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Transphobia is My Issue Too!

Warren J. Blumenfeld

By Warren J. Blumenfeld
Warren J. Blumenfeld, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa specializing in Multicultural and International Curriculum Studies, as well as LGBTQ Studies. He has edited and authored a number of publications, including "Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price"; "AIDS and Your Religious Community"; as well as the report, "Making Colleges and Universities Safe for Gay and Lesbian Students: Report and Recommendations of the Massachusetts Governors Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth." He also co-produced a documentary on homophobia titled Pink Triangles.
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This kind of bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. It was 1952 and I was attending public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.” Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.

Years later, in 1970, after I came out as gay to my parents, I asked my mother why she and my father had sent me to “the toy doctor,” as they had once called the psychologist. She looked at me urgently and with deep affection said:: “You wouldn’t have understood at the time, but we sent you because we felt you were too effeminate, and we thought you would grow up to be a homosexual.” “Your effeminacy,” she continued, “was the reason why the other children couldn’t accept you and why they hurt you. We sent you because their taunts hurt us too, and we couldn’t think of anything else to do.”

But that wasn’t the whole story; she also confided another reason for sending me. She told me the story of how my father suffered the pain of being different when he was young. He and his two sisters were the only Jews in their high school in the 1930s in Los Angeles. Because of the anti-Semitism of the time, the other boys beat him up nearly every day. While in elementary school, he hid in a small crawlway beneath one of the buildings during recess period to avoid attack by his peers. My mother told me that she and my father attempted to help me conform to gender expectations, to fit in, so I wouldn’t have to go through what my father experienced.

My parents sent me to therapy, at least in part, in an attempt to direct my eventual gender expression and sexual identity (at the time, they equated my gender non-conformity to my possible homosexuality). My school reinforced this on my classmates and me every day. Even in kindergarten, children were channeled into gender-specific activities: boys were encouraged to participate in sports, girls to hone housekeeping skills such as cooking and cleaning. This less than subtle encouragement seemed to grow more rigid with every new year of school.

Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and was accepted along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure. I and the other four boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class despised and picked on us, and viciously labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls in the school.

The forces that set out to kill Estelle—those societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of femininity in every male—nearly succeeded in coercing me into denouncing her, but through some power more potent than they, Estelle was victorious in surviving their relentless attacks. Being mightier and more willful, she stayed with me through times of torment and times of “therapeutic” treatment. Even when, due to the overwhelming negative reactions she received from my peers, I began to lose trust and to doubt her,, she never gave up on me.

My friends have often asked me, “What was that energy, that force empowering Estelle to repel her would-be executioners?” What kept her strong throughout those difficult years? I believe that it was, quite simply, a vision — a vision of social transformation articulated by feminists during the second wave of the Women’s emancipation and liberation movement and later by early gay liberationists during Estelle’s youth. 

Looking back through history, for instance, men accused of same-sex eroticism in the Middle Ages (then called fairies), for instance, were rounded up, bound, tossed on the ground like kindling, and unceremoniously set ablaze. Their burning bodies served to ignite  women accused of witchcraft who were tied just above them. (This is, of course, where we get the word “faggot” – a word that originally referred to a bundle of wood used to start a fire.)

Many years later, the reverse would be true. Catching the spark of feminist thought and theory— which questioned and challenged traditional gender constructions, the inherent inequalities between the sexes, and enormous corrosive effects of heteronormativity—fairies joined together exploding conventional notions of gender, most notably definitions of masculinity. Radically queer groups emerged to disrupt the very foundations of U.S.-American constructions of gender and sexuality. During the early 1970s, I was an active member of Gay Liberation Front in Washington D.C., which formed the leading edge of a movement rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Our first meetings were held at Grace Church, the Washington Free Clinic in Georgetown, and All Souls Church on 16th Street, until we managed to rent a brownstone on S Street to establish a Gay Liberation Front living collective. Meetings provided a space for gays, lesbians, bisexual women and men, and transgender people to come together and put into practice what feminists had taught us—that the “personal is indeed the political.” ... (continue reading)

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Candygirl said:

I just loved Estelle and your vision...
Thank you for sharing it with all of us! :)

Posted at: September 11, 2008 10:28 AM

johnstevens said:

Great page. Good stuff.

Posted at: June 22, 2009 2:39 PM