This week, the staff at Pacifica Radio’s WBAI station all received a letter from David Sears, editor of the Evening News. It read:
Dear Friends and coworkers, [includes rush transcript]
Some of you are already aware of a major change taking place within the news department. Now it is time for everyone to know because the changes are about be much more evident.
For many years now I have been struggling with a basic issue of personal identity that has consumed a great deal of my time, energy and resources. I am transsexual. This means basically that my inner sense of gender identity does not match and has never matched my outward presentation of gender. In other words though I have always been identified as and perceived to be male, my sense of self has always been more female. Years of research and excessive amounts of therapy have made it clear that this is a feeling that doesn’t just go away. The only way I can begin to reconcile the inner conflict is to begin living my life as a woman.
I am now in the final stages of making that transition complete. A requirement for going forward with surgical gender reassignment is to live every day, all day, at home, in my community and at work in my new gender role for a period of at least one year. For the past few months I have been living as a woman at home and everywhere else except at work, the place where I spend most of my waking hours. On Monday, March 6th, I will be returning from a short absence not as David Sears but as Andrea Sears.
Those who know about these changes in my life have been very supportive and encouraging. I’m incredibly grateful for the understanding and acceptance they have given me. I know there will be some who will have more difficulty accepting my transition. To these I can only say that what I am doing is not intended to cause them any distress. The point is to try and relieve the distress I’ve been living with for my entire life. Gender transition is an arduous, anxiety filled and incredibly expensive process. It is certainly not something anyone would do unless they felt it was absolutely necessary for their own happiness.
Many people are bound to have a lot of questions. Feel free to ask me. I’ll be happy to answer any reasonable questions myself. I’ve also assembled a list of answers to some of the most common questions and, for the intensely curious, a list of suggested resources for more information. Copies are available in the newsroom.”
News Editor One of the movies now making the rounds in Hollywood is “Boys Don’t Cry,” the story of Teena Brandon, a young woman who becomes Brandon Teena in a small Nebraska town. It is based on a true story. Brandon Teena passes as a man, dating women in the community, until an arrest for forging a check reveals that he was a woman. Two of his former friends eventually rape and murder him. Hillary Swank, the actress who plays Brandon Teena, has been nominated for an Academy Award. The film has brought the issue of hate crimes against transsexuals to the forefront of debate.
Today, a look at transsexuality and the people who deal with this transformation both in their personal lives and in politics.
- Andrea Sears, formerly David Sears, News Editor of Pacifica Radio’s WBAI Evening News. She has been at WBAI for 10 years.
- Riki Anne Wilchins, Co-Founder of the Transsexual Menace, Executive Director of GenderPAC and author of ??Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Call: 212.645.2686.
AMY GOODMAN: About a week ago, each of us at WBAI, the Pacifica station that I work at in New York, had a letter put into our mailbox, and this is what it said:
“Dear Friends and coworkers,
“Some of you are already aware of a major change taking place within the news department. Now it is time for everyone to know because the changes are about be much more evident.
“For many years now I have been struggling with a basic issue of personal identity that has consumed a great deal of my time, energy and resources. I am transsexual. This means basically that my inner sense of gender identity does not match and has never matched my outward presentation of gender. In other words, though I have always been identified as and perceived to be male, my sense of self has always been more female. Years of research and excessive amounts of therapy have made it clear that this is a feeling that doesn’t just go away. The only way I can begin to reconcile the inner conflict is to begin living my life as a woman.
“I am now in the final stages of making that transition complete. A requirement for going forward with surgical gender reassignment is to live every day, all day, at home, in my community and at work in my new gender role for a period of at least one year. For the past few months I have been living as a woman at home and everywhere else except at work, the place where I spend most of my waking hours. On Monday, March 6th, I will be returning from a short absence not as David Sears but as Andrea Sears.”
The letter goes on to say:
“Those who know about these changes in my life have been very supportive and encouraging. I’m incredibly grateful for the understanding and acceptance they have given me. I know there will be some who will have more difficulty accepting my transition. To these I can only say that what I am doing is not intended to cause them any distress. The point is to try and relieve the distress I’ve been living with for my entire life. Gender transition is an arduous, anxiety filled and incredibly expensive process. It is certainly not something anyone would do unless they felt it was absolutely necessary for their own happiness.
“Many people are bound to have a lot of questions. Feel free to ask me. I’ll be happy to answer any reasonable questions myself. I’ve also assembled a list of answers to some of the most common questions and, for the intensely curious, a list of suggested resources for more information. Copies are available in the newsroom.
So that’s what we got in the beginning of March, and on March 6th Andrea Sears returned as news editor in the WBAI newsroom. She, or I should say he before, has been the news editor for five years, has been in the newsroom for ten years, and I’ve had the privilege of working with Andrea Sears for all of these years — I guess first as Dave Sears and now as Andrea. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Andrea.
ANDREA SEARS: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I — you know, this was a shock to many people, a surprise, but I think the transition has been quite remarkable just having you back and you educating us. Why don’t you talk a little about what made you decide to go through this transition.
ANDREA SEARS: From the very beginning? Well, it goes back a very long way, I guess. I’m not sure what the final impetus was. I trace the more recent developments of the decision to go forward to a series of events several years ago, about six or seven years ago, when I was going through a lot of personal crises in my life, and I felt — I was in a complete shambles at that time, emotionally and psychologically. I finally decided that it was time to confront some of the issues that I had been putting off all the time, for a long time that — the kinds of things that allowed me to run into situations where I ended up desperately unhappy.
And so, I went into a period of great introspection and began writing journals, which over the course of five years turned into twenty volumes, quite an extensive writing project. And I’m still writing the journals. And I think it was a matter of finally taking personal responsibility for my own happiness and deciding that I couldn’t look to blame other people for the unhappiness that I felt, and a sense of isolation, the feeling that I was so terribly alone in the world. I had to take responsibility for that. And that doesn’t absolve the rest of the world for anything that people have done to intentionally, on some occasions, but mostly unintentionally to contribute to my sense of isolation and my unhappiness. But I had to admit that I was playing a large part in it.
And in examining that, I said this is a basic problem: I do not really identify as being male, and I should do something about that. So that was really the beginning of what’s been a very long process of coming to this point now, and this is actually just another beginning. It’s far from the end.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean not to sort of feel that you’re a male?
ANDREA SEARS: It’s a matter of who you identify with or what gender you identify with. As a child, I did not feel particularly male. I always identified with the girls in grade school and stuff. I didn’t act out on that very much, because it was — I was born in 1951, and so that was a time when the gender roles were very segregated, very set, and everybody’s very well trained in gender roles from the time that they are born, from the time the doctor makes the pronouncement, “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” That sets wheels in motion that keep rolling throughout one’s life, really.
And so, my sense of self didn’t match up with the other kids that I was growing up with in some very basic and profound ways. And it was very confusing, because as a child you don’t have the vocabulary. And in that era, especially, there just wasn’t that much information, there wasn’t any discussion, there was no examination of gender roles, of personal identity versus the identity that society, the parents, the culture imposes on people. So it was mostly — gender — transsexualism is often referred to as gender dysphoria, which is essentially discomfort with one’s assigned gender.
So it’s not something that as a child I could definitely say, “I want to be a girl.” There are people who grow up feeling that way very, very specifically, but I wasn’t one of them. I just knew that there was something wrong, there was something different, and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andrea Sears, and Andrea has returned to WBAI, Pacifica station in New York, as Andrea, after taking two-week break, writing us this letter, but taking a serious journey herself over these years. So how did you go then from feeling that discomfort to realizing what you could do with it?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, during that process several years ago, when I went into that introspective phase and then tried to figure out what the problems were that —-what were the problems that I was avoiding, I started doing some research. And in some senses -— in one sense I sort of really let myself go. I started writing a biography of myself. And it was like just letting loose with all the constraints, not letting what my life had actually been stand in the way of what I felt. So I started writing a biography, and it was a fictionalized biography. And the main character in the biography very naturally turned out to be female. And so, I started writing about my childhood, casting myself as a female.
And I remember the first day I started doing this. I was sitting on the shores of Green Bay in Wisconsin in a park writing in one of my journals. And I wrote forty pages in a few hours just sitting there. It was a beautiful day, and so it was great just sitting there in the woods and writing this. And I ended up in tears by the time I had reached forty pages. And I also felt incredibly exhilarated. And I ran out of ink. So I jumped on my bicycle and went off and bought a new pen immediately. But that was the beginning of the pursuit.
From there, I researched things. The worldwide web, of course, is like everybody’s resource now. It’s incredibly available, and there’s a wealth of information. Some of it is horrible, but a lot of it is very good. And you can find people to talk to, people who have shared the same kinds of feelings and the same instincts and the same experiences. And, of course, I started reading books and becoming informed about other people, finding a lot of similarity in my life and my feelings with other people.
And I think, like most people, I was always looking for my own story in these books and never quite finding it, finding elements in different books, but never the whole thing. So maybe one of these days I’ll have to sit down and write my story so other people can look in my book and hope to find their lives but — you know, again come close, but not right there.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest today is Andrea Sears, who I guess you could say has come out in a very big way, in a very significant way, coming back to her workplace, after years working here, as a woman just a few weeks ago. When we come back I want to ask you about something that’s remarkable really at this point, is that your marriage and family remain intact. And we’re also going to be joined later in the program by Riki Anne Wilchins, who is the executive director of GenderPAC and who has written the book Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, the Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman, joined by my colleague and friend, Andrea Sears, as we talk about the issue of transsexuality. Andrea, why did you decide to even — or why did you agree to come on the air?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, for one thing, you asked me. But I had a lot of debate with myself about what to do with coming back to work or about my career, in general, because this is — I’ve been a semi-public figure for ten years now, being a reporter on WBAI and having produced extensively for NPR over the years and now being news editor, and I like what I do. It would have been a big turmoil for me to change jobs, and I wasn’t sure what else I could do. I considered getting a new job. I even sent in a couple of applications and did a couple of interviews. None of it went anywhere. And I really didn’t pursue it very aggressively.
And when I spoke to people who maybe knew what I did, but didn’t know where I worked, they all sort of came back, “Well, you should apply for a job at WBAI. Anybody can work there.” So I thought maybe I’m in the right place. And I’m doing what I like to do. And I didn’t want to feel that I had to be intimidated out of doing what I like to do. This is about — my transition is about who I am, not what I do.
And I figured since I’m going back to work and I’m going through this transition, the first hurdle was coming back to WBAI and deciding to use a new name on the air and let people know what was happening. And once that was there, it’s like, well, I’m already out there. I might as well just let everybody know. It’s sort of like coming out to the entire world all at once. And as you go through this process, the first person is the hardest, and it doesn’t really get much easier. But when you get — like when I came out at my Quaker meeting, I stood up in front of 150 people approximately and said, “Here I am. This is who I am.”
AMY GOODMAN: I can’t believe people say Quaker meetings are boring.
ANDREA SEARS: Well, there are Quaker meetings, and there are Quaker meetings, just like there are radio stations and other radio stations. So it was —- it’s like, alright, I’m getting -—
AMY GOODMAN: What was the response in the Quaker meeting?
ANDREA SEARS: It was very warm and welcoming. I haven’t — in the past few months when I have been really talking about this with a lot of people and letting the world know in general, I have yet to get a very negative response, which doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. I’m sort of always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
AMY GOODMAN: I went to your birthday party, your forty-ninth birthday, on Saturday night, and there was a birthday card from your mother tacked up on the refrigerator.
ANDREA SEARS: Yes. It was the first birthday card, the first letter I’ve gotten from my mother that was addressed to Andrea. And it was quite remarkable. I was really pleased and very moved by that card. I mean, it was a very thoughtful card about — it essentially said this is where your dreams may begin, and I hope that your dreams work out for you in the future.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have a family, a wife and two kids. What about your family?
ANDREA SEARS: It’s been very difficult for my wife and my daughter, especially.
AMY GOODMAN: Your daughter’s fourteen?
ANDREA SEARS: My daughter — she’s fifteen.
AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen.
ANDREA SEARS: Actually a sophomore in high school right now. I’ve been discussing this for about five years with my wife. And it’s been very tense and very difficult, and we’ve gone through a lot of hard times over this. We’ve been in family therapy for about seven years, or possibly longer. So we did have a forum to work through a lot of these issues. And it presents both of us with a lot of challenges in the way we perceive ourselves and the way we relate to each other. It hasn’t been easy, and it continues to have some difficulties attached to it.
And a lot of people who go through gender transition at this stage of life are married when they start out. And, by and large, those marriages do not last. I believe, you know, thirty years ago, when they first — thirty or forty years ago, when they first started putting together the standards of treatment and care, it was most — many psychiatrists and psychologists and doctors considered it a prerequisite for anyone who is married to get divorced before they would go through with surgical reassignment. They expected that men who were transsexual women would begin dating men.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, men who were transsexual, those are —
ANDREA SEARS: The transsexual women, women who had been men, would want to date men and to have a normal heterosexual life after transition. So they would be women who would go out with and live with men.
AMY GOODMAN: So they figured that they were gay men who then became women.
ANDREA SEARS: Right. That was the common perception. In fact, that was one of my perceptions all along. It wasn’t until many years later when I actually — it was reading Gender Outlaw, Kate Bornstein’s book that you have right there, that really clued me into the fact that that’s not the case at all, that gender identity and sexual orientation are two totally different issues.
And if I had known that years ago, I would have been in a lot better shape. I think I would have been able to deal with my own issues a lot more completely, because I was never attracted to men, and I could not figure out what the hell was going on, because it just didn’t seem to work for me at all. And I would have gotten this figured out by the time I was in high school.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, not that we need the labels, but you’ve then become a transgendered lesbian.
ANDREA SEARS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: So what would this mean if you stay married? You maybe have the only legal lesbian marriage in the United States.
ANDREA SEARS: Not the only one. There are others. There are other couples, where either the husband in the first case became a woman and therefore became a lesbian partner or the other way around, where the wife went through gender transition, let’s say female-to-male transsexual. I’m not sure how many there are. There are very few that — where the marriage survives, because it is tumultuous.
I know there was one case a year or two ago — I think it was in Iowa — where a couple got married just a month or two before the husband in the couple had surgery. And there were attempts to block the marriage, because the husband was transsexual that — I’m not sure what term to use. The pronouns and labels get very, very confusing. It’s sort of like the grammar book that they refer to in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when they get to time travel. They got as far as future perfect, and when they realized it wasn’t, they just dropped the whole thing.
AMY GOODMAN: But the couple got married?
ANDREA SEARS: The couple did get married, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: So what about the decision that you are now going through, this year period where you live as a woman to the outside world and then at the end of this year you can go through an actual physical operation to complete the process, if you will, if that’s what you call it?
ANDREA SEARS: Yeah, the idea is that you’re required by the standards of treatment and care, which most of the reputable surgeons actually follow, to live — they call it the real-life test. You have to live in the gender for a year, at least, to show that you can survive, that this is what you really want, that it works for you. So you have the opportunity to make up your mind. There are — some controversy about this, actually, because it is a major change in one’s live.
But it’s the only kind of thing where you have to do it for a year before they let you finally go through with the operation. You don’t have to try out a nose job. And Riki Anne Wilchins, who you’ll have on, talks about this quite a bit actually. You don’t have to try out shrinking your nose for a year to convince yourself that you really want to have a nose job or any other kind of operation. They don’t make you do that. But for this, they do.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s right?
ANDREA SEARS: I think it has its benefits. I think that it’s probably the right thing for most people to do. It’s just — for most people it’s not an option. It’s something that they’re required to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And who are this group that is determining the standard practices and procedures?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, there’s a group that was — started it — one of the pioneer doctors in the whole discipline of studying transsexuality and transgenderism was a Dr. Harry Benjamin. I believe he practiced in New York, but his studies led him to begin formulating standards for treatment which actually improved things a great deal at the time. They laid out exactly what transsexualism is to a medical community that is not terribly receptive to change in many respects. So that has continued, and there is a board that essentially reviews these standards periodically, and it now does include transgender people on the board. And they revise the standards periodically.
AMY GOODMAN: So where are these doctors? And what is the operation that they do?
ANDREA SEARS: The doctors are spread out all over the world. I don’t have a complete list, but I think in the United States there are probably about twelve surgeons who are well reputed. And there are — of course, there are foreign doctors. There’s one in Belgium who’s quite well known. And there are doctors in Singapore and in Mexico. Sometimes you take your chances with — some of these will not adhere to the standards, and they also will be somewhat less expensive, but then there’s the travel that’s involved.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s the standard expense of the operation?
ANDREA SEARS: Even that varies all over the place. For the surgery itself, it can range from about $10,000 to $20,000 or $30,000, depending on the number of procedures that are done there. There are different things that different doctors do.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the standard procedure?
ANDREA SEARS: You want the graphic detail? I should point out, too, one thing that we haven’t discussed at all, is that transsexuals are not just men who become women. There is perhaps — the statistics aren’t wholly there. I’m not sure how much statistical research has actually been put together, and it’s a little bit harder, but there — many people say, at least, that there is an equal number of female-to-male transsexuals.
AMY GOODMAN: In the United States, what kind of numbers are we talking about?
ANDREA SEARS: Thousands. I’m not sure how many thousands. I believe there are probably 1,200 to 1,500 operations performed a year.
AMY GOODMAN: Either male-to-female or female-to-male.
ANDREA SEARS: Right. The female-to-male is a much more expensive, time-consuming and riskier process. There are more surgeries involved, and that can cost well over a $100,000.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is actually building a penis?
ANDREA SEARS: Yes. From skin from the forearm and — or reconstructing things from other parts of the body, which is basically what the process involves. Female-to-male also involves mastectomies and a hysterectomy. So it’s very expensive. And there are a lot of people who don’t pursue the whole course of surgeries, because it’s so expensive and because the results of female-to-male surgery are not as physically effective.
However, when biological women take hormones to begin the process the effects are very, very profound. And one reason why people don’t assume that there are very many female-to-male transsexuals is because you can’t not tell when you see most female-to-male transsexuals that that’s what they are. They grow beards and have deep voices and get upper body muscle mass that looks so male you cannot tell that this person was born biologically female.
AMY GOODMAN: The movie that is up for some Academy Awards for the actress Hilary Swank, who plays Brandon Teena to his Teena Brandon, the true story of a woman who dressed as a male in Nebraska, who was raped and murdered in 1993. And that’s another issue I’d like to talk to you about is the violence against transgender people is gaining — well, is bringing attention in the mainstream world to these issues — the movie Boys Don’t Cry, which I just saw yesterday, but that really is another discussion. It’s actually raised in our new guest’s book, Riki Anne Wilchins, Read My Lips. But the operation for male-to-female, in your case, what does that entail?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, it —
AMY GOODMAN: If you feel comfortable talking about it.
ANDREA SEARS: It’s — it’s a — well, it involves constructing the — of course, nobody can construct a uterus, but it does involve constructing a complete vagina and clitoris, and the basic technique is called a penile inversion technique. So you don’t really lose some of the parts everybody assumes gets lost. It gets turned inside out. And so, a vagina is created, and there is a hopefully sensitive clitoris that is constructed. And it’s a — generally the first phase is a three-and-a-half-to-five-hour surgical procedure. It doesn’t really take all that long.
AMY GOODMAN: But until then, you’ve gone through hormone treatments for years.
ANDREA SEARS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve been doing it for what?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, I started hormone treatments three-and-a-half years ago.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrea Sears is our guest and talking about the transition. Is it mainly about sexuality or gender when you go through this, if you can separate the two?
ANDREA SEARS: People often don’t separate the two. It’s about gender, I think. Sexuality is something — it’s a separate issue. It’s how — it is more about how I relate to my body and how my mind and my body come together than it is about how my body and somebody else’s body come together. That is a necessary consequence down the road, because it has a profound impact on those relationships, but the primary issue for transsexuality or for transsexuals is relationship to self, which is a matter of gender identity. And sexuality is a consequence — or perceived sexuality is a consequence of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to break for stations to identify themselves, and when we come back — and, Andrea, I hope you remain with us — we’ll continue our conversation, just expand it to include Riki Anne Wilchins, who has has gone through this process many years ago. I think she’s in her sixteenth year, something like that, although it’s probably even more than that, and has written a book about her life and also about transgender politics, Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. She is the executive director of a group called GenderPAC, and we’ll talk about her own experience, as well as the political issues involved with changing your gender. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, joined by Andrea Sears, who is the news editor at WBAI Pacifica Radio here in New York, and she has been news editor for five years, been in the newsroom for ten years. And we’re also joined from Miami, Florida by Riki Anne Wilchins, who has written the book Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender and is the executive director of GenderPAC, which is a not-for-profit group composed of individuals and groups dedicated to a broad-based inclusive national movement for gender, affectional and racial equality. And Riki Anne Wilchins, we welcome you to Democracy Now!, as well.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, good morning. Good morning to you, Andrea.
ANDREA SEARS: Good morning, Riki.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, I noted, since I’m borrowing your book, Andrea, that the book has a personal inscription from Riki to you. Were you — where did you — when did you find this book in your transition?
ANDREA SEARS: Well, I knew that Riki was writing the book. And as soon as it came out, I got a copy and I interviewed Riki about the book, actually. And during that interview, she signed it for me.
AMY GOODMAN: Riki you were just in New York last week for an event raising money for GenderPAC, and Hilary Swank was there, who stars in Boys Don’t Cry?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Right. And so was Alicia Goranson, who plays Candace, and Brendan Sexton III, who plays Tom Nissen and, of course, the writer/director Kimberly Peirce. And what was unique about that event, I think, was that we did this benefit for —
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask, are you off of your speakerphone?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Yes, I am. You’re still getting some feedback?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Let me change phones, hold on for a sec.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks. You’re listening to Pacific Radio’s Democracy Now!
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Better?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, go ahead.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Sorry about that.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s OK.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Sometimes the phone lines down here at the beach are a little squeaky. What was interesting was that we first did this hate crimes benefit, and then right after it we held a memorial vigil outside for a gay man who had been killed, Fitzroy Green, just two years ago and who walked, because one of the attorneys tried to implicate him as being —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean the man who killed him walked?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Uh-huh. And for being transgender or somehow gender queer. And his killer walked. So we went from this wonderful, incredible, amazing benefit with Boys Don’t Cry right out in the streets of the West Village to hold a candlelight vigil for someone who had been killed just two years ago and whose murderer walked.
AMY GOODMAN: You write about Brandon Teena, who Boys Don’t Cry tells the story of — the story of her journey and then her rape.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: His journey. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Yeah. His, right. Sorry.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Cause we always try to recognize that with Brandon. He’s a tricky personality, but…
AMY GOODMAN: But Hilary Swank did a remarkable job in portraying her, that’s for sure. Can you talk about when — you were just talking about the organization, you said don’t refer to it as a transgender organization. Can you explain why?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, all kinds of people experience discrimination based on gender. If you, yourself, search back into your childhood, you can probably find at least a few incidences where you’ve felt ashamed or humiliated or simply afraid based on how you looked, act or dress. That’s gender-based discrimination. And when we make it a transgender movement, we cut out this huge, huge number of Americans who also have experienced some type of gender discrimination or indeed gender violence.
We have to remind ourselves that the number one gender-based hate crime in America is not the killings of people like Brandon Teena, horrendous as that might be, but it’s rape. Rape is the number one gender-based hate crime in America. And following right behind it is often gay bashing, which has as its mainspring fear that gay men are somehow insufficiently masculine or gay women are somehow insufficiently feminine. And so I think the idea is not to narrow down gender rights and say, well, this is a transgender thing, but to realize that gender rights are human rights, and they are for all of us.
AMY GOODMAN: What does GenderPAC actually do? When people hear that, they think maybe you make contributions to politicians.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, we’re not a PAC actually. That stood for “public advocacy coalition,” which caused a little bit of confusion up on Capitol Hill from time to time, I’m sure. But GenderPAC really —
AMY GOODMAN: The only PAC that politicians run from.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, that may be. I mean, we thought of endorsing George Bush just to see if he’d take the money. That would have been even worse for him, I’m sure, than the Log Cabin’s, but we’re getting there. We do a lot of work on Capitol Hill, as you’ve indicated, especially around things like the Employment Non-Discrimination Bill which would protect sexual orientation in the workplace, but not gender expression, and then also around the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, because gender is not usually recognized as a hate crime in this country, either on a municipal or on the federal level.
We do an awful lot of work in anti-defamation. It’s getting to the point now where it’s no longer socially acceptable to make fun of gay people. And so, what’s happening is, if you watch television and commercials and print and so on, people are making fun of gender in a way that makes it more difficult for all of us. And we do a lot of work in terms of grassroots mobilizing, going out and speaking at local groups, GLB groups, feminist groups, trans groups, youth groups, and talking to them about gender rights. I have a real aggressive schedule speaking around the country. So we’re a little bit of the Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a little bit of HRC, a little bit of GLAD and a little bit of Lambda Legal Defense Fund.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria Carrion, the producer, just handed me this. It says, ”Saturday Night Live: Brandon Teena and Friends Deserve to Die.” And it says “On Saturday Night Live's February 24th show, regular Norm MacDonald appeared during the ’Weekend Update' before a blow-up of a USA Today story. It headlined the recent death sentence of convicted murderer John Lotter resulting from his part in the bloody execution-style slaying of Brandon Teena, a twenty-year-old transsexual man in Falls City, Nebraska, and two of his friends. MacDonald had this to say about the sentencing” — so this is the guy on Saturday Night Live — “In Nebraska, a man was sentenced for killing a female cross-dresser who had accused him of rape and two of her friends. Excuse me if this sounds harsh, but in my mind they all deserve to die.” Whoa!
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Now, that passes for humor around gender. You can’t say that about women anymore or blacks or Jews or gays, but you can still say that around people because of their gender.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrea, you work in the newsroom every day. You’re going through all the newspapers, watching television; you’re looking at the news wires. How much discrimination do you see? Do you find yourself rewriting and just the unspoken and sometimes spoken prejudice?
ANDREA SEARS: You find an awful lot of it, and Riki has probably a better handle on the figures, but I know there was a period last year when there was one gender-related murder a month that was coming up, a transsexual or transgendered person who was being murdered. And the murders are particularly brutal. If you look at the Alternative to Violence Project report that comes out every year, that in some cases — I’m not sure if it was this year or last year — the overall number of hate crimes directed against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people had actually decreased a little bit in some areas. But the number of crimes against transgendered people had actually risen remarkably in that same period.
And you can — as Riki was saying, that crimes against gender is what a lot of this is about. It’s for people who transgress gender. And being lesbian or gay, to many people, is transgressing gender, it’s going outside the bounds of what’s acceptable behavior in —- for one’s gender or one’s perceived gender. So the amount of violence that’s directed towards transgendered people is incredible. And it’s always very up close and personal, as they say. Multiple stab wounds or beatings with blunt objects. And it’s seldom clean violence. It’s usually very, very -—
AMY GOODMAN: If there’s such a thing.
ANDREA SEARS: — violent, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: What about ordinances and laws — not that you can change people’s hearts, but you can legislate in some ways against hate — laws that protect transgendered people from discrimination, situations like schools, where boys have been expelled for wearing dresses, etc., Riki?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, again, I’m going to widen that, because I don’t think the issue is transgender, I think it has to do with gender in general. And at this point there is very little at the school level that protects people based on gender. We see all kinds of kids, especially as you go down through college into high school, who are playing with gender or transcending narrow sex stereotypes: boys wearing dresses, nail polish, lipstick, makeup, whatever will drive their parents and teachers crazy, and girls doing kind of the same in reverse. And there is no protection whatsoever.
In fact, a lot of the harassment that we’re finding when we interview high school kids is about gender. And these kids don’t know if they’re gay, bi, trans, quad. All they know is that there’s something different about them that seems to draw the fire of their classmates. Sometimes it’s intentional. Sometimes it isn’t. They’re just experimenting with various ways of expressing themselves and with their identify, and when you see a little boy getting beaten up on the playground or a little girl getting shunned by her classmates, very often it’s about gender.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrea, I’m wondering, in terms of clothing. You have come out at work in the last two weeks as Andrea. Your clothes really haven’t changed that much, and I’m wondering how liberating what you wear is, how much it matters?
ANDREA SEARS: I’m looking forward to wearing T-shirts again. I haven’t worn Tt-shirts for the last couple of years, because it would have been a little too revealing and a little too confusing. I’ve always said that I didn’t plan on changing the way I dress very much, because I dress to be comfortable mostly. And it’s liberating, because I’m not dressing to hide anymore. That’s the main difference.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! Our guests, Andrea Sears and Riki Anne Wilchins. Read My Lips is Riki Anne Wilchins’s book, Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. I’m wondering, Riki, with the movie coming out, Boys Don’t Cry, about the story of Brandon Teena in 1993, both his being a young man and acting — and moving forward as a young man, having girlfriends and then ultimately being found out, raped and killed. With this movie coming out, it being Academy Award-nominated for Hilary Swank, who plays Brandon, and for the actress who plays the — his girlfriend, has this made a difference in your education efforts around the country?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: It’s made an enormous difference. I think people are, first of all, seeing these kinds of stories for the first time. I’ve seen To Wong Foo and I’ve seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and those are not the stories of people who transcend gender stereotypes. I mean, most of us don’t go across the desert singing to opera. People are now starting to understand that what we do, what we are, is dangerous, and you can lose your job or your family or your life. And we’re finding a lot of places that we go to speak, especially when I speak to college crowds or feminist groups, that they are all over this idea of gender because they’ve seen the movie and they’re going, “Oh, yeah, that’s me.”
It’s interesting, too, because this movie — they don’t see this movie as being necessarily a transgender movie. They see it as about a small town love affair with someone who simply was trying to express themselves, and that’s where they tie into this movie, and they go, “That could be me,” or “That was me.” And we found a real groundswell of support and awareness that this movie has generated, thank you to Kimberly Peirce and Hilary Swank.
AMY GOODMAN: Kimberly Peirce, who says she was obsessed with trying to find answers to the hate crime of Teena Brandon, who was — Brandon Teena, which was, you know, well known even before the movie.
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Well, and Brandon is interesting, because he also is claimed by so many different groups. Lesbian groups have said this was a butch lesbian, which Brandon said repeatedly he was not. Trans groups have said he was transsexual, which seems to be the last note that he settled on when he defined himself. Feminist groups have said, well, this is a feminist issue. And it’s really interesting. When you get to identities, bodies become very unstable places to have solid and concrete identities. What’s good about Brandon is, because he is claimed by so many different groups, this horrendous hate crime is one that a lot of different people can relate to.
It’s just sad, as Andrea mentioned, that roughly between the time of the killing of Matthew Shepard and that of Billy Jack Gaither, there were no less than five different gender-based hate crimes, which nobody even noticed and were not covered in the national news, because they were about gender. It was so bad that Lisa Meyer who wrote for The Advocate called it the “hidden epidemic.” And these are the names that we don’t know, and these people will not get movies made about them, and no one will be nominated for an Academy Award for portraying their death.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up the program, we always try to give out information where people can get in touch with groups. Andrea, what has been the most important sources of information for you?
ANDREA SEARS: Oh, boy. Just Riki’s book and Kate’s book and several other books. Leslie Feinberg’s books have been especially helpful and —
AMY GOODMAN: Kate Bornstein’s book is called Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us and it’s published by Routledge. Riki Anne Wilchins’s book, who we’re talking to now in Miami, Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, which is published by Firebrand Books. And do you have some websites that you could suggest, Riki?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: Absolutely. I would suggest anyone visit our website, www.gpac.org, www.gpac.org, or they can always call our office number, (212) 645-2686, and we’ll be glad to get them hooked up. If they’re not on the East or West Coast, we crisscross the country ever month. We’re always someplace nearby, and we’d love to get people connected. This is a critical and emerging issue. Its time has come, I hope.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s (212) 645-2686. As well, www.ifge.org, would you recommend that?
RIKI ANNE WILCHINS: IFGE is a good one, too. They are more educational, and we’re more political.
AMY GOODMAN: Final comment, Andrea. I’ll give it to you, as you come out around the nation.
ANDREA SEARS: Well, the one comment that always comes to mind is that I think gender is the closest thing we have to a universal religion. And people — I think a lot of people view lesbians and gay men as heretics and transgender people as blasphemers and across the gender spectrum. But I think the time of that orthodoxy is rapidly falling away.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I thank you very much for being on with us, being brave and being you.
ANDREA SEARS: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Andrea Sears in the studio. Riki Anne Wilchins on the phone with us. Her book is Read My Lips.