On Being First

Amanda Simpson can help us all learn about trans issues

“Being the first sucks,” Amanda Simpson, one of the first openly trans appointments to a federal government position, told ABC News. “I’d rather not be the first but someone has to be first, or among the first. I think I’m experienced and very well qualified to deal with anything that might show up because I’ve broken barriers at lots of other places and I always win people over with who I am and what I can do.”

I know how she feels. Full disclosure: Amanda Simpson and I are friends, and fellow board members at NCTE (National Center for Transgender Equality). She is also my role model, the woman who proved to me, by virtue of her campaign for Arizona state representative in 2004, that I can get elected.

She’s pretty good at inspiring others, as well. A good friend of mine at the Human Rights Campaign related how little he knew about the trans experience, until one day he inadvertently wandered into a presentation at an Out & Equal conference and was soon mesmerized by the speaker. That speaker was Amanda, and she changed his life.

She will do that for many more, particularly gay men and lesbians who still find it hard, at times, to wrap their minds around the concept of gender identity, as distinct from sexual orientation. Ron Gold, the 90-year-old gay-rights pioneer, is the most recent example of that group, mired in outmoded queer theory.

I don’t find this surprising, not when you’ve spent your entire life viewing human sexuality through the lens of desire, rather than the lens of being. Some trans persons have just as hard a time understanding sexual orientation, and have behaved very cruelly as a result. So this appointment is an opportunity for learning.

I’ve read much of the hate speech out there, from the Traditional Values Coalition, the American Family Association and Focus on the Family. I’ve been there, and it isn’t pleasant — not by a long shot. Even David Letterman couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and caused a mini-storm of protest. The attitude exemplified in his 46-second skit is, indeed, the courtroom defense used by perpetrators of violence against trans women. But I see this a little differently.

Very shortly Amanda will be performing her duties, dealing with advanced missile-guidance systems and the like, helping make our country safer. NCTE, on whose board we sit, decided to publicize her appointment because we believed the benefits of her visibility, within the federal government and without, will have a much more lasting impact than the ranting of Tony Perkins and Peter Sprigg.

And David Letterman? Well, he personally kept himself at a distance during the routine, almost as if he felt obligated to do something, anything, with this story, but he managed without a hostile affect. My emotional reaction was this was a pretty lame skit. I felt far different this time than I have with similar comedy routines in the recent past. And the next evening Rachel Maddow jumped in with a sterling report on both the appointment and the change in federal hiring procedures.

There is a political aphorism usually attributed to Gandhi: ”First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Over the past decade, the most reactionary decade in modern American history, the transgender community has made huge progress culturally, as well as legally. The fighting continues with the reactionaries, the freepers, and the late-night comedians still going for the cheap laughs, but those who aren’t prejudiced and have a willingness to learn, as my friend did when he discovered Amanda, now have a golden opportunity to discover just how much people like Amanda have to offer our nation.

As someone remarked on Pam’s House Blend, ”I just can’t wait till she’s debating missile-system design with Stephen Colbert.” I can picture that interview ending with Mr. Colbert saying, ”You’re quite the qualified person for this job. Why couldn’t you just be a man??” And Amanda replying, in deference to the late Joe E. Brown from Some Like It Hot, ”Well, nobody’s perfect!”

Dana Beyer, M.D., a retired eye surgeon, is currently a candidate for Maryland state delegate. An author of The Dallas Principles, she is vice president of Equality Maryland and governor at HRC.

Please Leave a Comment