Several years ago, our local LGBT center, which at the time was called the Lambda Community Center, underwent a name change. When the new name was announced, several groups (mainly people in the bi and trans communities) began circulating a petition attempting to block the change. Why? Because the new name, “Sacramento Gay and Lesbian Center,” didn’t appear to be inclusive or all-encompassing – “gay” and “lesbian” were assumed to cover everyone in the LGBTQ community. Over 500 people signed the petition – to no avail. It was only this past year that the name changed to “Sacramento LGBT Center,” and still, many people still refer to the center as “Lambda.” Years later, many still feel incredibly hurt and angry about this – with good reason.
I shared this example with my Psychology of Sexual Orientation students the other day, within a larger discussion about transgender identities. Quite a few of my students – several of whom identify as gay or lesbian – were surprised. Shocked, really. Because aren’t we a community? Don’t we all support each other in unity? Aren’t we one big, happy rainbow family?
I wish I could answer “yes” to that question. Sadly, I can give so many examples of discrimination and oppression within the LGBTQ community. Here’s a sampling of well-publicized historical examples:
- In 1953, author Jeff Winters published an article about Christine Jorgensen in a gay men’s magazine. According to Winters, Jorgensen, a transgender woman, was committing a “sweeping disservice” to gay men by transitioning. “As far as the public knows,” Winters wrote, “you were merely another unhappy homosexual who decided to get drastic about it.”
- In 1979, Janice Raymond, a lesbian-feminist scholar, wrote The Transsexual Empire: The Making of a She-Male (yes, she really used the term “she-male”), in which she repeatedly referred to transwomen as “male-to-constructed females.” She went so far as to say, “All transsexuals rape women’s bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves.” Raymond wrote 1980 Congressional brief that led to the defunding of transgender medical insurance coverage.
- Well-known sex researcher J. Michael Bailey, who is unabashedly straight but conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity, at one time refused to believe that bisexuality really exists (particularly in men), saying, “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.” He only recently changed his position, but only after results from one of his studies indicated that bisexual men, in fact, are not lying.
Robyn Ochs, a bisexual writer, scholar, and activist, has this to say about the double-edged sword of biphobia: “Gay- and lesbian-identified individuals frequently view us as either confused or interlopers possessing a degree of privilege not available to them, and many heterosexuals see us as amoral, hedonistic spreaders of disease and disrupters of families.” And many other edge communities under the LGBTQ umbrella experience a similar double-edged sword – they’re rejected by mainstream heterosexual culture, and they’re also denigrated within their own community.
I have a slew of examples of community infighting that I’ve observed personally. And we’re not just talking biphobia and transphobia – there’s racism, class oppression, sexism, and ableism thrown in there too. A bisexual woman I interviewed years ago had this to say about her lesbian friends: “They basically edged me out once I started dating men. They treated me like I’d infiltrated and then bailed with the information.” A graduate school colleague, after she’d finished a presentation about BDSM, was admonished by a senior faculty member, a gay man who said, “Most of us aren’t like that.” At a conference, a gay male graduate student repeatedly used the term “rice queen” during his presentation to refer to non-Asian men who are sexually attracted to Asian men – and used the phrase like it was professional, scholarly terminology (without ever being corrected by his research advisor, also a gay man). A transgender male student of mine recently shared that, after coming out as trans, his lesbian friends completely rejected him, telling him that he was selfish and betraying his community. I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
These aren’t right-wing fundamentalist uber-heterosexual haters. These are our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who are behaving this way. Unfortunately, getting people within the LGBTQ community to take ownership of their oppressive behaviors is really hard. “How can I oppress people?” they cry. “I’m the one who’s oppressed!”
All of us within the larger LGBTQ community have experienced institutional oppression (such as being denied rights that are granted to heterosexual and cisgender people), and most of us can cite examples of interpersonal oppression. But the dirty little secret within the community is that we do it to each other, too. And I’d like to talk about a couple of reasons why.
First of all, when we stereotype, we’re falling into an “us vs. them” mentality. If our “us” identity feels shaky, then creating a “them” can strengthen that sense of identity. Committing a hate crime against a gay man, for example, might shore up the perpetrator’s insecure sense of masculinity. Engaging in biphobia might reinforce one’s exclusively gay or lesbian identity. The statement, “Most of us aren’t like that,” is essentially saying, “I’m safely over here. I’m not crazy like those folks over there.”
There’s another element to this, too. One way to feel like we belong to a group is to gain acceptance from others within a group. When we engage in “us vs. them” thinking, we’re essentially creating an in-group and an out-group – and our “us vs. them” beliefs allow us to connect with others in that in-group. It’s no accident that hate crimes tend to be committed by groups of individuals, because it’s a way (albeit a sick way) of forming a connection with others who share similar attitudes. By rejecting a transgender man, a group of lesbian women might band together even more strongly. It’s a way of taking refuge within a group – and the in-group/out-group dynamic is even more likely to happen when the in-group’s status is shaky.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post titled “A House Divided,” in which I focused more specifically on oppression directed towards intersex people, as well as racism within the LGBTQ community. And here we are again. It’s so clear to me that if our collective communities can’t find a way to hang together and stand on common ground, we’ll fall. All of us. Because when we’re fighting each other, the dominant power structure of our society goes completely unchallenged. White privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, class privilege – all of that remains intact, while those of us who experience oppression bring each other down. I don’t think we can afford to do that.