'Trans Rights' and 'Gay Rights': Someday We'll Be Together Again

The New York Times, the nation's paper of record, and one I've been reading since age 6, when my father began sending me to the candy store every week to buy the Sunday paper, has done a great job of increasing coverage of trans issues this past year. From presenting Professor Jenny Boylan's musings to debates on gender transition in childhood, they have dived into the issue of sex and gender, where they had earlier feared to tread. Their reporting still leaves much room for improvement, but they have been engaging in intellectual debate, and that is a very hopeful and useful change.

This past week they published a series of point-counterpoint essays under the heading, "Are 'trans rights' and 'gay rights' still allies?" Essays from six trans persons, young and older, recent transitioners and some veterans, present various perspectives on the issue and point to the importance of each individual's historical context and professional career. As a woman who was present at the Stonewall uprising, I can relate to Professor Susan Stryker's words, and I'm very thankful to her for being the academic historian of the community for so many years. She faithfully records some of the gay community's worst prejudice back in the '70s and '80s, when the Gay Liberation Front in New York marginalized the trans community. I should note, apropos of the title of this debate, that in those early post-Stonewall days, "gay" was used by trans women in an inclusive sense, with Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, two trans women of color who were leaders at the Stonewall uprising, recorded as calling themselves "gay." Their goal was to "secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people."*

John Corvino makes the important point that sexual orientation and gender identity are two independent attributes. I have long taught that those attributes derive from independent brain functions, and it's important that people understand the difference. But in generalizing that difference to the sociopolitical sphere, what he misses is that most Americans view sexual orientation through the lens of gender expression. To them, two men together is not a function of sexual orientation but the fact that they are not acting like men according to the commonly accepted code of masculinity. Most homophobia derives from this distaste for transgressions of gender boundaries and only manifests itself politically as a distaste for homosexuality. The gay rights movement expertly deflected the need to deal with attitudes surrounding gender expression within its own community by marginalizing the most gender-variant gay persons as well as the trans community, and much progress has resulted. But we have now reached the point where it is no longer a viable platform, and further civil rights advances will depend on a deeper understanding of sexuality than simply the superficial nature of gendered relationships, as discussed recently by E.J. Graff.

Tiq Milan of GLAAD helpfully references the divide between cisgender lesbians and the trans community, recently highlighted by Gloria Steinem's public apology to the trans community in the Advocate. Thomas McBee properly notes that while LGB persons have been some of our most powerful allies, we have yet to get to the point where we are the ones speaking on issues that impact us and our community. The media, in particular, has been exasperatingly slow in updating its electronic rolodexes to bring trans voices to bear on newsworthy trans issues. And Mattilda Sycamore powerfully points out that the trans community, being as severely oppressed as it is, is part of a much larger marginalized community subject to powerful socioeconomic forces whose various subcommunities are often indistinguishable.

Not surprisingly, I find myself in line with Laverne Cox's balanced presentation. She shows that gay and trans communities are the same yet different. We share similar characteristics, which make us the targets of the same bigots, but we often have different needs. We may one day all be protected by the same understanding of the term "sex discrimination," but until that day, people who make a gender transition are medically and legally different from those who transgress gender norms but do not transition. The differences are very important in the lives of some persons, but ultimately, they should make little difference in an accepting and affirming culture.

I believe that all these perspectives are valuable, and I share them all, to some degree. I've now written 50 blog posts on The Huffington Post over the past year, doing my best to provide insight into the trans and gay communities for those who are new to us. Some of those posts have dealt explicitly with the relationship between the trans and non-trans communities, primarily on the political level. At times we are our own worst enemies, but there is comfort in knowing that American history is replete with such experiences, and that ultimately we all want the same fundamental change to liberate us all to our full potential.

I note that no debater remarked on last year's historic victory for the trans community under Title VII in the Mia Macy v. Eric Holder decision, a point of serious difference in civil rights protections for the trans community compared with the gay community. I expected that this discussion of the divide between "trans rights" and "gay rights" would pivot on the case. I suppose that the absence of any reference to Macy v. Holder as a point of discussion might have been because the respondents were unaware of the event and its significance, but I am heartened by the new focus on gender expression and its significance for gay as well as trans persons, and hopeful that such a focus will force our state and national advocacy organizations to evolve in a manner that will benefit all of us, and in particular the least among us.

*Marotta, Toby, The Politics of Homosexuality: How Lesbians and Gay Men Have Made Themselves a Political and Social Force in Modern America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.