Friday, July 30, 2010

Is Nikki Araguz The Trans Claudette Colvin?

After the initial flurry of media hype, activity, and initial court rulings being handed down last Friday, things seem to have settled down as both sides hunker down and prepare for the legal battle ahead.

But I've been dealing with the unsettling feeling over the last few days that I'm watching history replay itself.

Some of the things I've been concerned about over the last week is the revelations that Nikki appeared on the Jerry Springer Show in 1995, has admitted to not being forthcoming during her deposition in the custody case, and having details about a criminal conviction come out.

That's not the kind of stuff you want to hear as a member of a marginalized group when your ability to overturn an odious law rests on one particular individual.

The reason I'm apprehensive about these developments lies in me recalling the events in the African-American civil rights movement leading up to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

I'm firing up the DeLorean time machine and taking a trip back through history and time to March 2, 1955.

A young Montgomery, AL high school student named Claudette Colvin is still thinking about a paper she'd written earlier in the day while taking her bus trip home after her school day ended.

The subject of the school paper? It was about the prohibition for Black people to try on white clothes in local department stores.

She's sitting in the Black section of a rapidly filling bus when she and two other people are ordered by driver Robert W. Cleere to give up their seats to a white woman because there were none left in the white section of it.

The 15 year old Colvin refused to do so, and was arrested and forcibly dragged off the bus by two Montgomery police officers while yelling "It's my constitutional right!"

At the time then NAACP Montgomery chapter president Edgar D. Nixon was looking for a person they could use as a test case to break the back of the bus segregation law. After Colvin's father posted bail, community leaders vowed to help them with the case and began raising money on her behalf.

Colvin was also active in the NAACP's Youth Division and was advised by none other than Rosa Parks.

Then came the 'upon further review' moments. During their investigation on whether Colvin would be a suitable person for a test case, some concerns were expressed about Colvin's lower class background and living in the poorest neighborhood in Montgomery. The Montgomery police also accused Colvin of 'spewing curse words' during the arrest which she denied, saying that the obscenities were leveled at her.

Despite that, many local Black leaders wanted to push ahead with Colvin as the plaintiff in a case challenging the law they hoped they could litigate all the way to the Supreme Court.

While that debate was raging amongst Montgomery's Black leaders, Colvin became pregnant by a much older man. Fearful they would lose the support of sympathetic white allies, that the white dominated press and segregationist lawyers would use the pregnancy to undermine Colvin's status as the aggrieved party and the moral legitimacy of any subsequent bus boycott, the leaders decided to wait for a plaintiff with 'unimpeachable character' to base their future actions on.

Rosa Parks stated about that decision, "If the white press got ahold of that information, they would have had a field day. They'd call her a bad girl, and her case wouldn't have a chance. So the decision was made to wait until we had a plaintiff who was more upstanding before we went ahead and invested any more time, effort, and money."

Nine months later that 'upstanding plaintiff' ironically became Rosa Parks, and the rest is history.

Colvin was tried for violating the segregation laws and sentenced to probation. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told her he was "proud" of her; most people referred to her as "the girl in the bus thing."

But, and there is a but here, "She was not considered a good spokeswoman for the cause. She was a teenager. She was outspoken," author Phillip Hoose said.

"The NAACP was looking for an icon, and they thought I'd be militant," Colvin recalled in a New York Daily News interview decades later. "Then they got Angela Davis."

Colvin's courageous act wasn't in vain. On May 11, 1956 she and three other African-American women, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald and Mary Louise Smith testified in a federal lawsuit that became the Browder v. Gayle case.

The three-judge panel ruled on June 19, 1956 that Montgomery segregation codes "deny and deprive plaintiffs and other Negro citizens similarly situated of the equal protection of the laws and due process of law secured by the Fourteenth Amendment." The court essentially decided that the precedent of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case could be applied to Browder.

While attorneys decided not to include her in the case that eventually wound its way to the Supreme Court, her testimony in Browder v. Gayle resulted in the Court declaring bus desegregation unconstitutional in November 1956. The Supremes refused to hear an appeal of that decision one month later.

Now let's bring this discussion back to the 21st century.

Does the Araguz case have the potential to overturn Littleton? Maybe.

In any potentially precedent setting case, would we rather have a trans plaintiff with 'unimpeachable character', a relatively pristine record, post-surgical, documentation in order, and an attractive, media savvy one that people would see as a sympathetic figure in the case?

In a perfect world, yes. But the reality is we don't live in that perfect world, and we have to dance sometimes with the plaintiffs we get.

As trans people, we face a hostile world with people who don't always treat us with dignity and respect. Any one of us at any time could find ourselves in a situation that could potentially make us plaintiffs in a legal case.

That legal case depending on the circumstances, could also affect the lives of trans people in our state, around the country and potentially the world.

And sometimes a person you may not think is the perfect plaintiff may be the one that gives you the ruling that improves the lives for everyone in your marginalized group.

While there are some character issues the prosecution will try to exploit, the bottom line is that Nikki is the wronged party here.

One thing that does instill some confidence is that Nikki has on her side an attorney in Phyllis Frye well versed in the law and how it affects transpeople in this upcoming legal battle.

On the opposing side is a prosecuting attorney with a questionable history that's trying to rerun the Littleton v. Prange playbook.

But until that final ruling comes down, I'm still going to be along with many people in the trans community nervous about what transpires in that Wharton, TX courtroom.

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