A week from now I’ll be leaving for Washington DC to do a ten week internship with the National Center for Transgender Equality, and I must admit I am nervous as hell, the kind of nervousness I had in the days before I left for boot camp over thirty years ago. Many questions are swirling in my mind: Am I up for this? Is this the right thing to do? Can I afford this? Will I get to do meaningful work? Will I learn how to be a better advocate, a better organizer, a better leader?
Well, the leadership question is the one that has me unable to sleep tonight. It all seems so overwhelming. How can anyone lead a bunch of people who have endured so much pain, who have experienced so much rejection, and who have been so ridiculed and reviled? Transgender people are reluctant to invest trust in governmental institutions, in faith communities, in employers, in our neighbors, in our friends and families, and, all too often, in each other. We are a distrustful bunch, accustomed to betrayal, cynical and bitter. We expect people to let us down, and all too often we are right.
Some people see me as a leader in the movement for transgender equality in Oklahoma. My visibility in the public discourse lends me credibility. My tenure in the community offers experience and some hard won wisdom, and my achievements promise success. Somehow, I managed to retire from the Oklahoma City Police Department in good standing, at a time of my own choosing. I ran for a seat in the Oklahoma State Legislature, only losing by 22 votes. I have published two books.
But, I must be honest. I was terrified the whole time. I wasn’t trying to make a statement; I was trying to keep a living wage job so I could support my children. I held on because I didn’t know what else to do, motivated more by fear than anything resembling courage – fear of failure, fear of letting my children down, fear of finding myself in a place where my life would have no consequence. My fiction, poetry, and essays have been the product of catharsis, a way to keep my sanity while enduring a very public transition, and my run for office was a desperate effort to feel relevant, to regain standing in the community, to prove to myself I could do it, and perhaps even a grab to regain some of the privilege I’d lost years before.
Yes, there has always been the call to serve. At one time I articulated that call through law enforcement, through advocating for community policing. At another time, I expressed my call in ministry as an ordained vocational deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma. I tried to answer that call through politics, and now, I am seeking a Master of Social Work degree in hopes I can use what I learn to advance social justice, to help people devise strategies to cope with the systems they must endure and to help reconstruct systems that have become corrupt. At the age of fifty, I am still trying to live my life’s calling.
Earlier this year I tried to start a transgender advocacy organization because I saw the national debate about our lives coming to a frenzy. Others in the transgender community saw it too, and we gathered at my home in late January trying to assess our talents and abilities, knowing we wouldn’t be able to rely upon a well-financed operation to advance our concerns. Four months later, it feels like we haven’t made any progress. We’re falling apart, I think. Some of us want to take direct action and make bold statements. Some of us want to wait out the storm, hoping the unprecedented support from the Obama Administration will carry the day. Others want to disappear, go back into stealth mode and try to blend into mainstream society. Some of us want to show the world who we are, reveal our stories and humanity while others want to pivot away from being transgender, pointing at flawed policy and fiscal irresponsibility. None of us really agree. I don’t know how to lead this kind of movement, if indeed, that’s what I’m expected to do.
Taking stock of my own talents, I know that I’m a visionary (a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, perhaps). I see grand things. I see how awful and wonderful it is to be human. I am a good writer, a decent researcher, a compelling story teller, a good speaker. I am not great at planning, at working out the details, all the minutia. I prefer to lead by consensus, and I loathe being authoritative or directive. I have a confidence problem, feeling too old, too fat, or too ugly to be taken seriously, and I wrestle with doubt all the time, wishing I could see things in more concrete terms instead of this wishy-washy ambivalence of being able to empathize with people on both sides of an issue. Perhaps that makes me a potentially effective mediator, but I fear we no longer live in a society that really values mediation and compromise.
I feel I do have one extraordinary virtue – that of endurance, tenacity. I don’t give up. I’ll pass out before I tap out. I have never been the fastest, strongest, smartest, or most gifted person around, but I have always been a finisher. I believe in the long game, that the strategic aim of any civil rights movement ought to focus on presence, simply being there, blooming in place. Yes, it’s useful to take direct action from time to time, but such measures should be deliberate and meaningful, triggered by an overt injustice. Otherwise, it’s just a bunch of noise, and in our noisy societal discourse, it is all too easy to tune it out along with the rest of the cacophony.
When I return from Washington DC, I will continue the fight. I will continue to engage with people, trying to advocate and educate to the best my ability. I fear I may be doing this for the rest of my life, but I cannot stop, will not stop until we achieve equality or until I die.
Either way, I’ll have peace.