Wednesday, 14 May 2014

A Call For Divisiveness; or, Why "LGBT" is Harmful

Everyone is talking about 'LGBT' nowadays. I'm LGBT, you're LGBT; sometimes it seems like we're all LGBT. But what does LGBT -- or its expanded forms like LGBTQQIA or QUILTBAG -- actually mean?

We didn't always have LGBT; to begin with we had LG, then LGB. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people (and those not named but commonly included in LGB, such as pansexual people) all have something in common: a sexual orientation other than 'straight'. LGB people commonly face discrimination, violence, and abuse (often gender- or race-coded). While in the simplest terms we are "all just people", as some would have it, we find it useful to draw a line between people who don't suffer that abuse -- cisgender straight people -- and those of us who do.

Drawing lines and applying labels like this is often criticised for creating division, as if we could erase queer people's oppression by simply not talking about it. Well, we tried not talking about it for a very long time, and I think most of us would agree that it didn't help. Unsurprisingly, of course, most people who suggest we should stop using these labels are straight, white, cisgender men. In other words, the most dominant oppressor class.

More recently, we've started to include another group in 'LGB': trans people (that is, people who identify as transsexual or transgender, or just generally trans). That inclusion was accompanied by a push to add another letter on the end of LGB, turning it into LGBT. Well, great! Now we can address even more oppression, and give voices and a platform to trans people, who have been silenced for years while the LGB rights movement marched on.
Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Saying "LGBT" instead of "LGB" has become a reflex for progressive, enlightened liberals. They talk about "LGBT people" and "gay people" as synonyms, and cry foul when we call out their mistake, as if they can't be wrong if they use the right words.

The conflation of LGB with T has lead to the issues that affect trans people being sidelined, and trans people marginalised, in favour of issues that "affect us all" -- like same-sex marriage. Never mind that most trans people are straight; this is an LGBT issue, so we must lend our support. Meanwhile, mainstream gay rights activists pay no attention to trans issues, promising that they'll "come back for us later", or that their mainstream, straight cisgender audience "wouldn't understand". Mainstream 'LGBT' organisations, like the US-based HRC (Human Rights Campaign), ignore us; other explicitly LGB organisations, like Stonewall in the UK, don't claim to represent us, yet people assume they do because "these are all LGBT orgs, right?".

Something interesting has been happening over the last couple of years, though: trans people are finally having our voices heard, and our issues talked about in mainstream media. But this is nothing to do with the 'support' we get from cisgender gay people, or media-friendly LGB(t) organisations; it's because of trans women speaking out for themselves, and demanding a voice for them and for all trans people; women like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, who won TIME magazine's readers choice poll, before being inexplicably excluded from the finaly result. (Incidentally, it's probably no coincidence that both these women are trans women of colour, a group silenced not only within mainstream LGBT discourse, but in White trans activism as well.)

Without asking for or requiring support from mainstream LGB activists, these women, along with many others, are finding their own voices, and talking about the things that matter to them, and showing the rest of us what could be possible, if we would just step up.
There are probably many things we could learn from this, but what seems crystal clear to me is that that we don't need to latch on to cisgender LGB people to fight for our rights; we don't need to listen to their platitudes while they ignore us, and we wait patiently for the day that they decide to talk about us. This sort of passive, coat-tail activism is actively harming us, and we need to do something about it. And by "something", I mean dropping the "T" from "LGB".

Of course, there are plenty of trans people who also identify as LGB, or another queer identity -- as I do myself --; in fact, positioning 'LGBT' and 'straight' as opposites is one of the most common ways that "LGBT" silences trans people. So I'm not suggesting that LGB trans people should end involvement in LGB activism, or that we can't talk about issues that specifically affect LGB trans people.

We do, however, need to stop considering trans problems as just an appendix to LGB problems. That's not helping anything.

Author / Source: Felicity Tarnell at Le Fay