In order to explore his gender identity, Curtis is comfortable in one context--drag. "The Egyptian Room is one of the only places where I can do comfortable drag," he says. (The Egyptian is one of the only lesbian bars in town.) "I used to perform at Embers, but" he pauses. "You can't assume that just because people are queer they understand gender. There, at Embers, I was treated as a woman dressed in male clothing." The drag queens would refuse to call Curtis a "he," and a lot of them weren't even "out" as drag queens elsewhere. Some of them were straight guys who were secretly dragging on the weekends. It got too political, too uncomfortable for Curtis, and he left.
One of the worst effects of the queer community's exclusion of the trans community is in queer politics. Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) is a non-profit group that evolved to fight anti-homosexual organization in Oregon. Specifically, they battled ballot measures barring the "promotion or endorsement," of bisexual and homosexual behavior of students in public schools. Recently, BRO has made some progressive efforts at including the trans community in their efforts--like the Fair Work Project, where they ask businesses and organizations to agree not to discriminate against people based on gender identity. And the new executive director of BRO, Roey Thorpe, is committed to making sure any hard feelings between the two groups are mended: "It wasn't initially clear how gender identity shares the same political ground, but I think that a closer look makes it clear that transgendered people have always been part of our movement. We really don't consider them outside of the gay community," she says. But it hasn't always been that way.
"I felt very skeptical before beginning work for BRO," says Curtis, who does occasional volunteer work for them. "There are a lot of stories about BRO, and a lot of people who have felt very alienated in the past." One of the recurring stories is about the first anti-homosexual legislation in Oregon, ballot measure 9 in 1996. "In order to have this legislation stopped, some of the campaign staff felt that the queer community needed to look as normal and non-threatening as possible," says Curtis. That meant excluding the trans community. "It's funny, because the trans students in schools would have been some of the most vulnerable, if this legislation had passed," Curtis says with more than a hint of frustration.
And Curtis isn't the only one who feels this way. Lori Buckwalter, a transsexual male to female, says she and her partner (also a woman) have altogether quit attending the Lesbian Community Project--a 16-year-old community group for lesbians. Curtis says nearly the same thing. Though the group now technically includes anyone who is a "self-identified woman," it's been a controversial subject with the group for almost three years, with several changes in the bylaws, modifying the definition of what exactly a lesbian is. "It's just not worth it to me or my partner," Lori sighs. "I'm not going to stop and scream and say 'You have to include me.' It's not worth it to quibble over definitions. But they've got to realize that by excluding people, they've sacrificed the claim to be creating a truly inclusive society."
Kristen Aspen, a current member of the Lesbian Community Project and a member of the board, hopes that the certain people in the group can move beyond discrimination. "I personally think it is fear that keeps up this resistance," she says. "Some people will say 'I don't fear them and I don't hate them, but we're different so I don't want to be around them.' That's kind of the idea we had in the '50s: separate but equal. We need unity in the queer community."
For Curtis, sometimes solace comes from unexpected places. "I've gotten a lot of support from some individuals in the Radical Faeries," he says. The Radical Faeries are men who provide a male-only space as an alternative to bars. When Curtis first approached them, he felt a bit of a resistance. "But they're doing a lot of hard work, and there's a lot of people who are coming together from different places in their lives to make this happen."
But for every small victory in the trans community, the debate continues, even on a national level. "Transsexuality, it seems, is fast becoming emblematic of our age, and this is not a good thing," writes Norah Vincent, an outspoken butch dyke, in a recent op-ed for the Village Voice. Her opinion that transsexuals shouldn't receive "special treatment," could just have easily have come from Lon Mabon, or Rush Limbaugh. "There is a big difference between an equal-opportunity society in which people of all persuasions are allowed to pursue their own happiness--at their own expense," she writes, "and an ideologically skewed culture in which special-interest groups are merely piggybacking on the latest trendy philosophies. And getting special treatment."
So much for peace, love, and understanding.