There are a lot of heroes to celebrate in the fight for equality in the United States. In just one small part of that fight — the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — the center of attention and, for many, the hero of the movement, has been Dan Choi. And rightly so. Dan is a young man who has been driven to demand justice for himself and others, and — considering his relative youth and the enormous pressures he’s been under — he’s handled the situation with remarkable grace. But the fight started long before Dan Choi. Frank Kameny, aged 85, who filed this country’s first-ever civil rights lawsuit based on sexual orientation, lived to see President Obama sign the repeal. Other more recently-minted activists stood chained to the White House fence with Dan Choi: Michael Bedwell, Miriam Ben-Shalom, Mara Boyd, Justin Elzie, Geoff Farrow, Ian Finkenbinder, Dan Fotou, Robin McGehee, Jim Pietrangelo, Autumn Sandeen, Rob Smith, Evelyn Thomas, Larry Whitt, and Scott Wooledge.
It’s Autumn (first on the left in the photo above) I want to talk about today. Autumn is a twenty-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who retired in 2000 and came out as transgender in 2003. She has been one of the most tireless and most vocal advocates of the repeal of DADT. She was arrested in front of the White House, along with Dan Choi and others, in two protests. Police officers called her an “impersonator,” “shim,” and “it.” They said “it” had a lot of nerve, wearing a Navy uniform. Autumn was also singled out for abuse by the contemptible Peter LaBarbera, who held her up to his Christ-loving followers as some kind of demon. All the activists in the struggle paid a price; Autumn paid in ways most of the rest didn’t. Autumn, as much as anybody, had a right to be at that signing yesterday, and she was. And she was smiling.
It was kind of bittersweet to see Autumn celebrating that signing.
Some of the flaws in this repeal have often been pointed out. It’s not yet effective, and there’s no timetable for when it might become effective. It doesn’t include a non-discrimination provision. Although lesbian and gay servicemembers will be allowed to serve openly when it finally does become effective, they will still not have the same rights and benefits as their straight counterparts. It’s a step forward, but just a step. It is not, for all the political rhetoric, equality or anything like equality.
Another flaw is mentioned less often: This law does nothing for transgender servicemembers. As often happens in the LGBT movement, to our shame, LGB just took a big step forward and left T standing on the curb.
Well, Autumn knew that would happen. She worked for repeal anyway, because she has a sense of community and a sense of justice, and because it was the right thing to do. But her hard work and sacrifice have not, in this case, returned any benefit for transgender Americans. This was Autumn’s fight because she made it her fight, not because it affected transgender folks and not because our transgender brothers and sisters don’t have far more pressing issues, for the most part, than our lesbian, gay, and bi brothers and sisters do.
I admire Autumn for that. I admire her for standing up for the rights of others even at a time when hardly anybody is standing up for the rights of transgender people. I admire her for having the grace to celebrate this victory even though it leaves transgender people out, and transgender victories are few and far between.
I don’t really admire any of the politicians who brought this about. They did the right thing, but they did it poorly and they did it late in the day. They could have — should have — done this long ago, and they should have done it more effectively, and they should have done much more by now to advance equality. And even if they had everything they should have done, they should not expect thanks and gratitude for doing the right thing and upholding the rights of all Americans. That’s their goddam job.
You may have picked up on the fact that in some ways I’m not a particularly nice person, even when it might be politically astute to be a nicer person. I know that’s a character flaw, but it’s one I’m unlikely to change. I’m afraid I’ll never be one to kiss the hand that holds out the glass half-full. Not at all. I believe anything less than full equality is unacceptable. I think Autumn believes that, too, but Autumn has the grace and the patience to celebrate the glass half-full — even if it’s marked “cisgender only.” I admire that.
I admire Autumn’s hard work and her selfless dedication. I suggest that none of us ever forget it, because there’s a long, hard struggle ahead before all our brothers and sisters are free.
So today, the day after Autumn celebrated a victory that excluded her, is a good time to assess where we really stand on equality, and what kind of people we really want to be. I’m not just talking about LGBT activists, either. I mean everybody, whatever labels we give ourselves.
Do you give a damn about racial equality? Immigrants’ rights? Workers’ rights? Women’s rights? Do you just want to get yours? I know everybody can’t be everywhere, and everybody can’t fight every fight, but do you at least understand that the fight is bigger than the label you wear, or the label you care about?
I’m suggesting that if African-Americans don’t care about gay rights, or gay folks don’t care about transgender rights, or feminists don’t care about immigrants, or labor organizers don’t care about political prisoners, or transgender folks don’t care about Native Americans, then we’re all failing to say what needs to be said, and failing to do what needs to be done. There’s still a lot that needs to be done. “Divide and conquer” is a cliche for a reason. We cannot afford to settle for justice for some.
And until we really care about social and economic justice for all people, we’ll never have the right to look Autumn Sandeen in the face.