From SCOTUS to Jenner, LGBTQ is on the front burner of civil rights

I remember seeing Bruce Jenner throwing a javelin at the Olympics in 1976.

It was the same time Renee Richards was challenging the tennis world to allow a trans woman to compete as a pro.

Richards’ fight went all the way to the New York Supreme Court, a victory for what was then called transsexual rights.

I kept thinking of Richards when I saw the Jenner interview last week, and how Jenner could have come forward back then. But Jenner chose to stay put–for nearly 40 years.

Image by AALDEF

During the interview, Diane Sawyer cited poll numbers that said 90 percent of Americans knew a gay or bisexual person in their lives.

She added another bit of poll data: that less than 10 percent of Americans even knew a trans person.

And knowing the history of Renee Richards doesn’t count.

So I guess that’s why the Supreme Court, though apparently divided, still seems closer to making a landmark decision on same-sex marriage.

Yet, on the issue of trans people, we are still slowly evolving toward empathy.

So is Bruce Jenner our turning point?

I’m still not so sure.

If you missed the Jenner interview, don’t worry. It was two hours long because both ABC and Jenner had something to sell. ABC had its commercials, of course, and Jenner has a new reality show on “E.”

That’s my problem with him. Jenner’s reveal is clouded by his celebrity and his class. He’s not representative of the trans world.

It seems like he’s just searching for a different kind of Wheaties box.

Instead, if you want the pure reveal, you can get it in less than 11 minutes by watching Geena Rocero.

Her TED Talk has already been seen by 2.6 million people. (I transcribe a bit of it below).

Rocero was born in the Philippines and is now a successful model in New York.

She reminds me of a cousin of mine I met for the first time in the 1980s in the Philippines. He was a male, but he dressed as a girl and used a female nickname.

Typically, no one in my family would ever address the issue, as if saying nothing would make things normal.

Was that out of love? Or were we all just trying to ignore politely the obvious?

That was the way my Filipino family dealt with it. I don’t even know what ultimately happened to that cousin.

But I hope she was able to emulate the good part of Geena’s story.

From TED Talk/Geena Rocero:

The world makes you something that you’re not, but you know inside what you are, and that question burns in your heart: How will you become that? I may be somewhat unique in this, but I am not alone, not alone at all. So when I became a fashion model, I felt that I’d finally achieved the dream that I’d always wanted since I was a young child. My outside self finally matched my inner truth, my inner self. …All of us are put in boxes by our family, by our religion, by our society, our moment in history, even our own bodies. Some people have the courage to break free, not to accept the limitations imposed by the color of their skin or by the beliefs of those that surround them. Those people are always the threat to the status quo, to what is considered acceptable.

In my case, for the last nine years, some of my neighbors, some of my friends, colleagues, even my agent, did not know about my history. I think, in mystery, this is called the reveal.

Here is mine.

I was assigned boy at birth based on the appearance of my genitalia. I remember when I was five years old in the Philippines walking around our house, I would always wear this t-shirt on my head. And my mom asked me, “How come you always wear that t-shirt on your head?” I said, “Mom, this is my hair. I’m a girl.” I knew then how to self-identify.

Gender has always been considered a fact, immutable, but we now know it’s actually more fluid, complex and mysterious. Because of my success, I never had the courage to share my story, not because I thought what I am is wrong, but because of how the world treats those of us who wish to break free. Every day, I am so grateful because I am a woman. I have a mom and dad and family who accepted me for who I am. Many are not so fortunate.

Geena is finally herself. But the unfortunate ones are those like Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude, whose family this week is seeking $40 million in damages from her killer in the Philippines last year.

The civil suit comes as the murder trial of U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton resumed in the Philippines today.

Laude was found dead after being drowned in a toilet bowl of a motel in Olongapo City. Pemberton is said to have met Laude in a bar before going to the motel.

It’s a story that’s far too typical in the trans community.

In 2011, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey painted this picture:

The survey polled some 6,436 trans people, whose racial background was 11 percent multi-racial, five percent Latino, five percent Black, five percent Asian, 1 percent Native American, and 76 percent White. (National estimates for the transgender community is 700,000).

And what are their lives like? From the executive summary:

Discrimination was pervasive throughout the entire sample, yet the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating. People of color in general fare worse than white participants across the board, with African American transgender respondents faring worse than all others in many areas examined.

Respondents lived in extreme poverty. Our sample was nearly four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000/year compared to the general population.

A staggering 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6% of the general population,with rates rising for those who lost a job due to bias (55%), were harassed/bullied in school (51%), had low household income, or were the victim of physical assault (61%) or sexual assault (64%).

But stats are one thing.

It really hits home when you know someone and see how life happens to them.

Last week, I did a workshop perform ance of my solo show, “The Amok Monologues,” where among other things, I talk about the laws that prevented Filipinos from marrying whites. I drew the comparison to the current bans on same-sex marriage.

Another performer that night was my friend Kenna Fisher.

Kenna was born Ken in New York, and is roughly the same age as Bruce Jenner.

Kenna’s show is good. But her experience hit home one day when we grabbed some coffee after a rehearsal.

Like Jenner, Kenna has had the hormone treatment, but not yet the surgery. Like Jenner, she also has a preference for women.

Unlike Jenner, Kenna uses the female pronouns and dresses openly like a woman. She simply wants to be the hottest 60-something, 6-foot-4ish, platinum blonde you might encounter.

After coffee, we said our goodbyes on the street. And as we did, there were several passersby who couldn’t take their eyes off us. Or rather, her. Me, they ignored.

It was not a good kind of stare.

And this was in Berkeley, Calif.

In the 1930s “Little Brown Brother” era in California, my Filipino father knew those kinds of looks–when he was with a white woman.

In the 1980s when I dated my wife, a white woman, we got the old stink-eye at times, especially on the East Coast. Now? Never. Interracial? No problem.

But what I saw coming from the gawkers as I stood next to my trans friend Kenna, that was modern hate in real time, like I’d never felt before.

For me, it put the “T” in the LGBTQ.

Their fight is our fight, if equality means anything in America.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

Read Emil's full bio →