at Equality Illinois 2014 Gala, accepting Freedom Award speech
Transcript by Nicole Faerber from video recording published on YouTube at
How come no one ever mentions “Bound”?
Think about that…
So, I am at my hairdresser. I spend a lot of time there. I tell him, I have to give another speech. He smiles “Does that mean you are going to use me as a cheap joke again?” Probably. “Well, you know what I think you should say?” People have a lot of ideas about what I should be saying up here… “I really think you need to come out. No, for real this time. I mean with all the terrible stories and news about trans people, and the reduction of their identity to their body parts. You really need to tell people what I know about you. That you are just born this way, that you are just as natural as everyone else.” So for my hairdresser it’s true, this is completely natural, the carpet totally matches the drapes.
That joke was for my brother.
OK, I put here “Don’t forget to breathe!”.
I thought this is going to be a little easier the second time around, but it’s not.
As scared as I get being up here, fear is not something that I let rule my life, but gratitude is. I am tremendously grateful to be up here. Grateful to Bernard who asked me to be here, stand with all of you who worked so hard, who never gave up fighting to achieve something that was absolutely inconceivable the year I was born. Something that became a dream and then a goal during my lifetime and now because of you all marriage equality and Illinois is a reality. So it is very rare that you get the opportunity to express gratitude to people who labor often anonymously in order to improve the lives of people they might never meet and as one of those people I would like to humbly suggest that this night is not about honoring me than it is about me honoring you.
Not unlike my hair this night is also symbolic. It helps remind us that we are here only because of the people who came before us who struggled, fought and sometimes died to make nights like this and lives like mine and yours even possible. Of all the things I love about my hair high on the list is the way children stare at it with fascination and delight. I can sometimes see their imagination bright in their eyes recalibrating the possible. And perhaps, naively, it is my hope that a symbol like pink dreads might help them understand one day that normal is something that does not have to be defined for you but rather by you.
There will be backlash for this night, for the passing of SB10, there always is. But prejudice tends to look particularly ugly in the review mirror of history and I am sure that defining one couple’s love as less than another’s will be something to be ashamed of the same way that people should have felt shame for once believing that women were too ignorant to vote or that people of color were too dirty to drink from the same fountain as white people.
Recently my wife and I were driving across the country. We love road trips, reading to each other in the bubble of our car when suddenly mid sentence she doubled over in agony. There is not a word that accurately describes the helpless anguish you feel when someone is in terrible pain. All I can remember is the feeling not being able to push the gas pedal down far enough. Somehow I found the nearest hospital. While she was being admitted the staff told me I couldn’t leave the car where I had almost crashed outside the emergency entrance. I moved my car. When I came back she was moved across the double yellow doors to see the doctor. I asked if could go through to be with her. They told me I had to wait. So I waited. There is nothing as aesthetically cruel as red industrial vac-form chairs to agitate your emotional state. Stupidly I began googleling “severe abdominal pain” and the worst possible catastrophe began to feel plausible. What if I was never able to talk to her again? To hold her hand? Kiss her? I began to sob, my arms crossed over my stomach, as if trying to somehow comfort her’s. No one said anything to me.
Then another couple buzzled through the entrance, she was pregnant, quickly admitted. He parked the car as I had but when he came back the staff buzzed him through the yellow doors – hm? He didn’t have to sit in plastic purgatory. I wiped my nose and went to the counter. “I am sorry…” I am one of these people who apologizes too much. I would apologize to a mugger “I am sorry! My purse is a terrible mess!” So, “That guy was allowed to go through?” “Oh, they are married.” she says to me “Really? Are you kidding?” She stared at me with this expression that should be an emoticon for fake bureaucratic sympathy. “Well, we are married too?” I showed her my wedding ring. She shrugged “Sorry. Hospital policy.”
Policy is the battle ground where matters of equality are fought. Policy can institutionalize prejudice or can protect us against it. My wife and I were married in 2009. Our ceremony wasn’t officially recognized but we were able to apply for a legal license because of a technicality. I remember standing in line, watching the giddy couple in front of us cuddling at the counter proving their commitment to the civil servant granting the state’s benediction like the Wizard of Oz legitimizing the scarecrow’s intelligence with a diploma. And then it was our turn. The woman who had been all toothy smile became solemnly dark “What do you want?” “We want to get married!” we said, maybe too enthusiastically. “Oh no, no no no! We don’t do that!” Her voice was like an alarm. Everyone in the room was staring at us. “But you just did it? We saw you?” “But that was different! We don’t marry people like you!” OK, confession time. At that moment I found her unkind denial of our rights perversely flattering. She was so sure of my gender that even when I showed her the one piece of identification I still have that said I was “male” she refused to believe it. calling her supervisor over to confirm that this had to be a fake. The confusing absurdity of this experience quickly became metaphoric. Here one checked box, a letter “M”, granted me access to legal social financial privilege while another box, another letter, an “F”, denied them to me.
This is perhaps a suggestion of the nature of our most ubiquitous form of inequality. Consider for a moment why is it that every piece of identification from the very first to the very last, from our birth certificate to our death certificate, begins with us being measured for one box or another. Why are these boxes so important? Why is our first question, is it a boy or a girl? Why do we make gender the fundament of our identity? I can’t help but wonder. If the answer to these questions is related to the reason why our governments are predominantly male, why wealth, rights and privileges favor one gender over another, why in the election of 2008 one national magazine asked “Is America ready for a black president?” while another was still asking “Can a woman be president?”.
Sorry, for getting up on my soap box… but you did give it to me!
You have no one to blame but yourselves!
Try to understand gender as well as LGBTQ inequalities and I believe you try to understand otherness. Otherness is a word I use to describe the disease that certain people contract when they encounter that which is different from them. Otherness is the foundation of all inequality. It is the mortar, the ceilings and the boxes we build to contain and restrict one another. Otherness is at the heart of rejection, discrimination and violence directed at trans people. Whether it is from our families or from strangers. It is the violence that is so often turned inwards towards ourselves that almost half of my community attempts suicide. Just as I once did. When I look out now, and I see, I see few things as beautiful as my community and all the miraculous ways we transcend the limitations of two little boxes, blurring and even erasing the distinctions that legitimize and support the belief in all equalities of gender.
Quick parenthetical – before all patrollers out there in the panopticon start pounding away on your keyboards filling up the comment sections with your chromosomal commandments, let me assure you, I understand. I really do. I know how important these rules and regulations, these binary bathrooms are to your understanding of the world. But, if I once again may refer you to the rear view mirror of history, to something like the one drop rule which fiercely debated legislators held less than a century ago as they fought to separate and keep distinct one race from another including strict ancestral records as well as restrictions to sex and marriage between races. And for a moment consider, Mr. patroller, how ridiculous that all sounds to us today.
There is no life as marginalized by otherness than the life of a transgendered person of color. I remember waiting for the congressional decision of SB10 and at that same time following the tragic story of Islan Nettles which jugs suppose the march of LGBTQ rights and the gulf that remains between where we are and where we need to go. Even as the joyful day of marriage equality was fast approaching it was still possible for several men to brutally beat a trans woman to death and with the kind of cruel irony only possible in the real world have the case dismissed on the transgender day of remembrance. I remember staring at a picture of Islan’s mother holding on to a photograph of her child pleading for justice. My heart breaks for her still because the justice she really wants is a world where her child isn’t being hated for being who she is, for being gendered in a way that is just less common. A world where her child doesn’t become another victim of otherness and is not violently murdered.
That world doesn’t exist – yet!
What is important about nights like this, about organizations like Equality Illinois, the HRC, Chicago House and the Trans Life Project is that we all understand that tonight is less a victory than it is just another step. A step towards that other world. To a world that is more just, more equal, more tolerant to one another. To a world that is more kind than this one.
Thank you again for all that you have done and all that you will continue to do to make that world possible.
And thank you for the kindness of your ears.