The Ties That Bind Us

Published: August 20, 2014

As a transgender woman I get asked by gays and lesbians quite frequently how the T fits in the LGBT, and why transgender rights should be part of the larger gay agenda. Rather than shrug off the question, I take the time to actually answer. Quite simply, the T is included and should be included because being transgender is a core part of our identity, just as being gay, lesbian or bisexual is a part for others. We face many of the same challenges posed by heteronormativity in society. As a group we may not share all the challenges of being gay or lesbian, but there is a wealth of shared experience that gets talked about very little, and I hope to touch on some of this here.

While transgender people have always been a part of the larger gay experience, there has been a schism of late. The gay majority in the LGBT have in the past dropped transgender rights from their platforms because of a political fear that their own rights would be denied by the inclusion of a seemingly relative few, and the knee-jerk reaction has always been to throw out transgender protections if it would make larger gay and lesbian protections more palatable to legislators and the voting public. While in current estimates transgender people make up around 1 percent of the U.S. population, and 4-5 percent for gays and lesbians, based on other countries the number of transgender people may be significantly under-reported and some studies, such as this one by the Transgender Law Center put the figure far higher, in the same ballpark as the percentage of gays and lesbians.

In the past, transgender groups have been vociferous in our demands for inclusion, as we have seen the gap between ourselves and the rest of the LGBT widen even further due to the differences in narratives. However, while the narrative is different, the experience oftentimes is not. This is especially true with trans women who prefer women, and trans men who prefer men. Yes, the majority that you hear about are straight — women with men and men with women — but the statistics paint a completely different picture. Most transgender people are in actuality, either gay or lesbian. A University of Minnesota study suggests that 35 percent of trans women are attracted to women, vs 27 percent who are attracted to men. The same study also found that contrary to popular belief, most trans men are in fact gay.

A few weeks ago, a gay transgender man Lou Cutler was crowned Mr Gay Philadelphia, and a few weeks before that, trans woman Tobi Hill-Meyer was awardeda lesbian-oriented award for her work in the adult industry. Just like gays, lesbians and bisexuals — we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re as proud as the rest of you.

While our being born with an incongruous gender identity to our physical appearance may be difficult to understand for someone who has not experienced the pain, anguish, and hardship of dealing with the unique physical and mental ramifications of a brain/body mismatch, our sociological struggles related to sexual preference and non-conformity should ring home with the rest of the LGBT. Bears, twinks, butch, drag queens, to name just a few, are all non-conforming to heteronormative eyes — as are we.

When people are used to seeing us appear as male or female, our neighbors, family, friends and co-workers, as well as strangers we pass every day on the street, it is visually and psychologically shocking for them to see us wearing clothes and bearing the appearance of the opposite. Oftentimes it causes such a visceral reaction that we’re attacked based solely on appearance, or rejected by our family and friends, or fired from our places of employment. The visual issues of "passing" — how well one appears when presenting authentically for our gender, often mean the difference between life and death. While the sheer numbers of transgender women, in particular women of color, appears be more of a stark contrast to similar crimes against the rest of the LGBT, it’s important to remember that there are many gay and lesbian people who do not gender-conform, or appear to gender-conform, and therefore suffer the same targeting by those in heteronormative society who exhibit homophobia and transphobia. The biggest challenge as a trans person is that our struggles in heteronormative society aren’t solely based on our gender orientation, but also our presentation.

Sometimes, it’s easier to see the differences than it is to see our commonality in the greater LGBT. For example, I don’t know a lot of gay men who can truly relate to a lot of lesbian struggles, or lesbians who can relate to some gay issues. The same is just as true for transgender people. We face many of the same struggles for acceptance, struggles related to our sexual preference, and to our often non-gender-conforming appearance, as traditionally labelled gays and lesbians do. We in the T have done a poor job in the past of educating our gay and lesbian siblings to our needs, and have not taken the time to explain, but have instead widened the division on occasion. Yes, we in the T need to do a better job at educating our allies instead of attacking them when they’re misinformed on our issues, but conversely, we also need our allies to not shut down but actually listen to our voices. We are ALL far stronger together, than we would be apart.

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