Every so often in the LGBT community there is a call for the trans section to be expelled from our acronym. Why? The argument is usually along the lines that while the L,G, and B segments of the community all relate to sexuality, the T- that is, transgender- relates to gender identity. But for a host of complex historical reasons, transgender people have often existed within the broader LGBT community and have struggled for social rights alongside gay, lesbian and bisexual folk. There are historical tensions within the LGBT community, not just as regards the inclusion of trans people, but along many other axes too. But I believe that the diversity of experiences within the LGBT community are a resource rather than a hindrance, and can be used to energise our struggles for civil rights and can continue to make the life of the community ever more vibrant.
The most recent example of this controversy was an online petition which created quite a furore.1 Posted on change.org, it called itself “” and claimed to be written by a group of gay and bisexual men and women. Its text repeated a host of harmful transphobic tropes and concluded with a call for the exclusion of trans people from the LGBT community. A large number of campaigners were furious about this petition and vigorously opposed it. As many of them pointed out, the call to exclude trans people commits a travesty against LGBT history. Let’s think first about the climactic event which kicked off the struggle for gay rights, the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969. Many trans people participated in this struggle. The recent film portraying these events, by Roland Emmerich, was widely criticised for erasing the participation of transgender people in this uprising.2
Gay bars and the wider gay community provided a social space in which people felt freer to explore their gender expression. Famous figures such as Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera- founders of the civil rights group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries- played leading roles in the riot against police harassment of the gay community. Gay culture’s longstanding tradition of drag and female impersonation have provided spaces both for gay men who wish to experiment with their gender presentation. They have also acted in the past as a bridge for many transgender women who ultimately choose to transition, physically and socially. For transgender women from the mid-20th century onwards, the gay community provided one of the few safe spaces in which they could truly express themselves and find social support networks. And for trans men today, the lesbian community continues to be a space of exploration on the long journey of gender discovery.
As for the argument that for lesbian women, gay men and bisexual people, sexuality is the main concern rather than gender, this can be challenged on many grounds. As the anthropologist C.J. Pascoe brilliantly demonstrated in her book studying homophobia in U.S high schools, Dude, You’re a Fag, much of the homophobia experienced by young people is gendered.3 This means that boys and young men are stigmatised more for feminine expression than the details of their sexuality. Pascoe reveals that amongst high school students it is femininity above all else that is the mark of ‘the fag’. Thus, those boys who did not exhibit normative masculinity are far more likely to be subject to homophobic bullying regardless of their actual sexual orientation. This is also true as regards street harassment and physical abuse meted out against gay people in public, male and female. Thus gender nonconformity binds us together rather than separating us- we face common problems because of it. And whilst it’s true that gay, lesbian and bisexual people are more likely than the general population to exhibit gender-nonconforming behaviours, it’s also the case that bisexuality and homosexuality is more common amongst transgender people than amongst the cisgender majority. Thus, there is a great overlap of identities within the LGBT community. There are many people who are both trans and gay, trans and lesbian, and so on.
The entire LGBT community represents a minority. Thus there is a strong political argument that we should stick together. Strength in numbers is vital when we are trying to defend ourselves against potentially hostile governments and the non-LGBT majority. It is vital that we pool our resources for political campaigning as well as trying to socially support one another as much as possible. Since many LGBT people, especially trans people, face familial rejection it is crucial for the LGBT community to help people create new families from allies and friends if their birth parents do not accept them for who they are.
Granted, there have been tensions in the past. Lesbian trans women have often found it difficult to be accepted in the lesbian community as real women, and have had to struggle particularly against harmful aspects of radical feminism which had their height of popularity amongst lesbians in the 1970s and 1980s. Trans men are also vulnerable to discrimination by cisgender gay men. But for the reasons mentioned above I believe we must struggle to be better. As LGBT people, we must ultimately strive to be accepted for who we are within the wider society, without having to sacrifice anything about our identities or expression. If trans people cannot even find acceptance in the LGBT community, how can we expect the wider society to welcome us?
Since trans people’s struggles somewhat lag behind those of the rest of our community- lacking some of the legal protections against discrimination afforded to lesbian and gay people, for instance-it is not surprising that some non-trans people in the LGBT acronym want to sacrifice us for their own advancement. But without the efforts of gender-nonconforming people of all types, gay rights would not have achieved its successes- as evidenced by the leading role played by trans people in the famous Stonewall Rebellion. Sundering the ties that bind the LGBT community together can only hurt us all in the long run. Unfortunately, trans people seeking an illusory respectability sometimes express a desire to distance themselves from the broader LGBT community. This too is folly. History shows that we are stronger when we are together. Let’s struggle against homophobia and transphobia in our LGBT community, and go forward as a strong whole which understands that our differences make us powerful.