Ed. note: This essay was also run on The Bilerico Project. You can check out the essay over there to see the spirited and contentious discussion it sparked.
I spend a great deal of time on the internet. In fact, much of my work, in its many forms, happens through the medium of the web. There is a question that I have seen raised frequently online in various forums and blogs over the last few years that needs to be addressed. It is a question that can be framed with varying degrees of obfuscation, but I think I prefer the direct route taken by a poster in the /r/LGBT subreddit on Reddit.com (careful it’ll suck your productivity away), whose openness in fairness, is mitigated by the fact that they used a throwaway account which they have since deleted.
On Oct. 27th the question was asked:
“Is it wrong to not support the “t”? (sic)
It is tempting to assume that this poster was “trolling” (asking a question calculated to upset, for the purpose of being an irritant) the LGBT subreddit, but based on the dialog that followed and the fact that I have seen some variation of this question appear in one form or another with some regularity at least since the fight over trans inclusion in ENDA, I am inclined to treat it as genuine.
I’m not going to recount the entire thread, and unfortunately since they deleted their account, it is now impossible to see it in its full context, but I will say that they seemed to genuinely be seeking to understand why trans people and trans issues should matter to LGB people, as well as seeking some general understanding of trans experience.
To be honest, for many of us in the LGBT community, this question is seems frankly stupid. Supporting each other in both our shared and different struggles just feels like the right thing to do. But the fact is that there are those among us who need to be told why. So with that in mind, I give you five concrete arguments in favor of non-trans members of the LGB community supporting the experience and rights of trans people:
- Trans legal rights provide invaluable protections for many LGB people too. Unless she is actively having lesbian sex at work, when a butch lesbian looses her job for “acting too much like a lesbian” her employer quite likely means not dressing/behaving in a typically “feminine” manner, an issue that is far more about gender presentation discrimination than that of sexual orientation. States that protect gay and lesbian employment, but not gender identity/presentation rights, may not provide any recourse for this kind of discrimination.
- The issue of shared experiences and needs comes up a lot in this discussion. To this I want to point out that one of the pivotal figures at the outbreak of the Stonewall Riot was a trans woman, and many of the rioters were or would later come to be trans identified. The police didn’t care then about the difference between a trans person and a gay person. And you know what? The bigots today don’t care about the distinction between trans and GLB people in their hateful and discriminatory rhetoric either. So the next time a gay person says “the trans community needs to fight their own rights battles and not cling to the gay community’s coat tails” (and I hear this all the time) remind them that at what is widely seen as the open salvo of the modern LGBT rights movement, trans, gay, and other non-conforming people fought side by side.
- Although what separates trans people and gay people from “normal” society is not the same, the experiential trajectory for both communities has many similarities, particularly with regards to the coming out process, employment and housing discrimination, and being subject to identity based violence. Because of these parallels, the two populaces are uniquely well suited to supporting each other.
- There are lots of gay/bi/pan/queer trans people. The trend of LGB people rejecting trans folk does a particularly disservice to this segment of our community. Additionally, there are those who identify as LGB as part of the process of coming to grips with their trans identity. Given that these people support and nurture the LGB community during that period of their identity, the least the LGB community can do in return is support them as they move forward with the process of embracing their authentic selves.
- Finally, and unfortunately not obviously: being trans isn’t a “choice.” I would love to live in a world where I did not need to explain this to LGB people in particular, but I don’t. Because many non-trans people cannot distinguish between trans identity and medical transition, there is a pervasive and insidious belief even within the LGB community that people choose to be trans. I know this is a problematic analogy but: the decision to medically transition is no more the thing that “makes” someone trans than having homosexual sex or relationships is the thing that makes someone gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Both are things done in order to live more complete lives, but not medically transitioning wouldn’t make someone “not trans” any more than remaining celibate makes someone magically not be gay.
There are going to be people who take umbrage at my list or at the very idea of a queer non-trans person speaking to the trans experience. This list is not intended to be either comprehensive or fit everyone’s life experience. And I would be the last person to imply that there aren’t wonderful and capable people within the trans community who can and have made these points at least as well, if not better than I have here.
As someone who knows and loves many trans identified people, the fight for trans rights is my fight too, and I believe that the LGBT community as a whole is strongest when united. We still have a long way to go, and tearing each other down and casting aside members of our community out of expedience or ignorance can only drag us down.