Living in Southern California, where we don’t get a lot of seasonal variation, one of our treasured fall rituals is our annual family trek to Julian, CA. Each year, Russ and I pile the boys into the car and head to the picturesque mining town just northeast of San Diego, where we indulge in all of the sights and senses of autumn, eating more than our share of apple pie. It is a journey I cherish, but this year, instead of being festive and restorative, the visit brought to mind the more recent horrors of Halloweens past, as the ghost of Prop 8 unexpectedly came rushing back in the most unwelcome of places.
We’d just arrived, stepping onto the charming main street, when I spotted it: a line of people standing, waiting. At first I thought it was a backed-up line of customers pouring forth from one of the town’s many restaurants, but as we got closer, I was able to spot a card table, with two small, simple signs affixed, “Stop Co-Ed Showers in Schools” and “No Opposite Sex in School Bathrooms.” It was then that I realized that the hordes of tourists were not waiting for pie, but for their chance to add signatures to the growing petition list hoping to topple California’s new transgender rights law.
As an LGBT advocate and gay dad, I was both sickened and saddened. Not only was I immediately and emotionally transported back to those divisive fall days leading up to the November 2008 election, when front yards across the state were littered with both fake gravestones and political signs, but the thought of fighting yet another brutal battle, and one we’re likely to lose, put an abrupt end to my autumnal revelry.
For myself and many other LGBT people, the stigma of being thought of as “sick” and “abnormal” has shadowed me, making me work diligently to be viewed as good, “normal,” and a person of value. I’ve been on the front-lines, time and again, battling for the rights that should, in America, be a given. During the Prop 8 campaign, it was incredibly demoralizing to work planning our anti-Prop 8 rallies, only to drive through a sea of yellow pro-8 signs as we headed back home. In conversations with voters, they would say, “Oh, we’re not voting against you; we’re voting to protect our children.” Um, protect them from whom, exactly? Me? I’ve spent years fighting for basic treatment under the law, and being dismissed as less than can take a personal toll on one’s psyche.
Happily, for gays and lesbians nationwide, we’re finally seeing the political results of such efforts, as in both courts of law and public opinion we’re steadily being given the same rights and responsibilities as most everyone else, moving the “LGB” in our movement one step closer to actual equality.
In our various campaigns, we’ve been joined time and again by our transgender allies, yet I wonder if the “LGB” members of community will this time stand up for the “T.” Too often, trans people and their concerns are largely relegated to the back of the bus. Within the LGBTQIA community, there are divisions, particularly as while we share the common goal of equality, for some the root is sexual identity and for others it is gender identity. For gays and lesbians, who perhaps have been told that the butch dyke “wants to be a man,” while the effeminate guy “really wants to be a girl,” joining forces with those who in fact may identify with a different gender can be confusing. Indeed, I’ve even heard some gays and lesbians refer to transgender people as “sick” and “abnormal”–using the very same arrows slung by others to demoralize and dehumanize gays. This lack of compassion, as well as a general lack of curiosity as to who trans people are, makes me wonder who among us will stand alongside them when this battle comes…
Actually–correct that: the battle is here. The anti-gay, anti-trans troops from NOM are on the ground, mobilized, and using many of the same strategies which proved effective for them on Prop 8.
This petition is being sold to the California public as a way to protect children, with the accessible and sensible title of “Privacy for All Students.” Who, after all, can articulately argue against the right to privacy? Respect for individual freedom and privacy seems inherently American, making the signing of a petition which says just that seem fairly reasonable. Come to think of it, isn’t individual privacy an essential element of the LGBT equal rights movement???
“Stop Co-Ed Showers in Schools.” Gosh, sounds like we need to stop some wild parties, huh? Check–petition signed!
“No Opposite Sex in School Bathrooms.” Again, that seems like a sensible request–so why not sign the petition???
Unfortunately, the thousands of people who do sign these petitions will not explore the law in any further depth than just reading the poster taglines. And when these petitioners gather the necessary 500,000 signatures, those same effective messages will be used to engage voters on the proposition’s behalf. (While they have very few days remaining in which to gather the necessary signatures, if the enthusiasm I witnessed in Julian is any indication of momentum elsewhere, they’ll have no problem meeting their quota.)
Given all the similarities to Prop 8 messaging, it’s no surprise that the National Organization for Marriage is behind this petition drive, or that Prop 8’s chief strategist, Frank Schubert, works on this campaign as well. As NOM has cleared demonstrated in each of their campaigns, being truthful in their quest is less important to them than winning.
The law as written was created to ensure that transgender students feel safe at school, and that the way in which they view themselves is in sync with how they live their lives, enabling them to dress and go about their day as they identify (including going to the bathroom or playing sports.) You’d never know that, though, from the petition drive. Here, the majority of California’s “innocent children” are under attack from a vile, twisted bunch hoping to ogle the opposite sex in the bathroom. Just as in Prop 8, the LGBT community is being equated with pedophiles. That tired old “abnormal” and “sick” paint brush is being used collectively on the trans community, as if simply being different makes one unworthy of equal treatment under the law.
Of course, the petition drive doesn’t mention that there are already laws in place to prevent bad behavior, violence, or voyeurism. Instead, it creates the impression of a lawless land, a World War T where the only way to defeat the “trans zombies” is to build barriers, lest their “infections” spread to the general populace.
I’m curious to see what the LGBT organizations have up their sleeve in order to combat this eventual proposition; I hope it involves actual transgender people. Real people with real stories make for compelling testimony, but my hunch is that, just as in the anti-Prop 8 commercials, we’ll instead be treated to our straight allies waxing obliquely about equality and respect, with trans people themselves deemed “too icky” and “risky” for public consumption. But it is exactly the personal which helps open hearts and transform minds.
We’re friendly with one family at our church who has a transgender child who self-identified as a girl and has dressed as such since she was very young. (I interviewed her mother here.) In every move, gesture, as well as in appearance, she is indeed a girl. If it were not for her activism and willingness to speak to the media, no one would ever think differently.
But imagine if this girl, wearing her pretty pink dress, were to enter a boys’ bathroom? Or be forced to play on the boys’ team, in disregard to her preferred gender? Wouldn’t, at the very least, questions be asked? How could her privacy as a transgender person–let alone safety–be ensured? This bill simply allows her to participate in sports as a girl, use facilities as a girl, and–in essence–live her life as she so chooses.
Critics point to the old California law as being “fair,” which provided trans students with the ability to use private facilities, but such attempts only furthers stigmatization and “outs” the trans person as such. (For a list of common misconceptions around this new legislation, visit American Progress.)
While it may be easy for NOM to make transgender people seem the boogeyman in this fight, there is something much scarier at work. In this petition drive, there is dishonesty and misrepresentation of transgender people at the expense of their esteem and perhaps even their personal safety. During the Prop 8 battle, some pointed to an increase in anti-gay violence as attributable to the bruising fight, which makes me wonder and fear for the safety involved in this battle as well.
Though this petition drive is occurring now, we’ll see the results of their labor next fall on the November 2014 ballot. And once again, next Halloween will be an unsettling mix of both fake ghosts, hung from trees, and the very real ghosts of Prop 8, played out like a bad scary movie to which we already know the ending: ignorant masses will be riled up by fear and bias in order to pass a ballot measure at the expense of a largely-defenseless minority.
Kergan Edwards-Stout can be found via his website, Facebook, and Twitter. His new book, Gifts Not Yet Given, can be found at Indie Bound (Independent Book Stores), Barnes and Noble, Amazon, or at your favorite book sellers.
Photo credit: Privacy for All Students
The vision stays with me, even after all these years. I’m in junior high, and I’ve just looked into the eyes of an overweight girl, having just delivered a devastatingly cruel blow. Her bright blue eyes, haunted and broken, serve as lingering reminders of how destructive words can be, and I’ve often wished I could take that moment back. Little did I know that girl, Elizabeth Emken, would years later run for public office, in an attempt to unseat California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Today, she campaigns on an anti-gay platform, forcing me to wonder if my cutting remarks played any role in influencing the person she would become, and how she could come to take such a stance, given the many gay friends she once had.
Despite our rocky start, once we arrived at Los Alamitos High School, Elizabeth and I would go on to become friends, and she introduced me to what I called the “choir gang.” This rag-tag band would never be the popular folks, but instead was united by both talent and outsider status. As Cheryl Bhence, now a married mother of two, notes, “We were all misfits, so we all kind of fit together like a puzzle.” While all members of the group were equals, Emken, in many ways, was the wheel’s center spoke.
“I remember that Elizabeth was kind and had the capacity to be vulnerable, a quality I still admire in people,” says Neil Fischer, who now lives in the Bay Area. “There was also something steely and resourceful about her. She laughed easily and seemed utterly accepting of who I was, at the time.”
While Fischer wasn’t yet out to himself, in the years following high school, almost all of the male members of this group would come out as gay, myself included. This long list included Emken’s best friend, David Alexander Diaz, making Emken’s current anti-marriage equality views more than a bit puzzling. David and Elizabeth attended proms and winter formals together, and were so close that Elizabeth even named her son Alex, in his honor.
Diaz first met Elizabeth as a freshman, when he auditioned for the school play, on which she was the student director. “We very quickly connected and bonded, becoming best friends,” Diaz recalls. At that time, Diaz had not yet come out as gay. “While I was aware that I had feelings towards men, I couldn’t imagine that being gay was even an option for me.”
When Emken introduced Diaz to this group of choir folks, he felt immediately welcomed. He wasn’t yet aware that most of the men in the group were gay, but “I knew they were like me on some level. These were guys who loved theater and music, and didn’t much care for sports. We were aware of our commonalities, but our sexuality was never acknowledged.”
“I remember all their smiles,” notes Fisher. “All those guys had such easy, generous smiles.”
There were times when the group’s outsider status led to name-calling. Cheryl Bhence recalls that the men in the group were often teased about being gay. “At the time, none of them had yet come out, so I remember spending effort to defend their sexuality, which I had assumed was hetero. Knowing they were gay wouldn’t have changed my perspective of any of them; I just wouldn’t have had to stand up for them to the hecklers.”
For most of the men, sexuality was not yet on their radar. “I was not entirely aware of what it meant to have a gay identity, nor that such an identity was developing in me,” says Fischer. “At the time, I had no idea how to explore whatever gay stirrings I allowed to come to the surface of my consciousness. In high school, I had crushes on other boys that did not involve sexual fantasies, because I wouldn’t let my mind go there.”
“I was still pretty innocent back then,” Diaz recalls. “Most of the guys were dating the girls, escorting them to prom and other functions, and I guess I pretty much took things at face value. They were dating girls, so must have been straight, right?”
Part of what allowed such assumptions to continue was that, by and large, the group was both close-knit and wholesome. “I have so many wonderful memories,” says Bhence. “I remember the volleyball-a-thon: we played for 24 hours straight to raise money to pay for our choir tour up the California coast. But probably the weekend nights were the best, when we would hang out at one of our houses, eat M&Ms and chips with onion dip, and play silly kid games like Hide & Seek and Red Rover.”
This was not a party or gossip crowd, where the absence of actual sexual activity might have been noticed, which made it a safe place for the gay men still finding their way. “While other kids might have been out on weekends, getting drunk, we were all at someone’s house, playing Risk all night,” Diaz remembers. “All of our activities were silly, fun-filled, and wholesome.”
“We shared the ability to have fun without substances, like alcohol or drugs,” Bhence notes, going on to elaborate that she “had a terrible crush on [one of the boys], but I never told him in high school, as he always seemed interested in other girls; he took various girls to each of the formal dances.”
This focus on friendship and innocent fun helped give cover to the men, struggling to understand their sexuality, while their attendance with the women at events allowed the women to believe that the men were indeed straight.
“I hoped and wanted to be straight, and just assumed that, at some point, it would happen,” Diaz relates. “I had an ideal woman in my mind, and just felt that I’d meet her and everything would fall into place.”
While that may have been his goal, Diaz found himself confused when Emken expressed her love for him, thinking that the two should be a couple. He elaborates that when he told Emken that he didn’t feel the same, they found their friendship challenged. “Elizabeth is an aggressive and assertive woman, and she was then as well. She couldn’t understand how we could have such a strong bond, and yet me not feel the same desires she did.”
Even with this new challenge, Emken and Diaz didn’t sever ties. Caught between friendship and the question of something deeper, the two pushed through an intense season of figuring out who they were – talking constantly, writing letters, and sharing hopes and dreams.
“I cared deeply for her and would have liked to be what she saw me as,” Diaz said. “But there was a part of me that I compartmentalized, which was the experience of attraction to men.”
Prior to her friendship with Diaz, Emken had a similarly intense friendship with Tim Radi, a fellow member of the group, not realizing that he too would later come out as gay. “It was the same pattern as with me,” Diaz states. “She had intense feelings for him, but he didn’t want to date her. It was as if history were repeating itself.”
While some of their issues were about the degrees of friendship each desired, other obstacles for Emken and Diaz’ friendship included her mother. “Elizabeth’s parents were divorced,” he notes, “and her mother was very difficult. To be perfectly blunt, she was prejudiced, and the fact that I am of Cuban heritage was looked down on in her family. That was the first time in my life I was discriminated against for being Hispanic.”
At the time, Emken was furious with her mother’s treatment of Diaz, and he notes the irony that today Emken herself views him, politically, as a second-class citizen. “She’s become a lot more like her mother than even she’d admit.”
Not only were Emken’s two high school sweethearts unable to return her love, but one of them later died, with Radi’s death from AIDS being the first such death many in the group had experienced. “A bunch of us had a personal memorial for him at his graveside,” Bhence remembers. “At the time, his family didn’t seem ready to accept his diagnosis, so we didn’t pressure them to explain things to us.”
Still, Emken was always supportive of Diaz’s sexual journey. After high school, Diaz began to “act out” sexually through anonymous encounters, leaving Diaz frightened, ashamed and confused, and he sought Emken’s advice. She seemed to believe, as many do, that being gay was something Diaz could control. “She wasn’t judgmental,” Diaz said. “She just saw my actions as something I could simply stop, if I really tried.”
The next year, Diaz came out to Emken, acknowledging his orientation in full. “She was very loving and accepting, which makes her stance today hurt all the more,” Diaz said.
Years later, when he became HIV-positive at age 30, Diaz again confided in Emken. Her support never wavered, but their friendship began to wane.
“During that brief window in the Prop 8 battle when gay marriages in California were legal, my partner and I got married. Elizabeth was entirely supportive, treating us as equals.”
Prior to her political debut, Emken was mainly a stay-at-home mom, who both worked with an autism agency, because her son Alex is autistic, and sold Tupperware. “The drive you see in Elizabeth today has always been there. In typical Elizabeth-fashion, she became one of the state’s best Tupperware salespeople. And we ended up having a big gay Tupperware party at our house, including Elizabeth’s college roommate, who is lesbian, and her wife, with Elizabeth presiding over the entire event.”
Given their close relationship and the many life moments they experienced together, it came as a shock to Diaz when he learned of Emken’s candidacy platform. “I got a very timid email from Elizabeth, where she shared, almost apologetically, that she was running for public office. While I normally would have been thrilled, I was thoroughly confused when I went to her website and saw where she stood on the issues. Among her many policy points, she noted that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.”
While Diaz had long known of her conservative roots, Emken’s public stance confused him. “I’d always known that she was a Republican,” he acknowledges. “I knew of her mother’s more staunch views, and that Elizabeth was fiscally conservative, but somehow I’d allowed myself to believe that Elizabeth would be a different kind of Republican.”
“I kept thinking, ‘but we’re friends, Elizabeth,’” Diaz recalls. “I couldn’t rationalize how she could have taken that position.”
Diaz reached out, via email, in an attempt to understand her actual belief, only to be met with silence. “I told her I was thrilled for her, seeking a political office, as I’d always known she was meant for great things. Still, I also told her how hurt I was, as part of her platform was designed to deny me my basic rights, and asked her to explain how she’d come to this anti-gay stance. Realizing that she may not want to put such thoughts in writing, I asked her to call me, so we could talk it over, but that phone call never came.”
Given her friendship with those in the group, Diaz was not the only one upset by her viewpoint. “It’s sad to me that she has decided to side with those who want to deny gays the right to legally marry,” says Fischer. “There is the usual cynical assumption: she has taken this position for political expediency; she believes she cannot represent the Republican base of her party without touting one of its most visible platforms; she cannot win the November election unless she shows herself to be as contrary to Feinstein as possible.”
“The list of people she betrayed with this stance is a long one. It includes me, her best friend, as well as every guy in our high school group, and her college roommate. It makes no sense,” Diaz notes. “Still, there was a part of me that held out hope; that I’d misunderstood her, and that there was a more subtle, nuanced approach to her belief that hadn’t been properly expressed.”
“I lost such sleep over this,” he confides. “I cried, late at night, feeling so betrayed.”
It would be over a year until Diaz received a response. “I got an email, with a link to an article titled something like ‘Republicans Finally Coming Around to Gay Marriage,’ with a very short note that said ‘Look–there is progress being made!’”
While Diaz appreciated her support, he wasn’t interested in how other Republicans viewed same-gender marriage; it was her view which mattered, and he again reached out for clarification.
It was only then that Diaz got a more lengthy response. Emken sent an email, saying that she couldn’t understand how her policy points had become an issue between them. “’No matter what your political beliefs,’ she said, ‘I will always be your friend,’” Diaz remembers. “But as I replied to her, ‘Imagine, for a moment, if I were a black person, and you were running on a racist platform. Can you see how that might be an issue?’ No matter what our relationship had been, there are certain things in life that are deal-breakers. As I wrote to her, ‘If you are using a wedge issue like this simply to gain power, I can’t support that. I have more self-esteem than that.’ And that was the end of our communication.”
When asked to describe Emken, as she was when they first met, Diaz uses words such as driven and ambitious. “Her running for office today is not a surprise to me.” In fact, Diaz recounts the moment he first introduced Emken to his mother. “I distinctly recall my mom saying, ‘That girl could be President, if she wants to be.’”
Despite similar upbringings and experiences the “choir gang” has grown into adulthood with varying worldviews and splintered friendships. As one of the women noted, who wishes to remain anonymous, “I think it has a whole lot less to do with being middle class and one’s religious affiliation, as it has to do with early influences, models, experiences and inclinations. In my case, I was raised in a Catholic home by parents who were passionate and active in issues having to do with social justice, and had an embracing attitude towards learning about and welcoming all walks of life. It’s carried me throughout my life.”
Despite the contrary teachings of her faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Bhence says she supports marriage equality. “I’m a member of a church that does not support marriage equality, and yet I still love my church. I think about myself being divorced and remarried, and I’m allowed to do that, but my friend, Bill, who has been with his partner since we graduated high school, isn’t. His relationship is a better tribute to marriage than I am.”
Following the passage of California’s anti-marriage equality measure, Prop 8, Bhence shares, “I remember being in church the Sunday after it passed. I was so discouraged, but I was trying to understand. In my church, we sing a hymn prior to partaking of the Sacrament that represents Christ’s body and blood. On this particular Sunday, the hymn’s scripture was Hebrews 13:4. It says ‘Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.’ The message I got from this is that now may not be the time, but take courage, continue the fight, it will happen.”
“A lesbian couple living together devotedly for the 40 years cannot legally marry, though two drunken straight people can meet in Vegas and hours later walk off with a legitimate marriage license,” Fischer notes. “This kind of absurdity appalls me still.”
In Diaz’ view, Emken should understand the importance marriage holds, given the battle Emken herself fought with her mother when it came time for her own nuptials. “When Elizabeth got married, she actually wanted me to be her ‘best man,’ rather than have a maid of honor, as I was her best friend. But her mother refused, saying it would be ridiculous for a man to be part of the bride’s wedding party,” he recalls. “She had to fight her family to get me into her wedding party, where, as a compromise, I ended up on the groom’s side. Instead of me as her ‘best man,’ Elizabeth had a cousin she wasn’t as close to stand in as maid of honor.”
The girl I first met in junior high is very different from the woman that now stands on California’s political stage. Then she was the victim to my thoughtless taunts because of her weight. She was victim to abandonment from her father and to romantic rejection from gay men. She was resilient and a loving friend, supportive of her gay friend’s journey through life and sexuality. But now, she stands publicly against his right to a legitimate marriage with the man he loves.
While Emken won’t comment on how she became the woman she is today, her friends, although angry and confused, still hold kind thoughts of her.
“I don’t demonize her. Mostly, I feel sad for her,” Fischer said. “I’d like to know what happened to that competent, compassionate thinker that I knew. She must still hold within her that high school self, the one that befriended so many gay men.”
Group photo and photo of David Diaz and Elizabeth Emken (1981 Senior Prom) provided by David Diaz. Group photo, top row: Elizabeth Emken, Maria Simeone, David Diaz, Cheryl Bhence, Diana Gregory, Scott Maher. Bottom row: Felicia Weisbrot Berschauer, Bill Boyson, Craig Swartz (now Emken’s husband), Kathy Pierce.
Senate candidacy photo from Elizabeth Emken’s website.