How did the T get in LGBT?

The 30-year fight for a federal gay civil rights law may fail because activists insist on including rights for transgendered people too. Has gay inclusiveness gone too far too fast?

Topics: Barney Frank, D-Mass., LGBT

How did the T get in LGBT?

Like an ever-expanding mushroom cloud of diversity, every few years America’s gay leaders and activists welcome a new category of member to the community. Wikipedia walks us through our complicated family history:

“LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered] or GLBT are the most common terms [to describe the gay community] … When not inclusive of transgender people it is shortened to LGB. It may also include two additional Qs for queer and questioning (sometimes abbreviated with a question mark) (LGBTQ, LGBTQQ, GLBTQ2); a variant being LGBU, where U stands for “unsure”, an I for intersex (LGBTI), another T for transsexual (LGBTT), another T (or TS or the numeral 2) for two-spirited people, and an A for straight allies or asexual (LGBTA). At its fullest, then, it is some permutation of LGBTTTIQQA.”

In simpler times we were all gay. But then the word “gay” started to mean “gay men” more than women, so we switched to the more inclusive “gay and lesbian.” Bisexuals, who were only part-time gays, insisted that we add them too, so we did (not without some protest), and by the early 1990s we were the lesbian, gay and bisexual, or LGB community. Sometime in the late ’90s, a few gay rights groups and activists started using a new acronym, LGBT — adding T for transgender/transsexual. And that’s when today’s trouble started.

America’s gay community, or rather, its leadership, is apoplectic over the imminent passage of the first federal gay civil rights legislation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA. ENDA would make it illegal for an employer to fire, or refuse to hire or promote, an otherwise qualified candidate simply because of their sexual orientation (gay, straight, lesbian or bisexual). (Contrary to popular belief, it is legal to fire someone for being gay under federal law and in 31 states.) You’d think this would be cause for celebration, but not so much.

ENDA was first introduced 30 years ago. In all that time, it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill. So the bill’s author, openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., dropped the transgendered from the bill, and all hell broke loose. Gay activists and 220 national and local gay rights groups angrily demanded that gender identity be put back in the bill, guaranteeing its defeat for years to come. Many of them, suddenly and conveniently, found all sorts of “flaws” with legislation that they had embraced the previous 29 years. They convinced House Democratic leaders to delay action on ENDA till later in October. They’d rather have no bill at all than pass one that didn’t include the transgendered.

Then an odd thing happened. I started asking friends and colleagues, ranging from senior members of the gay political/journalistic establishment to apolitical friends around the country to the tens of thousands of daily readers of my blog, if they thought we should pass ENDA this year even without gender identity. Everyone felt bad about taking gender identity out of ENDA, everyone supported transgender rights, and everyone told me “pass it anyway.”

Their main argument, which I support: practical politics. Civil rights legislation — hell, all legislation — is a series of compromises. You rarely get everything you want, nor do you get it all at once. Blacks, for example, won the right to vote in 1870. Women didn’t get that same right until 1920. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a large umbrella of rights based on race, religion, sex and national origin, but failed to mention gays or people with disabilities. People with disabilities were finally given specific rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, but gays as a class have still to be granted a single civil right at the federal level. If we waited until society was ready to accept each and every member of the civil rights community before passing any civil rights legislation, we’d have no civil rights laws at all. Someone is always left behind, at least temporarily. It stinks, but it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way you win.

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I have a theory about revolutions. I’ve always believed that you can’t force a country to have a revolution, and then expect democracy to stick. Yes, you can launch a coup, topple a government, and execute a Saddam, but for a revolution to stick — for democracy to survive — a country’s citizens need to be responsible for, and vested in, the social change happening around them. Otherwise they have no ownership of it, as it wasn’t their revolution.

I have a sense that over the past decade the trans revolution was imposed on the gay community from outside, or at least above, and thus it never stuck with a large number of gays who weren’t running national organizations, weren’t activists, or weren’t living in liberal gay enclaves like San Francisco and New York. Sure, many of the rest of us accepted de facto that transgendered people were members of the community, but only because our leaders kept telling us it was so. A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins. It’s a fair question, but one we know we dare not ask. It is simply not p.c. in the gay community to question how and why the T got added on to the LGB, let alone ask what I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman. I’m not passing judgment, I respect transgendered people and sympathize with their cause, but I simply don’t get how I am just as closely related to a transsexual (who is often not gay) as I am to a lesbian (who is). Is it wrong for me to simply ask why?

I wrote on my blog last week about this issue, and shared my doubts and concerns and questions. And I was eviscerated for it. While the majority of my readers either agreed with me, or found my questions provocative and relevant, a vocal minority labeled me a bigot, a transphobe, a rich, white boy living in a big city who didn’t care about anyone but himself, and worse. An old activist friend even told me that my words were prejudiced, wrong and embarrassingly uninformed, and that no one of any consequence shared my concerns, and if they did, they were bigots too.

I know firsthand that it’s not safe in the gay community to ask questions about how the transgendered fit in. I also know that I am not alone in my questions, or my fear of asking them. While I’ve been taking abuse for my position, I’ve also been amazed by the number of phone calls, e-mails and people stopping me on the street here in Washington, both straight and gay, thanking me for asking the questions I did, for voicing the doubts that they share. (Not surprisingly, many of these expressions of solidarity have been off-the-record.)

It would have been easy to simply write a blog post, or an article here today, about how I respect and support transgendered people and their rights (and I do), but how it was unfortunately political necessary to cut them out of ENDA. I could have chosen to never touch upon the question of the role of the T’s in the LGB community. But that kind of self-imposed censorship is the reason we’re in the pickle we are today. For 10 years now, the right questions never got asked, never got answered, and as a result, support for the inclusion of transgendered people in the gay community remains paper-thin for a sizable number of gays. Normally that wouldn’t matter. But when we are asked — well, told — to put our civil rights on hold, possibly for the next two decades, until America catches up on its support for trans rights, a lot of gay people don’t feel sufficiently vested in trans rights, sufficiently vested in the T being affixed to the LGB, to agree to such a huge sacrifice for people they barely know.

I remember sitting at lunch a few years back with Gloria Feldt, then president of Planned Parenthood. I was talking about the looming threat to Roe v. Wade from the Bush court, and Gloria told me that for all intents and purposes Roe was already dead. Conservatives had so whittled away at abortion rights over the past 30 years, with small amendments and ballot initiatives here and there, that it didn’t matter that the courts had yet to overturn Roe itself. Roe had already been repealed through attrition and few to no abortion rights remained.

Conservatives understand that cultural change is a long, gradual process of small but cumulatively deadly victories. Liberals want it all now. And that’s why, in the culture wars, conservatives often win and we often lose. While conservatives spend years, if not decades, trying to convince Americans that certain judges are “activists,” that gays “recruit” children, and that Democrats never saw an abortion they didn’t like, we often come up with last-minute ideas and expect everyone to vote for them simply because we’re right. Conservatives are happy with piecemeal victory, liberals with noble failure. We rarely make the necessary investment in convincing people that we’re right because we consider it offensive to have to explain an obvious truth. When it comes time to pass legislation, too many liberals just expect good and virtuous bills to become law by magic, without the years of legwork necessary to secure a majority of the votes in Congress and the majority support of the people. We expect our congressional allies to fall on their swords for us when we’ve failed to create a culture in which it’s safe for politicians to support our agenda and do the right thing. ENDA, introduced for the first time 30 years ago, is an exception to that rule. It took 30 years to get to the point where the Congress and the public are in favor of legislation banning job discrimination against gays. It’s only been five months since transgendered people were included in ENDA for the first time.

I support transgendered rights. But I’m not naive. If there are still lingering questions in the gay community about gender identity 10 years after our leaders embraced the T — and there are — then imagine how conflicted straight members of Congress are when asked to pass a civil rights bill for a woman who used to be a man. We’re not talking right and wrong here, we’re talking political reality. Our own community is still grappling with this issue. Yet we expect members of Congress, who took 30 years to embrace a gay ENDA, to welcome the T’s into the bill in only five months.

Passage of ENDA, of any federal gay civil rights legislation, would be a huge victory for the gay community. Not just legally, but culturally. Hell, we could pass the legislative equivalent of “Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds,” the famous avant-garde musical composition that contains no notes and is nothing but silence, and it would still mark the beginning of the end of our long struggle for equality. I’m not joking. We could pass a bill titled “Gay Civil Rights Law” that contained no language whatsoever. The fact that the United States Congress finally passed legislation affirming gay and lesbian Americans as a legitimate civil rights community, as a protected class of American citizens rather than a group of mentally disturbed pedophiles, would empower our community, demoralize our opposition, and forever place us among the ranks of the great civil rights communities of the past and present.

That’s why James Dobson, Tony Perkins and the men at the Concerned Women for America are so hell-bent on defeating ENDA. To the religious right, ENDA without gender identity isn’t a weak, meaningless bill fraught with loopholes. Our enemies know that passage of any federal gay civil rights legislation is a legislative and cultural milestone that would make it that much easier for all of us — gays and lesbians, bisexuals and eventually even the transgendered — to realize all of our civil rights in our lifetime.

I’ll take that half-a-loaf any day.

John Aravosis is a longtime gay rights advocate and the editor of AMERICAblog.com.

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