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The following keynote speech was given by Matt Kailey, author of Just Add Hormones: An Insider 's Guide to the Transsexual Experience (Beacon Press) at the Transcending Boundaries conference in Worcester, Mass., on October 29, 2006. Matt can be reached through his Web site at www.mattkailey.com.

Posted 11/12/06 with express permission of author.
May not be reposted without consent.

Small Victories: Activism for Everyday People


It's always hard to see a conference like this end, especially because it can be very comfortable within the walls of a gathering like this. Even if we don't always understand each other, and even if we don't always agree or don't always feel like the one big, happy community defined under the umbrella of GLBTIQA, we at least make the effort to come together and try to transcend those boundaries that arise within our community and try to create a dynamic, three-dimensional community by learning about each other, learning from each other, understanding each other, and if not agreeing, at least agreeing to disagree.

But now we're going back out into a world that is very static, two-dimensional, and either/or. When we pass through those doors, we enter a world where you're either male or you're female; straight or gay; white or non-white; an adult or a child; able or disabled; capable or not; legal or illegal; conservative or liberal; Republican or Democrat; a patriot or a terrorist; with us or against us. ... Okay ... or not okay. Many of us in this room are about to go back into a world in whose eyes we are not okay. And that sometimes makes it tough to see it end and to have to leave.

But the fact that those of us here today are willing to juggle so many letters just to identify our larger community is proof that we are able to see beyond this rigid and destructive binary system. We are capable of rising above it. And not only that. We are—whether we know it or not—capable of changing it.

You've probably all heard the famous quote from Margaret Mead that goes: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Well, we're that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens. But how do we go about changing the world?

We do it through activism. We do it until there are enough people sitting in this room, or one like it, that we can no longer be described as a small group, but as a substantial majority. We do it until there are enough people that there is nowhere to sit or stand and we're spilling out onto the streets, and we're spilling all the way to Washington D.C., and we're sitting in the halls of congress and people are calling us Senator and Representative … or Mr. or Madame President—or whatever the gender-neutral title is that will someday replace Mr. or Madame. We do it until there are enough letters added to GLBTIQA that there isn't a banner big enough to hold them all.

It's going to take some time, and there are people in this room today, including, I expect, myself, who won’t live to see that day— maybe none of us will. But we're not doing it just for us. We're doing it for all of those GLBTIQA people who aren't even born yet, who won't be born for another 50 years, or even another century or so, but who will be born into a world where civil rights are for everybody and equality is for everybody— because we did the work.

But sometimes the word “activist” can be more than a little scary and overwhelming. Sometimes we come to a conference like this and we see people up at the podium speaking or we see people giving workshops and we read their bios and see all the things they've done, and we look at all the various leaders in each of our communities, and we think, “I can't possibly do what they're doing. I wouldn't even know where or how to start. I don't have the time, the energy, the resources, the skills, or even the desire.” Or we think, “I can't be out where I live or where I work. There's no way I can speak out or be visible like that.” Or, as an ally, we think, “I'm not a member of that community. Will they resent me or see me as an outsider? And how can I represent a community that I really don't belong to?”

And then we just give up.

But we don't have to give up. We all have a part to play, and it doesn't have to involve traveling around the globe giving speeches, or writing books, or being on TV, or holding a political office, or sitting on boards of directors, or running organizations. Those are all very worthy and much-needed activities, and the people who do those things are absolutely essential for our community. But the truth is that we are all absolutely essential for our community. And we are all activists— every single one of you here today is an activist.

The simple act of coming to this conference makes you an activist. Why? Because you've come here for change. You've come here to learn so that you can make yourself better and, in the process, make the world better. You've come here in spite of a world out there that says that conferences like this one shouldn't exist and that the people in this room shouldn't exist—at least not the way they are now. But you believe differently or you wouldn't be here. And that makes you an activist.

If you are GLBTIQ or go by a different label but identify as a member of that community, you are an activist every morning when you get out of bed, whether you want to be or not, just by living your life, as you'll see in a minute. Every time you come out to someone, you are an activist— and you get double bonus points if you are out in your life, all or part of the time.

If you're trans or have a “non-standard body,” every time you use a public restroom labeled “Male” or “Female,” you are an activist. If you're gay or lesbian or bi or queer, every time you go on a date or kiss your partner, you are an activist.

If you're an ally, every time you use the correct pronoun when referring to a trans person, you are an activist. Every time you correct someone who uses the wrong pronoun or who makes an inappropriate comment about a member of the GLBTIQ community, you are an activist.

Activism doesn't have to be big and bold and visible to everyone. Activism takes many forms and can be as simple as treating someone else with the respect that they are due. It can be as simple as welcoming a same-sex couple into your neighborhood or treating a transsexual store clerk like you would treat any other store clerk that you were dealing with— no better and no worse. When you make the decision, every day of your life, to treat everyone who you encounter in your life as a normal person, a deserving person, and an equal person … you are an activist.

It's that simple. Anyone can be an activist.

When asked how to create a legacy, Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder of AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, said, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are today.”

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are today.”

And that's how each one of us can create a legacy of activism that absolutely shakes the foundations of our two-dimensional, either/or, binary society.

You start where you are. And you measure your success in increments, by small victories. I've considered myself a trans activist for the last nine years, and I measure my own success by increments, by small victories, by the little inroads that I'm able to make and by the minds here and there that I'm able to change. I'll give you a couple of examples.

It was 8 p.m. on a Friday night, and I was sitting in a strange emergency medical clinic in a strange suburb waiting to see a strange doctor for a condition that was embarrassing just to write on the intake form, let alone formally announce— even to a medical professional. The scientific term for my ailment is, I believe, constipation, but that simple word fails to even touch upon the excruciating fullness that began at my diaphragm, seemed to end about an inch below my butt cheeks, and had refused to budge. I was plugged up, backed up, in pain that ran from moderate to severe depending on my body position, and terrified of what might happen if I didn’t seek serious intervention.

I had tried to avoid this inevitability. I have my own doctors who I see for regular medical care, who are already “broken in” and know what they’re going to find— or not find— underneath the men's clothing, and I had decided earlier in the week that if things got too bad, I could eventually go to my general practitioner. But I was going to try my own remedies first. So all week, I had gulped down gummy fiber drinks, popped cheap laxative pills, and then, in a last ditch effort to avoid the crisis that was looming, I tried an enema— now that’s desperation.

But it was already too late. My attempts at home remedies had accomplished nothing other than to create a Friday night emergency, forcing me to leave the comfort of the Denver city limits, where “gender variance” is legally protected from discrimination, and drive to an after-hours clinic in the suburbs, where, for all I knew, it could be opening day of “gender variance” hunting season.

There were two doctors there at the clinic, both male, and I could see them from the waiting room whenever they would come out from behind a door or a curtain. Then I would study them, trying to figure out from the way they moved or styled their hair which one might be wearing the cross of the Evangelical Church of Physical Conformity under his scrubs. Some of the outlying areas of Colorado tend toward the dangerous side. There are people in my state who would pay a steep admission fee and spring for a box of overpriced popcorn just to watch a transsexual slowly succumb to the poison of his own undigested frozen dinners, and then shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and say, “That's what happens when you go against God's plan.” As if discrimination leading to death were part of God's plan— let alone frozen dinners.

The one thing I noticed about this bustling group of medical professionals is that everyone seemed to be alarmingly cheerful. It was a Friday night, their friends and family were all comfortably at home or out having a fun-filled time without them, and they still seemed to be enjoying every minute of their time at the clinic.

Watching the general merriment, I started to feel an increasing anxiety. I worried that I was going to be the spoiler. They already knew that someone was going to be sacrificed in the excavation of my netherparts— I had to write “constipation” on the intake form— and that had so far not dampened their spirits. What they didn't know was that there was a transsexual in their waiting room. This could change the entire dynamic. I simply didn't know yet, and that's one of the problems that's inherent in transsexuality— you never really know. You never really know what word, what action, what revelation might alter the entire situation that you’re in at any given moment and what the consequences might be. You're simply left to wonder, to shift and worry in your chair, to expect the worst and hope for the best.

A young, blonde, and chipper nurse finally led my aching, bloated body through the door, past the doctors, and into an examination room. Some people just got a table with a curtain pulled around it, right out in the center of the treatment area, but apparently my particular ailment deserved the privacy of a full-fledged room with a closing door. And they didn't even know the half of it yet. The nurse's nametag said “Tiffany,” and it was a perfect young name, signaling a new and improved generation of nurses. But young doesn't necessarily mean open-minded. I wasn't sure how Tiffany was going to react to what I was going to say.

She took my pulse and my blood pressure, and then said, “Well, Mr. Kailey, everything's fine so far. The doctor will be in shortly.”

And that's when I stopped her. I'd already rehearsed my speech in my head, but I didn't know what it would sound like when it came out. I didn't know if she would “get” it. But there are times when I feel like precaution is essential— like surprises just aren't going to be fun for anyone involved— and so I needed to lay the groundwork.

“I need to see the more open-minded of the two doctors,” I said to Tiffany, “because he won't see what he expects to see when he examines me. What I mean is, I don't have the parts he'll be expecting to see.”

I shrugged and tried to be casual. I tried to impart to Tiffany that this was no big deal, that I was only telling her because everyone has some disclaimer and this was mine. And I waited for the deer-in-headlights stare or the embarrassed shifting or the quickly lowered eyes. But what I expected to happen did not. She simply smiled and said, “Well, I think either one will be fine, but I'll tell them.”

After she left, I was alone for quite some time. I didn't know what she had told the doctors, and there was a possibility that they were now arm wrestling to see who had to treat me. I finally decided that they had simply all gone home to their spouses and partners who did have the parts that they expected to see, and left me safely locked in for the night where I couldn't infiltrate their schools, their churches, or their neighborhoods with my transsexual agenda. But no. Finally Dr. Michaels entered—mid-forties, black glasses, boisterously cheerful, as if examining rear ends and dealing with unexpected genitalia were the things that made his job come alive for him.

“Did the nurse tell you about me?” I asked. “Because I'm not going to have the parts that you would expect to see when you examine me.”

He grinned and peered at me through his glasses. “I've been in this business for 15 years,” he said proudly. “There's nothing I haven't seen.”

I doubted that. But I felt an instant sense of relief. There are times when I'm prepared to be defiant about my transsexuality, to battle it out with whoever objects and demand the treatment that I deserve just by virtue of my status as a human being— but this night, when I was tired and plugged up and even a tiny bit scared about my condition, was not one of those times. This night, I was made vulnerable by illness and by difference, and I wanted unconditional acceptance without having to ask for it and certainly without having to demand it.

And I actually got it from Dr. Michaels. He examined me, set up some x-rays, discovered the problem, gave me a remedy, and sent me on my way. Even though I had kept them all at work well past closing time, everyone in the clinic was still robustly cheerful as they all waved goodbye to me like the people of Oz watching their wizard float away in a hot air balloon.

Maybe it was just a fun and interesting situation for them, having a transsexual in their clinic. Or maybe I'm fooling myself and we're a dime a dozen at that particular clinic, but I doubt it. My guess is that many of the people working at that clinic— and maybe even Dr. Michaels, who believed that he had seen everything and now probably has— had to adjust their thoughts that night. They had to go beyond their usual thinking, to open up their minds and let something new come in.

And these positive experiences, no matter how I happen to come about them, are the things that I consider small victories. A situation like this, unplanned, unexpected, completely accidental—is sometimes the most powerful activism that we can do. And that's what I meant when I said that we are activists just by getting out of bed in the morning and living our lives. Even when it's unintentional, we change minds. We make a difference.

In another incident, I got my first PAP test and pelvic exam under my new insurance carrier. I went to my own doctor, so that wasn't a problem, but I knew there would be difficulty with my insurance— and I was not disappointed. My claim was denied. As a male, I was not covered for this particular service. But as a financially struggling male, I was not going to just give up and pay the thing, either. And I knew that I needed to get things straightened out early on, in case any serious trouble materialized later. So I wrote an appeal letter to my insurance company that said exactly this:

I am writing to request a review of the enclosed claim for myself, Matthew Kailey. I believe this claim was denied because it was for a PAP test and the insurance has me listed as male, meaning such tests would not be covered. However, I have female sex organs, which means that I need regular gynecological care and testing in order to maintain the health of these organs and of myself. I will continue to require ongoing gynecological care, and I believe that this service is covered for patients with female organs. Because I will require similar care in the future, I need to get my records changed or otherwise have this information on file, along with my request for a review of this current claim.

The up side is that you will never have to provide treatment for prostate cancer.

Thank you very much for your consideration in this manner. Please let me know what other information I need to provide to you.

I was hoping that they had a sense of humor. Apparently someone did, or at least someone realized that the treatment I had received was appropriate. The denial was reversed and the claim was paid.

Another “small victory.” Another point for our side. And when I told a friend about it, he decided to take a chance with his own insurance company, who had already denied his claim for the same services. He wrote them a similar letter, and they reversed their denial and paid the charges.

These are the incremental steps that it takes to make inroads, to gain acceptance, and to change minds. Now there are at least two insurance companies— mine and my friend’s— that are open to the idea that there is a diverse array of bodies out there. Maybe someday insurance companies won't set up gender-specific guidelines for health care. Maybe they will recognize that various people need various kinds of treatment and services, and that sometimes men need pelvic exams and sometimes women need prostate exams. And these are the kinds of small changes that we are working for, and that will eventually snowball into big changes that will make a difference for a whole lot of people.

I go around and speak and do training all the time. I'm completely out in my life, I write about my experiences, and I do other, very visible things that I consider activism. But it's these small victories that I'm the most proud of, because I think it's these very small, everyday actions, where we are really able to portray our humanity, that are the most effective in changing hearts and minds.

But if you're not particularly excited about getting constipated yourself, there are a whole lot of other things you can do. Here are just a few things along a spectrum from anonymous and relatively easy to very out there and challenging. Start where you are.

1. Get educated. If you don't know enough about a certain community, find out. Read. Go to conferences. Go to meetings. Find out about that particular group so that you can be supportive. I've found that, in many cases, some gay or lesbian people know less about trans issues than some straight people do, and some trans people know nothing about the gay and lesbian community and their history. If you want to be an activist, or even an ally, for a particular group, learn who they are.

2. Vote. But make sure you know who you're voting for. If you want to know a candidate's stand on an issue, including GLBTIQ rights, ask him or her. You can e-mail candidates through their Web sites, you can send a letter, or you can call. You can even request an in-person meeting. The closer it gets to election time, the more difficult this will be, because candidates will be out campaigning, so start early and do your research.

3. Shop. And no, I don't mean George Bush's idea, where if we don't shop, the terrorists win. Shop at GLBTIQ-owned businesses whenever you can. If you see GLBTIQ people working at a store, give that store your business. When you do this, you are actually helping to create jobs for people who may have trouble finding them. Money talks so you don’t have to.

4. Write letters. You can write a letter to the store or company that hires GLBTIQ people and let the manager or the owner know that you're shopping there or doing business with them because of the diversity of their staff. If you feel strongly about an issue or see an injustice being done, you can write a letter to the government official who oversees that particular situation. You can write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. If you hear of a company that has discriminated against a GLBTIQ person, you can write a letter to the CEO or the public relations department explaining why you will no longer buy their product or use their service. You might think, “What will one letter do?” but if the issue has caught your attention and caused you to write, it has surely had the same effect on others. It's not likely that yours will be the only letter. And even if it is the only letter, you have no idea who might read it and who might pay attention.

5. Join a group. PFLAG is a fantastic group, and there are many other advocacy and activist groups for various communities. Even if you aren't the kind to march in parades or demonstrations or make public appearances, there are many other things that you can do behind the scenes. Just paying dues, attending meetings, or stuffing envelopes for flyers and newsletters makes you an activist.

6. Volunteer. Many GLBTIQ groups need volunteers for all kinds of things, from planning events to cleaning up the office. Just doing this helps the group continue its mission. And you can also volunteer to work on a political campaign, either for a candidate or an issue.

7. Donate. Most GLBTIQ groups are hurting for money all the time. Most of us are, too. But if you've got more money than time, donate. Even five or ten dollars matters. For some of the smaller, local organizations, even a small amount can mean the difference between keeping their doors open or closing down. You can also donate to political candidates who favor GLBTIQ rights, or a group that is promoting an issue favorable to the community.

8. Speak out. Stand up to people who make disparaging comments or jokes. You can politely correct a person by assuming that what he or she said was a mistake. “Oh? I must have misheard you. Surely you didn't say …”

9. Be out whenever you can. If you're a GLBTIQ person, every time you come out, you make a difference. A decade ago, the majority of people in surveys claimed that they didn't know a gay or lesbian person. Now, seven in ten people claim to know one. Of course, everyone knows one, but the reason that more people think they do now is because those gay and lesbian people are coming out. The more that people know who we are, the more inclined they are to accept us. If you're an ally, come out as a parent, family member, friend or acquaintance of a GLBTIQ person.

10. Attend a parade, demonstration, or public event. There's power in numbers. Your presence will make a difference. The larger the numbers at public events, the more others realize that this is a large contingent, and maybe they should take another look. Believe it or not, when I bought a car once, the salesman told me that the color I was interested in was “very popular. Everyone has that color.” He thought that was a selling point, and for many people, it is. The larger the group, the more other people feel like they want to belong.

11. Join or start a speaker's bureau, or start speaking on your own. If you are into public speaking, or want to learn, a speaker's bureau is a great place to get started. You can start small, with short speeches to familiar groups, then branch out as you build up confidence. University classrooms are always looking for speakers on GLBTIQ topics. Contact the women's studies, gender studies, queer studies, human sexuality, social work, or psychology departments of your local colleges and universities to see if they need speakers.

12. Run for office. Even if you don't get elected, you can change people's minds with your visibility. And if you do get elected, you can change a lot of things.

These are just some of the ways you can be an activist. I'm sure you can think of plenty more, including ways that you are now being an activist that you didn't even realize. You're more important than you think.

So when you leave here today, start counting all the ways that you are already an activist. Start giving yourself credit for all the small things that you do … and keep doing them. Pat yourself on the back for all the “small victories” that you have … and keep having them. Acknowledge all the incremental changes that you are making in the world every day … and keep making them.

What you're doing now may be as far as you'll ever go, and that's fine. You're already making a difference. But once you start paying attention to what you're already doing, and once you start adding something here and there when you see the need for it, you might just find yourself wanting to do more. You might find yourself saying, “If I can do this, then I can do that, too.” And you might end up moving beyond what you ever thought possible.

The poet and activist Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful— to use my strength in the service of my vision— then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Keep using your strength, whatever it may be, in the service of your vision. Do what you can, with what you have, where you are today, and you will forever be one of those thoughtful, committed citizens who ends up changing the world.

Here's one thing you can do today. Right now. That one thing is— be happy. Well, that sounds easy enough, but how is that activism? I was watching an HBO documentary the other night on Daniel Pearl. Some of you will remember that he's a journalist who was kidnapped in the Middle East and beheaded, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Mariane. Mariane Pearl has had her baby now and she's moving on with her life as best she can— she's doing her best to be happy. And one thing she said on the show struck me as very important and very relevant to us.

She said, “I see happiness as a form of resistance.”

Now she was talking about her happiness in response to the kidnappers— refusing to give them the power over her life and her happiness. But I also see happiness as a form of resistance. There are a lot of people out there who would prefer that we were unhappy. There are a lot of people out there who would prefer that we say, “I hate who I am. I'm so miserable. I don't want to be ‘like this.’ I just want to be ‘normal.’ I'm not okay the way I am. I want to change and be like everyone else. I want to be acceptable.”

They hate it when we're happy, when we love our lives and love who we are. Because our happiness— with ourselves, our friends, and our family members— says to others that we are okay. And our happiness— with ourselves, our friends, and our family members— changes hearts and changes minds. In our happiness, we can show our strength and move beyond our fear. We can start where we are by being happy with who we are. Our own happiness can be our biggest and most important act of activism.

It doesn't end when we walk out the doors of this conference today. That's when it starts. Thank you.