Gay neoconservative Joseph Murray recently called for the dividing of movements for justice and equality based on sexual orientation and gender identity — effectively promoting the idea that gay people should somehow leave behind the trans community and those who simply do not conform to what it means to be a “man” or “woman.”
As a gay man, I was taken aback by the revisionism of such views — views that are ahistorical and ignorant of today’s realities.
Trans and gender nonconforming people have been at the forefront of the struggle for justice and equality for all of us. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and other trans patrons of the historic Stonewall Inn were at the forefront of launching the modern-day LGBT rights movement and pushing back against the rampant police brutality in 1969. Then there are today’s trans activists like my friend Grace Sterling Stowell who has been running the Boston Alliance of GLBT Youth (BAGLY) for the past 30 years.
For gay people to rewrite history and turn our backs on the trans people who have fought at our side is far from “strategic.” It’s cowardly and wrong.
While some like Murray would suggest that gay people are completely different than those who are trans and gender nonconforming, we need not look far from our own childhood experiences. Growing up in the 1970s, I remember attending my father’s funeral at church and crying over his death. But my brother glared at me and hissed, “Stop crying.” He then added more forcefully, “Don’t be a faggot.”
The message I got was clear: “real boys” didn’t show their feelings even if they were eight and at their dad’s funeral. So how do you separate the issue of gender expression and sexual orientation? You can’t.
These kinds of experiences persist in the present day. According to GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, more than 80 percent of LGBT students experience harassment at school. And it is deeply rooted in the issue of gender nonconformity.
Whether it’s the effeminate boy who is mocked for “throwing like a girl” or the “tomboy” who doesn’t like to wear pink, students who do not conform to society’s rigid gender expectations suffer from the earliest and most virulent forms of harassment. Childhood bullies don’t make a distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity — they persecute anyone who deviates from gender norms.
Sadly, that mindset hasn’t changed much among those who single out others for being different, even in our own community. Some gay men have gone as far as privileging and even fetishizing gender expression that conforms to society’s rigid expectations of what it means “to be a man.” Case in point: witness the number of online profiles where gay men are seeking “masculine only” or “straight acting” partners.
As gay men, our own struggles toward belonging and acceptance are deep-seated, but they should not be used to vilify trans and gender nonconforming people who we share a common legacy with.
Unlike the fringe views of Murray, the LGBT community has expressed a strong commitment to advance an inclusive agenda of equality and justice for all of us.
Thousands of LGBT people recently took part in the Our Tomorrow campaign, a nationwide effort to identify the future priorities of the movement among everyday community members. Out of more than 14,500 unique contributions, trans issues ranked as the top issue among participants.
This finding only confirms what so many of us actually know: We can’t and won’t leave anyone behind.
Those proposing a so-called “divorce” of our movement want to throw trans and gender nonconforming people under the bus in a vain attempt to win the approval of those who hate us. That’s not a path toward liberation. It’s a dead end.
And that’s why more of us who are gay need to spend time listening to and lifting up trans people so the world can better understand who all of us are. Otherwise we keep allowing bullies — in our childhood and adult lives — to win.
Kevin Jennings is an educator, social justice activist and author of seven books. He is executive director of the Arcus Foundation, a global foundation dedicated to the idea that people can live in harmony with one another and the natural world.