This week’s 2012 Democratic National Convention proved to be a monumentally historic event for the LGBT community and the Democratic Party itself. The party platform, approved Tuesday, includes a marriage equality plank that reaffirms President Barack Obama’s commitment to legalize same-sex marriage and combat employment discrimination against LGBT individuals. This comes almost a year after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and several months after Obama became the first president to publicly state that he is in support of same-sex marriage.
The inclusion of LGBT delegates from each state in the convention, including individuals identifying as transgender, proved to be one of the most thrilling and crucial components of the week. Following the 2008 convention, organizers passed new affirmative action rules for delegate selection in order to foster a diverse and accurate reflection of the American population. The new rules resulted in the largest LGBT delegation any convention has ever seen.
North Carolina sent its first transgender delegate in history, Janice Covington, to represent the state at this year’s convention. A victory of this magnitude cannot be overstated, particularly after North Carolinians voted to approve Amendment One in May. This legislation prohibited same-sex couples from receiving full marriage rights, restricting marriage between a man and a woman as the only legal union recognized in the state. In all, 13 transgender individuals served as delegates for their respective states at this convention.
Due largely to the progress gained by the gay and lesbian movement over the past decades, transgender individuals are slowly beginning to gain visibility as citizens are educated about non-socially normative ways of being and knowing. We can understand the extreme marginalization and social stigmas attached to transgender individuals by considering the less-than-human perception of gays and lesbians throughout the early and mid-20th century. Transgender people, too, share a history of marginalization with gays and lesbians that place them as one of the most vulnerable groups in our country.
However, individuals within the framework of the gay and lesbian movement often discount this shared disenfranchisement. In fact, I’ve had many friends that identify as gay and lesbian but embody a blatant transphobia, claiming that “our” movement is distinct and separate from “theirs.” This is extremely problematic and troubling.
So much of the rhetoric within the DNC has constructed distinct images of the “American Dream” between political parties. That is, Republicans build themselves to the “top” purely for themselves, abandoning everyone once they accomplish their personal vision of success. Democrats are portrayed as not forgetting the shoulders they stood on to get to the “top,” and helping others build themselves up after achieving success. This metaphor, while problematic, fits well within the context of inclusion of transgender individuals in the gay and lesbian movement. That is, individuals within normative society have come to understand transgender people through the lens of non-normative sexualities. While identifying as transgender doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with sexuality, the extreme marginalization gays and lesbians experienced in the past from the privileged dominant comes from the same place and the same frame of mind as transphobia.
“Transcending gender” is a very personal and complicated experience, and yet transgender individuals constantly find themselves having to put their identity into discourse for others. They are expected to compartmentalize who they are and why they are into categories, when their identity itself is a transcendence of rigid identity categories. After all, if lesbian, gay, and bisexual people don’t expect to validate why they live their lives differently than the dominant majority, why should we ever demand that explanation from anyone else?
The visibility of transgender individuals within the political process is one of the most important steps to imagining a world where “equality” is a real and attainable ideal. The 13 transgender delegates that attended the DNC embodied a historic moment and laid the foundation for what will be a long road to social inclusion and full legal protection. It is indeed a cause for celebration. However, it is also a reminder for gays and lesbian to not forget our fight for full inclusion and legal protection of transgender individuals merely because we are finally beginning to experience legal inclusion ourselves.