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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Desire Quarantine: Sex and Gender in LGB....T

When the sign on the door says "LGBT," and the facilitator asks for everyone's pronouns, [trans people] are still not in a space that is free of cissexism, binarism and transphobia. In fact, we may be subject to them in a unique way that exists within an LGBT movement that has been led and shaped primarily by cisgender gays and lesbians. 
 
Sometimes I am not so sure that we trans people have been effective in getting our message across. And that's surprising, because we've had huge exposure recently.

Knowledge of the existence of trans people, and even some salient information about our existences, has suddenly broken into the public scene in recent years, and in force. Increasingly, there is coverage of our lives that is not merely sensational. Increasingly, the public learns not only what it means to be trans, but that trans issues are human rights issues, not merely daytime talk show material.

But while the public might still struggle with our existence, most of them do see us as firmly ensconced in the matrix that is "LGBT." The group that is LGBT, we are told, is our home base, our ally network. However, our realities on the ground are much more complex, and often a lot less comfortable.

Joanne Hermon, trans advocate and author, writes, "Back in the 1990's, lesbian and gay organizations started adding transgender people to their missions... But much like the general population, most people in the gay and lesbian community did not understand that, while the prejudices were similar, the underlying issue is quite different. Many still don't understand this" (Huffington Post, "Some Transgender People Are Not Gay," 2011). 

While my mother can tell you what the difference is between gender and sexuality, there are many cisgender lesbian and gay individuals who would struggle with that question.

Indeed, there are plenty of straight allies to the trans community-- like my mother-- who would laugh at the idea that being trans is a sexuality-- it is obviously and even instinctively untrue. So why is it that when trans people go to LGBT groups, our very sexuality is erased by our trans identity? Why do so many cisgender lesbian and gay individuals* consider, in so many ways (including the acronym itself!) that trans is a sexual identity, rather than a gender identity?

The web is one area where this problematic classification plays out. Have you seen this? A website aimed at some or all of the 'LGBT' community offers some kind of a sign-up form, a search form, a form where identities are declared-- and trans is listed as a sexuality.

Perhaps it's a sitewide member search, or a profile with multiple choice fields. Whatever it is, it acts as a sort of gateway to using the site.

And the questions on that form serve as gatekeepers. They determine which identities are proclaimed "loud and proud," and which get erased-- tumbling into the cracks between words, or entering only in disguise, in unwilling lies, like the gender variant person who is asked to choose between binary gender options, or the binary-identified trans person asked to identify themselves as "transgender." The worst offenders only offer four options for sexuality: Gay, Bi, Lesbian, or Transgender. Ah! Inclusion! How you make my heart sing! If by "heart sing," you mean, "turn my stomach."

On Social Rainbow, for example, a startup social networking site, trans is listed as gender, but still sexuality and gender are conflated and thus trans people's sexuality is effectively erased, with a single drop-down menu containing multiple gender and sexual identities. Only one selection is possible.

And this plays out in real-life groups, too. We can hardly escape it-- after all it's in the acronym itself. You're either gay, lesbian, bi, or trans. "Both my sexual orientation and my gender are queer, how the hell am I supposed to slice and dice myself into separate letters?" asks one commenter, via tranifesto.com, reflecting on the acronym-happy movement. So if you're trans, well, what of your sexuality?
 
To present trans people as without sexual identity is an assault on our personhood. Even trans people who are not sexually attracted may claim identities of asexuality, and these too are part of who we are.  

Is this ignorance? To some extent, sure. To some extent, trans people and allies have apparently not been vocal enough, or clear enough, about the difference between gender and sexuality. Those who the public would see as our closest allies frequently do not understand. I would hope that we would begin contacting websites and groups that conflate gender and sexuality and thereby erase trans people's sexuality, explain their error, and ask them to make changes. But understanding will only be accomplished through long-term education, agitation, and probably quite a bit of insistence.

I don't believe that the conflation of sexuality and gender within the LGBT community is only a result of ignorance, but also real discomfort with trans people and trans people's sexuality. Many trans people are familiar with how it feels to come into contact with cis gay and lesbian folks who are not supportive of trans people, and who openly disparage, oppress, or create barriers for trans people:

"It’s actually more painful [to experience transphobia in LGBT spaces] since (at least in theory) it’s supposed to be a safe space where I can relax and be myself, but the people in the groups are often a lot less concerned with being respectful and appropriate than your average straight non-trans person on the street. Many LGB people I’ve met are openly contemptuous or hostile."

-Anon III, via internet

 These experiences are common with trans people. But there are also subtler forms of cissexism, binarism and transphobia.

When the sign on the door says "LGBT," and the facilitator asks for everyone's pronouns, we are still not in a space that is free of cissexism, binarism and transphobia. In fact, we may be subject to them in a unique way that exists within an LGBT movement that has been led and shaped primarily by cisgender gays and lesbians. We may be subject to the erasure of our sexual identities, the overshadowing of our sexuality by our gender identities, the conflation and confusion of our gender identities and sexualities, and a even just a general cooling of the temperature of the room- both socially and even possibly, erotically.

These factors, together, make up what I am beginning to call "desire quarantine." Desire quarantine occurs in any situation where a dominant group attempts to establish a barrier meant to limit the impact of a group of sexual beings-- to place their sexuality in quarantine.

Trans peoples' sexuality is placed in quarantine when we enter gay and lesbian spaces that compulsively third-gender us (whether or not we identify as third-gender) and desexualize us by identifying us as only trans, and not as people who also have valid sexual identities. Desire quarantine, in the case of trans people, means erasure of trans people's sexuality and sexual identities.

Why would a group choose to quarantine the sexuality of trans folks? Perhaps that sexuality, because it is not based in a cisgender body, challenges the basis for genital-based monosexual orientations-- or appears to. Perhaps trans folks make some gay and lesbian people uncomfortable for the same reasons that some straight people are uncomfortable with gays and lesbians. We do what must not be done. We cross boundaries that must not be crossed. We disrupt the basic principles of others' identities-- and for that, we are either rejected or accepted in quarantine.

French anti-capitalist queer theorist Guy Hocquenghem discusses capitalism as the initiator of desire quarantine in The Screwball Asses, exploring how oppressive social conditions force queer people to self-identify, or force identities upon them, in an effort to limit their transformational potential and the inherent danger to capitalism posed by "illegitimate" sexualities. Might the same occur on a micro-scale within LGBT groups? Do trans people pose an imagined or real threat to monosexual gay politics to such an extent that it is preferable to exclude us from full participation? For that is the result, no matter the intention. Trans people tend to attend "GBLT" centers less, remain involved less often, and have shallower commitments to the groups. While this may simply be because these groups have less utility to trans folks, it is also because trans people are oppressed and discomforted there. Thus, trans people engage less, identify with the group less, and are less likely to become leaders.

Trans people are not always subject to desire quarantine via the actions of others. Sometimes trans folks are accepted, but other's perceptions of their history and bodies place them in situations that are very uncomfortable. In these cases, trans people will often voluntarily remove themselves from groups.

Sean (via internet) says:
"Gender identity isn’t sexual orientation. GLB communities often work because people want to meet others to date, sleep with, and/or have relationships with. That’s what keeps a lot of GLB coming back – the potential to meet someone to connect with. Being trans is independent of that."
Technically-- yes, being trans is independent of that. But socially, it's far from independent of anything. What is the place of a gay trans man among gay cis men who treat him with polite coolness? Where is the safety for a lesbian trans woman who is third-gendered by cis gays and lesbians? When a trans guy is hit on by avowed, monosexual lesbians at a LGBT function, what's his comfort level with returning? Anon (via internet) says, "It can be a huge pain in the ass when people assume that a trans guys *must* be into women/lesbians and gets hit on constantly...people make assumptions about a common lesbian past/socialization."

"One reason I never felt comfortable in LGB spaces is because people assumed I was L. There is never a “just” T space, it is always preceded by LGB, which takes priority as well.

The other major reason is that, even in Trans spaces, I never felt like I belonged in the trans community, mostly because I am neutrois – a non-binary trans identity.... Some of my experiences are very different from say an FTM, so I felt like I wasn’t trans enough to be transgender." --Maddox, via internet


One way to address desire quarantine and other oppressions affecting trans people within the 'GBLT' groups is to insist upon a framework that addresses oppression, rather than celebrates identities based on physical or birth sex. While our identities are often important to us, especially in a world that would often try to strip them from us, our identities can inform our work without eclipsing it.

From an anti-oppression standpoint, trans people of all sexualities and cisgender gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer people have a great deal in common. As those who champion unity above all else like to point out, we're all oppressed in similar ways, and those who oppress us often do not differentiate between cis gay people and trans people. We're all perceived as violators of the heterosexist order of things.

But within the groups we work in to accomplish change, we really are very different from each other. While establishing monosexual norms might give a sense of community to cis gays and lesbians, such norms hurt bisexual, pansexual and trans people. This fact deserves acknowledgement, attention and intensive work. The growing use and acceptance of the term "queer" gives me hope that we will be able to stop "slicing and dicing" people's selves with acronyms soon, and recognize that the only thing we have in common is that our existence challenges patriarchial, heterosexist oppression.



*I tend to say "cis gay and lesbians" rather than "cis gays, bisexuals, and lesbians" or "cis LGBPQA" people. I do not believe that bisexual, pansexual, demisexual, etc. individuals have nearly the same investment in othering trans people, instigating desire quarantine, or defining trans as a sexuality. In addition, bi/pan people are marginalized in LGBT groups as well, often to a significant extent. This makes them potential allies and confederates, not oppressors, of trans people. I explore this more in A Confederacy of Amorphosity.

4 comments :

  1. Hi Dylan, this is Cameron, Eric's partner, I just wanted to let you know that I read your post and I thought it was really awesome, so I reblogged it!

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  2. Thanks Cameron! Glad you liked it.

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  3. Loved your post! I was a little miffed at your omission of pansexuality and that fits into the gender/sexuality equation, but you slipped it in at the end!

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    1. Thanks audben! I mostly omitted pansexuality and bisexuality from the discussion not to erase those sexualities, but because I feel these communities have often been allies to trans people and shouldn't be implicated as instigators of desire quarantine in 'LGBT' spaces.

      Thanks for your feedback!

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