A View from Inside – Transgender activist Jackson Bowman talks about the Stanton case

March 9, 2007

Bonnie Zylbergold. (07 Mar 07). A View from Inside. American Sexuality magazine. 09 Mar 07. Retrieved from http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/MagArticle.cfm?Article=680&PageID=0

A View from Inside

Transgender activist Jackson Bowman talks about the Stanton case

By Bonnie Zylbergold

Jackson Bowman is a twenty-seven-year-old transgender activist living in San Francisco. Previously, he facilitated an outreach program at Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin. While there, he also lobbied for the inclusion of gender identity and expression into Wisconsin’s nondiscrimination policies. More recently, he has worked with the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, teaching leadership skills to LGBT youth, and has helped raise money for trans peoples’ gender reassignment surgeries.

He talked to American Sexuality about his life and his thoughts on Steven Stanton, the Largo, Florida city manager who was fired from his job after he announced he would transition to female.

American Sexuality: Should we be surprised by the community’s response to Stanton’s coming out as trans?

Jackson Bowman: I can’t say I’m too surprised by it since most states don’t have legal protection for trans people or laws protecting gender identity and expression in general. Personally speaking, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never experienced this type of discrimination. But then again, I’ve been living in San Francisco for the past three years.

Before I moved here, I was working for Whole Foods Market in Wisconsin. They had their own antidiscrimination policy, so my rights were protected. Although I never experienced blatant discrimination in the workforce, specifically the service industry, people have treated me as a curiosity or rarity.

At this point in time, I’m not “out” as trans to most of my colleagues. It’s worth mentioning, however, that I pass as male; I’ve undergone both hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.

AS: Why have you chosen to remain in the proverbial closet, so to speak?

JB: I’m nervous about the potential change in dynamic that coming out might create. Employment is interesting in the sense that people need jobs, I need my job. Whether or not I’m comfortable at work, I still have to go and do my job every day. That being said, I have an invested interest in creating and maintaining the most comfortable work environment possible. Since I pass, I can out myself as I see fit.

AS: Not all trans people choose to pass, that is to pass as either male or female in terms of public perception. Was your decision to “pass” based on fear of being judged or outed as transgender?

JB: That was definitely one of the bigger factors playing into my decision to physically transition. By far, trans people who don’t pass for one gender or the other have a much harder time. Think about it. Their trans status is decidedly more visible since they are choosing not to conform to either the male or female gender. Other people have a difficult time dealing with this sort of non-binary gender expression and have the tendency to freak out when things or people don’t fit into tidy, neat, little boxes. Trans identity fits that bill.

AS: What do you make of City Commissioner Mary Gray Black’s comments referring to Stanton’s transition as a “distraction” that impedes his ability to serve the community?

JB: One of the issues adding to the complexity of transitioning in public, as opposed to hiding it or keeping it private, is that you’re put in the position to ask other people to transition with you. In Largo, at least, it seems the community feels that Stanton’s choice to publicly transition is a burden on them. Unfortunately for Stanton, Largo’s residents appear incapable of dealing with anything outside the norm of their podunk little town. And I say that as someone who comes from a podunk little town myself!

AS: What do you think about of Lighthouse Baptist Church Pastor Ron Saunders’s comment: “If Jesus was here tonight, I can guarantee you he’d want him terminated. Make no mistake about it.”

JB: His comments are venomous, viscous, and decidedly unchristian. And when it comes to Christianity, I’m a bit of an expert. I was raised Christian. I was home schooled. I did the whole “Jesus Camp” thing. Though I don’t currently consider myself a religious person, I definitely know enough about the Bible to cite its teachings, and I’m pretty sure “loving thy neighbor” is right up there.

Though I wasn’t necessarily surprised by Stanton’s dismissal, I was taken aback by the spiteful reaction and stance taken by his colleagues and others, like Pastor Ron Saunders. I read in an article that after a public discussion, or witch hunt depending on how you see it, on whether Stanton should continue on as city commissioner, Stanton, “with his head down,” left the meeting before the five-hundred-plus residents and city employees caste their vote to oust him. How or why people felt entitled to burn this man at the stake after fourteen years of exceptional service is beyond my—and hopefully most people’s—comprehension.

AS: How would you suggest bringing about change regarding people’s negative perceptions of the transgender community?

JB: There needs to be comprehensive gender and sexuality education. People hold too tightly to the idea that gender is inborn. In reality, girls weren’t born loving pink; they walked into a Toys “R” Us and realized they were supposed to. In my opinion, gender is ninety percent socialized, ten percent biology. And even that ten percent is very easily malleable.

AS: What do you mean by that?

JB: I’m not denying that, when it comes to our bodies, certain biological realties are fixed. There are things about my body that will never change and that can not change, but they pale in comparison with the amount of things that I am capable of changing. For instance, nearly all of my secondary sex characteristics, the octave of my voice, my ability to grow body hair, my musculature, were all easily altered when I made the decision to do so.

AS: Some people say we shouldn’t change the way God created us.

JB: People have been modifying their bodies in all sorts of ways for as long as I can recall. I mean, dating as far back as Cleopatra and her rouge, to TV’s present craze with plastic surgery programs, people have always attempted to alter their appearance in one way or another. The truth of the matter is people want to be able to control how others perceive them. We do it through speech, by working out, with plastic surgery, by dying our hair, you get the point.

AS: Are you saying that transitioning from one gender to the other is akin to prettifying ourselves?

JB: Well yes and no. It’s really not that simple. True, a good portion of transitioning is about aesthetics, but it’s more about being able to express an internal gender identity that isn’t correlating with one’s biological sex. By no means was I suggesting gender reassignment surgery as analogous to getting a nose job for your sixteenth birthday!

AS: Many of the more popular LGBT publications have shied away from this story. Why do you think that is?

JB: Transgender and gender rights have been slow moving in comparison with LGBT rights in general, which tend to ignore the B and T parts of the acronym. Mainstream gay culture is very focused on appearing “normal” and trans people are seen as an affront to that image. Right now, gay and lesbian dollars are going towards same-sex marriage and the right to fight in the U.S. military. I can’t fathom two more traditional, but less important, issues facing the LGBTQA community. The way I see it, the pie is already moldy. Sadly, mainstream gays and lesbians are still trying desperately to get a piece.

AS: Some transgender rights activists suggest that Largo’s dismissal of Stanton may serve to persuade Congress to extend employment protections to gays and transsexuals. What do you make of this?

JB: The difference between Stanton’s case and every other trans person who’s ever been terminated from their job for being out is one, Stanton’s story is getting national air time, and two, the blatant trans-phobic language being used in regards to Stanton’s story. I believe Pastor Ron Saunders sums this up quite well when he referred to Stanton as an “it”.

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