Quick! What’s the definition of transgender?
Well, it’s anyone who was born as a man but considers themselves to be a woman, or vice versa.
So they don’t need to have necessarily undergone sexual reassignment surgery to be transgendered?
Um, no, I think just crossdressing is enough.
Crossdressing would include drag queens. Are drag queens considered transgendered?
No. They just do it for entertainment purposes, so I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be.
But crossdressing is a prerequisite to being transgendered, is that what you’re saying?
Well, not necessarily. I think some transgendered people dress normal.
No, no, I didn’t mean normal. I meant, uhÂ…they dressÂ…according to the outdated, Puritanical norms that force us to conform to the oppressive orthodoxy of the establishment.
So then, if they dress as their sex is expected to, what makes them transgendered rather than just gay or lesbian? Is it a matter of genes and chromosomes, or is it simply a state of mind? Are heterosexual crossdressers transgendered? And whatever happened to good, old fashioned transvestites?
Earline Budd wants to know what exactly transgender is, too — and for good reason: it’s how she identifies. But what are the rules? And who decides? As you try to deconstruct, you quickly learn that sexuality’s shades of gray aren’t as easy as Merriam-Webster might prefer. It’s relatively new turf for them — their collegiate dictionary editions from as recently as 1998 contain no entry for “transgender, ” and their newest release pins it down as “exhibiting the appearance and behavioral characteristics of the opposite sex. ” Relatively simple parameters for such a complex term which, according to them, was only coined in 1979.
“What is transgender? ” asks Budd rhetorically, touching the top of her bright crimson bangs. “We just had a mock trial concerning that question, and we came to the conclusion that we don’t have a real iota of what transgender is.
“We were given this list in the 1980s that came from San Francisco, ” she continues, “a list made by the white community, to be honest, and we adopted it. We’re still using its information to define ourselves. ”
Budd is 43, African-American, HIV positive and transgendered. She’s also an activist, an altruist and a hell of a public speaker. Through her advocacy work, she’s become a mainstay of the transgender movement both locally and nationally, and her group, Transgender Health Empowerment (T.H.E.), has grown at an exponential rate since she became involved six years ago. Tonight, the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance honors her with the Distinguished Service Award for her commitment to advancing the place of the transgendered community, wherever — and whoever — they may be.
MW: Discovering your sexuality as a transgendered person seems like it would be more complicated than simply coming out as a gay or lesbian person. Can you describe how you came out?
EARLINE BUDD: When I was thirteen-years-old, issues began to arise concerning the way I was dressing. I had a physical exam conducted on me at Children’s Hospital and the results showed that I had a chromosomal disorder. I had more female genes than male genes and that was causing my female tendencies.
MW: Obviously your parents had some idea that something about you was different. How did they react to the results of the exam?
BUDD: For four years after the results, I was committed by the court because my parents didn’t know what to do with me. There wasn’t a really suitable charge, so they just said that I was out of control and put me in a program called PINS, which stands for People In Need of Supervision. That charge carried me for four years — four years of my life that was taken away from me — until one day one of my supervisors said, why do we still have Earl Budd locked up? After that I moved back in with my family.
MW: So PINS was part of a psychiatric hospital?
BUDD: No, PINS was part of a jail, a correctional facility.
MW: Did you have a rough time while you were there?
BUDD: I didn’t have a problem, but I had a lot of sex. Boys would say to me, “Tonight you’re going to give me some head. ” Trust me, if you’re transgendered and you ever get incarcerated, get yourself some kneepads.
MW: When you moved back in with your family, did things improve?
BUDD: After I came back, I had to play the role of straight. But my sister saw right through it and told my mother and father, “He’s not straight, he’s still a faggy. ” So out the door I went with a hammer upside my head. My father, who I love dearly, hit me in the head with a hammer, and sometimes I feel like that’s why I’m a little crazy today. [Laughs.] From then on, I was faced with the issues a lot of transgendered people are faced with: not being able to live with my family, being forced to survive through commercial sex work, being homeless, living in shelters, and ultimately contracting HIV. And it was then, when I was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1991, that I began my advocacy work.
MW: Exactly what work did you start out in that led to what you’re currently doing?
BUDD: I guess in terms of how I came to be where I am today, it would have been through the efforts of Dee Curry, Jessica Xavier and the late Jean Robinson Bay. In 1994, they formed Transgenders Against Discrimination and Defamation (TADD), a group that advocated for the empowerment of transgendered people. [TADD has since been renamed Transgender Health Empowerment]. When I became a member in 1996, there were no more than six or seven members. Today the membership is more than ninety individuals. In fact, through Us Helping Us, T.H.E. is the first agency ever to receive full-funding to administer a program for transgendered individuals.
MW: What sort of services does the program provide?
BUDD: Because our self-esteems are low due to all we’ve been through, we decided we needed to go a different route than the political, one that was geared more toward transgender health and empowerment. There are more transgendered people coming out every day, and coming out younger and younger, and that’s where we play a role. We’ve found that a lot of transgendered individuals are really out there for survival. When I go out and talk to girls about coming in and getting job skills, they look at me like, “What? I’ve got to pay rent tomorrow, I don’t have time for that. ”
MW: So how do you get them in?
BUDD: Sometimes you have to give them some incentive. A lot of them won’t come in to get tested for HIV, so we’ll give them twenty dollars to get tested and come back for their results.
MW: The issues you’re talking about are different than a lot of the issues the gay rights movement often focuses on. I don’t mean to downgrade the importance of marriage and adoption by calling them “luxury issues, ” but when compared to issues like substance abuse and mental health, the movement seems to be largely about what the privileged part of the community needs.
BUDD: Exactly. Why is it that no one wants to talk about what’s really going on here in the District of Columbia? And I hate to say this, but most of the time the issues are white-oriented. Unless someone dies, like Dominique Foxx, there’s no attention paid to the African-American community. You have to be an entertainer or something. I meet all these well-to-do transpeople who have degrees and Ph.D.s behind their names, and they won’t talk about the real issues that we’re faced with. They won’t talk about substance abuse, mental health, HIV and AIDS. It’s unthought of. But realistically, in our community we’re disadvantaged. We have some white transgendered individuals come through the program but they’re considered to be at the bottom of the barrel.
MW: What about the gay community at large? Do you experience a lot of transphobia from those who are supposedly on your side?
BUDD: Absolutely. There is such a disconnect in the GLBT community. We’ve tried to figure out what separates us and breaks us apart because we all have the same common bonds and concerns. I think there may be insecurity on the part of gay men and lesbians. We’ve had gay men ask us why we dress like women. Because we are women, that’s why. And the lesbian community often doesn’t even accept those of us who have had sexual reassignment to become women. I’m trying to break down those barriers, and T.H.E. has gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks all within it. We’re the first group to be complete with all of the community.
MW: Do you think that the gay movement’s shift toward projection of a more “normal ” image has fueled this transphobia?
BUDD: Well, I do think that a gay, lesbian or bisexual person can pretty much exist on a daily basis without having to deal with a lot of issues, but when you think about us being crossdressers, we have a pretty hard battle to fight.
MW: Speaking of the battle, [conservative opinion columnist] Dale Carpenter recently wrote an article claiming that the transgendered community’s part in the Stonewall riots is often exaggerated. Would you dispute that?
BUDD: I read that article, and I wasn’t [at Stonewall], but I do get the sense that transgendered people did play a big part in it. But I don’t think that these things should be a matter of credit — like who was the first group to push for this or advocate for that. It’s about us coming together to figure out what we can do to open and educate the community more. Do the transgender-illusionists at the clubs even realize how much effort we put into this drop-in center on a daily basis? I see the girls getting ready for their shows at Ziegfeld’s and Mr. P’s, but what is happening to the real advocacy? We need that same energy they’re putting into those shows to be put into this.
MW: In that same article, Dale Carpenter also argues that the GLBT community shouldn’t be shunning legislation that helps any segment of the community, even if it excludes transgendered people.
BUDD: I would definitely take issue with that. GLBT people all experience some form of the same discrimination and we share many of the same issues. Everyone says “GLBT, ” but sometimes it’s just a bunch of letters.
MW: How do you feel about being the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award?
BUDD: I was thinking about this last night. Awards mean something to me but they don’t have a huge significance. The work I do is not for the praise or glory of receiving awards, it’s for the compassion and love that I have as a transgendered person in my community, as well as a person living with HIV/AIDS. I feel that this is my way of showing my dedication. I love helping, and believe that I was born a humanitarian.
MW: Do you think that being transgendered, and experiencing discrimination and hardship, is part of what’s pushed you toward humanitarianism?
BUDD: I think I’m a good person anyhow, but yes, I think that being a transgendered individual has allowed me to have more of a focus and to see the world in terms of a need for advocacy. I’m glad that GLAA saw me as deserving of this award. I was a member of GLAA way back in the 1970s. Frank Kameny still tells me he remembers when I was just a little thing in tennis shoes and a dress. That was my first step into a group for gay individuals, so I’m honored to accept this award for my community. I never accept awards for myself. This is for everyone in the struggle, and for those who came before me.
Transgender Health Empowerment has drop-in sessions every Friday, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., at Us Helping Us, 811 L Street SE. For more information, call 202-546-4043.