What to do when your own face hates you
So yesterday I watched the Mass House of Representatives debate and ultimately pass HB 1577, a bill we affectionately call the Trans Equal Access Bill. I have worked on this bill for over 6 years, and I have spoken about it at length before. This bill would protect transgender people from discrimination in all public accommodations, a legal term for spaces like libraries, restaurants, hospitals and parks. In short, every place that isn’t your home, workplace or school. Those spaces also sometimes include locker rooms, and often times include bathrooms, so of course it has been derided as “The Bathroom Bill” by the opposition. They argue that predators posing as transgender women would use this bill as a cover to prey on women in bathrooms. They forget that criminal activity perpetrated by anyone in a bathroom is already a crime. But the root of their fear is the passive crimes: peeping or upskirting, and ultimately the most dreadful, exposure of male anatomy in a women’s bathroom.
I sat in the gallery of the state house and watched the parliamentary procedures. It can be a dry process, and this day was long. As guests to the proceedings, the gallery is not permitted to interrupt, cheer, applaud or offer commentary in any form; doing so would be a cause for ejection. This bill was the only thing on the schedule, and it still took 7 hours to go through all THIRTY SIX proposed amendments. I live updated to Facebook for the entirety of the proceedings.
Most of the 36 amendments were attempts to remove the heart of the bill and limit the basic protections that the legislation provided. With each proposed amendment, an opposing legislator would get up and talk about what is essentially transphobic fear, coupled with a sexist righteousness to be protector of women’s modesty and virtue. After several hours of listening to the rhetoric, I quite frankly became numb to the monotony of white cisgender men droning on, and thankfully, each and every amendment was voted down, and by large margins.
But the board looked way more green than red, and the count was quickly rocketing up.
We picked up a lot of steam once we got to the last few proposed amendments. Speaker DeLeo made a sneaky return (having abdicated several hours of procedural work to his deputy Patricia Haddad) and we cruised into the vote. It happened so fast I almost didn’t realize it was happening. It took confirmation from the vote board turning green to realize THIS WAS THE VOTE. And then it happened. We had expected the vote to pass, because our own polling numbers showed we had more than a majority of votes. But the board looked way more green than red, and the count was quickly rocketing up. The final tally was 116 votes in favor of the bill, and 36 opposed. One hundred and sixteen. That’s TWELVE more than a super majority, and a Governor’s veto, the thing we were all afraid of, was no longer a possibility. In the din of the applause and back slapping, I quickly ran outside, stating “Time to go to work” to my friend James who was sitting in the gallery with me.
Our plan was to form a line and thank the legislators as they exited. To cheer them on for doing the right thing and as they say “stand on the right side of history.” But I came to a screeching halt because the opposition had already beaten us to that exact plan.
A wall of people were standing there, holding signs and chanting “Shame!” to the legislators exiting. I was completely taken aback and afraid of what looked at first glance, like a riotous mob. The signs were pretty vile, they depicted the men’s glyph peering over the bathroom stall wall at the women’s glyph and said “No Bathroom Bill.”
And to my great shame, most of them were East Asian.
We did our best to drown out their chants of “Shame on you” with our own applause and cheers of “Thank you.” The hall with it's marble finishes quickly became a cacophony of echo. The media was whirring, taking photos and grabbing 10 second interviews from anyone who wanted to step in front of the camera. I saw my friend Bobbi who also serves with me on the MTPC Steering Committee engaging with someone from the opposition. Bobbi, who I have always thought of as a pacifist looked like she was going to strike the man who was forcefully shoving his sign in her face and vacillating back and forth between “You’re confusing." and "You're just confused.” with “what about the children.” I walked over to Bobbi and gently tried to get her to disengage from the confrontation, knowing the lights and cameras were focused on us. Bobbi added “I am a parent too, what about protections for my child” and walked away.
it was very clear that when she thought about the transgender menace, she was not thinking of transmen. And she most certainly wasn’t expecting someone who was East Asian.
The crowd started to thin, and I saw the heart of the opposition and their terrible signs. And then I did the thing that I told all of our constituents not to do. I walked up to one East Asian woman and said “I’m transgender, do you want me to use the women’s room?” The look on her face was alarming. She did not try at all to hide the fact that she was judging me. But it was very clear that when she thought about the transgender menace, she was not thinking of transmen. And she most certainly wasn’t expecting someone who was East Asian.
This was a modern day battlefield.
I squared my body, put my hands in my pockets and locked slanted eye with slanted eye. Here is my loose memory of the things she said to me.
“I’m thinking about the future generations.” “We need to protect the children. I don’t want my five year old daughter exposed to male anatomy.” “You need to be stronger. I think you are too easily offended.” “Are you Chinese? Where were you born?” “What do your parents think of you?”
As I write this, I want to tell you that I refuted every one of her arguments with tact and grace. But it’s been less than 24 hours and I cannot remember the exactness of the exchange. I hope that I remembered to smile and be polite and respectful. I think I kept my voice to a non threatening decibel level. I was very aware of my body movements.
I tried to explain to her that I am indeed a strong transgender man and that I don’t belong in the women’s room. I told her that my parents love and support me and give me the strength and mandate to fight for my rights. And yes, I am Chinese, my father was born in Hong Kong.
But really, the lights, the screaming, and the setting were never correct for a civil discourse. There was no moderator, clock, or footnotes. This was a modern day battlefield. In action movies I always thought it seemed so farfetched that every single combatant from side A would square off against one combatant from side B. But here we were. The rest of the room melted away, just extras and set production, and it was just the two of us locked in the world's most polite fight of whose feelings were more important, who was right, who was wrong, and why.
This to me seemed the most ridiculous and illogical of all her arguments.
She repeatedly said “I want you to know that I love you,” and kept touching my arms with both her hands. It seemed a strange exchange. I live in a world where you don’t touch another person without their consent, but I know she was trying to connect to me as a human being. It was a small way that her Christianity was manifesting. But even though it was a loving touch, and her words were meant to be kind, her eyes, and her heart were patronizing and condescending. It reminded me that until recently my own experience with Christianity had not be pleasant, but imperialistic with tones of superiority. I was also keenly aware that after almost 10 years of testosterone, I am very much male bodied, and men do not touch women that they do not know. I kept my hands in my pockets and was grateful for my suit jacket.
She also kept saying, "This isn't personal." This to me seemed the most ridiculous and illogical of all her arguments. Of course this was personal. Why else would we both have spent hours at the statehouse listening to parliamentary procedure. No one does that in their free time. And unfortunately, our society has made going to the bathroom, something that is very personal, into a public activity. Yes, this is personal.
Mason, my ED, was circling our tete-e-tete and I finally pulled away. I asked if she wanted to converse further. She just kept reiterating her beats, "I want you to know I love you," and "this isn't personal." I walked away wondering if this conversation could ever be resolved, and knew that there could never really be a victor.
What if I could have spoken to her in Mandarin?
So many emotions are swirling in me right now. If we had more time, would I have been able to convince her that trans people aren't threats? Would my chances have been better if I was wearing something different? What if I could have spoken to her in Mandarin? If my mother was standing next to me, would she have gotten into a fight with her? Would she have gotten into a physical altercation with this other mother?
In my preparations I was expecting the legislators to be horrible. I knew it would be a long day of assaultive language veiled in savior complex. But the hours of procedure left me completely unprepared for the opposition. And then to meet an opposition that was both vitriolic and had my face was like stepping into a bad twilight zone episode. And I am left hurting, wanting and confused. We may have won that vote yesterday, by several touchdowns, but there is still so much more to do in our own communities.