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Be Authentic and True to Yourselves

Michelle Mustonen

Recently a New York man named Dwight DeLee was convicted of the murder of Lateisha Green, a young transgendered woman. For only the second time in the Nation since such laws have been enacted, someone was found guilty of a hate crime against a transgendered person. LGBT activists are heralding the conviction as a victory in the fight for justice for the transgendered community, even as it laments the inattention of the mainstream media and the poor quality of reporting when they do. As one example, a Syracuse newspaper incorrectly identified Ms. Green as a man. The conviction of Green's murderer represents an important moment for progressives. Ms. Green deserves more than just justice, and progressives can give her death meaning by using this time to honestly reflect on our attitudes about the transgendered.

Sadly, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF) reports that members of Green's family were harassed at gunpoint during the trial. Where many gays, lesbians and bisexuals today enjoy full or nearly equal rights and freedoms compared to straight people, the transgendered are still too often left behind. Violence against the transgendered is still far too common -- even within the queer community -- and at the same time fails to make the cut of "exciting" topics found in many public discussions about gay rights.

Progressives should be proud that Ms. Green's murder was not allowed to go unnoticed and unchallenged; the community came together forcefully and vocally, to make sure her case was properly investigated and prosecuted. But as TLDEF Executive Director Michael Silverman notes, the transgendered are not specifically included in New York's hate crime laws, and this should be addressed by legislators. With Mr. DeLee's conviction, progressives have an important opportunity to remind them of the need for full inclusion under hate crime laws.

Progressives should also take this time to reflect on the intersection of class and race with gender identity and sexual orientation. There is not enough discussion of the economic consequences that often accompany gender transition. Even in forward looking regions of the country, the LGBT community struggles for protections relating to employment and economic opportunity. That fight is harder still for the transgendered, who unlike lesbians and gays, often have no choice but to out themselves in their workplaces and communities as they transition. Quoting a report from the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, "Transgender people have a difficult time securing and retaining employment. The national unemployment rate is at a current low of 4%, but the unemployment rate of transsexuals is an astronomically high 70%." Those figures are from 2000, and economic conditions around the country have deteriorated significantly since that time.

It is noteworthy and positive that several gay rights groups rallied around Ms. Green's family during the trial, and at the same time raises questions about what might have happened if they had not. Too often, the organizations putting in the hard work of fighting for LGBT rights find themselves lacking in financial support even as they have no shortage of voices joining them in the struggle. Especially in these times, progressives must not forget that sometimes, words are not enough.

Ms. Green's murder also raises questions about how the LGBT community still struggles with the concept of integration. Depressingly, it is not at all difficult to perceive that the gay community often self-segregates, with little communication or culture in common between the nonwhite and white LGBT populations. A recent thesis by Clarence Ezra Brown III is one in an emerging body of work that discusses the difficulty in constructing the Black gay identity, and some of the challenges Black gays face interacting with the majority white queer community. Segregation can and does contribute to violence against the LGBT community, as discussed in the Resource Guide for African-American members of the LGBT communit published by the Human Rights Campaign. It is heartening to know that in the case of Ms. Green, activists of every shade came together to make sure she received justice. But this does not happen enough, and it is dispiriting to believe that it takes a person's death to accomplish that unity.

Ms. Green's family released a statement after the verdict, which inspired the title of this article and is a call to all progressives: "We want to close by saying life is precious. Teish knew that and that's why she would tell everyone here to be brave. To be authentic and true to yourself."

Bravery takes many forms. At this time, Congress and several state houses are considering a wide array of legislation relating to LGBT rights, from marriage equality to inclusion in hate crimes laws and more. Progressives who would be true to themselves and their values will fight to bring real equality to the LGBT community, because that is an authentic progressive value.

Ms. Green got justice; but there are still millions more who have not, and will not, until they are granted the same rights and protections as the majority. Together, we can change that.

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Michelle Mustonen is a Fellow at the Commonweal Institute. This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program

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