It is my hope that this historical view will provide a glimpse into the power relations that have led to transphobia in the gay community -- and homophobia in the trans community. I also hope that it provides some compassion for the Other.
Jorgensen herself specifically disavowed any connection with homosexuals, calling homosexuality "a horrible illness of the mind." To be a homosexual at that time meant complete and utter rejection by society as a monster -- rejection from family, from religion, from education, from employment, from housing. Jorgensen can perhaps be forgiven for her efforts to distance herself from homosexuality, given the severe consequences, but it also cannot be denied that one of the roots of transphobia in the gay community is the historical repudiation by transsexuals of gay identity.
From The Atlantic:
Having defined homosexuality as a pathology, psychiatrists and other doctors made bold to "treat" it. James Harrison, a psychologist who produced the 1992 documentary film Changing Our Minds, notes that the medical profession viewed homosexuality with such abhorrence that virtually any proposed treatment seemed defensible. Lesbians were forced to submit to hysterectomies and estrogen injections, although it became clear that neither of these had any effect on their sexual orientation. Gay men were subjected to similar abuses. Changing Our Minds incorporates a film clip from the late 1940s, now slightly muddy, of a young gay man undergoing a transorbital lobotomy. We see a small device like an ice pick inserted through the eye socket, above the eyeball and into the brain. The pick is moved back and forth, reducing the prefrontal lobe to a hemorrhaging pulp. Harrison's documentary also includes a grainy black-and-white clip from a 1950s educational film produced by the U.S. Navy. A gay man lies in a hospital bed. Doctors strap him down and attach electrodes to his head. "We're going to help you get better," says a male voice in the background. When the power is turned on, the body of the gay man jerks violently, and he begins to scream. Doctors also tried castration and various kinds of aversion therapy. None of these could be shown to change the sexual orientation of the people involved.
When the story of Christine Jorgensen was published in 1951, debates began amongst these groups as to the proper response. In the first case study of Jorgensen, published in 1951 by her endocrinologist, he referred to her "homosexual tendencies". Jorgensen herself, however, specifically distinguished her condition from homosexuality, referring to the prevalent theory of transsexuality as "nature's mistake," in which a woman is trapped in a man's body. This was entirely appropriate, as she, and many others, understood their identity quite different from homosexual identity. She also took pains, however, to distinguish her situation from "a much more horrible illness of the mind. One that, although very common, is not as yet accepted as a true illness, with the necessity for great understanding." This "horrible illness of the mind" is a reference to homosexuality. She went much further than simply distinguishing her identity from that of homosexuals, casting homosexuality in the worst light. Her doing so, of course, must be seen in context of the many attempts to portray her as a dangerous freak.
Rejecting The Cure
There was a vigorous debate in the U.S. homophile movement of the 1950s as to whether homosexuals should embrace Jorgensen. Some gay men and lesbians denounced those who felt themselves to be of the opposite sex, criticizing them for acting like "freaks," bringing disrepute to those gays and lesbians trying to live quietly within heterosexual society. Such attitudes were prevalent within the gay and lesbian community at the time. Here is one such debate from 1953:
In 1953, for example, ONE magazine published a debate among its readers as to whether gay men should denounce Jorgensen. In the opening salvo, the author Jeff Winters accused Jorgensen of a "sweeping disservice" to gay men. "As far as the public knows," Winters wrote, "you were merely another unhappy homosexual who decided to get drastic about it." For Winters, Jorgensen's story simply confirmed the false belief that all men attracted to other men must be basically feminine," which, he said, "they are not." Jorgensen's precedent, he thought, encouraged the "reasoning" that led "to legal limitations upon the homosexual, mandatory injections, psychiatric treatment - and worse." In the not-so-distant past, scientists had experimented with castrating gay men.
This tension between homosexuals and transsexuals appears to have been based upon the tension between passing and openness, or the idea of "gender transgression." It may have derived from class differences and differing class tolerances for "swish" and "butch." Some gays and lesbians associated gender transgression with undignified and low-class behavior, while "fairies" and "butches" were more readily accepted in working class communities. A survey from the 1960s that found that more than two-thirds of a sample of almost 300 gays and lesbians in the homophile movement considered those who asked for sex reassignment surgery to be "severely neurotic."
The Political Effects
Transgender people played pivotal roles in gay organizations of the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance ("GAA"). While the original goals included complete acceptance of sexual diversity and expression, by the early 70s the gay men's community returned to the assimilationist strategy as the lesbians turned to separatism and radical feminism. There seemed to be no room for transgendered people in either camp. For example, in 1971 the GAA wrote and introduced a bill to the New York City Council to protect homosexuals from discrimination. The bill did not include any explicit protection for transsexuals.
Transsexuals were publicly thrown out of gay and lesbian organizations, and the legitimacy of their identity debated. Transsexual identity became increasingly separate when, in the 1970s, it was made repeatedly clear that butch lesbians were no longer welcome within the lesbian feminist movement, and transmen were made unwelcome as well.
In 1979, Janice Raymond, a lesbian academic, published The Transsexual Empire, a book based on her doctoral dissertation. Raymond argued that the phenomenon of transsexuality was created by fetishistic males who sought to escape into a faux stereotypical femininity, with the connivance of male doctors who thought that femaleness could be medically created and homosexuality medically vitiated. Although "male to constructed female" transsexuals claimed to be against the stereotyped gender system by virtue of their escape from stereotypical masculinity, they in fact added force to the binary system by merely escaping from one stereotype to another, or at most mixing together different stereotypes, rather than advocating true gender freedom. They were not political radicals, as they claimed, but reactionaries seeking to preserve a stereotypical gender system that was already dramatically changing due to the political action of 60s and 70s feminists and gays. Transsexuals were, according to Raymond, sheep in wolf's clothing.
Transsexuals, predictably, were angry at the rejection of their identity by gay men and lesbians.
It is against this backdrop that, in the early 1990's, the term "transgender," a neologism with an unclear meaning, began to be included in the GLB coalition by those seeking to build political power sufficient to change the landscape of legal and social discrimination.
The term "transgender" was used as an umbrella term referring to transvestites, crossdressers, transsexuals, and other gender-variant people, who seemed to have similar and interlocking interests with gay men and lesbian women, and that had caught the imagination of the public through sympathetic portrayals of transsexuals such as Christine Jorgensen, Renee Richards and Wendy Williams. However, the term "transgender" was originally intended by its coiner, Virginia Prince, to be distinct from the term "transsexual," and to mark a separate identity. It was now being used to refer to anyone whose gender performance varied from the norm. Many transsexuals were unhappy with this usage, as it suggested that their identity was merely a performance.
While the inclusion of the term "transgender" in the LGB umbrella expanded the umbrella, providing some additional political power, it became increasingly clear that this was a problem. It conflicted with the goals of many of the coalition builders, increasingly professional political operatives, which was to capture public sympathy by appealing to an image of homosexuals as people "just like" the majority of U.S. voters, middle class people (or people with middle class yearnings), who held steady jobs, had long, loving relationships with partners of the same sex, and who wanted the same lives that the majority of U.S. voters wanted. As a result, some gays found themselves agreeing with straights, who see in transgenders an assault on normative reality, as in the following diatribe thinly veiled as humor, written in 2003:
There's something a little annoying about transgendered people insisting that they be called whatever sex they want to be called. . . Like so many transgendered people, Califia is like a bush resenting the grass for not calling it a tree. Well, if you've got bush and no trunk, are you really a tree? Before all the MTF (male-to-female) transgendered people flick their compact mirrors shut and take up their pitchforks (with matching handbags, of course), I'd like to point out that there's a reality that exists outside of ourselves. If you wear brown and insist that I call it red because you say so, then you're asking me to skew an objective reality to your liking. Enrolling people into in an illusion unsupported by facts seems manipulative to me. . . .So for all the Pattys, Pats and Patricks out there, you go boys/girls/TBA. Just don't back over us with your whoop-ass mobile because we didn't get your pronoun right.
Gays were also upset about transgender identity because some transgenders pass as heterosexuals and reject homosexual identity, calling their sexual relations heterosexual. The reaction of some in the gay and lesbian community, predictably, has been an attempt to limit the inclusion of transgenders.
This reaction, which is often called "transphobia," is not a result of a psychological "phobia," but a result of the previously identified tensions between accomodationism and gender ambiguity, and between homosexual identity and "passing."
Is "Transphobia" A "Phobia"?
Is transphobia an example of "phobia" - irrational fears?
No, because such heterosexist attitudes are all too rational. They mirror the social tensions inherent in the historical formation of the U.S. homosexual identity. The gay and lesbian communities have worked long and hard to have same-sex desire be seen as an orientation, rather than a preference, a viable, open and healthy identity alternative to heterosexuality, rather than a stigma to be hidden or cured.
The path to this end has largely been gender appropriateness and accommodationism, with the significant but single exception of same-sex preference. Political progress has been won by the argument that gays and lesbians are "just like you," albeit with the minor exception of sexual orientation.
As "homosexuality" became increasingly more accepted, freeing itself from shame with the 1968 Stonewall Riots, and the 1974 declaration of the American Psychiatric Association ("APA") that homosexuality was not a mental disorder, the more accepted homosexual elements began to agitate for more social tolerance and civil rights in law.
In order to do so, like any political creation, it had to drop the "lead weights" represented by the less accepted and frankly unacceptable elements of the group, particularly feminine transsexuals and promiscuous bisexuals. Transsexuality and transgenderism are still considered mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association.
Homosexual rights groups, while committed in principle to inclusion of all homosexuals, including bisexuals and transgenders, began to be led by the more politically savvy gays and lesbians to espouse a platform that, consciously or unconsciously, served the interests of the normative homosexual elements, but not necessarily bisexuals or transgenders.
Over time, the "GL" portion of the platform became increasingly acceptable to the population at large, both through increased education and desensitization of the public and by disavowing the more unacceptable elements of the movement. At the same time, this political success fueled a separatist culture, which bisexuals and transgenders threatened to dilute and homogenize.
The fictional movie "Flawless*" (1999) contains a scene in which transgender community members confront gay Republicans regarding the gay pride parade. While fictional, the scene accurately portrays the tensions described here.
Gay Republican #1: Thanks for meeting with us gentlemen. We've been discussing this year's gay pride parade, and we felt that it would be important, well, a good idea, to show a united front...
Gay Republican #2: Synthesis I believe.
Gay Republican #1: Right, we felt as gay republicans, we thought it would be a really good idea if we could all come together and show the world our likenesses, not our differences. To celebrate the, um...
Gay Republican #2: ...synthesis...
Gay Republican #1: ...right, synthesis...
Transsexual #1: (sarcastically) You're very good. Sorry, go ahead.
Gay Republican #1: We could march together as a united brotherhood....
Transsexual #2: What about the sisterhood, honey?
Gay Republican #2: ...march on foot, no floats.
Transsexual #3: Yeah, you think if you have no floats we won't do drag because we can't march in heels. Well, let me tell you something, honey. We can march to Lake Titicaca and back in stilettos.
Gay Republican #1: Hey let's just calm down then.
Transsexual #1: Aren't you guys the same group that raised a shitload of money and gave it to Bob Dole's campaign and he sent it back, didn't he?
Gay Republican #2: No, no, that's because he would have lost support of the Christian right.
Transsexual #1: Exactly, because you're gay. You're gay, that why he sent it back. Aren't you ashamed? All right, listen, you are right. We are different, but not in the way that you mean. We're different because you are all ashamed of us, and we are not ashamed of you, alright, because as long as you get down on those banana republican knees and suck dick, honey, you're all my sisters and I love you, I do. God bless you and fuck off.
Transgender identity occupies a strange place within the contemporary LGBT terrain. It is simultaneously understood to embody both the worst aspects of heterosexuality and the best of queerness. Transgenders are seen, on the one hand, as heterosexual "apologists" because many subscribe to a gender binary, and, on the other hand, are also often seen as transcending stereotypical oppositions because many subscribe to a gender continuum. They are "traitors," insufficiently gay or feminist or queer, yet also positioned at the cutting edge of debates about gender, sexuality and political meaning.
From these historical circumstances, one can begin to see the outlines of the emerging split between "GL" and "T." It involves a classic case of political conflict of interest, which nonetheless appears to us to be an abstract psychological phenomenon of fear called "transphobia."
This is not to deny that florid phobias never have as their subjects bisexuals and transsexuals, but it is my instinct to restrict such terms to the far end of the spectrum where, along with fear of germs or public places, one starts wearing gloves and a mask and stays home to avoid contact with the open sky.
As we have seen, the historical circumstances of the construction of homosexuality in the U.S. created power relations, which called both for a more inclusive grouping and, at the same time, for a more exclusive grouping. These power relations created the four different groups of which the homosexual community are composed, assigning them different identities, different resources, different spaces in the political sphere. It is these social constructions that created the environment for identity politics within the LGBT community.
To the extent that this identity politics has created prejudice and discrimination within the community, it might be more accurate to call it "heterosexism" or "internalized heterosexism." I prefer to go with sociologist Paula Rust's understanding: "Heterosexism refers to the whole constellation of psychological, social and political factors that favor one form of sexuality over another."
Prejudice in gay and lesbian communities against transgender people is heterosexism because it is an accommodationist attempt to disavow these more "radical" forms of sexuality. As I have demonstrated, the accommodationist impulse came from the severe stigma, prejudice, discrimination and state-imposed violence visited on gay men and lesbians. Transgender people were also subjected to similar forces, and there is, as a result, significant homophobia in the trans community.
It is identity politics gone mad, for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders are all subjected to the same oppressive forces, which attempts to flatten them and drive them apart at the same time.
As Riki Anne Wilchins has noted of this phenomenon of identity politics:
Alas, identity politics is like a computer virus, spreading from the host system to any other with which it comes in contact. Increasingly, the term has hardened to become an identity rather than a descriptor. . . . The result of all this is that I find myself increasingly invited to erect a hierarchy of legitimacy, complete with walls and boundaries to defend. Not in this lifetime . . . . But at some point such efforts simply extend the linguistic fiction that real identities (however inclusive) actually exist prior to the political systems that create and require them. This is a seduction of language, constantly urging you to name the constituency you represent rather than the oppressions you contest. It is through this Faustian bargain that political legitimacy is purchased.
Are we going to let Faust win? I say no. No to the devil and the devil's forces that seek to make us hate one another. No to transphobia, and no to homophobia and no to biphobia.
No to hate. We can, and must, learn to love one another, or die. Has Star Trek taught you nothing?
I was going to suggest here some things to consider in approaching the problem of transphobia in the gay community, and also homophobia in the trans community. However, the length of this post requires that I do so in a third installment.
Click here to read "Building The LGBT Alliance: Transphobia in the LGBT Community, Part III"