Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Chloe Schwenke, a human rights and peacebuilding activist, development practitioner, and academic with over three decades of international experience, including 15 years of work while based in the Global South. She is the Director of the Global Program on Violence, Rights and Inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women.
Transgender women of color in this country face extraordinary levels of extreme violence. Data remains thin with a few exceptions, but take a look at the recently released U.S. Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality in Washington, and you will see a mixed picture – but still one in which the lived realities of transgender people remains very challenging indeed. We are many, many years away from “thriving”.
Monika: On the other hand, you are one of the very few transgender women, including Prof. Deirdre McCloskey, that have managed to use your talents and education to have a great academic and civil service career. Why there are so few transwomen holding important positions? Our representation is at the level of 0.2-0.3% of the global population. However, this is not the only factor, is it?
Also, I did not transition until I was in my 50s, so I was able to access opportunities that “out” transgender people struggle mightily to access, especially in terms of employment and parenting.
But delaying my transition imposed an extraordinary emotional strain on me and on my family, and without their support and the support of my faith community (Quakers) I would never have managed to keep it all together, and pursue my career as I have done.
Even with those advantages, my career has been punctuated by extensive period of under-employment, grueling ordeals (and multiple rejections) in seeking that “next job”, and extreme financial hardships due to the many self-paid costs of my gender transition and the reality that long periods with only short-term consulting assignments do not pay all the bills.
Monika: As you have just said your career was subject to many grueling ordeals. It is sad that some of them were inflicted on you by the public administration. In 2008 you were a senior specialist on African development issues, employed by a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), when you announced your transition in 2008. And as a result, you were fired, something which you would not expect from the public administration ...
Chloe: USAID had nothing to do with this decision, and I doubt that they ever even knew anything about this. The consulting firm simply was not prepared to accommodate having a member of staff transition to a new gender, and they had decided that I would be “an embarrassment to the firm” if clients were to see me as Chloe. They therefore refused to let me have any client contact (in person or via phone or email) for several months, with the not-unexpected result that I was unable to generate any new projects. That provided them with the official excuse to terminate me.
At the time, which was at a very early and very vulnerable stage of my transition, I was so emotionally shattered by this termination that I signed the release forms that they insisted that I sign. It would be more than two years before I paused to consider whether this termination had been legal. To my chagrin, I discovered that under the laws of Washington, DC, it was not a legal termination – but the statute of limitations was only one year. I was too late to take any action against them for unfair dismissal.
|Chloe speaking at a Hillary Clinton election event at|
the Howard Theater in Washingon, DC in October 2016.
Chloe: I was completely taken by surprise when I was invited by the State Department to the first interview for that political appointment. Only much later did I find that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) had put my name forward, although the HRC never told me this at the time! It took more than a year to get through all the many interviews, but finally I had that amazing job! That was an exhilarating experience!
I think that Robyn is being too kind. I simply found that GLIFAA at that time was largely uninformed about gender identity, and I pushed GLIFAA to “educate themselves”. This included having me speak at a GLIFAA event at the Quaker Meeting House in Washington, at which several GLIFAA members actually broke into tears. They were wonderfully supportive once they learned a little about the realities of being transgender.
Monika: Quakers are are members of a Protestant religious movement generally known as the Religious Society of Friends. What is their attitude to transgender women from the standpoint of religion?
Chloe: Quakers are very non-hierarchical, socially quite liberal, and committed to equality. Their attitudes can however vary (on many issues) between individual Quaker Meetings, although there are common Quaker testimonies and values that generally unite most Quakers.
In my case, my particular Quaker Meeting (Adelphi Friends, near College Park, Maryland) knew almost nothing about gender identity issues, but when I came out they embraced me and my family, and they quickly learned a very great deal! They have been unfailingly supportive ever since, and that has generally been my experience of Quakers wherever I go.
In the end it isn’t so much about what we say – although we have a great to say that is unique to our lives – but it is about being present to the public in ways that they can come to terms with our humanity, and learn to respect our human dignity. Cisgender people (of every sexual orientation) who know little about us need to look us in the eye, and hear directly what we have to share, and what our many gifts to society entail.
|An avid equestrian, Chloe and her|
daughter attend the Washington Horse
Show almost every year.
Mostly they simply don’t know very much about us, but the extreme right wing media – which many Republicans access regularly - exacerbates matters terribly by adopting a hostile, ill-informed, and often blatantly transphobic position toward us (or simply makes us the target of humiliating “humor” intended to dehumanize us).
The result is that as transgender people, we have become extremely vulnerable to targeting, and many of us are now seeking deep cover. As our voices become muted, we are losing a vital battle to have our dignity respected -but for so many of us there is very little option but to go back into the shadows if we wish to stay alive.
After all, the strength and determination of many (and arguably most) democratic countries to champion human rights and human dignity now is very much in question, especially with the rise in right-wing populist governments like the Trump administration, and the global rise in authoritarian, autocratic governments like the Putin regime.
Through any of these lenses, our humanity is lost, and we become an abstract “threat” or object of disdain and ridicule. And we almost always, everywhere, have our gender identity issues conflated with sexual orientation, and become universally classified as “gay”.
Many of us are not gay, and even for those of us who are, our sexual orientation is way down the list of our existential struggle to be accepted. We do best in terms of inclusion and acceptance in the Scandinavian countries, in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and in northern Europe.
Similarly, we are making great strides in part of Latin America (Argentina, Chile, parts of Mexico). Most of the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, much of Central America, and parts of Asia are toxic for us, and southern Europe (with the praiseworthy exception of Malta) is far from embracing of us.
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pill whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome …
The entire notion of “passing” (instead of just “being”) carries with it a sense of deception, and avoids the more important challenge to all societies everywhere – to evolve morally to the point where gender identity is not constrained to certain proscribed norms, and where the essential humanity of all persons – no matter how they express this in terms of gender – is accommodated and even celebrated.
|Chloe as speaker at a Clinton election rally hosted by|
foreign policy professions, at the Cobalt Club in
Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood in 2016.
I also continue to teach evening graduate courses at the University of Maryland on human dignity and human rights. And I am deeply involved in the resistance movement that is now building in this country against the Donald Trump administration.
For more information about Chloe Schwenke and her work, visit her Website, Facebook, or Twitter.