Note: This post was originally run on The Bilerico Project in 2011. Now is as good a time as any to reflect on if things have changed since then.
Several years ago, I wrote an article entitled “GL versus BT: The Archaeology of Biphobia and Transphobia Within the U.S. Gay and Lesbian Community” for the Journal of Bisexuality‘s special 2003 issue called InterSEXions Of The Others. I was pleased to receive a call from the Journal noting that the article was one of the top downloads cited from their site, and requesting a reflective paper on how subsequent events have impacted the issues I discussed.
The original paper made the point that heterosexism against bisexuals and transgenders exists not only in the straight community but in the gay and lesbian community as well. Are ‘biphobia’ and ‘transphobia’ examples of ‘phobias’–irrational fears? No, such heterosexist attitudes are all too rational, mirroring social tensions, which only appear to be an ahistorical psychological phenomenon. Rather, as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (GLBT) community developed, power relations arose which resulted in the four different groups (G/L/B/T), assigning them different social locations. Prejudice in gay and lesbian communities against bisexuals and transgenders is heterosexism because it is, among other things, an accommodationist attempt to discover these more ‘radical’ forms of sexuality.
This idea that the issue is one of power relations stands in contrast to other popular beliefs about the divide between gays and lesbians, on the one hand, and bisexuals and transgenders on the other, such as the idea that it is related to phobias, insufficient education, elitism, a smaller number of bisexual and transgender people, or that bisexual and transgender people are insufficiently politically active.
My new paper reflects on developments since 2003, making the point that it is still true, though to a lesser extent, that bisexual and transgender people are, on the one hand, considered far too queer by some gay political elites, whereas others are considered not queer enough. You could call it “the Goldilocks problem.” Only a very few of our LGBT community are “just right.” We’re not all DINKS or the right race or gender or age or class to be put on a poster for gay rights, though those overflowing with money to contribute often are and want to see themselves reflected in the movement they’re giving money to. How do you run a movement when your marketing scheme conflicts with the product?
I see these problems as political, as power relations, and as a reluctance of gay elites to share with bisexuals and transgenders and queers the hard-won victories that had been achieved by gay efforts and gay money (despite the mythology of a Stonewall Rebellion run largely by drag queens and transsexuals). The word homonormative springs to mind.
I cite, as evidence for this, the ENDA debacles of 2007 and 2009, and the concentration on Don’t Ask Don’t repeal, which used an intentional strategy of leaving out transgender service members altogether. A social justice movement cannot be founded on social injustice and expect to survive. This is particularly ironic in light of the constant attempts to associate the gay rights struggle with the Black Civil Rights Movement. Some gay elites have had no problem glomming onto other movements, without concerns as to the important historical differences, such as the fact that gays were not enslaved for more than 250 years, nor subjected to legal and social racism and violence to the extreme degree faced by African Americans.
At the same time, incrementalism is decried in relation to marriage equality (no civil unions!) and bullying bills (as in the recent Michigan bill). And yet, there seems not be a similar distaste among gay elites when it comes to leaving gender identity out of civil rights protections or lopping off “public accommodations” protections from gender identity bills.
True, there is an analogy to be made among civil rights movements, but it is an analogy that has severe limitations. Some have gone so far as to criticize President Obama for not doing more for gay rights based on the idea that, as a Black man, he has a higher standard than other politicians. He’s been called upon to #evolvealready with regard to marriage equality, but his unequalled political support for our community, including trans people for the first time in history, and his many accomplishments for us go unremarked. This shows a distressing inconsistency in the gay rights movement, with some retaining gay-only organizations or being satisfied with LGB(fakeT) organizations, and yet decrying those in the Black civil rights movement who are not rushing to embrace the gay civil rights movement, even as people of color are still largely residentially, educationally and economically segregated. There is a difference between alliance and appropriation.
Are all of our justice movements shot through with hegemonist dreams?
If we fail to understand our community tensions as power relations, believing them instead to simply be the result of insufficient education, elitism, or phobias, then we will find ourselves unable to solve the puzzle of our continued fractionation and less-than-optimal political effectiveness.
Although many voices have been raised to point up these problems, the LGBT movement as a whole has yet to discover this in any meaningful way. I applaud those organizations and gay people who have discovered these issues and moved to address them. It is my hope that our LGBT civil rights movement will be able to put these problems in the past by recognizing the power relations at work, and using this understanding to create a genuinely universalizing movement, rather than a minoritizing movement.