Trans people are an historic part of the gay rights movement
‘T’ was not ‘tacked on’ to LGB. Trans people are an historic part of the gay rights movement
In April GCN published an opinion article by Deputy Editor Ciara McGrattan called LGBT Soup. In the article, McGrattan stated that the ever-expanding initials of LGBT were "getting out of hand" and we should return to "gay. Just gay". Shortly after it was published there was a strong, negative online reaction by those of us whose identities don't fit neatly into this category. In McGrattan's definition, you were out of the club if you were trans and only sometimes in the club if you were bisexual. This simplification of language was supposedly in the quest for accuracy. But what is accurate in the erasure of the contribution – and the very existence – of the most marginalised and invisible members of our communities?
Stonewall is commonly cited as the birth of the gay rights movement in the western world. The course of history was altered on this hot June night in New York City in 1969. It was State law that individuals should be arrested if they were wearing less than three items "appropriate" to their gender and this was often used by police to persecute and harass gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans people alike. But on this night, when the police raided the Stonewall Inn, the community fought back. The people on the front lines of the rebellion were drag queens, transvestites and transsexuals, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their LGB brethren.
As the gay rights movement became more mainstreamed, however, trans people were excluded. It was people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson, and later Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg who struggled for the rights and equality of everyone in the LGBT community. When McGrattan claimed in her article that the T was "tacked on" in the 1990s, she literally erased trans people and their historical contributions from the gay rights movement.
The inclusion of the T in LGBT stemmed from the need to honour the work of trans and gender-variant people who had been standing with their LGB brothers and sisters for decades. This is also true in Ireland where trans people have been integral members of the LGBT community since the very beginning. We challenged and advocated – together – for everyone’s rights. "Tacked on" is untrue and demeaning, both to us now, and to the trans activists who have gone before us.
Trans people should not have to defend their place under the LGBT umbrella. These communities have always provided a home to trans people and created an important space for exploration and actualisation. I came of age in a queer community in Toronto that embraced me with openness and inclusivity. I was able to navigate the rocky terrain of my sexuality and gender identity to finally settle on the label of queer trans man, which is a moniker that still feels right to me. I'm not sure I'd be here now if I hadn't found that space to belong, and I still consider myself part of that community.
McGrattan clearly makes the point that sexual orientation and gender identity are different. She's right. It is an important distinction that is sometimes lost when the T is added in a lazy and tokenistic way. Certainly there are some trans people who want nothing to do with the LGB community because they feel their issues and experiences are significantly different – and in many ways that's true. Trans people face heightened marginalisation and discrimination, lacking even the most basic legal recognition. Trans people also have particular needs in terms of accessing services like healthcare and employment that relate specifically to gender identity.
The reason that we use the initials of LGBT is not to suggest we are all the same. Neither do we use LGBT to simply define our sexual attraction or identity. Rather, it serves as a way to discuss equality and rights within and outside of our communities. We use it as a shorthand because we have recognised that we are stronger when we stand together, and that there is, and should be, a vital space for difference and nuance under the umbrella.
There are also practical reasons for the LGB to align itself with the T. Homophobia and transphobia are undeniably linked. When words like ‘sissy’, ‘queen’, ‘butch’ or ‘bulldyke’ are hurled like obscenities, it is more often a reflection of the ways in which a person is perceived to have transgressed gender norms than about who they are attracted to. This is particularly true in the schoolyard where ‘sissy’ boys and ‘tomboy’ girls suffer bullying and abuse because of their gender expression and not necessarily their sexual orientation. But these taunts and jeers grow with us, and many LGBT people are accused of not being ‘real’ men or women. Negative stereotypes about trans people and ignorance about gender identity and expression negatively impacts all of us.
McGrattan's proposal that we ditch the initials of LGBT because it is unwieldy reeks of privilege. Her issue with nomenclature is not just linguistic laziness, it is also damaging. It sends a clear message to young people struggling to define their sexual orientation and/or gender identity that, unless they fit a very narrow textbook definition of homosexual, they are not welcome in their own community and therefore have no place to belong. Her clubhouse approach only serves the people already inside, and sadly mirrors the exclusion and erasure that so many trans (and bisexual) people face on a daily basis.
If we are striving for rights and equality we must learn to honour our differences and celebrate them. The language we use to define ourselves and our communities is important. Language is also dynamic and there may well be new terms that are used that are less clumsy than the ever-expanding initials of LGBTIQ. However, it is imperative that whatever words emerge highlight our diversity and not seek to exclude it.