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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gender and politics: blurring the boundaries

Gunner Scott is the Executive
Director of the Massachusetts
Transgender Political Coalition.
Behind the scenes with Gunner Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition.

Gunner Scott may have sat next to you on the Green Line this morning, but you didn’t notice him. Like most mornings, he walks the Freedom Trail near Boston Common’s northeastern boarder, along with other young men hoping to make names for themselves on Beacon Hill. They are clean-shaven and wear suits; he has a beard and khakis. He passes the gold-domed capitol building, stepping into a coffee shop, where he stands in line and holds the door open as you leave -- his manners are impeccable. And when you turn left around the corner, he turns right onto Beacon Street and slips quietly into a marble-faced building.

Today, Gunner Scott bet on the fact that you would be too busy with your own life to look closely at him. He won. In a world where getting noticed is everything, your dismissal is not insulting. To him, it means life is a bit easier; it means safety from puzzled glares, hateful words, even violent attacks. Because Gunner Scott was born female.

The fact that you unconsciously categorized and summarily dismissed him means that you have seen him the way he sees himself: as just another guy on his way to work. And basically, that’s all he wants -- to be like everyone else. His work is what he hopes you notice. Scott is one of the most capable, though least recognized political leaders in the state and he’s close to realizing one of his life’s goals: To generate enough support to pass a hotly debated civil rights bill that would help protect people like him from discrimination and hate crimes in Massachusetts.

It has been an especially busy month for Scott, with the transgender civil rights bill heavily politicized since the state G.O.P. convention in April. "I pretty much have no life," he says. Scott conducts transgender trainings, attends evening meetings, or sips coffee at his desk late into the evening answering e-mails. "I wouldn’t say this is my dream job," Scott says. For two years, he has been the Executive Director, and only paid employee, of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), but has worked tirelessly for society’s "underdogs" for over a decade. He was born with activism in his blood.

Gunner Scott was born female on Ft. Devons Army Base in Shirley, MA. Most of the men in his family served in the military, he says. His brother is deploying to Afghanistan soon, but they don’t talk much because their politics conflict. It used to be the same with his mother, "until she heard Pat Robertson blame gays for 9/11 on the 700 Club," he says. Now Scott’s mother, sister, and stepfather are supportive of his life as a man. He hasn’t talked to his biological father since before his transition. In fact, Scott saw his father waiting in line at the DMV recently and says his father didn’t recognize him.

Scott attended school with the children of comedian-turned-activist, Dick Gregory, whose civil rights talks during elementary school days were a big influence. Scott’s first activist experience was at Plymouth High School. "I was the co-editor of the high school paper and we had a reporter who did a story about drugs in the school, and the school didn’t want it published," Scott says. Scott backed the reporter and helped get the story published off-campus, despite threats of expulsion and pressure by school administrators to graduate a year early.

Around 1998, Scott identified as a lesbian and was fighting for queer rights. He was dating a transgender woman (born biologically male, living as female) who was not accepted into the lesbian community. The rejection by his community was devastating, he says. But Scott says he has always been attracted to transgender people, regardless of their gender. "You don’t have to explain anything, there’s an innate understanding," he says.

Even though Scott didn’t consider himself transgender at the time, one of the first actions he organized was a protest against the Boston Herald and Bay Windows newspapers for misreporting the identity of Rita Hester, an Alston transgender woman he had recently met. In November 1998, Hester was stabbed to death and Scott channeled his pain into action. "The [newspapers] used her old name and old pronouns for her and were really disrespectful," Scott says. The outrage over Hester’s unsolved murder led to a vigil the next year, which has since been adopted nationwide as the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, for those murdered because of their sexual identity or expression.

Scott later worked in organizations for queer victims of domestic violence and began his transition to life as a man. Scott changed his name when he transitioned and does not share his birth name publicly. "I paid $165 for this name. It cost me a lot of money, and I’m going to use it," he says. He is protective of his past identity and of his husband’s identity, which Scott does not reveal for privacy and safety reasons. Otherwise he’s incredibly open about his life now; a decision he made when he came out as transgender.

But for advocacy reasons, he tries to keep his story line simple. "For trans people, there’s a particular narrative that we’re supposed to adhere to, and that is that you knew at an early age that you were born in the wrong body, and that you wanted to grow up and be in that other body," Scott says. "That narrative is the only narrative trans people are supposed to tell."

That isn’t his story though. Scott says he’s glad to have grown up female. "I would never rewrite my history and say I was never female," Scott says, partially because he defines transgender issues as those of past, present, and future women, although not everyone in the transgender community agrees with his viewpoint.

In fact, he says if he could be seen as male without using hormones to acquire secondary sex characteristics, like facial hair, that would be ideal. "The first thing people do, subconsciously, is figure out what someone’s gender is. When some people can’t figure that out, it puts them in a tailspin. And for some transgender folks, that tailspin can turn into violence."

"What I’m doing is so that you will read me as male, and you will be comfortable around me," he says.

"But to be a political activist, you have to take that one story, the one that the majority of folks can grasp, and are slightly comfortable with, and use that story as your platform to ask for change," he says. Scott’s focus is advocating for those who express or identify as a gender other than their biological one. Sexual orientation, he says, has to do with who you’re attracted to and is a separate issue. Scott thinks that the "wrong body" story, where gender identity doesn’t match biological gender, is an easy concept for most people to understand and accept. And, right now, the transgender movement’s main goal is simply to gain acceptance.

Scott spends most of his time in the office he shares with several interns. Morning sunlight fills the large window, and framed photos of friends cover the bookshelves. A bumper sticker above Scott’s desk reads "Love matters more than gender." The decorations and artwork exude confidence. From high above, the Boston streets seem welcoming too, but nothing here is as it looks.

"I’m walking down the street and this old man walked by me and called me a faggot," Stephanie Hamblin, 25, a transgender intern at MTPC, says as she arrives for work.

The awkward silence in the room is sympathetic and helpless at the same time. She is visibly shaken.

"I was going to say it’s because you look really cute today," Scott says.

She does look cute. Hamblin’s make-up is meticulously done, her brown hair curled and styled. But she looks down at her pink polo shirt and jeans dejectedly. There is nothing more Scott can say; it happens to his friends everyday.

Scott deals with trauma regularly at MTPC, from bullying on the streets to violent attacks. "When I answer the phone I don’t know who’s on the other end. If the person just got fired or if they just got beat up," Scott says. "Just like [Stephanie] walking down the street, having someone call you a faggot, it hurts me," Scott says. "It’s somebody I care about. Even if I didn’t know Stephanie, it would hurt me."

The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs says that anti-transgender bias comprised 12% of all incidents of discrimination reported in 2008. According to the Human Rights Campaign, crimes against transgender people are particularly violent, and they estimate that there are 15 anti-transgender murders each year in the U.S. Other sources, however, estimate there are as many as 12 anti-transgender murders each month. Scott says he knows of 11 transgender murders in Massachusetts, but says only two of those cases were prosecuted.

Scott channels his pain into two categories: action and humor. "If I feel it, it will be so overwhelming that I won’t be able to get out of bed," Scott says. As a transgender person, he has developed ways to work around threats, fear, and the pain caused by attacks on himself and those he loves. "I have to compartmentalize things," he says, light blue eyes watering. Scott’s sadness is rare. It makes the interns nervous because he’s a touchstone in their community. So he’s quickly back on mission: There is a favorable editorial in one morning newspaper and Scott wants copies distributed to legislators at the state house.

While the interns prepare the copies, the phone rings. Scott provides referral information to someone helping a student being bullied by a teacher. He takes another call about discrimination in an immigration case, and then another about the transgender civil rights bill. When the calls are finished, Scott walks to the State House with the interns, and promises to buy them ice cream later. It’s been a long morning. He talks with a few legislators and their aides in person. In the upcoming weeks, he will continue talking to as many as possible. He might be the only transgender person they speak to about the bill.

Scott’s first legislative work was in 2002, lobbying to include transgender people in Boston’s non-discrimination ordinance. Over six months, Scott met with almost every city councilor and gathered letters of support and organized a city council hearing in which 75 people testified. "It was the first ever hearing on transgender rights in the state," Scott says. The passage of the city ordinance, he feels, is his biggest accomplishment to date.

In 2007, Representatives Carl Sciortino and Byron Rushing Scott (no relation) introduced a new bill to amend existing state hate crimes law to include transgender people. Scott was hired by MTPC in January of 2008, and helped prepare a March hearing for the judiciary committee. "They reported the bill out into study in mid-April, which essentially says, you’re done for the year," Scott says.

The bill was reintroduced in 2009 and has 104 co-sponsoring state senators, the most co-sponsors this legislative session. With 13 states adding gender identity and expression to their non-discrimination laws, Scott assumed the bill had a good chance of passing. However, conservative organizations at the state G.O.P. convention targeted the bill. As a result, G.O.P. gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Baker, has promised to veto the bill if elected, even though he supported similar non-discrimination policies as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim. And despite the fact that his gay running mate, Richard Tisei, is a co-sponsor.

Scott and MTPC leaders were surprised at how quickly the bill became a controversial issue. The main argument against it is that male, not transgender, predators will use the bill as an excuse to enter women’s restrooms to commit crimes. To date, no crimes by transgender people in bathrooms have been reported in Boston or in states that adopted similar legislation. Even so, opponents deride the bill, calling it the "Bathroom Bill."

Since the bathroom controversy, Scott feels obligated to speak more about his past personal experiences in defense of the bill, he says, citing a recent conversation with a legislator. "If a man’s going to commit a crime in a bathroom, he’s not going to put on a dress and impersonate a trans woman to do it," Scott told the legislator. "And if they are going to do it, they’re not waiting for a law to pass so they can get by. And no matter how many times I said it, he didn’t want to hear it," Scott says.

The legislator said he was worried about his daughter’s safety in bathrooms. "I was like, ’You know what? I lived half my life as a woman. I experienced men’s violence.’" Scott says. Scott told the legislator about his own experiences as a domestic violence survivor. "And at the end I said, ’I told you personal things about me that I didn’t want to tell you, because it actually doesn’t make a difference.’" Scott says. "When it doesn’t make a difference that’s when it feels like I’m exposing myself. For no good reason."

Scott thinks the controversy is really about power, and compares the attacks on the bill to the bullying his intern experienced that morning. "The only way they show power is to exclude those that don’t have any power. It’s kind of like the whole thing...with the Republicans throwing us under the bus. We’re the lowest hanging fruit, we’re not even on a tree, we’re on the ground," he says. "You shouldn’t even get political points for doing that."

Scott searches for the positive, and the humor, in difficult situations. He says he’s grateful for the increased visibility the controversy has brought transgender issues. He laughs while talking about the fact that the MTPC offices are housed in the same building made famous as the law firm on "Ally McBeal," a television comedy known for mini-skirts and shared bathrooms.

On the second Monday of each month, Scott organizes the MTPC’s steering committee meeting. The community is tight-knit; everyone is a friend, not just a colleague. Here, Scott is a bit of a rock star. Many people at the meeting were also at Scott’s fortieth birthday party that weekend, including committee member Rachel Zall. She calls the bill "Gunner’s baby."

MTPC’s steering committee includes leaders who organized the original Transgender Day of Remembrance, but there is no discussion about that. There is no talk about who got called what name, or whose friend lost a job that week. The weight of their shared stories of loss is dangerously painful. So, like people trying to live normal lives in a war zone, they ignore the bombs exploding outside and focus on making change.

The committee members talk about upcoming events and fundraising goals. They’ve lost funding from an organization whose leadership just changed, so Scott will conduct a training there. Scott is collecting stories about transgender people having difficulty changing their names after transitioning. The intense discussion of each topic is broken by minutes of joking and laughing, until Scott gives an update on the civil rights bill. He is concerned the bill won’t pass this year. The disappointment in the room is palpable.

Christina Knowles, of the National Organization for Women, who’s worked closely with Scott on the legislation, sat in on the meeting. "I just looked around the room and saw really dejected faces and understandably so, but I want to encourage all of us to remember that passing legislation takes time," she says.

"The good thing that’s come out of it is we would never have gotten as much around policy changes and education. Once the bill passes, we have other pieces of legislation that we want to work on and draft," Scott says. "And we’ll be so good at it."

Everyone in the room laughs, resilience restored.

Scott thinks attitudes are changing and credits transgender women specifically, and the larger gay and lesbian movement for the progress. "I always say they’re about 20 years ahead of us, so they laid a lot of the groundwork as well," says Scott. But he’s aware of his own contributions, too. "Just changing the cultural discourse on trans people in the last five years, I think my work and MTPC, has a lot to do with that," he says.

Whether or not legislators will go to bat this year for a small and controversial population in need of protection is unknown, but Scott will continue working until the law is passed. It’s not always easy living with his decision to be public about being a transgender man: "Some days I want to run away, live in the Midwest and work at a gas station, and have nobody know," he jokes. He gets tired of being asked for pre-transition photos, or what his old name was, or even if he has a penis; he says those are all inappropriate questions.

Scott conducts trainings to educate people on what is and isn’t appropriate. He was recently a speaker at the EAA Northeast Regional LGBT Conference in March, and led a workshop called "Transgender 101."

In a small second floor classroom, Scott gives the ground rules for the workshop: Speak from your own experience, have respect. The room is filled with people of all ages, all colors, all over the gender expression spectrum.

Marilyn Steele raises her hand. Her child, Katelyn, is biologically female, but identifies as, and looks, male. "A little boy followed [Katelyn] into the women’s room...and the little boy was so scared and confused that he ran out crying," Steele says. "People immediately told her that she didn’t belong [in the women’s restroom], so she pulled her shirt tighter to show that she had breasts," Steele says. "She takes it very well, but I know it hurts. And as her mother it hurts me too."

There is a moment of silence and the ever-encroaching pain approaches.

"It’s really hard to live in this world anywhere between masculine and feminine," Scott replies. "Part of this movement is making space for people to identify and present whatever way they want. And the other part is how do we walk this world and not have assumptions based on how people look," he says. "It’s not for me to say all trans women have to be here and all trans men have to be there. It’s really about letting trans people decide for themselves what feels safe for them."

Before the hour ends, Scott asks the attendees to participate in an exercise. "Close your eyes for a moment," he says.

"How do you know what your gender is? How would it feel if someone used the wrong pronoun for you, maybe once?" he asks. "How would it feel if they used the wrong pronoun for you every time they saw you? How would it feel if someone challenged your gender?" The room is quiet.

"Now open your eyes."


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