Same Sex Marriage, the HRC and Trans Equality in the US

I’m moving in with my girlfriend this Monday. April fools. Are we fools for thinking this is a good idea? What will happen when the dust settles and we stare into each others’ eyes each morning wondering how we got here? Is this the first step towards getting married? Or is this as good as it gets?

When I came out as trans back in 2004 I was pretty sure that meant I would never get married. Heck, I couldn’t imagine ever dating again. Who would want to date a freak like me? Even before my transition, marriage just didn’t seem to be in the cards. Yet here I am, now legally male but still genderqueer; my partner and I look like any regular couple when we walk down the street. People smile at us approvingly when we hold hands in public. Just a few weeks ago, a woman yelled from a balcony that it was so nice to see a couple so clearly in love as we walked by. Love is rare. Love that lasts is even rarer.

Interestingly, in South Africa, where I was born and am still legally considered a woman, we would be classified a same-sex couple. I doubt either of us would feel comfortable with that label or would consider holding hands for others to see.

All this reflection is partly provoked by what’s going on south of the border right now, in Washington DC.

The US has taken centre stage  in the LGBT world for two cases the Supreme Court is currently deciding on. These cases challenge DOMA and California’s Proposition 8 which claim that marriage is between a man and a woman only. One case centres around a lesbian couple, Edith Windsor and Theah Spyer. When Spyer passed away in 2009, Edith had to pay estate tax to the tune of $363,000 on her partner’s $4.1 million estate – tax she wouldn’t have had to pay if Spyer had been a man. Edith argues, correctly, that this is discrimination, pure and simple, and unconstitutional.

The other case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, centers around California’s Proposition 8 ruling. Under Proposition 8, only marriage between a man and a woman is legally recognized. The 2008 ballot defining marriage as between man and woman was successfully passed but subsequently overturned in California’s Court of Appeals. Supporters of Proposition 8 now bring their case to the Supreme Court who must rule whether to uphold or throw out the appeal ruling. If they decide to uphold it, California will become the 10th state to allow gay marriage in the US.

These are historic times – and the queer community across the globe is watching. All over Facebook, supporters of Edith and of gay marriage have posted the following image:

HRC Logo

I posted it too – because I believe in what it stands for: equal rights for equal love. And, as more and more US states acknowledge the rights of same sex couples to form families of their own, to have children of their own, one can’t help feeling that DOMA is headed for elimination. As far as has been reported, even some of the more conservative-leaning justices have failed to come up with compelling arguments on why same sex couples should not receive the same legal privileges as “opposite sex” couples.

But the logo above is controversial. It belongs the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which according to its website is “the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans”. The HRC claims to have over 1.5 million members across the country. Among many trans people, however, its reputation is tainted.

The HRC made few friends among transgender members (the T in LGBT) when in 2007 it endorsed an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that was modified to exclude the rights of transgender people. The HRC’s argument, that progress is incremental, fell on deaf ears for those who rightly felt that the HRC was treating trans people like second class citizens within the LGBT community. Since then the HRC has worked to raise awareness around issues affecting trans people, but the sourness surrounding the ENDA controversy still looms large. This article, as well as this one, provides an illuminating history of the tensions between trans activists and HRC organizers.

The articles point at a troubling double-standard within the HRC community and a willingness to turn its back on transgender community members for the sake of small potential gains for the remaining LG and B communities. It can not in good conscience claim to represent LGBT interests if the T is treated as a lesser entity. Can you imagine the uproar if a queer rights organization decided to represent only lesbian interests – even if that meant denying gay men equal rights – for the sake of overall progress?

So, for now, I’ve removed the HRC logo from my Facebook profile. And, as I finish the last of the packing required for my own move on Monday, I reflect on the journey we’ve traveled as disparate communities bound together by a common interest in equal rights for all. We must never forget that we are in this together, and equally. The fight isn’t over yet but we’re making progress. The cleanup will take time and effort too.


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