Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

On Thursday 10th September 2015, Katie Glover (who is transgender) wrote an article for the Independent titled ‘Why it’s Time to take the ‘T’ out of LGBT’. I think that this article is misguided and unhelpful for different aspects of queer communities, and I will spell out why.

The article starts with discussion of the idea that people can get confused by LGBT, due to confusion and conflation between sexuality and gender identity (one simple, but useful one liner I’ve heard to explain this is “sexuality is who you go to bed with, gender identity is who you go to bed as” – later in the article, Glover misquotes this idea). This is a point dealt with by education, as the association between gender identity and sexuality has been around a lot longer than any kind of LGBT movement has. That association is in part because of how labels like ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are understood with reference to an individuals gender, so as to understand whether they’re attracted to ‘the same or the opposite sex’ (imperfect though such language is). The article claims “being transgender is at the very least heavily associated with sexual orientation, when in fact it stands completely in isolation” – which is patently untrue. For example, if you are assigned male at birth, and you’re attracted to men, and are read socially as male, then you are going to be considered a gay or bisexual or otherwise non-straight man if you give off any social cues of involvement with a man. Even if you identify as a woman. If you are read socially as a woman, then you become read as heterosexual. Indeed, how an individual defines their sexuality may change with a gender transition even if who they’re actually attracted to does not. Also, to consider things historically, sexuality and gender identity were originally conflated under the idea of ‘inversion’, or a ‘woman’s soul in a man’s body’ as an explanation for same gender attraction – yet this narrative is now far more associated with trans.

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Glover moves to discuss how Caitlyn Jenner used to believe that marriage was defined as between one man and one woman, and suggests that because ‘gay issues aren’t trans’ people’s turf’ they won’t necessarily be supportive. I would argue that the vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights (Glover keeps saying ‘gay marriage’, and even says “gay people… make up three quarters of the LGBT title”, such bisexual erasure is astonishing). The reason why is because trans people often have a first hand understanding of what it feels like to not be accepted, and face stigma and discrimination in various ways. There is a sense of empathy there, together with powerful historical context where the progress of LGB acceptance has moved faster than for transgender. This is ironic given the huge support that LGB folk have had from trans people. The Stonewall Riots are the best example of this, and have been much discussed given the critical response the upcoming film has received for its erasure of transgender women of colour. Reactions like Ellen’s – surprise that Caitlyn wouldn’t have a stronger voice supporting other marginalised people, given her relative privilege and platform – are to be encouraged.

Glover demonstrates a lack of nuanced understanding of queer politics or history in suggesting that the fracturing of the LGBT moniker is progress. The term obviously covers a very wide range of people, with views that can often directly contradict, and with wildly different views about how things ‘should’ be. It’s worth noting that being something, such as gay, bisexual, or trans – certainly does make you the authority on your own experience. It doesn’t make you an authority on the community. That tends to come with many years of work, involvement, reading, and listening. The vast majority of the time that comes from someone directly within a given demographic, but not necessarily. I know there are certainly straight trans people, indeed, trans academics, who have far more nuanced understandings of gay rights than the majority of gay people. Further, Glover makes the unsubstantiated claim that “In fact, it’s been estimated that the number of trans people who are gay is only about the same as in the wider population.” As an academic of gender and sexuality, getting numbers on this stuff is very difficult, and estimates can vary widely. However from my own fieldwork as well as the discussions from dozens of articles on transgender, it seems to me that flexibility and fluidity with sexuality amongst trans people is considerably more common than in the wider population (I can’t be sure that all references are accessible to everyone, but some material can be found here, here, here, and here). The potential reasons for this are beyond this article, though also we have to ask – does this even matter? If there were few non-straight trans people, would trans ignorance or ambivalence on issues of sexuality (which in reality is far less common than ignorance or ambivalence on trans issues from LGB people) not be something we should aim to challenge and rectify? As for all?

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In articulating that LGB and T might be getting “too close for comfort”, Glover reveals one of the most problematic and damaging things within LGBTQ community – that is, ignorance and distaste from some for those different from themselves, when we might otherwise be brought together over a sense of solidarity in seeking respect and equality. Some of the greatest successes of LGBTQ liberation have been due to cooperation – for example, whilst not decimated in anything like the same way, lesbian activists of the 1980s shouldered an enormous amount of the struggle in fighting for the HIV/AIDS crisis experienced by non-straight men to be taken seriously. And of course, how trans activists at Stonewall put LGB rights on the map.

We do find people who exist within LGBT who exhibit a self-interested, tribalist approach. Those gay men with zero interest in misogyny, racism, ableism or transphobia spring to mind with a wince, because they’re not affected.  Small minded identity politics which try to scrape acceptance by distancing from any other marginalised groups, in effect trying to get a ticket to ‘mainstream’ society by propping up a status quo which tells everyone that being straight is ‘normal’. Being white is ‘normal’. Being cis is ‘normal’ – positioning everyone who isn’t, as not quite as good. None of this provides a compelling reason for distancing LGB from T, but gives good reason for there to be more dialogue within LGBTQ about our different issues in order to improve society for all.

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Comments on: "A Response to the Idea ‘It’s Time to Take the T out of LGBT’" (5)

  1. I think there is more than a hint of homophobia in Glover’s article which signally fails to explain why having the T with the LGB is actually such a problem…

    In effect Glover seems happy to suggest that it would be perfectly acceptable for a trans person to not support gay rights… let’s be clear: it’s not acceptable from anyone.

    • Sissi Northqueen said:

      Hiummm Bonjour! Le sectarisme va aussi dans l’autre sens! J’ai (en tant que trav) eu assez d’expérience négatives en milieu gay (mépris, indifférence) mais pas toujours donc il faut se garder de généraliser. Nous vivons dans une société dogmatique qui se doit d’étiqueter personnes et modes de conduite…

  2. 1. I would like to suggest that you change “pass socially as a woman” in the second paragraph to “are read socially as a woman” (or female, depending on preference. As an aside, I’m intrigued as to whether you consider there to be a distinction between man/male and woman/female?)

    2. I know you have said previously that the use of “trans” or “transgender” on its own (without “people”, “community” etc is legitimate, but it still sounds rather clunky, and as a trans person quite active in parts of the community I can confirm that it does not have widespread use at all. This is just my opinion of course, but I think it would be helpful to explain at some point how it should be used and in what contexts, because hopefully the intention of your blog is to reach out to a non-academic audience.

    3. To be fair, there is an increasing trend within LGBT+ spaces to use “gay” as an umbrella term for all non-straight sexualities (partly a backlash against the dominance of cis gay males in supposedly LGBT+ spaces), but I agree with you that it’s confusing, and when used in reference to the “community”, contributes to a culture of bisexual erasure.

    4. I would be wary about the idea that the “vast majority of transgender people are supportive of sexuality minority rights”. Personally, I know a LOT of straight trans men who are blatantly homophobic (ok, if asked outright, they may claim to be supportive, but their words and actions suggest otherwise. I’m not sure if your point was intended to be as nuanced as “trans people support rights for sexual minorities both idealogically and in practice” but thought it worth bringing up nonetheless). Overall, it seems to me that there are a number of people who are trans by definition, but choose not to identify with the term and deliberately distance themselves from LGB/T spaces and communities, and so it’s easy to miss them in surveys (formal or informal) as they will not identify themselves as anything other than straight and cis. Which is up to them, of course, but I don’t necessarily think there’s as much empathy among trans people as you suggest. That said, I agree that ignorance or hostility towards trans people from the LGB community is a far more pernicious issue.

    The points above (which are mainly little niggles that occurred to me in the process of reading your article) aside, I broadly agree with your scepticism over this article, and indeed over the idea of LGB/T separatism in general. The article itself suffers from a very narrow, simplified and biased viewpoint and on that merit alone, should be taken with a pinch of salt, as it were.

    To address the concept of LGB/T separatism itself, my thoughts are that it would hurt a lot more people than it would help, if it was to occur (which, to be fair, I don’t think will be happening any time soon, at least not on a community-wide scale). There is simply too much overlap between the experiences of LGB and T people; not to mention the literal overlap in that a not-insignificant number of trans people are not straight. I can only speak for myself here, but I know that if spaces were explicitly labelled as “LGB only” when I identified as trans and gay, I would not have felt remotely welcome. Now I identify as trans and asexual, which brings up its own problems, but there are scores of trans LGB(Q) people who deserve a space in which to feel welcome. And I cannot even conceive of a world in which separating LGB and T people/issues fosters education and acceptance of trans people in the LGB community. When I lived as a gay trans man, I experienced tremendous transphobia from the cis gay community in my city, and I was explicitly barred from a support group for LGB people organised by my university’s counselling service. Even now, some years into transition, I encounter the most resistance and transphobia (direct or indirect) from cis gay people (and I know of trans men who formerly identified as lesbians who have faced similar issues from their lesbian communities).

    I think there is an argument to be made for including trans specific spaces in addition to LGBT+ spaces. Obviously I am speaking as a binary-passing trans man who is rarely read as trans and has mostly completed transition, so could live without trans specific spaces if necessary, but I know people who are routinely read as trans and/or are non-binary and/or are AMAB, who avoid spaces where LGB people will be in a significant majority and definitely need access to trans-friendly spaces, which LGBT+ spaces are often not. But that is not the fault of us as trans people, and we should not be forced out of those spaces (which I fear many LGB cis people would be more than happy to do: again, I speak only from personal experience, but I and others have experienced this ousting first-hand). LGB people (any demographic or combination of demographics thereof) are also welcome to create their own spaces as well, but I think there is a real danger of those spaces becoming trans-exclusionary (or worse, misgendering trans people by demanding they are categorised by birth-assigned sex, not identification).

    I do apologise for the rather long reply, and I freely acknowledge that it is strongly coloured by my own experiences: I think there are people from all demographics or intersections of demographics, in particular non-binary and/or AMAB people, whose input in this debate would be very useful. I hope this response doesn’t come across as an attempt to speak over or for demographics of which I am not a part. To summarise, I think education, rather than separatism, is the way to challenge cis people’s perspective on gender/sexuality conflation. The community exists for us, not as a series of convenient cubby-holes to help people understand us in terms of neat, non-overlapping labels.

    • Hi JL, thank you for your extended engagement! I have made the amendment in the second paragraph, in part because I had used ‘read socially’ only one sentence before! Bringing up all the sometimes problematic sometimes very important discussion surrounding the notion of ‘passing’ wasn’t my intention here.

      To answer your question, I don’t assume there to be a clear and consistent difference between man/male and woman/female. Sometimes within a given context a person might give specific definitions where they demarcate their usage of man/male or woman/female, for reasons they hopefully explain. I’m fine with that as it may help make a useful point,

      The use of trans/transgender on its own was something new to me on entering academia, so I think it’s a turn of phrase I’ve picked up from reading/writing in some of those contexts. If you are referring to the end of the second paragraph where I say “this narrative is now far more associated with trans” was to indicate association with transgender experiences/stories rather than with sexuality. In this context ‘with trans people’ would definitely have worked just as well if not better. You make a good point about reaching out beyond an academic audience. Working on my writing will never stop!

      It’s interesting that it’s particularly straight trans men that you know who articulate problematic views regarding minority sexualities. It is fair to say I may be biased by my own experiences of queer and trans communities which have been very accepting, but also with regards to the literature that exists where sexuality is discussed with trans people my overall impression is results are very positive there as well. Your point about such work struggling to access less supportive, heteronormative trans people is important however, emphasising the importance of not being complacent in assuming all trans people are paragons of progressiveness.

      I agree that the arguments for trans specific spaces (and indeed others, such as bi, asexual, non-binary) have merit. They can provide spaces that may be more appealing to individuals who are anxious of feeling unwelcome at more broad-sweep gatherings. There’s also the possibility of such groups providing ‘gateways’, say a non-binary person going to a non-binary group, getting on with some people, and feeling more confident to go to a trans or LGBTQ thing in the future. Indeed, I’ve heard exactly that described before. It’s a question of power – and I think it’s fair to say that LGB people do not need or benefit from trans exclusion in any way, and it is unjustifiable.

      The arguments for trans exclusive spaces can be a bit trickier I think. Simply because then attendance forces an individual to out themselves on some level, even to the group members or organiser, which can be a huge deal for some. It risks preventing tentative attendance of what could be a very important source of support for some of the most vulnerable who might not be ready to implicitly or explicitly be known to anyone as trans. This can be a polarising issue and I certainly wouldn’t generalise an answer as the particulars of a context are very important.

  3. Reblogged this on Fairy JerBear's Queer/Trans Musings From The City Different – Santa Fe, NM and commented:
    I know this story, (the push to take the “T” out of LGBT), is several months old but I just discovered this blogger and found this post particularly compelling,

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