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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What's in an Acronym?

Last weekend, I had the honor of attending Lavender Law, the annual conference of the National LGBT Bar Association. I gave a few talks and chaired a wonderful panel on cyberbullying and the First Amendment, but, as with many conferences, it was the individual and informal conversations with colleagues that were particularly rewarding.

On Friday, I met Mason Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, California, and asked him how he responds to members of the gay and lesbian community who feel that they face different issues than members of the transgendered community and that gay and lesbian interest groups should not be diverted to transgender issues when gay causes are so in need. They wonder why the L and the G should always be linked with the T.

The question might seem strange or even hateful, but it exists as a undercurrent in many minority groups. All groups fighting for their civil rights do so with allies, or, at a minimum, with different generations or different subgroups. But, not every group wants or needs the same things. Not everyone's direct personal interests are always aligned and, in fact, those interests could be so misaligned that affiliation could, some think, be a bad idea. It is not often openly discussed, but many gay men have approached me wondering why our leaders' time is spent on issues like health insurance for gender reassignment surgery, for example, or our lobbyists would oppose clearly pro-gay legislation if it did not include pro-transgender elements.

I do not write on or research transgender issues. Nor do I know any transgendered persons, and I regret that. I am concerned that my views on these issues may be colored by the uniformity of my social and professional circles. Therefore, I have always stayed on the sidelines of these debates, unsure of where I stand until I could understand transgendered persons' needs better. But it always struck me as very selfish to think that just because a gay person's personal interests are not the same as a transgendered person's, that means that should not be allies in the search for civil rights. After all, gay men and lesbians are not always concerned with the same issues. In the 1980s and early 1990s, HIV/AIDS was almost exclusively a gay male concern, not a lesbian one.

I asked Mr. Davis if he hears these objections and how he responds.

He said he hears it all the time, but in his experience, it's not selfishness. Some gay strategists find gay people more relateable to the average American voter, so inclusion of transgender issues makes a successful gay rights strategy more difficult. Other gay donors are concerned about this or that issue and would prefer that their money be used for their area of concern. But, while our goals are not always the same, Mr. Mason says that we are all part of the same project: we are all trying to be who we really are unencumbered by discrimination, but some of us need a little more help to be who we really are.

Gays and lesbians can be who they really are by coming out of the closet, by being out at home and in the workplace and by marrying their partners and starting families. They are concerned with tearing down barriers that stand in their way: Don't Ask, Don't Tell, employment discrimination, same-sex marriage bans, second-parent adoption bans, and so on. But, transgendered individuals need a little bit more to become who they really are. They have unique medical hurdles to cross in order to get there, but Mr. Mason believes that L's, G's and T's are all searching for the same thing. We all want a country where nothing stands in the way of our true self.

I have yet to field test this argument on some of my gay friends. What do you think?

Posted by Ari Ezra Waldman on September 13, 2011 at 08:28 PM in Culture, Gender | Permalink


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"For me, the first issue is clearcut: I am a passionate, vocal supporter of gay rights. I feel deep ambivalence, however, about the second issue, which seems to be a form of mental disorder." Ditto. If you have a male body, normal levels of male hormones, etc., on what basis do you claim to really be a "woman?"

Posted by: Anon71 | Sep 14, 2011 9:59:54 PM

How could the mere suggestion that transgender issues are different be seen as "hateful?"

Posted by: reader | Sep 14, 2011 5:52:14 PM

The gay (lesbian to a certain extent as well, but predominately gay) community has pulled something of a bait and switch on its allies. When it was at the bottom of the social scale we heard a lot about social revolutions, queer theory, activism and coalitions. Now that it looks like there is a chance for gay couples to be acceptable, sometimes even privileged, members of bourgeoisie society all of a sudden they are joining country clubs, voting Republican and not returning any of their old friends' phone calls.

Posted by: OldSchool | Sep 14, 2011 4:35:02 PM

I cannot provide a personal perspective, but I would like to link to the recent words of a transgendered friend, who is also deputy director of diversity at the Human Rights Campaign:


I like to think I have a pretty strong stomach, but reading Dr. Keith Ablow’s response to the upcoming appearance of Chaz Bono on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars literally sickened me. It took me back to the early days of my own gender transition, and to a particular moment when all the shame, fear and uncertainty of hiding my true self finally became more than I could bear and I realized I needed help.

I was a seminary student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas at the time, though my family and I lived about half an hour away in a home provided to us by the church I served as pastor. Each day I would get in my car for the drive to school and begin weeping before I’d gotten out of the driveway. I’d done all I knew to live my life in the way I imagined God intended for me, as a man. I’d prayed countless hours, attended Bible studies on “Godly manhood,” memorized lengthy passages of Scripture and even sought an exorcism to have what I thought were demons cast out of me. Yet nothing had changed. In fact, things only got harder as time went on. It was painful and frustrating and it grew to challenge everything I believed.

Then one day, as I drove down a long, straight stretch of Interstate 35 to class in bitter tears, a thought entered my mind I’d never had before. I thought of a farm road that passed over the interstate a couple of miles ahead, and of the heavy concrete abutments that supported the bridge. I thought of how much speed I would be able to pick up before hitting those abutments if I pressed the gas pedal to the floor right now, and of how in just a moment my suffering could be ended. I thought of how I could save my family the shame I was sure they’d feel if they knew the truth about me.

[continued at the link above]

Posted by: Amanda | Sep 14, 2011 10:28:35 AM

that is a most interesting and authentic reaction. Thanks for sharing that.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 14, 2011 9:39:54 AM

I see gay and trans issues as distinct. The fight for gay, lesbian, and bisexual equality is largely concerned with the principle that same-sex and opposite-sex relationships (whether sexual or romantic) are morally equivalent and should be legally equivalent. This is distinct from the question of legal rights surrounding transition: whether someone who is male-bodied but believes themselves to have a female identity (or vice versa) should have the legal/physical ability to transition to the gender they believe themselves to be.

For me, the first issue is clearcut: I am a passionate, vocal supporter of gay rights. I feel deep ambivalence, however, about the second issue, which seems to be a form of mental disorder. I know this is deemed offensive, but the reality of "transgender" is people who are so uncomfortable with their physical bodies that they profess a need to swallow/inject hormones and/or to remove/greatly alter their external genitalia. I am a woman who has dated men and women -- and I don't see myself as having anything in common with, or belonging to a "community" that includes, people who need to mutilate their bodies in this manner in order to feel comfortable with them.

Most of all, my discomfort with transgender identity is along the MTF spectrum. I am deeply uncomfortable with, and offended by, the postmodern concept of male-bodied people, socialized as men, insisting that they are women because they "feel" they are. They will never have to deal with the discomfort/pain of menstruation, will never fear pregnancy when sexually active each time their periods are late. They were not socialized as girls/women, with the many disadvantages of sexism, comparative physical weakness, underrepresentation, and discrimination that we face. Before their choice to transition physically, they will generally not have known the fears of sexual harassment and assault that we women live with without choice; they will not have had their reproductive agency constantly under political assault. What they have is a "feeling" that they are female, and they insist that that "feeling" is equivalent to the REALITY of being a woman. That is not a concept that I will ever be willing to endorse.

Although I strongly disagree that a male-bodied/male-socialized person can ever be a woman, I also believe that each person has the right to live freely as they choose, so long as they do not harm others. Thus, if transgender people can self-fund the hormones and surgeries they desire, they certainly should live as they choose. But I do not believe that our GLB battle for civil rights is related to their mental or medical issues, and I have grave reservations about "transgender identity." I have distanced myself from funding LGBT organizations because I have no personal desire to fund causes like "health insurance for GRS," and I am greatly fatigued by the tired rhetoric about drag queens at Stonewall.

Posted by: GLB | Sep 14, 2011 1:47:16 AM

Interestingly, my university -- the University of Melbourne -- uses the acronym "LGBTI," the "I" standing for intersex.

Posted by: Kevin Heller | Sep 14, 2011 12:57:20 AM

As a gay man, it is my opinion that gay rights INCLUDE transgender and queer rights, why should we exclude our brothers and sisters simply because it don't fit into some rich gays perspective of what we should be fighting for? The battle for LGBTQ rights is being pushed as the "Last big civil rights battle", so why, if it is going to be pushed like that, should we not include some of the very people in our community that helped to start the equality movement an the Stonewall Inn in the first place?!
Equality for the L's and the G's without the T's and the Q's is only half a victory. If not now, with our entire community, then when will it happen for the one's deemed "unfit" by the Gay powers-that-be? The answer: if not together, then never.

Posted by: SailorHitch | Sep 14, 2011 12:30:42 AM

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