Bil Browning

Aravosis-inspired open thread

Filed By Bil Browning | October 08, 2007 8:15 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: AmericaBlog, drag queens, gay history, John Aravosis, open thread, question,, transgender

John Aravosis penned a article called "How did the 'T' get in GLBT?" that while I disagree with entirely, raised an interesting question for an open thread.

I have a sense that over the past decade the trans revolution was imposed on the gay community from outside, or at least above, and thus it never stuck with a large number of gays who weren't running national organizations, weren't activists, or weren't living in liberal gay enclaves like San Francisco and New York. Sure, many of the rest of us accepted de facto that transgendered people were members of the community, but only because our leaders kept telling us it was so. A lot of gays have been scratching their heads for 10 years trying to figure out what they have in common with transsexuals, or at the very least why transgendered people qualify as our siblings rather than our cousins. It's a fair question, but one we know we dare not ask. It is simply not p.c. in the gay community to question how and why the T got added on to the LGB, let alone ask what I as a gay man have in common with a man who wants to cut off his penis, surgically construct a vagina, and become a woman. I'm not passing judgment, I respect transgendered people and sympathize with their cause, but I simply don't get how I am just as closely related to a transsexual (who is often not gay) as I am to a lesbian (who is)...

While we've talked often about the LGBT community and what that means, let's try to answer John's question. How did the 'T' get added to LGB - and how are we "related?" Personally, I'd start by reminding him that it was drag queens that started Stonewall... The floor is yours.

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Biblically, the prohibition in Leviticus is "man shall not lie with a man as with a woman". In the New Testament, there is an injunction against the effeminate. Romans had disdain for a man who was not masculine enough.

The same holds true in today's society. The taboo is not so much the style of sex (after all, heterosexuals do the same things homosexuals do), but transgression of gender roles.

Men are tough, don't cry, have sex with hot women, etc. Break one of those rules, and you've transgressed social mores pertaining to gender.

I'd argue that, for the most part, gay men and Lesbians have little in common. But what the whole LGBTIQSSLO community has in common is that society has lumped us together as a group of gender outlaws they call "queers", "faggots", "dykes", and other epithets.

What we have in common is the fight.

While I agree with and appreciate your inclusive posture, Bill, let’s use our facts correctly to debate Aravosis.

First of all, drag queens AND lesbians resisted the police raid at Stonewall, including author Rita Mae Brown (according to one historical account by Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, “Women’s Letters: American from the Revolutionary War to the Present, 2005, p.666-667).

Second, transvestites are not the same as transgendered people. One dresses, temporarily, to appear as the opposite sex while the other lives as the opposite sex from which he or she was born (or chooses one sex from the two with which s/he was born).

Cindy Knox captures the essence of the situation – society’s bigots lump sexual radicals together. Anyone who’s different, sexually, fights a common enemy.

Aravosis’ elitist, separatist attitude would have us weaken our cause by excluding those members of our society that cause him discomfort. Divided we fall.

His squeamish posture reminds of 1960s Blacks who were suspicious of Blacks who weren’t black enough – something that caused division within a tiny portion of society seeking to gain economic parity. That strategy only served to weaken the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

Pick off the T and next Avarosis will be picking off the B and then the L; then he'll start dividing us by race, then class, then religion.

Evenutally, gay men will be left to stand alone. They didn't stand alone at Stonewall; and given the recurrent crimes against the Matthew Shepards of the US, one would think a gay man would seek to be more a uniter than a divider.

Transpeople have always been a part of queer communities, but like today there is a history of transpeople being pushed out of those same communities.

Beth Elliot was expelled from the LA Lesbian Conf in the early 70's.
Lou Sullivan fought for the visibility of gay and bi transmen in the 70's and 80's.

In addition to sharing the same enemies but we have also shared the same social spaces and causes. Even the straight one's.

Now I find this interesting…
When I came out in 1980 as a paleo-transgender person. (old school pre queer) I wasn’t associated with gays and lesbians by my peers who were all straight. They understood intuitively the concept of brain sex. While we are in a mode of defining terms we must recognize the difference between transsexuals and transgender folk.
Transsexuals end their transition in surgery and where possible becoming legally the sex that there reconstructed genitals represent.
Transgenders don’t opt for surgery and retain their birth genitals and may or may not change their legal name. (Most don’t). This puts transsexuals as far from drag queens as is possible. Straight men have more in common with drag queens then TS do for one thing they both like what they have for gentiles. Transsexuals don’t because it is wrong.

Since I was around and saw it as it happened;
From my perspective the GLB co-opted the transgender community. Since most transsexuals woodwork themselves during or after transition there are few TS in the GLBT per capita.
This political co-opting that took place was with the consent of some in the transgender community who have first distanced themselves from transsexuals (read Victoria Prince’s first book) then decided to adopt the term transsexual for those who wished to stay intact and try and have their cake and eat it also.

The truth of the matter is the GLB has not a single thing to further the needs of transsexuals. Transsexuals need continuity of documentation meaning when one changes their legal sex they should be able to have their old birth certificate ether sealed or destroyed and a new one issued. I don’t see any gays or lesbians working to get a legal exemption to the publication of a name change for transsexuals. I don’t gays and lesbians working toward mandating that all insurance companies cover transitional medical needs.

This political consolidation has been a one-way street for transsexuals, which is why a growing number of TS and former TS folk are no longer offering up political support for the needs of the GLB.

Take care
Susan Robins

As RecordRat pointed, Aravoisis is simply whitewashing history. Historian Susan Stryker has a detailed run-down of the long common history at the Left in SF blog.

Unfortunately, gains as the result of trans activism actually were wiped out in the 1970s when we were abandoned by our LGB allies -- if not actively shoved out by our allies (along with drag queens, butches and other folks) and then actively demonized by prominent LG thinkers/activist like Janice Raymond and Jim Fouratt.

We were so marginalized so that in the Barry Winchell ("Soldier's Girl") case that prompted a review of "don't ask don't tell" various LGB organizations misrepresented Calpernia Addams as being a drag queen instead of a trans woman. And FWIW, both Winchell and Addams considered their relationship to be hetero.)

So if we haven't been a part of the LBG community, it's because of folks like Aravosis slamming the door in our faces. OTOH, as has been pointed out elsewhere, it's notable that some of the strongest support for a trans-inclusive ENDA is coming from the folks small-town America, where arguably Ts are a closer part of the LGBT community because there may be only one accepting bar in town -- and because people see upclose that those who hate us don't bother with the sort of distinctions Aravosis makes.

In my experience, as a hetero crossdresser, when I've been insulted in the street the slurs usually have to do with people assuming I'm gay. And that alone makes me part of the LGBT community regardless of what Aarvosis would like to think.

Zach Adamson | October 8, 2007 1:26 PM

While Im still very new to the idea of T inclusiveness as far as civil rights struggle, it never seemed a far fetched idea that we would ALL struggle together until we all found our freedoms. I think the more important question, that I havent heard discussed, is the fact that so many Trans people feel they are no longer part of the LGBT community once (if ever) they have their surgery. I have heard on MANY occasions, here especially, many T folks say they are no longer Trans.. They are a woman.. (or man) and essentially straight or whatever their orientation is. I find that extremely divisive, since there really isnt a surgery that I, as a gay man, could have(Not that I would God forbid) that would remove me from the LGBT community. At least not one I'm aware of.
Dont get me wrong. What people consider themselves is great with me.. whatever brings people to a place where we all feel complete and valued as human beings. If your a T and once you have the surgery you feel you no longer need the civil rights support of the "community" great, but the idea should be addressed, that if there are a majority of T folks who feel this way, maybe there is more of a difference than we first thought. Not that we should exclude anyone from the struggles. T civil rights are inherently still civil rights.. EVERYONE has a right to safety, security, ability to earn a living and the basic liberties all Americans are entitled. That's my beef with the removal of the T from ENDA. As Im sure we can all agree, none of us are free when any of us are oppressed.. Regardless of which acronym you feel at home within.
I hope I havent offended anyone. It certainly wasn't my intent. But this has been on my mind since joining the blogging community and seeing so many different opinions posted. It always felt odd reading posts from people who consider themselves "formerly Trans", speaking as still members of a community they had removed themselves from.

John Aravosis doesn't understand what he has in common with trans folks? No shit. Maybe that is because he doesn't understand anything about trans identity or politics. Anyone who refers to bisexuals as 'gay part of the time' and believes that FTM reassignment surgery actually involves cutting the penis off (or that being FTM even necessitates surgery) is clearly not qualified to discuss the complex interactions between gay, lesbian, and trans identity politics.

Aravosis may claim that he is supportive of trans rights, but his fluffy and uninformed opinion piece is filled to the brim with vile anti-trans rhetoric. It sounds like he's watched Brian De Palma's Dressed to Kill one too many times.

As Cindi pointed out, Aravosis really shows his privilege (and complete stupidity) when he suggests that being gay is the exact same as being lesbian. The truth is that women attracted to women face completely different challenges and oppression than men attracted to men. This has already been well discussed and theorized. I'd point him to Marilyn Frye's essay "Lesbian Feminism and Gay Rights" in her collection The Politics of Reality. For Aravosis to ignore the long and tense history between gay men and lesbians is irresponsible. It illustrates his ignorance when he claims that being trans has nothing in common with being gay, unlike being a lesbian. Ha, yeah right.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | October 8, 2007 4:36 PM

I just finished reading Aravosis' Salon piece and am actually feeling ill, I am so angry and so utterly and deeply let down. It’s bad enough to look back at America from the perspective of Ireland and feel abysmally alienated due to the apathy over the war in Iraq, the media’s abasement to the point where the likes of Ann Coulter is considered an appropriate voice for CNN and MSNBC, and the Democratic Party’s dismal failure to stand against Bush on every issue from habeas corpus to torture to Katrina to the Supreme Court.

Now add to that the fact that “liberal” gay activists seem poised to throw trannies under the bus (again). I honestly can’t believe that in the pages of Salon and the halls of Washington, we are once again fighting the counter-productive, self-destructive battle of whether or not “T” belongs in “LGB.”

I’d expect the ignorance, chauvinism and guile exhibited by Aravosis’ piece from the Right. But how can a politically aware, so-called liberal gay man have his head so far up his own ass?! It’s like the last 20-30 years of LGBT history have never happened as far as his opinion piece is concerned.

Beginning with his either disengenous-or-outrightly-dishonest lede,

Like an ever-expanding mushroom cloud [neat reference to nuclear war, in case we wondered where he stands on what’s to follow] of diversity, every few years America's gay leaders and activists welcome a new category of member to the community…
to his
…I have a sense that over the past decade the trans revolution was imposed on the gay community from outside, or at least above, and thus it never stuck with a large number of gays who weren't running national organizations, weren't activists, or weren't living in liberal gay enclaves like San Francisco and New York…
and beyond, the piece reads like a sickeningly bad joke. A sickeningly bad joke in which a powerful, wealthy, white gay men, like Aravosis, presents himself as a fearful, victimized, well-meaning campaigner, cowed into silence by the menacing, omnipotent and scary trannies.


Let’s start with his lede. For those too young or too asleep to know, the LGBT movement has never “welcomed” any level of diversity. Ever. We’ve been arguing amongst ourselves over inclusion and labels from long before I first became involved in 1982. Back then the big dispute in the “liberal gay enclave of San Francisco” was whether or not lesbians should be devoting their hearts and souls—not to mention, organizing hours and physical presence—to a movement that was increasingly dominated by what was then a primarily a white, gay male disease, AIDS. Most of us agreed that we should, recognizing then—as now—that we’d either stand together or fall divided. Moreover, supporting our suffering gay brothers was the right thing to do for people who called themselves progressives.

As for “T” inclusion specifically, far from being a label “imposed” from above, trans folks—like me—have been putting our bodies and souls on the front lines from the very beginning. Yes, we were at Stonewall: that is an indisputable fact. As well, many of us are the nellie queens and butch dykes who are subjected to the brunt of homophobic violence day in and day out. A large number of FtMs and MtFs have, in effect, risen through the ranks of the LGB movement. I myself have the dubious distinction—and am not alone among my tranny brothers and sisters—of having been intimidated or threatened by homophobic thugs as a lesbian, a gay man, and a bisexual man.

Even now, were I to identify as a straight man—which I don’t!—why would anyone expect me to just abandon and forget a struggle that has provided my focus and given me my friends for the past quarter century?! That advice is as crazy as what medical professionals used to tell transsexuals, ordering us to leave behind our families, friends and lovers and start over in a location where no one knew us. The people I’ve come across over the years who were unfortunate enough to have followed such advice have been as emotionally damaged by it as you would rightly expect.

What is more, trans inclusion in ENDA is not a recent development, as Aravosis implies in his smug, disgraceful piece. Smart, clear-thinking and heartfelt progressives—of all labels—have been fighting for it from the inception of ENDA nearly 30 years ago. Though I can’t provide specific names and dates, I remember the arguments back then. Sadly, nothing has changed, Avravosis is citing the same, tired refrain: we have to move slowly, incrementally. Get the law passed first for lesbians and gays, then come back for the trannies. Adding trans up front, it was argued 30 years ago, is just way too radical.

If the likes of Aravosis prevail, I can expect that in my lifetime, outlawing discrimination in employment against transsexuals will remain too radical for America.

Aravosis, a white, gay male who obtained a joint law degree and masters in foreign service from the elite Georgetown University, where he studied under the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright then went on to practice law and reside in the heart of American political power, Washington, D.C., wants me to believe he’s being brave in his piece for Salon—daring even. Speaking out for sources and supporters too afraid to go on record. Against which powerful lobby? Why, members of one of the most universally despised, denigrated, threatened and discriminated minorities in the world. Yes, John, please tell me again how much we’ve intimidated powerful white men like you. Maybe I can stop crying over your piece, and have a bit of a laugh.

Cindi Knox got it right: it’s the LGBT movement because in a world as gendered as the one in which we live, ALL lesbians, gays and bisexuals are engaged in transgender behavior. If the elite of the political movement succeed in throwing trannies under the bus, it will only ensure that our long-term struggle to protect ourselves against discrimination for our actions will be set back decades.

Steve Ralls Steve Ralls | October 8, 2007 7:23 PM

I echo GenderPac's thoughts on this: Effeminate gay men and "butch" lesbians are subjected to anti-transgender bigotry as well as anti-gay bigotry. For many in our country, 'transgender' is equal to 'gay,' and there's little distinction when it comes to hate.

A trans-inclusive ENDA is so important because, regardless of labels, without the 'T' included, those who do not conform to gender 'norms' are open to being fired, regardless of their sexual orientation.

No LGBT American should be left behind with ENDA. If our community doesn't support our transgender brothers and sister, then shame on us.

How did the T get into GLBT? That's the wrong question. The question is how did homosexuality get constructed Distinctions between gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders developed rather recently in history. Until the 1950s, those now called “transgender” were classified as homosexuals by everyone, including the physicians who specialized in their treatment, and it is only in the past fifty years or so that transgender has been theorized as different in kind from homosexuality. Many in US society today still consider transgenders to be homosexuals, no different from gays and lesbians. Yet sometime in the past century, transgenders started to become separate from homosexuals, being gay or lesbian became more acceptable than being bisexual or transgender, and a split developed between gay/ lesbian and bisexual/transgender. When one looks at the specific ways in which homosexuality was constructed in the West, these results are clearly foreshadowed.

More history at my article on transphobia in the U.S. gay community from the Journal of Bisexuality (2004) at