Sunday, June 8, 2014

If we can't get it right at PrideFest. . .

This weekend I spent two days at PrideFest Milwaukee.  I was especially looking forward to it because on Friday afternoon, a federal court in Wisconsin held that the state ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, and a number of my friends were among the couples who joined in a delirious rush to get married before any injunction could be issued.  I was very happy for them, and was anticipating a particularly giddy PrideFest.

In many ways, it was a lovely weekend.  I've been attending this particular pride celebration for 15 years.  The first time I attended, just after moving from San Francisco, it was a shock.  I had to enter the festival grounds, pulling my scared young child along by the hand, through a huge gauntlet of homophobic protesters shouting that we were going to go to hell for our perversions.  Inside, the crowd was small and, in a racially diverse city, very white.  The entire event seemed quiet and tentative.

Things have changed a lot since then.  The protesting homophobic groups are much smaller, and a loving counterprotest of PFLAG volunteers stands by the entrance to the festival grounds, so that nobody has to push through a hostile wall of bodies to enter.  Inside, the venue is full, and the crowd much more racially diverse.  There's a visible trans presence, both in terms of organizations hosting information-and-activity tables, and among the attendees.  There's a festive smattering of furries brightening up the place.  A goodly number of children of assorted ages are in attendance, happily collecting scads of stickers, or being pushed in strollers by parents of all flavors.

So, PrideFest Milwaukee has come a long way.  But I'm sorry to say that it still has a long way to go, because it is not yet doing right by trans people.

What I want to note in particular is the bathroom problem.  There are no designated gender-neutral, inclusive restrooms.  This is 2014, and even the mainstream professional association conferences I attend as a sociologist designate and give clear signs directing people to gender-neutral bathrooms.  The conferences are held in hotels that may not have such facilities, so what the organizers do--this is not rocket science--is select a capacious facility designated for one binary gender or another, and put a sign over the door labeling it a gender-inclusive restroom.  But PrideFest--guaranteed to have more genderqueer and gender-transitioning people attending than the crowd at the American Sociological Association conference--does not do this.

Maybe it wouldn't matter that much, if people just felt free to use whatever binary-gendered facilities were most convenient.  It is, after all, an LGBT+ festival, and the inclusion of all genders should be an aim of all attendees.  All the bathrooms should be, in effect, gender inclusive.  But unfortunately, that is not true.  There is a segment of the crowd that isn't just forgetting there's a T in LGBT.  They are opposed to trans inclusion.  They want to attend a cis lesbian-gay-and-maybe-bisexual festival.  In particular, there are cis lesbians present who don't want to let trans women into "their" spaces--like the women's bathrooms, or the "Wom!n's Lounge and Cafe."

What this means is that, at PrideFest 2014, I know a number of trans women who were harassed when all they wanted was a place to pee.  One of them was my spouse.  There were visibly trans women who received glares, misgendering challenges to their entering women's bathrooms, and physical shoves.  And there was nowhere else for them to "go"--not that a trans woman should be forced to use a gender neutral restroom, when all women, trans or cis, have an equal right to use the binary-gendered bathroom that matches their gender identity.  But at least a gender-inclusive restroom would have been a safe alternative for a woman being harassed in the bathroom because she is trans.

Gender policing and bathroom panic have no place at a Pride festival.  The massive illogic of threatening trans women who are trying to pee on the bogus theory that they pose a threat to other women in the bathroom is a classic example of how bigotry works.  Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation has been justified in the same way--as necessary to protect threatened innocents.  A lesbian teacher would "convert" her helpless students, a gay male scouting troop leader corrupt the morals of his charges.  The "homosexual" has been framed as a threat in the locker room or the group shower.  To have some cis lesbians turn around and make the same sort of charge against a different group of marginalized women is a nasty irony.

It's not just some cis women who made PrideFest 2014 feel unsafe for trans people.  Walking around the festival grounds with my visibly trans wife, I watched unfortunate numbers of cis men and women of all stripes directing microaggressions at her.  That's not to say there weren't also people present who gave her big grins or who complimented her hair or told her that she looked lovely.  But I witnessed too many of the very same microaggressions she gets outside of a Pride festival: people snickering at her, elbowing their friends and pointing at her, or giving her long, unsmiling stares.  At least there were no bros yelling at her to stop wearing women's clothes or shouting, "Look at the tranny!"  But that's hardly a high standard of what to expect at an LGBT+ celebration.

What I'd hope would happen at a Pride party is that when people acted in rude or harassing ways, other people would call them on it.  When a visitor at the table hosted by a genderqueer organization is demanding to know what genitals the individual sitting behind the table keeps in their pants, it shouldn't just be up to them to explain why that's a rude question.  When a passerby feels compelled to inform a young person wearing a button saying "my pronoun is he" that this is silly because he looks like a pretty girl to him, someone should step up in that young man's defense.  But that didn't happen in the case of these incidents.

People tell me that it's the nonconfrontational culture of the Midwest that explains this.  People in Wisconsin are polite, and don't want to make a scene or embarrass someone by calling them on inappropriate behavior.  But if people in the Midwest are so nonconfrontational, why are they confronting trans people about their pronouns, or right to use the bathroom?  If Midwesterners are so polite, why are they asking strangers about their genitals?

I can say this: I know that there are plenty of cis people out there who want to be good allies.  This morning, in an attempt to take at least some step toward addressing the bathroom issue, I made up a batch of signs that were variations on a general theme of  "Trans? Genderqueer? Worried about using the bathroom?  Ask here for an ally to escort you."  Then I went around to various organizational tables and asked if they'd be willing to put one of the signs on their table, and to escort anyone who asked for assistance.  Fourteen of the organizations put up a sign.  Most of the time, cis women at the table said that they were so sorry to hear that this was a problem, and that they would be very happy to help trans women use the bathroom in safety.  And that's a good thing.

Still, one of the organizations that agreed to take a sign was running a survey about experiences with health care, supposedly for LGBT people, and obviously recently constructed, since it asked if the person filling out the survey had tried to get insurance through "a health care exchange (Obamacare)."  Yet the questions only asked if the person suveyed had faced various sorts of poor treatment due to their sexual orientation.  I went to the person running the booth and pointed out that I've had a variety of poor healthcare experiences due to my trans status, but that the healthcare providers in question never even asked about my sexual orientation.  Her response was to say "Ohhhh, I see what you mean," and then to advise me that if I wanted to I could answer the questions as if my trans status were my sexual orientation.  But it isn't.  And not having thought of that beforehand is not a sign of being the best of allies to all the trans people answering the survey.

(Another health survey I filled out at PrideFest was even worse.  It asked me if I was attracted to people who were "male, female, transgender, other, or it doesn't matter."  As if a trans man is not a man, and a trans woman not a woman.  As if nobody would have a trans partner unless they were "sexually oriented" to trans people of all genders as a class.)

I know things could be worse.  A few years ago, signs were put up on the bathrooms at PrideFest saying that nobody could use the facility unless the gender on their ID matched the gender specified on that bathroom door.  At least the organizers aren't taking steps explicitly to gender police entry to the bathrooms.

But I was really hoping for better.  This was a year in which there were people present glowing with joy because their friends had just been legally married.  Trans people have often complained that so much community energy is being focused on marriage equality, while little is focused on access to transition services, or on the needs of those who don't identify with the gender binary, or on the violence directed at visibly trans people.  I didn't want to sound grumpy in a year where a significant victory was being celebrated.  But if my wife gets harassed for just trying to pee, that's going to put a serious damper on our family's LGBT+ celebration.

Next year, I want to see both clearly identified gender inclusive facilities available at Milwaukee's PrideFest, and an active ally network helping to ensure that all people--most especially trans women--are able to use the bathroom that feels most affirming for their identity.  I want a community that commits to calling out people at the event who marginalize those with less privilege than they have, because they are trans, or a person of color, or fat, or wearing a fursuit, or whatever their marginalized difference.  And I want that to be the case at Pride celebrations everywhere.

Let's all step up to try to make it so.