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Red October used to be a fictional Soviet submarine. This fall it was applied to the heat wave in the eastern United States. I think I will remember 2007’s Red October not for unseasonable weather but for the storm of rage by many GLBT activists against Rep. Barney Frank (D.-Mass.) and others over the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).
With Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s (D.-Wis.) transgender-inclusive amendment having died for insufficient votes, we face the prospect of GLBT organizations seeking to defeat a gay rights bill for being imperfect. It’s enough to make activists who know their history see red.
What will activists do if Frank’s gay-only version of ENDA, H.R. 3685, passes? Punish members of Congress for supporting a pro-gay bill? If they do that, they might as well send champagne to our enemies.
Many in our community have paid little attention to this fight. And while popular apathy is nothing new, even dedicated pols might ask whether issues like military discrimination are not more important. Indeed, most employers, after decades under Title VII, know enough to keep quiet about their biased motives. The main value of ENDA may be its confirmation of changing social standards. But your perspective will differ if you are a transgender who cannot get a job.
We tend to take our civil order for granted. Recent images of political violence in Pakistan help put things into perspective. As misguided as I consider the all-or-nothing approach to ENDA, and as unfair as I consider the attacks against Frank, angry messages are not insurrection. Nor did Frank hurl incendiary devices. He talked to his colleagues and called a press conference.
Creating change requires gaining receptive attention. The point here is that gender variance exists whether acknowledged or not, and repressing it is as useless as punishing left-handed children. Bringing it home to people that transgenders are not remote abstractions but are their neighbors requires persistent and patient engagement.
October’s outpouring of advocacy for transgender equality, like the Senate’s passage of trans-inclusive hate-crime legislation, is progress on which to build. It will help if we can find ways to channel our frustration and anger productively instead of maligning one another.
But as we move on, we should face the reality that some among us are by temperament perpetually disaffected. They are the sort of people who believe that complex conspiracy theories are the best explanations for every calamity, and are so mistrustful of their own allies that they readily believe the worst about them. These are people who refuse to take “yes” for an answer. Like the 1960s Black Power radical Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture), they would rather remain protesting outsiders than join their colleagues who are taking responsibility and moving into governance. At some point, we have to let these self-exiled people go.
For some, any coexistence with the established order, even when it involves significant but less than perfect change to that order, is a betrayal. But most of us do not want a revolution — we just want equality under the law. Similarly, most of us who support equal rights for transgenders do not thereby embrace the farthest-out gender theory. When Gabriel Rotello wrote that research suggests we are all transgender, he was masking a tendentious redefinition of terms as science, as if respecting atypical gender identities requires the majority to ignore their own biology. That is like telling me that to end discrimination against Muslims I must convert to Islam.
I know better than to ascribe this radicalism to everyone with another view. That would be as bad as accusing all incrementalists of transphobia, or dismissing transgender rights altogether as if we were merely discussing academic theories and not actual people. Just as gay equality has moved closer to the vital center of American politics, so will transgender equality. It will happen faster if we do not act against our own interests by denouncing politicians for giving us only 80 percent of what we want. Should we be satisfied with 80 percent? Of course not. We take the 80 percent and keep working. That is, unless we are locked inside an ideological echo chamber.
Alan Weisman, in The World Without Us, describes (among much else) the damage done by water’s expansion into hexagonal crystals when it freezes: “Pretty six-sided crystals suggest snowflakes so gossamer it’s hard to conceive of them pushing apart slabs of sidewalk.” The fact is, small pressure repeatedly applied over time has a powerful effect, whether against sidewalks or discrimination.
Richard J. Rosendall is a local writer whose work has appeared on salon.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.