Why Is the T in LGBT?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Emma’s latest piece on transgender rights—specifically Massachusetts’s relatively slow pace to fully enact them compared to gay rights—the most up-voted comment from a reader is simply, “Why exactly are gay issues mashed together with transgender issues?” Reader Liam’s view:

The T in LGBT has never rested easily with LG because the L & G tend to be gender/sex essentialists. (TERF wars, anyone? [TERF stands for “trans exclusionary radicals feminists,” and their tension with trans people is covered in Notes here and here.] Armistead Maupin memorably satirized this very issue over 30 years ago with his book Babycakes). The T issues don’t map neatly into the L&G issues.

Another reader is on the same page:

LGBT—which of these letters is not like the other?

Lesbian and gay folk strongly tend to be gender essentialists, and because of that, the transgender caboose has always and will always feel like it’s meant for a different gauge of track than the rest of the train cars. Activist groups have a strong confirmation bias problem in seeing “LGBT” because they want to maximize their contributions, and because having a new dimension for a cause helps with their self-perpetuation.

It seems that many transgender activists are aware of this gender-essentialist divide to varying degrees, but they are in denial about the likelihood that shaming LG activists will successfully change that reality. Shaming produces short-term, tactical results, but it deepens the problem longer-term.

Another reader poses a chicken/egg question: “Is the LGBTQ mash-up more the result of how members of those groups and their advocates have categorized themselves, or how traditionalists who just thought of it all as weird/icky/evil categorized them?” What do you think? A good place to start is the 2007 Salon piece “How did the T get in LGBT?” written by a long-time gay rights advocate and blogger, John Aravosis. He begins:

In simpler times we were all gay. But then the word “gay” started to mean “gay men” more than women, so we switched to the more inclusive “gay and lesbian.” Bisexuals, who were only part-time gays, insisted that we add them too, so we did (not without some protest), and by the early 1990s we were the lesbian, gay and bisexual, or LGB community. Sometime in the late ’90s, a few gay rights groups and activists started using a new acronym, LGBT — adding T for transgender/transsexual. And that’s when today’s trouble started.

By “trouble” he means the contentious politics and intra-LGBT conflict over ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which has been introduced to Congress nearly every year since 1994 without passage. The closest it came to law was in 2007, when Aravosis wrote his Salon piece:

In all that time [since 1974, when similar legislation to ENDA was first introduced], it only protected sexual orientation and never included gender identity. This year, that changed, and gender identity was added to the bill. Coincidentally, this year is also the first time that ENDA actually has a real chance of passing both the House and Senate — but only if gender identity isn’t in the bill.

So the bill’s author, openly gay Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., dropped the transgendered from the bill, and all hell broke loose. Gay activists and 220 national and local gay rights groups angrily demanded that gender identity be put back in the bill, guaranteeing its defeat for years to come. Many of them, suddenly and conveniently, found all sorts of “flaws” with legislation that they had embraced the previous 29 years. They convinced House Democratic leaders to delay action on ENDA till later in October. They’d rather have no bill at all than pass one that didn’t include the transgendered.

Back to another reader, who is very sympathetic to the plight of transgender Americans but doesn’t see their struggle for civil rights as quite the same as their gay and lesbian peers:

I know a number of people who identify as trans. I know that many if not all of these people suffer profoundly. Alleviating that suffering should be the number one priority. I don’t know to what level these bathroom accommodations will contribute to the alleviating of suffering, especially when it is so polarizing and may lead to many people being less willing to accept trans people.

In my view, the right lost the gay marriage fight because they didn’t actually have a case that wasn’t rooted in theocracy, which is unconstitutional. The reality is that gay marriage is about gays themselves; it has no direct connection to the lives of heterosexuals, no matter how much opponents say it does.

This bathroom issue is not the same as gay marriage; it does have the potential to encroach on people’s daily lives. The left is going about this even worse than the right. The major problem with how liberals are treating this issue is in their dismissive nonchalance, as if it is incomprehensible that anyone could have any qualms. This is utterly dismissive of the feelings of a whole lot of people.

There has been a rush to accommodate transgender persons, which is understandable considering their level of alienation and distress. But the least we owe people who are uncomfortable with this is to explain the case for it in a way they can understand, and especially in an effort to treat their concerns seriously.

Back to Liam, who touches on another fault line between some transgender activists and gay activists:

Outside the media glare, there are lesbian and gay folk out there who view the trendiness dimension of T activism today with some concern, especially that it may be a way for *SOME* lesbian and gay youth to be led prematurely into a T path.

Other readers have written in along those lines, so I’ll save them for a separate note. If you disagree with any of the views expressed above, email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update this note with the strongest rebuttals. Update from a reader:

At the end of the day, gay and trans people are linked through one factor: We both actively defy expected gender roles and have faced persecution for it. There’s also a fair amount of overlap; many of the trans people I know are bi or gay. (Interestingly, I know a fair number of former lesbians who are now gay men.)

That being said, I’m pissed the non-trans inclusive ENDA was dropped. It betrayed political naiveté. You get progress in increments and through ugly compromise, not by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

A transgender woman, Raelle Kaia, elaborates on that idea of a “fair amount of overlap”:

On some level, all trans people are LG or B. If you transition from M to F, you were either straight as a man and then gay as a woman, or vice versa, or you were bi, no matter what your gender. And if you identify as a third or otherwise different kind of gender, all the sex you have violates the societally prescribed norm of M-F sex. Ditto if you’re intersex.

So this is why all of this ultimately comes down to gender roles and expectations, and why they all belong in the same category. Society has traditionally sought to impose gender definitions on its members, and then further impose sexual roles, clothing restrictions, and other demands and legal constraints based on this gender designation. This is what all LGBTQIA people are demanding to change. Because when society does this, it harms us. And we’ve seen that the only solution to this harm is to let everyone define their own gender and their own roles in regards to that gender, in all areas of life.