by: Rebecca Kling
The last few weeks have seen a rush of stories about Obama’s childhood nanny, a transgender woman named Evie. Evie was Obama’s nanny for two years, although she was presenting as male at the time. Beginning with the AP story on March 5, “Obama’s transgender ex-nanny outcast,” the story quickly made the rounds–from American news outlets to the UK, New Zealand, Turkey, and beyond. Here’s the start of the original AP story:
“Once, long ago, Evie looked after “Barry” Obama, the kid who would grow up to become the world’s most powerful man. Now, his transgender former nanny has given up her tight, flowery dresses, her brocade vest and her bras, and is living in fear on Indonesia’s streets.
Evie, who was born a man but believes she is really a woman, has endured a lifetime of taunts and beatings because of her identity. She describes how soldiers once shaved her long, black hair to the scalp and smashed out glowing cigarettes onto her hands and arms.The turning point came when she found a transgender friend’s bloated body floating in a backed-up sewage canal two decades ago. She grabbed all her girlie clothes in her arms and stuffed them into two big boxes. Half-used lipstick, powder, eye makeup — she gave them all away.”
For the most part, the coverage has been respectful. I don’t love the phrase “was born a man but believes she is really a woman” as a definition for transgender, but I do like that the article consistently uses proper names and pronouns. Likewise, while the piece is primarily a human interest story, it also uses Evie’s story to highlight the poor treatment trans people receive in Indonesia. Of course, not every piece was so respectful. TurkishPress.com seemed to go out of their way to use “he” and a male name. However, that type of coverage seemed to be in the minority and there’s now also coverage on the coverage, with followup stories discussing how the AP story has brought celebrity to Evie. I hope that celebrity will bring some money and better living conditions.
It’s possible that Obama had no idea Evie was trans until the AP story broke. In the article, Evie said she attempted to hide that part of her identity from him. So I think it would be too simple to say, “Obama should be treating trans people better because this trans woman was his nanny.” My first response to anyone who tells me that I’m the first trans person they’ve met is to say, “The first trans person that you know of.” Part of the reason coming out is a political act is it forces people to acknowledge the minorities living among them, minorities they may never have noticed before. But what if Obama had known she was trans? How might that have changed his policy priorities?
Well, how has Obama treated trans Americans thus far? Under his administration, it’s become easier for trans people to receive corrected passports, gender identity and sexuality has been added to the non-discrimination policies in federal housing, and the TSA has officially created policies around trans travelers. Most recently, Obama’s administration announced grants directed at providing healthcare for HIV-positive transgender women of color. That’s all pretty awesome. At the same time, the fight over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell completely left out trans people — it’s categorized as a a cause for medical discharge under the same guidelines that prevent pedophiles from serving. But, on the whole, I can find more pro-trans-rights policies that Obama has helped put in place than areas where he has fallen short.
I’ll be honest: that surprised me. I went into researching this piece expecting to find a ton of areas where Obama’s trans policies either sucked, or simply didn’t exist at all. Being trans has made me expect a fight when any issue around my rights is raised, made me expect that people are going to forget about the issues that impact me. (A mindset that I imagine a lot of minorities experience.) Likewise, Obama has done a lot to disappoint me since being elected — failing to push through a single payer option on healthcare, failing to close Guantanamo, failing to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), failing to stand up to Israel, failing to stand up to big banks, failing, failing, failing. I had high hopes for him, and he hasn’t always lived up to them. But, from all I can see, Obama hasn’t forgotten about my rights as a trans person.
Which isn’t to say he couldn’t do better: Military rights, continuing to reform the TSA (on so many fronts), pushing harder for marriage equality (which helps all LGBTQIAA, etc. people), pushing for inclusive non-discrimination law, and on and on. But, much to my surprise, Obama has done a bunch for trans rights.
Let’s hope he keeps up the good work.
Rebecca Kling is a Chicago-based transgender artist interested in exploring the performance of identity. She has performed her material around the Midwest where it has received praise from numerous publications including The Chicago Tribune and TimeOut Chicago. Rebecca regularly speaks at high schools and universities, conducting educational workshops on gender and identity. Rebecca’s writing has been published at Jezebel, in Chicago, Bodies of Work, the Center for Classic Theatre Review, and elsewhere. For upcoming performances and appearances, visit www.rebeccakling.com. For a behind-the-scenes look at her writing process, check out her blog at http://fridaythang.com/blog