As I write this, the crowds in Ferguson have dwindled to a fraction of their previous numbers. The police are not aiming rifles into crowds or throwing tear gas at the media. Tonight we’re in a state of relative calm here in St. Louis.
I could go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow ready to go to my job at my bookstore with people I love virtually unmolested. I won’t have to worry about being pulled over because I fit the description of a white man in a pickup truck. When I park my truck in the pay lot down the street from my store, white women won’t edge away from me as they make their way to the sidewalk. White men won’t over vigorously shake my hand to prove they aren’t afraid of me. Sales clerks won’t follow me around the store. I won’t be asked to leave a neighborhood or be arrested for failing to disperse.
I want to breathe deeply, relieved – and I could. But I won’t.
I pass as a middle aged white guy almost seamlessly. My balding head of hair is clipped close to the scalp. I’m a little thick in the middle. My middle Illinois twang is stubborn. Most of my family of origin votes Republican. I do woodworking as a hobby, for god’s sake.
It’s almost expected of me to believe without question the police narrative of what happened that day between the police officer and Mr. Brown. I’m supposed to nod and agree and give a meaningful look to my friends when someone brings up the notion that “those people in Ferguson” should simmer down and trust the legal process and that the use of force by the highly trained police force is almost always justified.
If I follow my middle America white boy script, I’ll support my local law enforcement by refusing to question its methods and then expect leniency for driving infractions in return. I’ll deny the widely known, unwritten St. Louis law against driving while black. I’ll make sarcastic remarks on Facebook and prove that I’m not a racist by telling as many people as possible that I don’t even see color. In fact, I have black friends. I may even tag them in the post. I’ll say that the problem isn’t about race, it’s about lack of respect for authority. Or maybe it’s about bad parenting. Or maybe it’s about class. Then I’ll say I’m tired of talking about this and that those who keep harping on it are just trying to get camera time or are trouble makers and thugs. Then I’ll change the subject and tune out when black people and white liberals bring it up. I’ll declare my disdain for having to be so goddamn politically correct all the time.
Here’s why I won’t:
Because none of this is true.
My truth is that I’m transgender. I’ve been married to a man and divorced, given birth to a child, lost that child in part because of my queerness, then parented him at a distance of a few paces anyway for most of his 22 years and continue to feel crippling guilt because of it. I’ve filed for bankruptcy, lost my car, have been virtually homeless but for the grace of my sister and have lived in a garage with rats. I’ve been chased out of bathrooms because of my gender, have been butchered on the operating table and then have been left alone to bleed in Intensive Care. I have been called “it.” I have been called out in public for being trans. I had to fight the state of Missouri for my driver’s license for over two years. I had to fight the state of Illinois for my birth certificate for longer. I have a 16 year old stepson whose skin is brown, who I’ve had to teach that the rules that even apply to me don’t apply to him. I’ve watched him struggle to accept that. I’ve hated myself for it.
When I tell my story, I focus on the bookstore I co-own, the family I love, the future I build, the police officers I do support with my taxes, gratitude and peaceful life.
If someone else were in charge of telling my story they might use words like “bad parenting,” “irresponsible” and “unbalanced.” They might point to my struggles with depression and anxiety and call into question my integrity and point to my history of poverty and question my reliability.
I’m familiar with living a life that looks different from the perspective of each lens through which it’s looked. I’m familiar with being ignored. I’m familiar with being discredited.
And yet, besides pacing sleeplessly, attending protests and curating a reading and resource list through my bookstore, I’ve been hesitant to write and to speak as a trans man to the systematic disregard for and mistreatment of minority groups by emergency responders. After all, my response to being called “it” in the hospital was to be nicer to the nurse who said it.
This is a slippery issue. I worried that tying the violent targeting of black men by the police to the violent targeting of trans people – especially trans people of color – would dilute the issue and derail the discussion, that it would dim the light on the conversation about race that this area is FINALLY having. I also though that the best thing I could do as a white person is to shut up and listen.
But I think I was wrong.
Last October, Al Jazeera reported that even when transgender people were the victims of hate crimes, 48 percent reported receiving mistreatment from the police when they went for help. What does mistreatment look like? It’s not restricted to flying bullets and the definitive end to someone’s life. It also includes being taunted, shoved, arrested for surviving an attack and silenced. It includes being defamed and shamed and closed out of the process. If any of this sounds familiar from the struggle in Ferguson you’ll be able to connect the need for training around race with the need for training around trans issues – really, the need for humanizing the relationship between the police and regular citizens.
For us to have a conversation about this, all parties must listen AND participate. There’s room for all voices here, and there’s a need for everyone to learn both to trust each other and be trustworthy to each other.
So yes, this abuse of power is about race and a growing attitude that the police are not members of the community they serve – the whole community, even the ones whose lives don’t look like theirs – and that their first allegiance isn’t to the people they protect but to each other.
I challenge those who read this to respect and listen to all truths even after Anderson Cooper stops talking about Ferguson whether you are a young black man, a white police officer, a transwoman, a genderqueer teenager, a stay at home mom or a lawyer. There are many good police officers. There are many good young black men. There are many good trans people.
We are all neighbors, someone’s child, the love of someone’s life, someone’s best friend. The advocacy for civil rights for one group has to include a call for civil rights for all groups. I hope that the same people I stood shoulder to shoulder with calling for justice not only for Michael Brown but for the civilians exercising their right to protest would stand shoulder to shoulder with trans people of all races to demand equally civilized treatment. Race matters. Gender matters. Sexual orientation matters. Human dignity matters. And it matters to everyone.