A Legacy of Freedom
Keynote address at Colorado Gold Rush - 02/25/2006 .
Following is the text from my keynote address at the Colorado Gold Rush:
Thank you for having me here tonight. I’m honored to have the opportunity to talk with you.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging the life and the passing of a true hero. Dr. Stanley Biber, a small-town surgeon from Trinidad, Colorado, passed away on January 16. He was 82 years young.
I only met Dr. Biber three times. Everyone who met him has their own memories that will continue to endure long past his passing. Each of us will miss him in our own way. There are no words I could use to pay him his proper respects.
Although Dr. Biber stopped actively doing sex reassignment surgery a couple of years ago – whether we realize it or not each and every one of us has been affected by his work. He has touched our lives.
The reality is that Dr. Biber was far more than a surgeon, pioneering the concepts and techniques that continue to be the basis of modern day SRS. More than that - his work changed culture. From tiny little Mt. Rafael hospital he worked his magic at a time when other hospitals would not. He recognized the need to establish legitimacy for this teeny little marginalized community and his work gave us structure. It gave us legitimacy. It gave us hope. In a very real way – it gave us community.
Thousands of us came from all over the world the see him. We came from all walks of life, from every corner of the globe. Dr. Biber turned what at the time was considered “experimental” surgery into real surgery – in fact he turned it into more than surgery. He turned it into an opportunity for rebirth.
Rather than hiding, Dr. Biber was proud of what he did. He LOVED what he did almost as much as he loved each and every one of us. He almost dared the world to make the trek across the mountains to Trinidad to take him on – and although a few did, none got the better of him. Through it all he remained true to himself, true to his patients, true to his passion.
The magical forces of the universe that somehow brought the right man, the right place, the right need, and the right passion all together in Trinidad will not be duplicated. They were unique, and we will not see their likes again.
Some have described Dr. Biber as a true renaissance man – a throwback to a simpler time. He certainly was that. He was equally at home setting a broken bone, performing SRS, or tending to his cattle. I find it more than a little ironic that the meaning of the French word “renaissance” is re-birth. How many of us has he somehow helped in our own re-birth process? I daresay – most of us.
As I think about what Dr. Biber established – what one single word represents everything that he worked to do – the one word that comes to mind is “Legacy”. He wasn’t afraid to do the right thing – if for no other reason than because it WAS the right thing. He wasn’t afraid to take a risk. He wasn’t afraid to push boundaries. He was authentic. He lived life by his own terms, and I think one of the things he respected most about his patients was that they lived their own lives that same way.
Destiny is a funny thing. It visits each of us from time to time during our lives. Each time, we find ourselves faced with a question, a potential fork in the road. The question at hand – which fork are you going to take? How would our world be different if – that day in 1969 when a social worker in Trinidad approached Dr. Biber about doing his first Sex Reassignment Surgery he would have said no? What would have happened if he had explained that he had never done one before, that he didn’t know how, that he just didn’t feel comfortable doing it? He didn’t do any of those things. When faced with the opportunity to step up or step back he stepped up big time. That one decision changed the world.
Destiny Decisions. Each of us is faced with similar decisions throughout our lifetimes. Which path are we going to take? The easy one, or the hard one? The one where we feel most comfortable, or the one that challenges us to grow? The one that’s safest, or the one that forces us to risk something? Those are fundamental questions, and I think as we each look at our lives we can pinpoint any number of times we’ve been faced with those kinds of questions, and we can see how we’ve answered them. In a very real way, the answers to those questions in our own lives define us, and they become our legacy.
It is cruel irony that Dr. Biber’s passing comes at a point in time of unequaled visibility and interest about the transgender community. Felicity Huffman’s groundbreaking portrayal of Bree in Transamerica is dead-on, and should win her an Academy Award. Whereas there was a time when we were relegated to sensational talk shows that did more harm than good, now we’re on Oprah, Larry King, and The View. Trans issues in the workplace are on the front burner at corporations and businesses around the country. Trans education is happening everywhere from local city councils all the way to Capitol Hill. We are truly living in an amazing time.
Who is leading this up swell? You are. We are. As a community, we all are. Each of us does what we can. Thanks to Mara Keisling’s tireless work as the Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality we have a legitimate presence in Washington. We have a physical presence in the boardroom for many of the main national GLBT organizations. We are helping to form trans-inclusive policy, and we are helping to defeat policy that would hurt us. We ARE making a difference.
The key thing to remember is that there IS a cost. When the spotlight shines it can shine very brightly. There will be pushback. There are those who are as angry about our newfound visibility as we are happy about it. There are those whose fear of anything different from themselves is as passionate as our need to be ourselves. There are those who hate each and every one of us – not for anything we’ve done but for what we are. And, they’re not happy about what’s happening.
I’ve got one simple piece of advice to give to those who step into its glare it would be this: Remember Your Dignity. Nobody can take it unless you give it away and, once it’s gone, it’s hard to get back. In fact, I’d say that that the single greatest Legacy any of us can leave is one of Dignity. That’s a gift that Dr. Biber has given us all.
There were times not all that long ago whether I questioned whether there was any such thing as a real transgender “community”. Being part of a community is more than simply having some shared characteristic or trait. It involves some voluntary effort to actually be a part of something – it involves some level of energy, some aspect of self-identification. And, as much as anything I think the most significant change in our community AS a community in recent years has been a newfound sense of belonging, of direction, and of purpose.
Make no mistake, in the grand scheme of things we ARE a fledgling community. We’re at the early stages of formation. And, as with anything that’s just beginning there are growing pains. There are bumps in the road, but the message here is to realize that these are natural and healthy as part of the maturing process, and that we can’t make more out of them than what they are.
I see several obstacles that each of us can actually change in our own way and I want to take a minute to highlight some of them.
First, a major obstacle is the fact that many of us seem to buy into the same labels that others would use to describe us. Our community doesn’t lend itself to those kinds of things, and I daresay that the boundaries that separate us are far more fluid than many want to realize.
How many of us have heard or used the term “JUST” a cross-dresser? Some seem to use it as though there was some internal hierarchy, or level of validation based on where you self-identify on some mythical transgender spectrum at any particular time. We need to move away from this caste system, this hierarchy where nobody wants to be on the bottom. Each of us needs to own our own internalized transphobia, our own fears, or own misconceptions. In this room – in this community - nobody is better or more real than anyone else. That’s just the way it is.
There are those who bristle at the notion that the T is grouped together with GLB. They argue that the two are different and don’t belong together. They go thru all kinds of explanations about the difference between sexuality and gender identity, and about how much “we” are different from “them”. I understand and respect these viewpoints. But at the same time, my own perspective is that these people are living in a dream world. As far as the rest of society is concerned, we are them and they are us. Educating is one thing, but marginalizing someone else for our own sake is not the way to achieve our goals.
Understand this – we are a teeny little minority. As a community, we are an isolated island with very little power, very little “clout”. If any of us hope to integrate into larger societies – which necessarily needs to happen and indeed IS happening - that needs to change. We need to build alliances. We need to make friends. We need to find others who are larger and more influential as a group than we are to help us achieve our goals. The goal here isn’t to highlight our differences, it’s to focus on our commonality.
This never hit home harder than one evening last July when I attended a vigil in dusty Yuma, Arizona. A young man lived there whose name was Amancio Corrales. He was a vibrant 23-yeard old gay man with a huge smile – a cosmetologist – who also entertained in drag around Arizona and northern Mexico using the stage name Delilah.
Amancio had a large loving extended family who accepted him for who and what he was – he made no attempt to hide it. On the night of May 5, 2005 Amancio went to a local club in Yuma as Delilah. His battered body was found floating in the Colorado River the next morning, having died from what police would only confirm as “blunt trauma”. Was Amancio killed because he was gay, or because he was transgender? In the end – he was killed because of one single thing. Hate. Amancio was killed because someone hated what he represented so much that they decided to take the thing that was most valuable – his life. To this day, his murder remains unsolved.
I tell you here and now – you haven’t lived until you’ve had to look the face of a grieving family who has lost a loved one to senseless violence in the eye, or provided a shoulder for them to cry on. At that point – the difference between “us” and “them” doesn’t exist. These distinctions that we work so hard to explain don’t really mean a thing. We are one. Any one of us could be Amancio. And – none of us can afford to forget him. None of us can allow any of us to become disposable.
Perhaps the most insidious thing holding us back is ourselves. Our community is a broad one so finding common direction can be difficult. Sometimes it seems we can’t agree on the simple things so how the heck are we going to march forward together on something important? We need to get past that. We need to see the bigger picture. We need to own our own desitiny.
How can we do that? It is through your leadership and participation, that’s how. Each of us can play a part. The thing we need right now is fresh voices, fresh leadership, fresh vision. We need to break free of those who would exert institutional power simply for the sake of power. We need to escape outdated notions that would keep us huddled in our ghetto – angry at the world and yelling at any perceived transgressor who comes near. We need to get past this victim mentality that has hobbled us for so long. In short, we need a brand new mindset and that mindset will come from YOU. Whether you realize it or not – that very well may be YOUR legacy.
Have no doubt. We’re at a very real tipping point for our community – poised to integrate into society in ways many of us never dared imagine were possible.
As we do this, we need to refuse to allow ourselves to be forced back into the closet. We need to refuse to allow ourselves to buy into the binaries that others would force upon us. We need to always remember that life is a diverse spectrum, not the simple black and white binaries that others would force us upon us, or of a world of round and square holes that others would force us into. We need to celebrate that uniqueness, and we need to help others celebrate it in themselves.
Each of us needs to refuse to allow ourselves to become one dimensional. Each of us is a complicated, full, vibrant, living, human being. The moment any of us allow ourselves to be forced into one word to describe us, into one trait to define us – that’s the moment we lose. That’s the moment we find that our humanity has been taken. Or, even worse, that’s when we realize that we gave it away.
They key for each of us is to remember that we are trans. It is a part of who and what we are. Not simply transsexual, or transgender. I suggest that those labels confine us more than they define us. We’re more than that. We are Transcenders. We cross boundaries. We overcome fear and ignorance. That’s part of who and what each of us is as much as anything else. And, the most important legacy you can leave for yourself is to embrace it as a healthy, living, part of what makes you you. Each of us owns our reality – each of us is accountable for our own world. Whether we like it or not, or whether we realize it or not, that doesn’t change the fact that it is what it is. The question at hand – what are you going to do about it?
Much of my life was spent trying to prove to myself that this wasn’t true. I always considered myself so "normal" in my own narrow-sighted, confined world. I struggled to accept because I couldn’t explain it, because I couldn’t understand it, because I couldn’t prove it. As much as anything my own journey finally took the course it needed to take when I realized that none of those things really mattered.
This isn’t a rational discussion. Looking outside ourselves for something to tell us who and what we are, or who and what we’re not – ends up in frustration and unhappiness. The true learning is that we don’t need to be able to understand something to accept it. We don’t need to be able to prove something to be able to know it’s true. We don’t need to be able to articulate it in words to be able to accept it in ourselves. That’s something I think each us needs to really consider. Once you get to that point the question isn’t what you are or aren’t – it’s what you plan to do about it. It’s how it fits into your life. It’s how it can help you be you.
At the all-transgender V-Day performance in Los Angeles two years ago this week Jane Fonda said some things I’ll never forget. She wondered when an immigrant actually earns the right to belong. Immigrants are people from someplace to someplace else - traveling from one place to another. And, as they establish themselves in an area they struggle to prove their simple right to belong. Eventually, they get to a point where they’ve integrated into the culture, they’ve proven themselves, and they’re accepted. When does any of us, as immigrants across gender, get to that point? The answer is that we get there when we ALL get there. This isn’t about each of us as individuals. This is about all of us as a collective group of people. That’s the goal.
Know this. Time is on our side. It is not our enemy – it is our friend. It will certainly be a bumpy ride, it will certainly have starts and stops, good and bad, wins and losses. The most important attribute in a long journey like this isn’t necessarily strength, or courage, or passion. It’s patience. People don’t change overnight so how can we expect culture to? It takes time. But in the end, honesty will prevail. Authenticity will prevail. Freedom will prevail.
Sometimes I believe that the strongest of all human emotions isn’t love as idealists would have us believe. It’s fear. It’s pure, crystallized, paralyzing fear. Fear disguised as anything is still fear. Hate disguised as anything is still hate. Like being transgender, it’s not what’s on the outside that’s important. It’s the inside that counts.
We live in a country where those who lead us know this, and the key tool used to manipulate their agenda is fear. The key is that fear needs to be directed. It needs to be pointed at something, or someone. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Does any of us really believe that people are dying in Iraq today because there was any evidence of weapons of mass destruction? I hope none of us would be so naive.
Traditional values. I don’t even want to go there. Does any of us really believe that gays or lesbians can’t have meaningful, loving, committed relationships that should enjoy all the legal validity and privileges of traditional marriage? Does any of us feel that God is killing American servicemen and women in Iraq because She is angry about America’s policy towards gays and lesbians? Does anyone really believe that a gay or lesbian couple can't be good parents to children, or that they don't deserve to have a family? This isn't about values. It's about ignorance, and hate.
Terrorism? To me, it smells McCarthyism all over again. It allows the government to claim powers it was never intended to have. It allows it control over things it was never intended to control. Have you heard of the Real ID act? Do you have any idea how it can affect each of us? It’s scary. In short, the carefully manipulated fear of another 9/11 is a significant threat to anyone who believes in Freedom.
To me – the opposite of fear isn’t courage. It’s freedom. It’s a commitment to freedom. And, in my world, freedom is the single word that lies at the heart of your right to be you, and my right to be me. Courage is the attribute to stand up to the fear, and hate, and ignorance that would tell you who and what and how to be. But the key concept here is freedom.
More than anything, more than any other thing - an unwavering commitment to freedom is the principle that binds us.
I didn’t do what I do because I wanted to be a man, or a woman. Certainly, that’s the most visible indication. But like hate wrapped in a flag, or hate masquerading as traditional values – the underlying issue here isn’t simply what gender we are, or what clothes we wear, or how we look. It’s freedom. That’s the message that will connect. That’s what binds all of us with all of them – whoever us and them might be.
We will find ways to overcome the mean-spirited assault on our freedoms, on our rights. We’ll win because more and more freedom-minded people are standing together to say we won’t stand for it. We won’t allow it.
We’re winning in companies around the country. In 2000 there were only 2 Fortune 500 companies that protected employees from discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and expression. Two companies - Coka-Cola, and the Bank of America - enacted this policy in the last week alone. Why? I’d like to say it’s simply because it’s the right thing to do. But more than that, it’s because someone cared enough to stand up and make it happen. When faced with a legacy decision they made the right choice, and they did what they need to do.
Conferences like these are incredible opportunities for us to meet, to share, to learn, to experience, and to grow. We come away from these kinds of things empowered to be ourselves, to shape our world, to live our lives. Unfortunately, that glow can be short-lived in the cold, harsh reality of our world. Courage tends to melt away. The sense of urgency tends to become dulled. It becomes far too easy to climb back into the closet where others would prefer us to be – it seems so safe in there.
But I tell you this – each of us needs to take this flame, this energy, this passion – and carry it with us each and every day. Our legacy won’t be forged based on what happens here – it will be forged on what we do with it out “there”. Each of us need to protect and nurture and appreciate the feeling we have right here and right now because I tell you this now – you’ll need it. At some point you WILL need it.
Amelia Earhart said that “Courage is the price that life extracts for granting peace.” This is so true. There is a price for freedom. There is a price for being different. There is a price for peace. The thing to remember is that this will be our legacy. The thing that each of us will be known for is for being true to ourselves. It’s for reclaiming our lives, and our freedom. I tell you this – courage is contagious – and when enough of us stand our ground and refuse to back down, refuse to carry the baggage that others would heap upon us – then our world will change.
As Dr. Biber did in 1969 you’ll eventually be faced with one of those destiny questions. Have no doubt about that. The only question at hand – when it happens, what are you going to do about it?