I have a foot in two worlds, and this gives me unique insight into the connections and crossovers between the experiences of the trans and LGB communities, which I wanted to reflect on in this blog.
We don’t fully know what makes people gay or trans, but the science is suggestive that both could be manifestations of hormonal fluctuations while we’re “cooking” in utero – so I have come to think of gay and trans people as cakes and cookies – lots of the same ingredients, some different. I tend to think we have more in common than not, and that we are stronger together as an inclusive queer community.
I have been trying to get my head round the odd estrangement between gay and trans communities ever since a “friend” of mine linked to an article about why there should be no “T” in “LGB(T)”. I refuse to give the article an audience, but the nub of it was that gay rights will advance more quickly if trans people are excluded. The outrageous honesty of the piece declared what a lot of trans people and gender variant gay people already know – in the struggle for acceptance and assimilation, some gender conforming gay folks are distancing themselves not only from the trans* community but also from butch lesbians and feminine gay men.
It is time to speak about the equivalences in the gay and trans struggles. I know that comparisons between rights movements can often be clumsy, and I know that games of “Oppression Olympics” are tiresome, but in this case there is so much connection and crossover between the two communities it is absurd and false to separate them. We are stronger together, that ought to be self evident, but there’s something more at stake here; when we distance ourselves from people based on their differences, we soon end up with a community that stifles variation.
The wrong “choice”
Being gay has been described as a “lifestyle choice” rather than something a person just is. The inference is not only do gay people choose to be gay in some sort of whimsical fashion, but also that not being gay is a preferable choice. Being trans is equally seen as a choice, and the wrong choice to make. Yet all the evidence shows that it is impossible to change your sexuality or gender identity at will.
“My definitions are based on the fact of human reproduction”
Homophobes define sex in terms of human reproduction. The implication for gay people is that their lovemaking falls outside of the terms set to describe what sex is for, and can then be trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised. Equally trans identities are trivialised, fetishised, degraded and marginalised when we make the completely arbitrary assumption that the categorisation of human beings should be strictly in terms of reproductive organs or chromosomes.
There is no test for being gay or trans, and no apparent genetic difference. We have biological hints and clues in a process known as epigenesis. We see behaviour reminiscent of both gay and trans experience in the animal kingdom, but we cannot prove or disprove being gay or trans, nor can we simplistically extrapolate findings in nature to our more socially complex existence. Self-identification is the only option. We have mostly come to accept the self-identification of gay people, now we need to offer the same dignity to trans people.
“It’s a modern invention”
There is a belief in some cultures that homosexuality was invented in the modern west, a symbol of its decadence and corruption. Of course, we know that homosexuality has occurred in different social forms and with different meanings throughout history, and we also understand that homophobia may well be the result of colonialism in many countries who now cling to it. Equally, being trans did not originate with western culture and medicine. It takes many forms and meanings throughout history and culture and appears in many religions. Even surgical alteration has manifested in history, and while modern medicine provides new choices, it was the pre-existing trans community that asked for these options, not a medical profession diagnosing and enforcing them.
“If we allow it, everyone will do it”
You can’t “turn” someone gay. You can’t “turn” someone trans. Acceptance may bring more people out of the closet, but it will not change people’s orientation.
“I hate the word cisgender”
Heterosexual people resisted the introduction of a word that describes them impartially in relation to gay people. They prefer to use words like “normal” “natural” or “straight” (the opposite of their own chosen terms for gay people; queer, bent, abnormal, unnatural). Likewise cisgender (non-trans) people are resisting this neutral word, preferring terms like real, natural, or biological (even if being trans is entirely likely to be natural and biological in origin). Hopefully, we all know that people exist on a continuum, and that gay/straight, trans/cis should not be seen in terms of simplistic dichotomies.
“It’s a sickness – treat their mental health!”
It is established, and written into the guidelines of most psychological and counselling bodies, that reparative therapy does not work for either gay or trans people, and that neither is a sign of mental illness. It is now understood that the increased mental illness found in gay and trans populations is as a result of marginalisation and oppression. The bestowing of rights and social support decreases the incidence of mental health issues.
“You’re just confused”
Being trans and being gay are constantly confused with one another – if a man acts “effeminate” or a woman is “masculine”, it is assumed to be related to their sexuality rather than their gender. In countries like Iran, transitioning is seen as a culturally acceptable way to “deal with” being gay, but in most western cultures being gay is more socially acceptable than being trans. The confusion lies in the fact that there is a clear crossover between the two populations; nonetheless they are separate things, and trans people are not confused gay people any more than gay people are confused trans people.
The interrelatedness of these two experiences and the prevalence of gender variance within the LGB community means it is essential for LGB people to be the most passionate allies to the trans community, and vice versa. In the words of Audre Lorde:
“There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”