On January 14, 2014, I participated in the panel “How to ACT UP” at the New York Public Library. In keeping with the title, I unexpectedly outed myself as trans. In front of several hundred people.
I spent seven years in ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). We demonstrated by marching in the streets, disrupting FDA hearings, and throwing the ashes of our loved ones over the White House fence. We were trying to save lives and the government wasn’t paying attention. The drug companies were overcharging for ineffective drugs. My buddies were dying. We were consumed with anger.
I was one of many activists who burned out. When I left ACT UP I lost contact with most of my activist friends. I went back to my normal life. I became unmoored. I was not the only member who suffered from loneliness and the loss of meaning in my life. We started talking to each other again after Spencer Cox’s death. We did not want to lose another comrade.
There were six of us on the panel; Ron Goldberg, Jay Blotcher, Mark Milano, Alexis Danzig, Matthew Rodriguez and I. The auditorium was full. There were some current members of ACT UP, some veteran members of ACT UP, and assorted fellow travelers. We discussed the art of protesting, past and present.
Then we took questions. Mariah Lopez rose and talked about how ACT UP did not pay attention to transgender issues and that as a trans woman of color she had lost many friends to AIDS and all of her friends were HIV positive. She chastised the organizers because there were no transgender people on the panel. At which point I was elbowed in the ribs by Ron and Alexis, and someone else shouted out that there was a trans person on the panel. I got the microphone.
I thanked Mariah for raising the issues because these are things we don’t talk about publicly. I wish I had added that ACT UP had been remiss in dealing with the HIV epidemic within the transgender community. ACT UP had raised it tangentially in relationship to sex workers and intravenous drug users, but not actively in our regular discussions about harm reduction, access to drugs, and access to treatment. Instead, I blurted out that I identified as transgender. That you may look at someone, and listen to them, and not know that they are part of the transgender spectrum. That it is a mistake to assume that I am a butch lesbian and stop there. I gave back the microphone. The questions and answers continued, but I was sweating.
I tried to speak to the room. I did not want to embarrass Mariah; she is a fellow activist. I also felt that she had trans rank over me. I see her as “really” transgender and I often see myself as “faux” transgender, i.e. “not trans enough.” I have no idea whether she is on hormones, had any kind of surgery, or is legally female. And it does not matter.
What matters are my own issues self-identifying as butch and transgender and speaking out in public. I am not transsexual and I am not trying to pass. I could use being butch as a cover for being trans. I could invalidate my trans self. I could chose not to disclose it.
I came out when I was 17. I’ve always been openly butch and gender non-conforming. Like Mariah, I believe in visibility even though I know that it is dangerous, and sometimes deadly, to be out. There are thugs, there is discrimination. It can be a hard way to live. It can limit your options. The more people who are out, whether it is as gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and/or transgender, then the safer it is for everyone. Some people do not have a closet to fall back into.
Mariah and I chatted after the event and apologized to each other. We kissed and hugged and everything was fine, but I was still sweating.
Note: Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism is on display at the 42nd St. Library through April 6. There were two documentary films released last year about ACT UP; United in Anger and How to Survive a Plague. I have a cameo in each.
Jamie, I admire you and think you’re so right in speaking out. What a brave thing to do! I think your activism work was amazing and it must have also been emotionally tough to go through losing so many fellow activists. I’m going to see if I can get hold of both films in the UK. I’d love to learn more. What a wonderful post. By the way what is “trans enough? I used to think I wasn’t “lesbian enough” and to me that meant because I wasn’t on the scene and couldn’t identify with the activist lesbians. I soon realised I am who I am and that still means I’m lesbian I’m just not like the lesbians who did all the hard work in the past and made my life in society easier.
Working with ACT UP was an incredible experience, but also draining – we lost so many members before the drug cocktails were improved – and we could not see how effective we were. Both films are worth trying to find.
In terms of “trans enough” it is similar to “lesbian enough” – where lesbians who never slept with a man were somehow more real than women who had been married with kids before they came out. It is ridiculous because if you are about to be bashed no one asks your history before attacking you.
In my mind people who choose to transition are “more real” than those of us who choose not to – the more parts of the trans-narrative that you’ve completed (of name change, hormones, top surgery, legal gender marker) the more trans you are.
It should be according to how you feel, not how you look, or what actions you take. It is my issue that I need to deal with.
Thanks so much I really do appreciate your response.
You hit the nail on its head in your last two sentences. I wonder though if it’s the build up of judgement of others that makes the individual feel a certain way about themselves. I do sincerely wish you the very best and I admire your courage in speaking up.
I’m looking for the films otherwise I’ll try getting them next time I’m in the US.
I will definitely be checking out those documentaries! Being a part of the 21st Century Laze Craze that I am, I must ask: Are they on Netflix? 🙂
I too have often wondered if I am “lesbian enough”. I never struggled with my sexuality in Middle School and High School the way a lot of LGBTQ people do. And I was lucky enough to have acceptance from my family early on. I have sometimes felt like I didn’t earn the community…if that makes any sense.
But what I’m realizing through writing my blog is that my struggles, and how I have overcome them, are just as important. I think feeling slightly inadequate in the community has even made me more motivated to be involved in marches, protests, fundraisers and activist groups. So maybe it’s not such a bad thing.
Not sure if they are on Netflix – I’d expect How to Survive a Plague to be because it had a commercial release. You’d have to look.
I think we all wonder if we are “enough” it is a bit of left over internalized homophobia or transphobia. A bit of Junior High School anxiety – will I fit in here and be popular with these people?
It sounds like you handled yourself realy well.
When these things happen to me, and I wish that I had said something different or done things a little differently, I say to myself “Next time, I will do a little better.” So, the next time you are on such a panel, and are put on the the spot, you may be able to say the things that you would actually like to say. And if you don’t, you can just tell yourself “Next time I will do a little better” again. It is not much, but it has got me through life.
And by the way, we all owe a debt to those of you who were vocal and brave. Thanks.
Thanks for the advice. I mostly regretted turning the focus away from the issues that Mariah raised about ACT UP ignoring the issues of trans women and turning it onto myself. But yeah, next time I will try to do better.
‘I could use being butch as a cover for being trans’. Do you see butch as a cover for trans? Or is butch being overtaken by trans? One of the definitions of transgender is: “Of, relating to, or designating a person whose identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender roles, but combines or moves between these” .
I could call myself transgender because the above definition of trans fits me too, but those words also fully apply to my butch identity. For me butch belongs in the transgender spectrum somewhere, but is still a separate identity in there, not worth more or less then other transgender people.
I can see calling yourself trans for the first time is a big step for you and I wonder what that means and where it will take you in your process.
Thanks for your comments, a lot to think about. Although I came out as butch as 17, and had no difficulty accepting butch or gay as a label, I repressed and suppressed the transgender part. I knew I wanted to be a boy, or thought I really was a boy, but I kept trying to grow out of it/get over it. Being butch gave me a place to be in the world and I still identify as butch.
I did pathologize being trans, and I think I did use my butchness to cover up my desire to be a boy/man because I could not find a way to openly deal with my gender dissonance. I’ve stopped doing that and I still consider myself butch, but I also accept that I am inherently transgender. At this point I could either keep it to myself and just claim to be butch or start coming out trans.
I’ve told a number of friends and colleagues over the past couple of years that I am trans (and some of them follow my blog so they know the deal) but I’d never stood up publicly and said it. I was being honest, but then this doubt about being “trans enough” to do it kicked in.
I do prefer the big tent description of trans – the whole spectrum – rather than the narrower definition of transsexual or transitioning FTM or MTF. I expect that I will keep moving slightly to the male, but not enough to transition.
It is interesting to think of placing butch on the spectrum – I usually think of it as the sexual identity part of my life with transgender being the gender identity part.
Jamie–you did a great job and presented yourself with maturity and grace. Your delivery was respectful and I appreciate it. I wish the person in the audience could have provided you with the same respect. Just so you know, ACT UP is working on transgender issues. People who don’t come to ACT UP on a regular basis wouldn’t know that. The person in the audience doesn’t—- so provided inaccurate information.
Thanks for the positive feedback. My only regret about it was that I took the focus off of the issue of HIV/AIDS and trans women, and put it onto me, or my correcting Mariah. The overall issue is much more important than my coming out in public.
You are a wonderful social activist Jamie.