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.
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?
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.