Note: I'm travelling to Netroots Nation, so I thought I'd put up a timeless post from the wayback machine. This was originally published last year, but the issue hasn't gone away. Wondering if you have a different take on my theory today?
Recently, an icon of gay activist history, Ronald Gold, posted a transphobic diatribe on The Bilerico Project. I had looked forward to learning something from Mr. Gold about our history, and I certainly did, though it is not what I hoped for. The post hurt many of our readers across the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity. It received literally hundreds of comments describing the pain they felt. Like many readers, I was very disturbed by the post. I woke up in the middle of the night struggling for a response.
Gold is by no means alone in his opinions within the gay community, though he is more outspoken than most. While much has changed in the last few years, this is a question as relevant today as it was seventeen years ago when I began my journey and received much negative feedback from gay "friends". It is as relevant today as it was twelve years ago when a gay friend evicted me from our shared apartment. It is a question as relevant today as it was two years ago when gender identity was stripped out of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In fact, it is particularly relevant when we are within striking distance of ENDA, and crunch time looms large. There is a risk that legislators will fold like a cheap suit, again, aided and abetted by transphobic gay "advocates" and their enablers.
In fact, I'm glad that it was brought up now by Gold. It's well past time to address this in the larger LGBT community. Gay people against transphobia need to speak up, and now's the time.
Q: What are the sources of transphobia? Is it best combatted by telling it to go away?
A: Its source is not mere prejudice, but old and complex power relations that must be changed, a task that is neither quick nor easy, and is not accomplished by adding a letter to an organization's name. It is based in heterosexism and heteronormativity masked as "radical" critique. Gold, and the many others of his ilk, are sheep in wolf's clothing. This needs to be called out and addressed by the gay community. It should not be up to the transgender community to battle alone, thus furthering the divide.
I see many such opinions like Gold's, often in the averted eyes and cold demeanors of gays and lesbians I meet. Just a week ago, I was invited to join a meeting of gender and sexuality scholars. When I told them of my research on a possible constitutional right to have a legal transgender identity, some of them derided the idea. What if I said I was 6'2", one asked. Another suggested that it would be better to avoid the idea of rights, and just hope for policy makers to do the right thing. No one seemed to think these opinions problematic in any way, although I was left squirming in my chair. No one said a word to me at the end of the session. I thought about it all the rest of that day, and into the next, when I wrote one of my detractors, hoping to politely clue him into an understanding that this was not on. He said we'd have to agree to disagree. It was as welcoming as an iceberg.
I know there has been much progress and the LGBT community has come a long way. But we are not yet at the promised land where we judge each other by the content of our characters, rather than the color of our skin or, I might add, the stripe of our sexuality or gender.
Heterosexist Power Relations At Work
In 2004, I published my research on this subject for the Journal of Bisexuality, a social science journal published by Routledge. I concluded that transphobia within the US gay and lesbian community is not a psychological state of hatred. It is, rather, a response to power relations specifically defined by US historical conditions. This type of GL vs. T transphobic response is not seen in many other nations, and it is variable within regions of the US itself.
To the extent that identity politics has created prejudice and discrimination within the LGBT community, it might be more accurate to locate its sources in "heterosexism" or "internalized heterosexism." Despite its pose as "radical" critique of gender rigidity, its history shows that it is, in fact, an accommodationist attempt to disavow more "radical" forms of sexuality.
Gold's opinion, shared by many, is best understood as a power struggle based in heteronormativity, and its gay twin, homonormativity. In Susan Stryker's excellent 2008 article in The Radical History Review on transgender history, she notes that this term was first used to denote "the double sense of marginalization and displacement experienced within transgender political and cultural activism." The belief that transgender identity is separate and apart from the gay community derives from beliefs drummed into children of the early 20th century, with roots in the 1870s and farther back.
I will summarize the first part of my article here, with more included in a Part II. Here is a link for those of you who would like to read it in its entirety, with footnotes and quotes.
The History of LGBT Relations
While a basic sexual drive seems to exist instinctually in most human beings as a matter of nature, the forms of sexuality seem to be socially constructed. French historian Michel Foucault is famous for championing the idea that, as of the 19th century, "the sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species."
Early texts, including Greek and Roman sources, speak of same-sex desire, but do not categorize persons solely by the sex of their partners. There was no single identity, which linked all men who engaged in same-sex acts. Significantly, mirroring the distaste for effeminacy of much of modern gay male and patriarchal culture, and the separation of what we now call "transgender" culture, Greek texts satirized effeminate males, and both literary and legal texts suggested it was unmanly behavior to accept a passive role in sexual intercourse after passing a certain age.
By the 4th century, the male same-sex acts that had been so public were forced to go underground by Christianity. In keeping with earlier ideas, it was believed that any man who was led astray, rather than a distinct subgroup of men who had inclinations towards men only could indulge in same-sex behavior.
Beginning in the 12th century, this belief began to change, and the contrasting belief that there was a certain type of man who engaged exclusively in same-sex behaviors slowly began to arise. Nonetheless, it was "passive" homosexuals who received the brunt of the condemnation, leaving in place an ethic in favor of the masculine.
Passing as the opposite sex occurred fairly frequently, however, and while it was also forbidden, it was rarely punished, as it was not considered, in and of itself, a sexual crime. It does not appear that there was any necessary linkage in the public mind between cross-dressing and sodomy until the eighteenth century.
By the eighteenth century, the public understanding was that same-sex acts were connected with effeminacy and cross-dressing, that those who engaged in same-sex acts did so exclusively, that same-sex acts were confined to a specific group of people, and that the propensity towards such acts was inborn. Despite this public linkage, most men who engaged in same-sex behavior rejected effeminate practices and role-playing.
The public conception of homosexuality coincided with a growing concern with effeminacy that appeared in England in the eighteenth century. Boys typically wore girl's clothing until they were sent away to boarding school. Men's clothing was frilly in the Elizabethan Age. However, clothing became more sharply differentiated from the 1770s on. There were diatribes against fops and dandies. By the nineteenth century, men no longer dared embrace in public or shed tears.
The nineteenth century scientific crusaders, Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, furthered the linkage between homosexuality and gender by theorizing homosexual men as "hermaphrodites of the mind," with male bodies and female souls, though not without opposition. In 1910, Magnus Hirschfeld coined the term "transvestite" to refer to one who prefers to wear the clothing of the opposite sex, to distinguish it and separate it from the phenomenon of homosexuality.
Thus, from the nineteenth century unitary conception of homosexuality there developed two concepts: "sexual orientation" (sexual object choice) and "gender identity" (sexual self-identification as male or female). This scientific rationalism and medicalization of homosexuality confirmed it as a unitary, monolithic phenomenon.
The "Modern" Era
The sex/gender dichotomy was deepened when, in the mid-twentieth century, homosexuality was separated into distinct male and female forms, each of which had different stylized behavioral styles, and distinguished from cross-dressing and effeminacy. This formed a gender divide, and corresponding tensions with bi-gender intermingling and gender ambiguity.
After World War II, there were furtive movements towards political action, but these were largely separated along gender lines. The Mattachine Society, an organization for gay men, was established in 1950. The first openly lesbian organization in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis, was established in 1955. These accommodationist groups encouraged gay people to "act normal" and fit in (lesbians belong in dresses, gay men don't), and recruited prominent "experts" like psychiatrists and psychologists to comment on homosexuality.
In the context of the counterculture of the 1960s United States, the "sexual revolution" permitted these separate populations to exist openly and to enter into the arena of state politics. The struggle to obtain social acceptance and civil rights pitted these groups against one another. Gays and lesbians campaigned for acceptance by suggesting that they were "just like you," but with the single (but extremely significant) exception of partners of the same sex. This fueled the tensions between accomodationist tendencies in the gay/lesbian community and gender ambiguity. It was perceived that gender ambiguity (echoing the Greek disdain for passivity) that channeled the stigma of illegitimacy. It was not surprising, therefore, that some homosexuals sought to lessen the stigma of homosexuality by rejecting the stigma of "inappropriate" gendered behavior.
These historical circumstances led to four areas of tension: monosexism versus bisexism, gender accommodationism versus gender ambiguity, open homosexual identity versus passing as heterosexual, and a gender divide versus bigender intermingling.
Too Queer, And Not Queer Enough
Transsexuals violated the tacit social understandings of the homosexual community in the U.S. both by failing to pass and passing too much. Transsexuals, and later transgenders, were disparaged because some were "passing" as straight through embrasure of stereotypes of gendered behavior, i.e., effeminacy for MTFs and hyper-masculinity for FTMs, and embrasure of heterosexual practices and privilege by identifying their same-sex practices as heterosexuality, thus rejecting homosexual identity. They were also looked down upon because they violated cultural norms of sexual behavior through gender ambiguity, visible androgyny and genderqueerness, thus violating the accommodationist idea that they are "just like you." The resulting split has incorrectly been attributed to fear -- "transphobia," rather than social and political forces.
Gold might argue that he is not one of the accommodationists, because he is fighting for the right to act in ways that violate gender norms. He ignores the context of the times, however. In the 1960s, such an argument was radical and liberating. The argument is no longer a radical one. It is now a regressive argument. By arguing that those born male must retain identification with maleness, even if not with masculinity, his critique lags well behind the radical curve, and begins to merge with the opinions of conservative traditionalists. At one time the use of bronze tools was the latest in technology. To advocate their use today would be silly.
Gold's opinion isn't silly, however, because it is still held by many. It is a hateful ideology. It is alive and well today and often deployed against the trans community. We may yet see it rear its ugly head in the ENDA wars of 2010. I pray that we do not.
In Part II, I will discuss the more recent history of transphobia in the gay community, how it relates to heterosexism, and how it should be addressed by the gay community.