In a recent interview, I was asked when I first "came out." For those of us of a certain age, in my case 47, coming out meant transformation, liberation, and living with integrity. There was "before coming out," when we changed all the pronouns and lied to our parents, friends, and co-workers and "after coming out," when we brought girlfriends or boyfriends home to meet the parents, left copies of The Advocate on the coffee table, and put pictures of our latest vacation tacked up on the fridge. But for me my first coming out – the one where my life finally made sense – was when I came out as a feminist.
Growing up Mormon in Utah, it was a close contest between who was actually devil spawn–feminists or lesbians (or if you're Pat Robertson, there is no distinction). In college, when I came to the realization that I could no longer be an active Mormon, the reason was not that I liked girls, it was because I could no longer be a part of an institution that I believed devalued women and elevated patriarchy. Now, I know that feminism as a word and as a movement is so 1970's, but the lessons of feminism and the ongoing struggle to comprehend and dismantle sexism is so here and now.
Exhibit "A": ENDA. The recent community fight over the introduction of an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that removed protections based on gender identity is perhaps the definitive recent example of how gender and sexism still divide even we who should be allies. While there has been inspiring and resounding support for an ENDA that is fully inclusive, there have also been dissenting voices. Those who support an ENDA that does not include gender protections make one of several arguments:
1. We have to take what we can get now;
2. A non-inclusive ENDA will protect the LGB community just fine and that's enough; or
3. I wish transgender people the best, but my sexual orientation has nothing to do with gender.
It is this third point that transports me back to my college women's studies days. And I find it shocking that any gay man or lesbian could make such a statement absent the barest hint of irony.
Gay men are reviled by many in this culture because they are "acting like girls." They have betrayed their birthright. Lesbians are regarded with hostility because we are "acting like guys," or competing with guys, which is even worse. It is because sexism and misogyny are so pervasive in this culture that gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals still endure rampant discrimination and abuse. I know it must crush those "straight acting" gay men and lesbians to be told that after all their hard work to cultivate the ability to pass, the plain fact is they will NEVER succeed. These men will always be seen as the "sissies" and the "faggots" and these women will always be "man-hating dykes" until we dismantle patriarchy, corral sexism, and vanquish their blood-sucking sibling, homophobia.
This is why a commitment to a fully inclusive ENDA is not about political correctness run amok or even solely standing in solidarity with every part of our community. An ENDA that acknowledges gender identity and protects those who fall outside of gender norms is a key component in undermining the foundations of discrimination based on sex and gender, which is at the root–the very core–of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This culturally reality is what binds our fates, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. We are in fact an LGB and T community. Rigid gender roles, norms and expectations diminish all of us. We all share that common history, we have causes in common and we have a common enemy–and it's not each other.
Kate Kendell, Esq. is the executive director of National Center for Lesbian Rights, www.nclrights.org