By Melissa Spear
Executive Director at Common Ground
I am the mother of a transgender son. Better said, I am the proud mother of a smart, loving, beautiful, amazing transgender son. And I am the Executive Director of Common Ground. And these two things are deeply connected.
Looking back to 2009, I am struck by the coincidence in that year of my son Skylar sitting me down to tell me he is transgender and me entering the role of Executive Director at Common Ground. In the 7 years since I have been on two amazing journeys – one personal, one professional, but both very much related.
Among the many reactions I had when Skylar first shared with me that he is transgender – doubt, sadness, confusion – the most acute, the one that has lingered over the years, is fear – fear that my beautiful child was on a path that would inevitably lead to alienation, isolation, disenfranchisement and make him a target of violence. While I knew absolutely nothing about being transgender, I was well aware of how brutal our society can be to those who fall outside the accepted, dominant social norms. My heart broke that day for my son.
Fortunately I have learned much since that summer day in June of 2009. I have developed deep respect for the courage and strength my son and all transgender and gender nonconforming people demonstrate in their struggle to realize their identity. The challenges are daunting. I have come to know many transgender youth whose identities have been rejected by their parents, who face hostility at home as well as at school, whose schools turn a blind eye or deny the persistent bullying, who cannot access bathrooms at school like any other student, yet persist in being true to their authentic selves.
In 2011 I joined the transgender community in advocating to include gender identity in Connecticut’s anti-discrimination law in order to ensure transgender people cannot be denied employment, housing, credit or public accommodation based on gender identity. I sat in public hearings in Hartford listening as opponents of the law argued that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that conformed to their gender identity would put women and children at risk of sexual assault – the not so subtle implication being that transgender people – like my son – are deviant and dangerous. I am proud to say that the law passed here in Connecticut. I am grateful to live in a state that has had the political will to stand up to the hostile attacks and do what is right.
There has been amazing progress made in understanding and accepting the transgender community since Skylar first came to me in 2009. My son, and many of the transgender youth I have come to know and love, are living happy, productive lives within supportive communities throughout the country. For a time it seemed as if the hostile, poorly informed and intolerant voices might begin to be overwhelmed by voices of reason, by the love and respect so many of us feel for our transgender sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons, friends and colleagues. But it was not to be – not yet, not yet.
As of today there are 100 active anti-LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning) bills in pending 22 states. These bills would allow denial of services – including healthcare and mental health services – to members of the LGBTQ community ostensibly to protect the “religious liberty” of service providers; they would prevent transgender people from using public bathrooms that match their gender identity; they would prevent gay couples from adopting; and they would prevent local communities from passing anti-discrimination laws protecting the LGBTQ community. And this is just the political realm.
Research has shown that Transgender people experience significant overt and legal workplace discrimination, are often met with challenges to their parental relationships, lack sufficient access to quality healthcare free from discrimination, are frequently bullied and denied access to the appropriate bathroom in schools, and face difficulties in obtaining appropriate name and gender designations on their identity documents.
But discriminatory practices are simply the “civil” manifestations of hostility toward the LGBTQ community, and transgender people in particular. In 2014 the annual report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that for the fourth year in a row transgender people, LGBTQ and HIV-affected people of color, and particularly transgender people of color, experienced disproportionately severe violence. It also reported a 13% increase in hate violence against transgender people in 2014. And now in 2016 we have the horrific events in Orlando to add to the list.
As I reflect on the overt discrimination, openly hostile discourse and targeted violence faced by the LGBTQ community I am reminded of how these same kinds of tactics are a powerful part of the history of racism in America. These overt manifestations of racism have to a great extent gone underground, becoming deeply embedded in our policies and institutions, manifested through subtle behaviors, all of which serves to disguise racism as something much less sinister – at least for those of us who are white. The damaging impacts of veiled racism are, however, no less damaging to communities of color than the overt violence, hostility and discrimination targeting the LGBTQ community.
It is here that my work at Common Ground and my personal commitment to transgender rights truly intersect. Both through my work with the diverse community of Common Ground, and my work with the LGBTQ community, I have come to understand how powerful dominant social norms are, and how brutal our society can be in trying to protect them.
I have become particularly sensitive to how these dominant social norms are often enforced in educational settings – whether through dress codes or curriculum or disciplinary actions or bullying or bathroom policies. My journey to understand and support my son and the transgender community has paralleled my journey at Common Ground to understand and support disenfranchised communities, in particular communities of color, and to engage all of us at Common Ground in the hard work of recognizing and addressing the many subtle ways that dominant social norms manifest and oppress others both within and outside of our organization .
And so that brings me to today. With the massacre in Orlando one week behind us my heart is still breaking. As Obama said about Michael Brown, it could easily have been my son.
Living with difference, embracing difference, loving difference has made me a better person, has made my life fuller, has connected me to a deep groundswell of humanity. But it is also a source of anger and despair when I see our society pushing back so hard, so vehemently, so violently against what is seen as the “other.” I do see progress, I do have hope, but we must all be committed, we must all raise our voices. For my son. And for all of our sons and daughters.
I love you Skylar.
Department of Justice Guidance Letter re Transgender rights:
2015 report on LGBTQ and HIV-affected Hate Violence:
An amazing organization: