This is a guest post by Allyson Robinson. She is the sometime writer of the blog Crossing The T, and the Associate Director of Diversity at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Allyson is another trans community voice who I asked to share their thoughts on federal hate crime legislation — the hate crime legislation that was signed by President Obama on October 28, 2009.
By Allyson Robinson
In remarks delivered at the White House reception marking his signature of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, President Obama said, “No one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hand of the person they love. No one in America should be forced to look over their shoulder because of who they are.” As corny as it sounds, it felt a little like the President was holding my hand or watching my back when he said those words.
My wife Danyelle and I have been married for 15 years and for most of that time, we were that stereotypically sappy couple everyone hates. If we were in arm’s reach of each other, we were holding hands. If more than 15 minutes had passed since we’d kissed last, we kissed, and we didn’t care who was watching. We were a romantic comedy’s worth of winks, loving looks, and giggles. But all that was before I began my gender transition and started being perceived by the public as a woman.
Just a couple of months ago, we were enjoying some time together without our four children – an occurrence that is all too rare for us these days – having dinner and seeing a movie a the local cineplex. As we walked through the mall to the theater, our steps drifted closer to each other, and our hands touched. Instinctively, Danyelle reached out to take my hand in hers. Just as instinctively, I pulled my hand away, lest anyone around us see. She was hurt, and so was I, but talking about it later we both agreed that the risk of harassment or violence was just too great. There will be no more public hand-holding for us. Our fear for our safety has pushed our perfectly legal, perfectly reasonable, perfectly laudable affection for one another into the closet.
Back when I was publicly perceived as a man, I never looked over my shoulder – never. I played high school football, attended Army paratrooper school, led infantry soldiers on patrol through the Korean DMZ and air defense soldiers in convoy through city streets where we knew we were being targeted for terror attacks. I am trained in self-defense and was even a pretty good boxer at West Point. But I’ve realized that none of these things are what allowed me to walk alone through a dark parking lot or down an alley without fear. What kept me from feeling afraid back then was the simple fact that, as a white male, I was just not a target. It wasn’t long after I began my transition that I came to understand just how much things had changed for me. Today I diligently avoid places I never hesitated to enter before because I am a target. With little more than a change of wardrobe, I transited from one of the least vulnerable classes of people in our society to one of the most. Looking over my shoulder has become second nature.
President Obama’s words – “No one should be afraid to hold a loved one’s hand or be forced to look over their shoulder” – speak to the lofty ideal behind the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. They remind us of our Constitution’s commitment to life as the first “inalienable right.” They acknowledge painful the truth Americans are often either too ashamed or too arrogant to admit: that some of us have less value in the public mind than others, and crimes committed against us weigh less heavily on the public conscience than crimes committed against others. And they commit the strength of the President, the power of Congress, and the authority of the federal government to the protection of those who are made vulnerable by such prejudice and ignorance. That’s what the Shepard-Byrd Act means to me.
Let’s be realistic: this law will not prevent the next anti-trans or anti-gay hate crime from happening, nor the one after that. Hate will hurt and kill again, and again. Danyelle and I don’t feel any safer holding hands in public today than we did yesterday, and I’ll still look over my shoulder when I walk to my car tonight. But something has changed. Yesterday, my own federal government had not yet embraced its responsibility to guarantee my right to life by protecting me, and those like me, from acts of senseless violence. Today, my human value, as a transgender person and a lesbian, is explicitly acknowledged, for the first time in history, in the law of the land.
One of the elder statesmen of the LGBT civil rights movement once told me that, as hard as passing good laws is, it’s really one of the easiest parts of our work. ”The hard part,” he said, “is changing the culture in ways that undergird those good laws – so that our children’s generation will find it hard to believe we needed laws like this in the first place.” I think, though, that good laws – when they’re properly understood and adequately enforced – can contribute to cultural change. Because of the Shepard-Byrd Act, maybe one day my children will really be able to hold the hand of a loved one without being afraid of how people will react or walk down the street without looking over their shoulder. Then, and only then, will our work be done.
* Pam’s House Blend tag: Transgender Hate Crimes Essay Project