A few weeks ago one of my dearest friends Jes began writing a letter to the editor of the Missoula equivalent of the Village Voice, known as The Independent. She recently passed it along to me and I feel that it not only goes along with my post about AmVets below, but provokes interesting ideas about the LGBT community and it's presence in Montana. Please read it and chime in if you have anything to add.
In the January 17-24 edition of the Indy, an article about a local community member being asked to leave a Dillard’s fitting room because “they didn’t allow men in [the women’s] dressing room” brought up the issue of how transgendered individuals fit into society, specifically our community. The incident was highlighted further in the “Street Talk” question of the week, which asked, “Which dressing room or bathroom do you think that transgender or intersexed people should use?” The published responses, as well as the discourse this question generated in my daily interactions around town, were both problematic and revealing. The reality is that Missoula, as progressive as it may be, suffers from a relative homogeneity that allows our community to be selective and discriminatory in our openness.
The biggest problem with nearly all of the responses to the question of the week and to the actions that the Dillard’s store managers took is that they are functioning under the assumption that difference implies danger of some kind; that to be transgendered makes perversion, hypersexualization, and/or challenge inevitable. Whether due to fear, prejudice, or lack of knowledge, the assumptions that our society makes about difference are all too often unfounded and judgmental. How to handle the complex and variable issue of human sexuality is one of the most culturally loaded concerns we face and I do not fault anyone for not knowing the “right” answer or response. However, it is vital that both as members of a community and as sexual beings, we do not allow the complexities of our sexuality to be anything less than what helps define our understanding of one another. Sexuality is our collective experience, though understood and expressed differently by each of us; it’s difficult to assign such a personal and individual experience to a dressing room.
Our society is set up for this difficult conundrum. When there are only two dressing room options, but clearly more than two options in regards to sexual identity, where does one go when he or she does not fit the mold? Furthermore, how do the rest of us respond to that choice? The black and white options offered in terms of fitting into the make up of society have such individuals beaten even before they have begun. I do not necessarily think that the solution is to just add a third (or fourth) choice, which ends up isolating these individuals even further. My argument is that we need to acknowledge that difference exists and open ourselves and our collective space to it, rather than viewing those members of our community who defy conventional categorization as “the other”, and therefore dangerous, or simply not acknowledging them at all. For Mercury Johnson, the transgendered female featured in the aforementioned article, the issue requires awareness. The problem is not necessarily the number of options, but rather the attitude around their parameters.
Dillard’s has the right and responsibility to protect its customers – a responsibility that extends to all of its customers, not just its “straight” ones. (I use parentheses around straight because I do not mean in the orientation sense, but in the normative sense. Being transgendered is actually less about someone’s sexual preference than it is about someone’s sexual identity. While I acknowledge that these two things often go hand in hand, they are different and the distinction is necessary). Mercury Johnson was causing no problem in the store and had every right to be there shopping with friends. The action that the management took in asking her to leave was based purely in discrimination, whether or not that discrimination originated with the best of intention.
Missoulians are not faced with issues like this often, and thus have no real basis for knowing how to respond. Unless we as a community work to educate ourselves and live with the intention of being open-minded and non-reactionary, we cannot really call ourselves progressive or inclusive. For many Missoulians, this is an invisible issue, one they have no personal knowledge of or with which they have little experience. However, for many others- people whose contributions to our community are just as vital and important as anyone else’s, but whose roles are not as readily categorized - this issue is at the forefront of their lives and an awareness of that is necessary in order to truly consider Missoula a community at all, let alone a progressive one. It’s an issue that’s impossible to fit into all the dressing rooms in all of the department stores in town, regardless of what gender is indicated on the doors.