The alphabet soup surrounding the fight for equal rights for the queer and trans communities can be dizzying, and new letters feel like they’re being added all the time. It was LGB, and LGBT, and LGBQ, and LGBQT, and LGBQTIA, and so much more. Some letters even do double duty, like Q for ‘queer’ and ‘questioning,’ creating even more of a morass. In the decision to bundle all of these issues together, however, there’s a larger problem: Sometimes it’s important to separate them out, because if you don’t, some get lost in the shuffle. That pesky T is perhaps the most stubborn example, as it’s extremely common to see people dropping the T when discussing issues of gender and sexuality because they don’t know what else to do with it.
One of the key problems here may honestly be the inclusion of the T at all. Gender and sexuality are very different things, although they are obviously connected: A cis heterosexual woman (gender, sexuality) is attracted to men who are attracted to women (gender, attraction/sexuality). Lumping them together feels awkward and strange. Being transgender isn’t a sexual orientation, and transness doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with someone’s mechanisms of sexual attraction or sexual identity. A gay man is a gay man is a gay man, no matter his gender history. Others may actively define themselves as queering both gender and sexuality, or may view their transness as an integral part of their sexual identity. All of these modes of perception and social interaction are completely valid.
But there’s a weird thing that happens when transgender people are summarily lumped in with LGBQ people (and others who don’t fit heteronormative standards). These communities overlap, they’re important, they have many of the same goals, but they still have some distinct differences. Some resolve this by just dropping the T when it’s not convenient, rather than engaging directly with it and talking about it. In conversations about LGBQ elders, for example, people ignore very specific concerns among trans elders who can share some of the same challenges, but also face other issues.
Likewise, when discussing employment discrimination, trans people again face some complications that cis people do not, particularly when it comes to trans women, and to those who are transitioning in the workplace, an increasingly common phenomenon in a country where awareness of trans issues is on the rise. When you leave work as Cindy and return as John after a vacation, you’re going to experience pushback, and it’s not the same kind of abuse that LGBQ employees endure in the workplace though it is often related.
There’s an assumption that if a place is LGBQ friendly, it’s also friendly for trans people. That all LGBQ issues are trans issues and that all trans issues are LGBQ issues. That gender and sexuality can be plopped together in a neat lump instead of being viewed as intersecting issues bound up in each other. Obviously, gender identity has a huge influence on sexuality for many, many people — and being trans can complicate your sexuality for a variety of reasons, not least of which is transphobia. But gender and sexuality are not the same thing.
The frustration at seeing the ‘T’ repeatedly removed from important conversations about equality is an ongoing issue, and it’s particularly acute for those sitting on the edge of the knife. Trans women of colour are shunted to the back of the line when it comes to pushing for serious social change — take, for example, the insistent fight that prioritised marriage over everything else. Marriage rights brought other important rights to the LGBQ community, and to some members of the trans community. They undoubtedly helped some trans women of colour, which is fantastic. But for many others, marriage rights weren’t really a priority. Not being killed for being who they were was a really compelling issue. Not facing employment and housing discrimination was a more pressing problem. Not being kicked out of family homes was a legitimate and constant fear. With the Supreme Court upholding the right to marry, all of these things remain issues — yet trans people were expected to celebrate this ‘LGBQT victory,’ with the T kind of summarily tacked on so everyone could have a big party and feel good about things.
Cis people can’t drop the T. They can’t. And this includes cis LGBQ people. Cis people need to be interacting with the trans community to talk about needs specific to our community, and how to integrate them into the larger fight for social justice for all. They need to be acknowledging that different corners of the trans community have different needs — nonbinary people need different things from trans women need different things from trans men. They need to be engaging directly with leaders within the community to find out how to support the ongoing and seemingly endless push for trans rights, and they need to be prepared for criticism when they assume that they’re supporting trans rights and they’re doing nothing of the kind.
This is supposed to be the era of the trans tipping point, the time when perceptions of gender are radically changing, but we’re not there yet. This is a society that has made huge strides in terms of how it interacts with diverse sexualities in the last twenty years, the last decade, even, but it’s not there on trans rights. Not yet. Until it is, trans people shouldn’t be lumped in like a subcategory of sexuality, and we shouldn’t be ignored, either.
Image: Brought to You by the Letter T, Brian Talbot, Flickr