by Elizabeth S. Q. Goodman, third-year graduate student in Mathematics
On a typically beautiful Sunday in San Francisco, at the annual Pride parade of June 24, I joined SF Pride at Work for the second of two protests. We had one focus: to demand that Kaiser Permanente, a healthcare insurer that has been certified LGBT-friendly by the Human Rights Campaign, remove certain exclusions from its healthcare plan.
It is very hard to say what effect a protest has, but this should be only part of a conversation healthcare companies need to have about their care of transgender patients. SF Pride at Work chose to target Kaiser because we have reason to hope that they may change their plans. The Human Rights Campaign endorsed Kaiser Permanente for LGBT patients, in 2010, but an endorsement from the HRC is not one trans people can trust. Kaiser does make efforts to support LGBT patients, and there are people within Kaiser who would like to remove the exclusions against transgender people (which fall particularly on transsexual people). Indeed, there were people on the float and among the Kaiser marchers who were glad of this protest, and who were having conversations about it as they walked. Kaiser needs to cover the sex reassignment surgery and “related” care that many transsexual people undergo; if it does not, then it is not truly an LGBT-friendly healthcare provider. One point that new trans allies should be made aware of, and that Kaiser is aware of, is that SRS is just one of the medical components of transition, and does not “determine” a person’s biological sex. But if medical experts cannot recognize the needs of many transsexual people for SRS, and the mental health benefits it engenders, then they are not listening to the trans community. More than that, by these specific exclusions, Kaiser is discriminating against trans people when no other group is singled out.
So we gathered with signs that said “Trans people don’t thrive when Kaiser discriminates” and “Trans Healthcare Now”, fliers about the issue, stickers, and shirts of various sorts (mine read “Legalize Trans*“, and I’d be happy to tell you several things that can mean). I was excited: I’d never been in a protest except for one ROTC protest on campus last year. And I was nervous–the protest was a mixture of transgender people and cis allies, and I was worried we allies would seem pretentious and give offense. (It’s a common ally’s fear, to worry more about being misperceived than about how to make use of criticism; I try to get over this.)
Off we went in front of Kaiser, which promptly…stopped and waited for us to march forward! It was ridiculous, I thought. Here were perhaps 30 protestors, hoping for the chance to be glimpsed briefly right ahead of perhaps 200 people and a gigantic float. Instead, we had a large unexpected gap in the parade to slowly march forward, hand out fliers, engage with people, and make sure everyone clearly read our signs. Except for one point when the float advanced and drowned us out with their music, that was how the whole protest went. The gap in the parade was so obvious that everyone knew “we” were holding it up by 20 minutes.
One of the organizers of the protest asked me if I was trans myself. She then asked me if I was okay having my picture taken, explaining that many cis allies weren’t. Some bystanders asked me the first question: my favorite such conversation had to be with one presumed-cis man on the edge of the crowd. When I responded, “No, I’m an ally”, he shot back “Well I’m gay!” As if “ally” meant “straight”, and as if being one kind of queer made him a spokesperson for others without having to learn anything about our differences and our privileges.
Overall, it was interesting to see the different receptions our protest got. Many people cheered; most people stared in silence; some people were clearly annoyed that the parade was being slowed down; and a few people asked questions. I was truly heartened by this reception. I know that many don’t see beyond San Francisco’s reputation as a great place for LGBT people to live; in fact relatively privileged queer people don’t have much understanding of the political needs of everyone else. But it seems that when it comes to taking better care of trans people, many at the parade were willing to listen and learn.
Doubling back to find acquaintances after the protest, I talked to some people who were disappointed that our protest had slowed down the parade, and for a second I felt guilty. Then I explained the political reasons for our protest, the hopes we have that real change will result, and a few things became clear to me. Pride parades have two purposes: a celebration of queer people’s lives, and a political declaration that queer people deserve respect. We saw combinations of both at Friday’s Trans March and Saturday’s Dyke March, but Sunday just looked like a party until there were protests. In these follow-up conversations I realized this: that when we have a party to celebrate queerness, there should always be room for politics. There must always be time to listen to those who are not yet SAFE, those who need help, those who can tell us what we can do to help. The least we can do, if we’re not involved with the issue at hand, is to listen and think about helping.
As a new friend pointed out this weekend, when those of us who are queer are marginalized, we have an opportunity to empathize with other people who aren’t treated fairly, to see more oppressions in our society along many axes. My friend explained that she was white (as I am) and that her experiences opened her eyes enough that she has become anti-racist as well. For me, it was the other way around. I had learned a lot about racism myself through a one-year community service program, from many colleagues’ stories and by seeing the effects of racism on the schoolchildren we worked with. But it was once I came out to myself and others, and opened my eyes to sexism as well, that I realized that I needed to learn a lot about oppression as it affects me and others. As I learn, I become more capable of struggling against these forces–struggling quietly or loudly, independently or within communities, against unfairness in myself and in others.
Unfortunately, not everyone takes the opportunities that being marginalized gives them. Some gay, bisexual or pansexual people, particularly those who are privileged to be white and cis, would jump at the chance to be “just like everyone else”, to fit into society, to have legally recognized marriages and be done with it. When people make those choices, they are deliberately refusing to see the ills of our society such as racism that appears both as unconscious thoughts everyone has, and as a self-perpetuating unfair system. They don’t “remember the complexity”, as Krys Freeman (BlaKtivist) reminded us in a stirring speech at the Dyke March.
Some LGBT people and allies may not see that the goals white gay men advocate for, like gender-neutral marriage, won’t stop police from terrorizing transgender people and any queer people of color, won’t do much against poverty, won’t do more than a little to solve the problems for all of us. Specifically when people wonder why we have an alliance of “LGBT” people instead of just “LGB” people, they may not recognize that homophobia is a form of gender discrimination; that gay, bisexual and pansexual people are targeted most when we appear to be “deviant” in our gender presentation; that, in short, homophobia won’t end until transphobia ends with it. We in the queer community also need to recognize the many valuable contributions from transgender people in our struggle for rights. You don’t have to take my word for it; read up on some of the work of the Transgender Law Center, or better yet, here’s a concise but broad history lesson.
During that day, I turned over in my mind the first protest of the parade, the “Occupride” protest in front of Wells Fargo. I had wondered what that protest was for, as people held a variety of signs from “Free Cece McDonald” and “Fuck Corporate Pride”, and chanted “We’re here! We’re queer! And we’re not going shopping!” Now I found myself thinking: these companies are advertising to a market of queer people. How do we know that they actually support queer rights in more than name only? How do we know what their policies are towards LGBT employees, and whether they treat their queer customers with respect?
I know that some companies actively support their LGBT employees, and lead the way for other companies. Google, for all its flaws, has an active contingent of queer employees who work to improve its policies. I know that from “Gayglers” I’ve met, and I took the large group of happy people in Google shirts at the parade as evidence that there are results. What about all the other large corporations there, though–should we really see their nominal encouragement of LGBT people as an incentive to buy their product? The Occupride protest and the Kaiser protest were both an answer to this question: we don’t want false advertising at Pride. We shouldn’t have companies claiming to be more LGBT-friendly than they actually are. We need real support, not lip service, and we queer people certainly don’t need our feelings of happiness and encouragement to be exploited to make us buy more products.
So I did some digging into the details: the truth behind Kaiser’s LGBT-friendly advertising. Kaiser’s healthcare plans are different, and it’s somewhat hard to get copies of all of them; I encourage you to call them up (1-800-464-4000), or write if that’s easier, and ask if they include services related to sex reassignment surgery. But in a 2012-2013 copy I obtained, in the “Exclusions” section when other headings are followd by explanations, there is only one heading without elaboration: “Transgender Surgery”. Another plan is quoted by SF Pride at Work, excluding “treatment leading to or in connection with transsexualism, or sex changes or modifications, including but not limited to surgery.” One protest may not be enough, and we may need more. But we hope that more people will talk about the issue and put pressure on Kaiser to change. We hope that if these plans change, other healthcare providers may follow Kaiser’s example.
Of course I have doubts. I cannot be sure what impact this protest will have on Kaiser, whether the follow-up will be effective, or what this will do for trans healthcare in the long-term. Perhaps this investment in a “ripple effect” is too optimistic. Perhaps I should be overwhelmed by how much our society needs to do for human rights, or despair at the regressions and backlashes and how so many people falsely believe that progress is inevitable. I am frustrated that I need to learn so much to do so little as one person, or perhaps to do a lot and never be sure how much I helped. Protests are especially hard to measure in terms of results, which is one reason I haven’t often participated. But that’s the kind of thinking that has held me back from choosing any effective actions for the last few years. Increasingly I have come to realize that the entire system we run on, laws and medical practice and all, are fundamentally cultural, meaning that they rely on the mutable ideas of human beings. In particular, if more people understand what it means to respect transgender people and know of their needs, doctors and healthcare providers and lawmakers will make different decisions. So, when we have the energy and ability, it makes sense to push for cultural change as part of a larger movement.
I had a paragraph on why I used the words I used in this article, but it’s already too long. Instead, I’ve made a long note about my use of words.
Read more about the campaign for healthcare for transgender people by SF Pride at Work. That page also links to an article on the protest.
A light-hearted blog post about being marketed to as gay.
A fascinating historical article on why the Human Rights Campaign does not have a good track record for transgender people. The Human Rights Campaign actually tracks which companies are “LGBT”-friendly, but many queer people have criticized these companies for being friendly only to “LGB”, i.e., cis queer people. In addition, some companies are funding Israel so it is better able to continue military operations, and many queer people object to this practice. There is a whole phenomenon of “pinkwashing” that I am only beginning to learn about: people promote Israel’s LGBT-rights record in order to draw attention away from its abuse of Palestinians. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been a large source of rarely-discussed tension in my life to date, but now it seems that queer rights activists have been drawn into the issue and are taking sides. Here is an article about pinkwashing as a more general phenomenon of distraction.
Here is an article about some of the variables that go into the experiences of different transgender people, which also partially addressed my own questions about who needs SRS and who doesn’t. If you visit this page, I highly recommend the links provided on the right under “Essential Reeding”.
I already linked to the history lesson, but I want to encourage you to visit that link because it is quite readable and addresses many common confusions and misconceptions. (In fact it is written by Susan Stryker, who authored a book “Transgender History”.) The idea that transgender people didn’t exist before the twentieth century is one of the worst of these misconceptions. We haven’t always had the kind of culture that gives the label “transgender” any meaning, but people who would be labeled as such have always existed, and for centuries Europeans (among others) have done violence against them.
Elizabeth is in the middle of seeking a PhD in mathematics. She is also interested in queer rights and social justice, music, Irish dancing, climbing trees and any number of things. In this article she’d like to thank Leanna for her input, and Emily for her help with editing.