Gay or black like me

By Michael H. O’Donnell

Laverne Cox on the cover of Time Magazine this month has a lot of people gnashing their teeth with moral indignation.
The full length photo features Cox in a tasteful, but sexy blue dress and black heels with blonde hair flowing over her shoulders. It’s obvious Cox is black. Nothing in the photo would tip off the casual observer to the fact she is also one of 1.5 million Americans who identify themselves as transgender.
The cover page headline eliminated the mystery.
“The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s next civil rights frontier,” it said.
Cox and her twin brother were born in Mobile, Ala., and “she” is now an actress, TV producer, star of a reality show and an open advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual rights.
The entertainer said as a youngster she always thought she would simply turn into a girl because that’s how she saw herself. It was the gender that matched her deepest feelings and desires. As an adult she made it happen.
Time Magazine’s story doesn’t dwell on the surgeries or hormone therapy that Cox underwent to make a transition from he to she. And it shouldn’t. It tries to grapple with the issue of why and the challenges faced by those who do.
Unfortunately, there are many Americans who don’t care why. They just cling to the notion that anything outside their vision of “normal and acceptable” — from appearance to behavior — should be subject to ridicule and scorn.
It’s either a never-ending battle waged by the self-righteous in society — or simply a bad habit of those in charge.
Now the “abhorrent” behavior that had to be stamped out during my lifetime has run the gamut from ridiculous things like targeting hair styles, music and kids who wore loafers without socks to dangerous things like asking people who didn’t agree with the war in Southeast Asia to leave the country.
My first encounter with gestapo tactics aimed a forcing conformity happened in junior high. Every male student in the school was lined up in the gymnasium to stand inspection. Hair on the back of heads couldn’t touch the collar of shirts. Shirts had to be tucked in. And for the sake of civilization as we know it, socks had to be worn inside slip-on loafers — a popular shoe style at the time.
Girls at the school had to pass their own inspection when it came to skirts touching knees.
There were no boys wearing skirts or the entire system would have imploded.
Sure there were gay people — even gay youngsters — back then, but they kept that incredible slice of vulnerability well hidden. Growing up was simply hard enough even for a member of the majority.
Functioning as a successful adult in society required the same cloak of invisibility.
People could suspect, but they could never know.
This was true in professions from teaching to medicine and enforced with criminal sanctions in the U.S. military.
Now I know this sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always wondered what America would have looked like on the surface if all people of color could have put on a special device that made them look like caucasians on the outside.
Think of it as a twist on the novel written by journalist John Howard Griffin, “Black Like Me.”
For six weeks in 1959, Griffin traveled the southern states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia with medically darkened skin to make him look like a black man. He did not change his name or otherwise alter his identity with clothing different from what he normally wore. His experience provided a riveting look at racial prejudice and the challenges of “being different.”
Essentially that was the trick used by homosexuals in America for decades. They simply looked and acted straight on the outside so they could avoid the prejudice and challenges of being “one of those people.”
Now I know this invites the obvious jawing that you can’t choose your race and you can’t choose your gender. This usually comes with a dose of Old Testament mixed with the voodoo science that homosexuality is a “mental defect or illness.” Gays can take their pick: sinful or nuts?
Well, here’s the deal. If blacks and other minorities could have hidden their true identities for decades, we never would have had a civil rights movement. Gays and transgender people have simply grown tired of hiding and they want a shot at state-recognized unions and protection from prejudice.
People like Laverne Cox are carrying the banner for LGBT equality and her photo on the cover of Time proves the issue will never be hidden again. Waving it around with disgust just proves the point.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.