Joe Wenke, founder and publisher of Trans Über —a publishing company with a focus on promoting LGBTQI rights, free thought and equality for all people—will soon be heading up a Pride month panel on sexual orientation and gender identity. The panel, which will be held on June 5 at the San Francisco LGBT Center, will include transgender high fashion model Gisele Alicea (aka Gisele Xtravaganza); author Kevin Fisher-Paulson, who is captain of the Honor Guard for the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department; Wenke; and Hida Viloria, the chairperson of Organization Intersex International (OII).
These panelists are just some of the individuals who are featured in Wenke’s groundbreaking new book, “The Human Agenda: Conversations About Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.” The book is a collection of frank conversations about growing up, coming out, family, marriages, parenting, careers, finding one’s identity, and much more.
In the wide-ranging conversations, Wenke and his guests share their personal and professional stories along with explaining their profound commitment to freedom and equality. The book, he says, reveals that there is no gay agenda, no transsexual agenda, and no straight agenda; there is only the human agenda. Curious about what that might be, as well as what his goals are in terms of the forthcoming panel, we interviewed Wenke, who thoughtfully took time out of his schedule for us.
Note that in addition to serving as the founder and publisher of Trans Über, Wenke is also a well-known writer, social critic and LGBTQI activist. He writes for the Huffington Post and authored the following works before his latest release: The Talk Show (a novel), a collection of poems entitled “Free Air,” the book Papal Bull: An Ex-Catholic Calls Out the Catholic Church, You Got To Be Kidding! A Radical Satire of the Bible, and Mailer’s America.
San Francisco Bay Times: Is there a “human agenda” and, if so, what is it?
Joe Wenke: Yes, there is. Human beings all have the same goals. Let’s call those goals “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s what we all want. That’s what I mean by the human agenda.
I use the phrase as the title of my book to make an ironic commentary on the old hate speech phrase, “the homosexual agenda,” which was coined by anti-gay bigots in the early 1990s to communicate the idea that there is a vast homosexual conspiracy that is dedicated to undermining our fundamental cultural and religious values. The phrase, “the human agenda” is saying that there is no homosexual agenda. There is only the human agenda. On Twitter, I’ve been tweeting the statement that “the homosexual agenda is the human agenda: life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ve also been tweeting the complementary statement that “the transgender agenda is the human agenda: life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” I’ve made those two tweets the epigraphs of the book since they really get to the essence of what the book is about.
San Francisco Bay Times: How did you decide upon the format for your book, presenting numerous conversations with LGBTQI community leaders?
Joe Wenke: I’m very concerned that we are becoming increasingly polarized as a culture. I wanted to create a book that responds to this polarization by finding common ground in our shared humanity. I thought maybe the best way to do that is to simply have conversations with amazing people in the community. So I got together with a really diverse group of great people, and we all shared our goals, our dreams, our passions and experiences. In essence, we all told stories about ourselves. I think when you do that, you create the possibility for understanding and empathy, where perhaps previously there was little or no understanding or empathy.
My hope is that these stories might help to counteract the voices of ignorance and hate. Perhaps straight and cisgender readers with open minds and hearts who do not currently understand or embrace LGBTQI people will think to themselves, “You know, I’ve felt that way myself,” or, “Actually I see now that you have the same goals in life that I do.” In fact, I’m hoping that everyone who reads the book will experience similar epiphanies.
San Francisco Bay Times: Thinking of your upcoming Pride month panel in San Francisco, what do you believe are the greatest misconceptions about the differences between sexual orientation and gender identity, and how do you hope that the event will help to better educate people about those differences?
Joe Wenke: People tend to confuse sexual orientation and gender identity when they are quite distinct elements of human identity. Sexual orientation refers to who we are attracted to sexually, emotionally, romantically. Gender identity refers to how we experience and communicate gender. What’s interesting and problematic, though, is that we tend to view both sexual orientation and gender identity in binary terms, i.e., we think that most people are either straight or gay and that some are bisexual, and we think that everyone fits neatly into a male or female bucket.
In fact, both sexual orientation and gender identity exist on a spectrum. Many people are beginning to realize that there are lots of different variations on sexual orientation. For example, I’m primarily attracted to transgender women and identify as androgynous, so what do we call my sexual orientation? It’s not straight, gay or bisexual. So what is it?
Also, some people are experiencing the fact that sexual orientation is not fixed. It can evolve over one’s lifetime. With respect to gender identity, most people still think that your gender is fixed and assigned at birth and that if you have a penis, you’re a boy, and if you have a vagina, you’re a girl, and that it’s just that simple. However, that view doesn’t fit the facts. There are, in fact, many different ways that people experience and communicate gender. Indeed, there are people whose gender identity is different from their biological gender. We call these people transgender. Others may identify as gender fluid or gender neutral. These people exist, and we need to recognize the authenticity of their gender identities. My goal is for our event to open up conversations about these issues.
San Francisco Bay Times: Please share a few words about the participants on your panel, and why you selected them for inclusion both on the panel and in your book.
Joe Wenke: The Human Agenda brings together a really diverse group of LGBTQI people, and the panel reflects that diversity. Gisele Alicea is one of the very few transgender women who has had a long and successful career as a high fashion model. Hida Viloria is an intersex activist, and Kevin Fisher-Paulson is a writer and an activist on the issue of LGBTQI foster parenting and adoption rights. The four of us are in a great position to discuss a very broad range of issues that face our community and perhaps try to assess where we currently stand in the struggle for freedom and equality.
San Francisco Bay Times: Your own background is fascinating, given that you grew up with 10 siblings in a strict Catholic family. How did that upbringing influence your work today, and who have been some of your mentors?
Joe Wenke: Well, I felt from a very early age that I did not fit into that culture and that set of beliefs, and I’ve always gone my own way. I think that attitude influences all of the work that I do. I think one of the most radical things any of us can do is to simply stand up and be ourselves every single day. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I would add that I do think that my upbringing fostered in me a very strong sense of personal responsibility. I certainly try to reflect that sense of personal responsibility in all of the work that I do.
As far as mentors are concerned, I think in terms of other writers and thinkers. They include Thomas Paine and Christopher Hitchens, who stood up against religious bigotry and superstition, and Norman Mailer, who understood the importance of risk taking.
San Francisco Bay Times: The LGBT community, like everything else, continues to evolve and change. What do you think are some of the greatest challenges that we face today, and how should we direct our efforts to enact positive change?
Joe Wenke: We’ve made a lot of progress on marriage equality largely because of all of the brave people who have come out as LGBTQI. As a result, many people now have sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors or colleagues who are gay or lesbian. It is much more difficult to objectify someone you know and say, for example, “You don’t have the right to marry the person you love.”
So there is as a growing tolerance toward gay people in particular, and there is increased legal protection in some parts of the country for people in our community. But we are not yet at a place of broad-based acceptance. Of course, acceptance is not enough. Acceptance is implicitly condescending, suggesting that people of privilege are deigning to accept those who lack privilege. The real goal is equality, and ultimately celebration of the beauty and diversity of our shared humanity.
I think we all need to stand up every single day, each in our own way, and demand equality. We need to continually assert, for example, that it is just as authentic and “natural” to be gay as it is to be straight, and that it is just as authentic and “natural” to be transgender as it is to be cisgender.
We need to stand up and celebrate diversity in our own lives. We need to advocate every day for a world in which everyone is safe and everyone is free to be themselves.
“The Human Agenda” panel is open and free to the public. It will be conducted in the San Francisco LGBT Center’s Ceremonial Room at 1800 Market Street. Books will be available for sale and signing. For more information, please contact Felipe Flores at the center at 415-865-5627.