-temper and impressive intellect are exactly what this country and the world desperately need in order to recover from past eight disastrous years.

I've waited almost 40 years for someone to truly inspire me to believe that America is still a place where hope trumps fear, where equality overcomes discrimination and intolerance, where intellectual curiosity, scientific knowledge and competence takes precedence over ignorance, authoritarianism and arch-conservative religious doctrine. To some degree, the wait ended Tuesday night.

To paraphrase the words of Michelle Obama, I have never been more proud to be an American than I was on November 4th. I was not, however, as proud as I had hoped to be.

On the same night that millions of progressive minded Californians helped elect Barack Obama President, a majority of those same Californians voted to take away the existing rights of their lesbian and gay neighbors.

It hurts to realize that while I was casting my vote for Barack Obama in Oregon, a majority of African-American and Hispanic voters down the coast in California were saying "yes" not only to discrimination, but "yes" to the removal of existing rights from Americans like me.

70% of African-Americans voted to ban "gay marriage"
53% of Hispanics voted to ban "gay marriage"

The irony is immobilizing: The inspiration and hope that drove so many minorities (and majorities) to the polls to vote for Barack Obama also (temporarily) doomed existing marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Californians.

An America that takes an historic step forward while simultaneously stepping on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans is standing tall on a shaky foundation. We have much work to do.

On election night Barack Obama said;

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, GAY, STRAIGHT, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America."

Cher (my partner of 26 years) and I remain proud of our vote for President-Elect Obama. We believe that America's best days lie ahead. We believe in his dedication and commitment to returning America to a place where its better angels speak louder than the demons of hate, prejudice, self-righteousness, greed and imperialism.

We believe. We believe as much as second-class citizens, in second class relationships with second class families can believe.

We shall overcome.

Jenn Burleton
Portland, OR

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Dr. Phil's "Gender Confused Children"

From TransActive

Portland, OR (November 4, 2008)

It’s almost become de rigueur in daytime television for shows to have an episode devoted to transgender and gender non-conforming children and youth, so the TransActive staff wasn’t too surprised when we heard that “Dr. Phil” was planning to air such an episode. While initially optimistic the show could reach out to families that might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn about trans youth issues, we were, in the end, sorely disappointed.

From the beginning, Phil McGraw let his own bias regarding transgender identity in children run the show. Tellingly, the show itself was titled “Gender Confused Children,” an incredibly inaccurate and misleading characterization of the children TransActive represents. It is our experience that trans and gender non-conforming children are anything but confused about their gender, and that it is society’s refusal to meet them on their own terms that is the source of any confusion.

The show began by introducing Melissa and Tim, the proud and supportive parents of an 8-year old trans girl. This family exemplified how successful trans children can be when supported by their parents, but this positive outcome was soon undermined by Dr. Phil’s relentless and dismissive questions and commentary.

It’s hard to believe someone could look at a happy, well-adjusted girl who has consistently and vocally identified as female for five of her eight years and lived as such for two years, and still ask her, “Are you sure?” Nevertheless, Dr. Phil did so repeatedly. Even more chillingly, when Tim and Melissa brought up the serious negative consequences of trying to force their daughter to be someone she is not, up to and including the vastly increased risk of suicide, Dr. Phil appeared to blithely brush these concerns away.

Next on the show was Dr. Daniel Siegel, a previously unknown but welcome new resource for us here at TransActive. While we tend to be conservative in our endorsement of physical and mental healthcare providers, we were impressed by his understanding of the issues. Not only was Dr. Siegel’s understanding of gender and childhood development complex and nuanced, he was able to communicate his perspective in an extremely straightforward and comprehensible manner. However, Dr. Phil once again disappointed by juxtaposing Dr. Siegel’s testimony with that of another “expert”, Glenn Stanton.

Mr. Stanton is the Research Fellow for Global Family Formation at Focus On The Family, an evangelical Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While Dr. Siegel was able to easily counter each and every one of Stanton’s arguments (even at one point demonstrating that an example Stanton was citing actually disproved Stanton’s his own argument), Dr. Phil glossed over these misrepresentations of fact and research and continued to present Stanton as an expert on childhood gender identity issues.

According to Stanton’s biography, he is a graduate of the University of West Virginia, having earned a Master’s Degree in interdisciplinary humanities with an emphasis on philosophy, history and religion.

The final guest on the program was Mary, a mother whose teenage son identified as female from a very early age, but later recanted those feelings and chose live as a male. While such cases are not unknown, our experience indicates that many (if not most) gender-identity ‘reversals’ are the result of the child surrendering to external pressures placed on them rather then a genuine shift in the child’s core gender identity.

While initially supporting her son in his gender expression, Mary blamed herself for “encouraging” his behavior and her husband for not spending enough time with his son. She told Dr. Phil, “I was allowing him to be what he wasn’t.”

In the face of ever-increasing abuse at school and the beginnings of puberty, her son finally gave up and tried conforming to the gender expression standards set by society. While he professes to have resolved his gender identity issues and even “thinks of himself as straight,” his mother went so far as to say, “I don’t know if he’s being totally honest with himself.”

For those of us who work with gender non-conforming children and youth, such a story is an all too familiar example of how marginalization, misinformation and emotional abuse conspire to force a child into hiding their identity from everyone around them, often either repressing such feelings for decades or turning to desperate measures such as self-harm and suicide. For Dr. Phil, however, Mary’s son was nothing but a convenient justification for his own bias against being supportive of children in their gender non-conforming expression.

This show should prove a cautionary tale for parents or caregivers invited to be on a talk show highlighting transgender and gender non-conforming children. These shows may approach the issue with an ideological bias, often fueled by a desire to generate conflict, which then results in higher ratings. That approach may not have you and your child’s best interest at heart. No matter how poised, prepared, and confident you are, if the show’s producer film the episode with an agenda in mind, then that is the agenda that will be reflected in the final broadcast. If you are contacted about appearing on one of these programs, we suggest you do three things:

Do some research on the show in question. Have they covered this issue or similar ones before? Were the people on the show treated respectfully, or did the show exploit them and their stories?

Contact an organization such as TransActive and consult with them on how best to proceed. Request that the show have a representative from an organization such as ours on the program with you. Insist on knowing who the other guests on the show will be and do some research on them in advance of taping the program. If you do not feel comfortable with the other guests, make that clear to the show producer. If necessary, decline to participate in the show if your concerns are not dealt with to your satisfaction.

Make sure you and the show’s producers have an understanding of exactly what you are going to be sharing on the air.

The old adage that “so long as they spell my name right, all publicity is good publicity” certainly does not apply to public discussion of a child’s gender identity and expression. When guests with an idealogical bias against freedom of childhood gender expression are mixed with a live audience and the quest for high ratings you have a situation that, by definition, puts your family’s response to your child’s gender expression up for public referendum. Your child and family deserve more than that. We all deserve better than what Dr. Phil McGraw served up last week.

Hayley Klug

Assistant Director


Sunday, November 2, 2008

The "Coming Out... as What?" Question

So far this year I’ve been occupying the role of a cisgender, straight male LGBTQ ally in my classroom. It feels completely bizarre since I don’t think of myself or aim to mark myself as “straight” in my everyday life. But even though being perceived and treated as a heterosexual male is still foreign to me, I’ve been surprised by how comfortable and effective I’ve felt broaching issues of social justice with my students from this subject-position. Having been immersed in particular queer communities that tend to valorize “outness” and equate it – problematically – with radicalism, I’m currently fighting against an ingrained impulse to self-flagellate for being “closeted.”

But what closet am I in, really? “Coming out” as trans is different from, and often does not parallel, queer “coming out” narratives. In terms of gender, my “passing anxiety” has heightened considerably since I began physically transitioning and living as male in my work life. (I imagine this is not an uncommon trans experience.) I’m still dreading the day when I am outed as trans to all of my students. I dread, both at work and in my personal life, having to justify my presentation as though I am somehow “deceiving” people by “masquerading” as a straight man. Self-identifying as queer” seems like it could be a helpful and defensive buffer now, in the sense that it could ease some of that tension in the moment I become out as trans to my students.

But what would it mean for me to come out as a queer man to my students right at this moment in time, when they are not aware that I am trans? Throughout my past I have been sexually and romantically involved with men, but I’m currently in a relationship with a woman and have always been more interested in women. In my social life I am inclined to identify as queer, but even that is complicated at this point – what makes me queer, now? I get uncomfortable when people rely on trans identity to prove or authenticate queerness, because a person’s trans history does not necessarily mean that he or she is queer or queer-identified. Assuming an inherent connection between “trans” and “queer” identities feels like Step One in invalidating many trans people’s genders. The suggestion that my designation as female at birth automatically makes me queer just perpetuates the faulty notion that I am not really a man.

Ultimately, my point is that the “what does it mean to be queer?” question is something I need to grapple with in my personal sphere, not in my professional life or with my students. As “Ms. K” the past two years, I happily and openly identified as “queer” with my students - often in response to the constant questions that arose because of my visible gender non-normativity. I’ve learned first-hand that it can be extremely valuable for students to see queer teachers out and visible in their schools. But there is no need for me to get into the complicated inner workings of my sexuality and desires with my students; and if I were to do open that door it would be coming from a place of self-absorption. It would be more about me than about my students.

I choose to look at it this way: Straight male LGBTQ advocates are often hard to come by, and they – we? – can play an important role in any push for LGBTQ-awareness. So I’m resolved to be happy where I am for the time being.