Two Consonants Walk Into a Bar …
At this point the consonants are so tightly fused it’s as if they were always and inevitably so: L.G.B.T.
But just a decade ago, the T teetered. It wobbled.
It was eliminated from a federal bill to protect lesbians, gays and bisexuals from discrimination in employment. The 2007 legislation’s principal backers — including Barney Frank, an openly gay congressman — decided that pressing fellow lawmakers to cover transgender people as well was a bridge too far.
That bill failed anyway. But the tinkering reflected broader apprehensions. If not publicly then privately, many gays and lesbians wondered not only about the political costs of an alliance with transgender people but also whether the alliance made any real sense.
A few still wonder.
Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, told me that at a recent banquet for an L.G.B.T. health organization, a wealthy gay donor said to her: “Can you walk me through why we’re all one big community? I just don’t get it.”
I do, though I admit that it took me time and that I sometimes worried that we gay men and lesbians were steepening our climb toward the fullest possible acceptance by making the ascent arm in arm with transgender people.
But that’s how we’re doing it and how we should be, and it’s an important example of broader kinship winning out over narrower interests and of justice trumping pettiness.
Last week the Trump administration rescinded the Obama administration’s guidelines that public schools allow transgender students to use the bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, an issue that is scheduled to reach the Supreme Court next month.
That move stood in contrast to a decision weeks earlier not to mess with Obama’s edict barring federal contractors from discriminating against L.G.B.T. people, and it suggested a greater reluctance to be seen as an enemy of gay and lesbian rights than to side against transgender ones.
But to the overwhelming majority of L.G.B.T. advocates today, all of those rights are inextricably bound, regardless of whether lawmakers and voters support some more readily than others.
Although Congress is still resisting anti-discrimination legislation for L.G.B.T. people, I no longer hear advocates discuss whether the T is an obstacle or propose that it be left out.
Even Keisling’s banquet companion, she said, made clear that he wasn’t taking any particular exception to the big tent. He was just curious about how it assumed its shape.
The answer: fitfully. The road to a consonant cluster that’s now taken for granted — and that’s grown longer, with a Q or more added, depending on who’s doing the clustering — was a rocky one.
Go back to the 1960s and ’70s and the G was often so domineering that the L went its own, separate way. In fact much of a new ABC mini-series about the L.G.B.T. rights movement, “When We Rise,” which will be shown over four nights this coming week, focuses on that rift.
“The first four hours is the story of how gay men and lesbians weren’t working together — of the animosity between them,” Dustin Lance Black, the creator of the mini-series, told me. Not until the 1980s and the AIDS epidemic, he said, did they really unite.
And for a while, the B was a matter of controversy. Many gay men and lesbians suspected that people who called themselves bisexual were taking a timid, untruthful half-step out of the closet or were adventurers who’d return in short order to the heterosexual fold. So they sometimes resisted any explicit mention of bisexuals in the names of support and advocacy groups.
But that tension paled next to disagreements about the inclusion of transgender people, exemplified by yearly fights over whether to allow transgender women to attend the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival.
In a thoughtful, provocative essay in Salon in 2007, the gay rights advocate John Aravosis defended the absence of any reference to transgender people in the federal anti-discrimination bill on the grounds that half a loaf was better than none.
He also wrote, with brave candor: “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.”
“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),” he added. “Is it wrong for me to simply ask why?”
No. I knew where he was coming from. A transgender person’s experience of anatomical features unaligned with his or her psyche and soul was as mysterious to me as it was to any straight person.
But I have an overlapping history and culture with transgender people. In more fearful times, we found comfort at the same bars, safety in the same neighborhoods and reassurance from one another’s deviations from the vaunted “norm.”
Over the last decade, I’ve listened — imperfectly but earnestly — to the life stories that transgender people have courageously volunteered, and I’ve come to a better understanding of how much more lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people share.
We all have firsthand experience of how unnecessarily rigid and tyrannical a society’s conceptions of manhood and womanhood can be. We all know the pain of falling outside those conceptions. We all appreciate the importance — in some cases, it’s a life-or-death matter — of freedom.
I can’t guess how much, if at all, the linkage of gay rights with transgender rights impedes the former today. Certainly any impact is diminished from 2007. I agree with Eric Marcus, the creator and host of the “Making Gay History” podcast, who told me, “In the rawest tactical sense, it may cost a little, but in the moral realm, it’s worth it and right.”
Keisling drew the following connection between transgender and gay experiences and aspirations: “Being the gender you are is not the same as loving who you love, but they’re very close in terms of autonomy. And a lot of the work we’ve done together is about a mutual enemy.”
I’d add that no minority group can credibly and honorably exhort people to be high-minded while being low-minded itself.
I’ll give the last word to a 17-year-old, Gavin Grimm, the transgender student whose lawsuit against his Virginia school board will be heard by the Supreme Court next month. I asked him what, to his thinking, tied the T to the L, G and B.
“I guess I have as much in common with a gay or lesbian person as I have with anybody whose civil rights are under attack and up for debate, ” he said.