(Update from Trish: I’ve received permission from my friend to share her story. I should have asked in the first place, but my thought process sometimes is like a bunch of suitcases falling down the stairs!)
As LGBTQ people, do we have any moral obligation to be out in places that are hostile to us?
I was thinking about this the other day, when a friend posted in a web forum about a moral dilemma she’s facing. She’s an expert in a certain field. She’s also transgender.
I think this generally presents some day-to-day challenges for her, but recently there was a bigger one. She was invited to give a talk about her field … to a group in a so-called southern “red state.”
This particular state seems to be going out of its way with anti-trans spite laws—it has blocked local cities from protecting expressions of gender identity and doesn’t allow gender to be changed on birth certificates. So even if you have genital reassignment surgery, it would forbid you from marrying “the same gender” or using the restroom that matches your physical appearance.
So my friend asked us on this web forum, what is her moral obligation? Should she simply decline to give the talk?
Or should she decline and tell the organizing committee her reasons—namely, that your state doesn’t like “my kind”?
Or should she force herself to go to set a good example?
Update from Trish: I wanted to write about my friend’s experience because I’m part of a church group for LGBTQ people and allies. I have an upcoming church event at which I will be out, and some of the people attending could be hostile toward me.
In my case, I do feel a moral obligation to be out, visible and talking about my experience being transgender, because so many religious groups have been so hostile toward LGBTQ people. I could easily attend this upcoming event as a male, but wouldn’t I be hiding behind my straight male privilege?
Gay and lesbian people overcame enormous discrimination by coming out of the shadows. What did Frederick Douglass say? “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Just like people of color, lesbian and gay people have not been given their civil rights—they had to fight for them.
For that reason, I am all for trans people becoming more visible in all walks of life—it’s the only way we’re going to achieve anything like acceptance—but I also don’t think we’re required to martyr ourselves.
There are trans people in every community, including in red states—some who are probably frightened and deeply in the closet—who would benefit from seeing and meeting a successful, confident, openly transgender woman.
But—I don’t feel anyone should have an obligation to put themselves in danger. And as open as I am these days, there is a certain restaurant here in Pittsburgh, in a “progressive,” “gentrified,” “liberal” part of the city, where I simply will not go, because trans people have been bashed there.
Am I caving into fear and bigotry? Or am I just using common sense?
I feel a moral imperative to stand up for my own rights, especially since I’ve gotten so much support since I began coming out, but I have to balance that with a self-preservation instinct.
I’m also reminded of how African-American athletes and entertainers were treated when they tried to travel through the segregated southern states, and how travel was a ridiculous ordeal—where can we stay for the night? Will restaurants serve us food? As a result, some entertainers and athletes simply refused to play in those states.
I think if I were in my friend’s situation, I would decline with a very polite, regretful note explaining my reasons—namely, that I was afraid I wouldn’t be safe due to that southern state’s official discrimination against trans people—and I might copy the state’s Department of Tourism.
(Update from Trish: Let me be clear … in my friend’s case, I don’t feel she has any obligation to do anything if she doesn’t want to.)
There are consequences to enabling bigotry. And sometimes those consequences hurt people who aren’t bigots. But the bigots are to blame—not the targets.
Anyway, I’m not sure what my friend is going to do. What would you do?
(I edited this blog post after publication. —Trish)