It’s Friday night and I am in a club talking to two women; one a swinger, here with her husband, and the other a dominatrix in a beautiful leather corset that was handmaid for her. The club is hosting a party for transwomen – held the third Friday of every month for many years. It’s early, and there are about a dozen transwomen and 15-20 other patrons, but the crowd will grow to over 100 tonight.
I’m enjoying myself, but keeping an eye on the clock because tomorrow’s a busy day. I am meeting with a transgender support group that hosts over 30 people each month, attending a fundraising committee for Pride, which had over 25,000 attendees last year, and I am hoping to catch a rally for racial justice where the Mayor – an openly gay man – will be speaking in the afternoon. In a couple of days, I will be meeting a queer African American woman who works at one of the local universities in town. I met her at the recent art exhibit on the history of African-American LGBTQ individuals in Lexington, Kentucky.
Yes, I am in Lexington, Kentucky. The same state receiving all the media attention for one county clerk’s refusal to issue marriage licenses. She’s garnered a plethora of unfair and unearned media attention (and money), which has cast a shadow over Kentucky as an ignorant, uneducated, low class, hell for LGBTQ folks. As a male to female transsexual and social justice educator, I have found a home and community in Kentucky like none other I’ve experienced, and it makes me furious to have this reputation tarnished by hate and intolerance.
I, like so many others, dreamed of the “Promised Land” for LGBTQ folks. Having transitioned 10 years ago and experiencing responses of anger, gossip, or invisibility, I left my job in higher education and headed for California to find out for myself.
I quickly learned that – while I had more access to services – there was as much transphobia there as anywhere else. California, particularly the Bay Area, casts an odd spell on residents, which removes them from any responsibility or acknowledgement of the systems of oppression which permeate our cities. After all, it was two white students at a school in the Bay Area who harassed their African-American roommate by hanging up confederate flag in the room, nicknaming him “three-fifths” and wrapping a bike lock around his neck, then locking him in a closet.
Or another incident in the same region where a fraternity hung an effigy across from the African-American theme program; the same school that had so many sexual assaults that the victims took their cases and testified before the state legislature.
The promised land never lived up to its promise, and I made my way home to Kentucky, where I found an experience less Kim Davis, and more acceptance. I do not worry, or even feel uncomfortable, as a transwoman in Lexington. I joined a large gym, where they made sure my membership reflected my preferred name and never once suggested I use anything but the women’s locker room (they have a gender inclusive facility as well). I’ve had easy access to healthcare (much more easily navigated than when I was a member of Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento), and making friends in the LGBTQ community has been really easy. People are genuinely friendly and welcoming, a sharp contrast to the pretentiousness I often felt in the Bay Area.
Lexington has a unique LGBTQ history. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, a large group of gay, lesbian and bisexual men migrated to the city, initially drawn to one of the many colleges in the area. They studied and ended up staying to set up and run businesses. There are a myriad of restaurants, stores, legal services, real estate, etc. established and run by queer folks. This long history of of LGBTQ people in positions of power, money and influence has shaped Lexington into the community it is, and is becoming.
I have never lived anywhere where the public library hosted an exhibit on the history of African American LGBTQ people specifically in that town. There were photos of riots at the Lyric Theatre nine years before Stonewall. Drag shows from the 1930’s which were held outdoors in a park amphitheatre. A photo of Sweet Evening Breeze, an African-American man who was openly gay and crossed dressed (sometimes referred to as the original drag queen of Lexington) in the 1950-1990s. There were movements happening all around the country before Stonewall, and many were led by queer people of color.
As there is everywhere in this country, there is a lot of work to be done in Kentucky. Along with LGTBQ events, I’ve joined efforts to stop police violence against men of color, remove confederate flags and statues from the area, and secure rights for persons with disabilities. But we are making more progress than the coverage of Kim Davis’ antics will lead you to believe.
In a recent conversation with a colleague from California, he criticized his recent trip to the South and continually stated how he could never live in the South because of all the oppression. He also spoke of his desire to do more social justice work, which confused me. How can someone claim to do want to be an activist when they refuse to come to the very place where it’s needed the most? Is it really social justice to sit in a bubble of academia and peer down your nose and stereotype an entire portion of the population?
An unwilingness to come down and do the actual work that needs to be done means your own privilege is as much a part of the problem as the perpetrators of injustice. I invite leaders, particularly in the LGBTQ movement, to come visit Lexington. There are lessons to be learned here, and I am proud to once again call myself a Kentuckian.