UNFTR on LGBTQ: Behind the Acronyms
Summary: Today, we begin a conversation about the LGBTQ movement in the United States, with a nod to our Canadian friends as well. In order to properly introduce issues facing LGBTQ people into the larger context of socioeconomic and political topics we cover on UNFTR, we wanted to start with a conversation about the evolving language of inclusion and representation within the LGBTQ community.
For example, in the rather unremarkable election up north, there was a bright spot with the election of Blake Desjarlais in Edmonton. Desjarlais is Métis and identifies as two-spirit, the “2S” in Canada’s LGBTQ2S+ community, and one of six officials who openly identify in this community. Two-spirit identity isn’t as commonly discussed in the U.S. as it is in Canada, so it might be a new concept to many. The executive director of the Edmonton 2 Spirit Society says, “that two-spirit transcends that boundary by the binary of female-male, therefore restoring the gender fluidity amongst our people.”
As with our Culture Cancel episode where we examined Native and Indigenous issues, it’s important to note that the LGBTQIA+ community is not a monolith. There are no absolutes in this episode; in fact, that’s almost the point. Breaking away from heteronormative language and concepts of absolutes is essential to building a new framework of understanding of the LGBTQIA+ issues.
The other important marker is language. We talk a lot about language because it’s the construct of understanding a society is built upon. That’s the essence of the pragmatist movement; the idea that existence is truth, but what is known and believed is developed through shared language and therefore shouldn’t always be trusted.
So let’s stay there for a moment. Before we get to the political and socioeconomic discussion of rights and agency, let’s stay on language. At times in this episode, I will refer to the the LGBTQIA+ community either as LGBTQ or simply as “the community.” Plus, we’re going to go through some important definitions, so the acronym soup might be a little much at times.
For definition purposes, the longer acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersexual, Asexual and the “plus” is for those who might identify beyond what is included in the traditional acronym. Intersex and Asexual—the more recent additions to the lexicon—refer to those born without definitive anatomy or chromosomes of a defined gender and those who experience sexual feelings on a spectrum, respectively. These definitions, the accepted acronyms in the advocacy community and our understanding of gender identity and expression and biological sex and sexual orientation are evolving, and beautifully so.
There’s the derisive language that has for centuries defined the LGBTQ community, such as deviant, sodomist, perverted, pathological. There are countless references to same-sex behavior throughout history, from Plato forward, that cast the community in this negative light.
Then there is the language of the definitions themselves, which is broad and ever-changing. The word “queer,” for example, has a rich history of being both celebratory and derisive. There are many in the community that reject the rehabilitation of this word to identify same-sex or “non-heteronormative” lifestyles. Then there are others who use it as the blanket term for the larger community. What’s cool about this moment in time is that we’re literally working through these concepts in real-time.
It’s a lot like the discussions about how to refer to non-white communities. The first thing to know is that the term “non-white” is largely rejected because it still puts white people at the center of it. Minority is also a term that we’re moving away from because it carries a stigma of being lesser than. Even with a modifier like ethnic minority. Person of color, POC? Or Black Indigenous Person of Color, BIPOC? Hispanic, Latino, or LatinX? Is it okay to say “black” when referencing a black community? These are live conversations happening within communities, and externally as well.
The first takeaway, before we even get into the heart of the subject, is that this isn’t my discussion to drive. It’s my job to listen in on. Moreover, this is a process; and frankly, it’s an incredible one, because historically marginalized communities hold the power to identify themselves, reclaim their own histories and cultures, and stop defining themselves against the racialized or ethnic standard of whiteness and gender norms.
This is actually a really big shift, and it’s crucial to understand and open our minds to the larger issues of identity at play. Breaking from any cultural or historical norms is super messy, but necessary to evolve, and it starts with getting the language right. So, for my LGBTQ listeners or those in allyship, know that I’m not attempting to straightsplain here as much as I’m interpreting and contextualizing issues as additive aspects of our shared Unf*cking language.
More than words
So let’s talk a little further about the language surrounding the evolution in the LGBTQ community. Years ago, I did work with an advocacy group that was founded decades ago as GLBT, gay, lesbian bisexual, transgender in that order. At the time, it was extremely progressive and forward thinking. And I knew them when they changed the name to the LGBT network to remove any sense of historical hierarchy for gay males, and gay white males specifically.
That’s actually one of the more fascinating developments inside the community. There isn’t always consensus, but there is always a focus on fostering deeper understanding of ourselves and one another. There are marginalized communities within larger marginalized communities, each of which is on a difficult and different path. And that walk is far from over, as we’ll discuss.
I guess the entry point for this idea is that the legacy of the white male patriarchy that exists in all corners of our society exists in the LGBTQ community as well. The generally accepted mythology is that the entire movement owes itself to brave gay white men who took on the establishment, and the revolutionary moment enshrined in history is the Stonewall Riots. In some ways, I think it’s okay to leave this perception of the importance of this event partly intact; but like most historical events, this interpretation is a mixture of mythology, hyperbole and sentiment.
In the show, we played a clip from a New York Times video piece that discusses the legacy of Stonewall. We’ve linked it here, but in a nutshell, the subjects talk about everything from stereotypes about gay people loving Judy Garland (some do, but it’s a bit of a meme), how Stonewall wasn’t necessarily a beloved establishment (it was apparently filthy and they watered down the drinks), it doesn’t matter who threw the first brick (a popular point of contention) and other legends. One cool spoiler is that there were indeed kicklines in the street that night as police looked on. Which is… awesome.
Testimony from those who were actually there that night—from police to attendees—was that it wasn’t a riot, though that’s how it was characterized. But it was a triumphant protest that should be celebrated. What was triumphant about this moment is that the participants pushed back against selective and targeted enforcement of liquor laws and over-capacity, a tactic often used by police to target gatherings of LGBTQ community members. It was a public statement of “no more.”
But like most reflections, we have a tendency to romanticize certain events and attribute entire movements to specific moments like these when they are usually the culmination of efforts; a tipping point rather than a starting point. So, in this way, I think it’s good to honor the memory of Stonewall, but also acknowledge that people were doing the work and fighting against systemic oppression prior to Stonewall.
I bring this up because part of the legacy of the LGBTQ movement that needs to be explored more carefully is the concept of narrative control. I’m going to introduce a couple of resources for book love today, starting with a book titled Queer Injustice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States, by Joey Mogul, Andrea Ritchie and Kay Whitlock. The book is 10 years old now, and it’s interesting to see how the language has evolved even over the past decade, but the authors do a competent job of demonstrating how the community has faced systemic oppression and injustice through various societal and structural levers.
The first point I want to draw from the book relates to our understanding of the evolution of the movement from a gay white male perspective. “Since the late 1970s, the growing constellation of national nonprofit LGBT advocacy organizations, as well as many of their state and local counterparts, have been dominated by white, middle-class leadership and membership, and have also relied heavily on the financial support of affluent, white gays.”
So what’s important about this is that the movement in this country is young. In our minds and through our teachings, it started with the rights of white gay men, and that’s why Stonewall is such an important part of our understanding and education today. But I liken it to how Martin Luther King, Jr’s advocacy is taught to us through the “I Have a Dream” speech, while ignoring the radical growth of his movement toward the end of his life or the countless events that preceded it that made the March on Washington even possible.
Another great read is The Deviant’s War, written by Eric Cervini in 2020. In it, Cervini charts the community resistance path in the United States through the historical biographical narrative of Dr. Frank Kameny, a Harvard educated astrologer whose experience in the criminal justice system is an allegory for the experience of the community at large. It’s an excellent read and brilliant piece of history told in narrative form, so check it out if you haven’t had the chance.
I found The Deviant’s War a great companion piece to contextualize the experience of community members within the criminal justice system. The laws in the United States have been frustratingly resistant to updating and change. For example, a shocking number of states maintained archaic anti-sodomy laws on the books through to the 2000s, before the Supreme Court finally struck down sodomy statutes in Lawrence v. Texas. Beyond actual regressive and punitive laws against non-heteronormative behavior, there is a cultural and societal view of the community that is constantly revealed in the criminal justice system as well.
Identity, Expression, Orientation
The idea that someone is psychologically damaged because they live in a way that challenges heteronormative behavior is pervasive in our culture, our policing and our legal system. The real psychological damage, of course, comes from suppressing this part of ourselves. Community members swept up into the criminal justice system are more likely to be subjected to psychological evaluations as a result of this deeply rooted view of so-called queer behavior, and more likely to be charged and convicted of a crime based solely on our deep seated distrust of LGBTQ people.
As the Queer Injustice authors point out, “The prosecutor’s task is greatly facilitated when the accused belongs to a class of people stigmatized as abnormal, violent, sexually degenerate, and pathological.”
There are literally thousands of examples of police and prosecutors targeting LGBTQ communities engaging in otherwise normal behavior, and attempting to criminalize it. Members are often confronted with an unsympathetic justice system that places them in far greater harm than hetero community members once swept up in the system.
Again, from Queer Injustice: “The first national survey of violence in the penal system, conducted by the BJS in 2003, found that sexual orientation was the single greatest determinant of sexual abuse in prisons, with 18.5 percent of homosexual inmates reporting they were sexually assaulted, compared to 2.7 percent of heterosexual prisoners.”
A decade has passed, and the numbers haven’t improved all that much.
According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, “A 2015 study of nearly 28,000 transgender adults, showed patterns of frequent harassment, profiling, and abuse by law enforcement officers and high rates of incarceration. Just in the past year, 2% of respondents had been incarcerated, more than twice the rate in the general population (0.87%). The incarceration rate was several times higher among transgender people of color and low-income respondents. For example, nearly one in ten (9%) black transgender women were incarcerated in the previous year, approximately ten times the rate in the general population. Similarly, one in six (16%) respondents in the 2008–09 National Transgender Discrimination Survey had been incarcerated at any point during their lives, with the rate skyrocketing to 47% among black transgender people.”
Now, as difficult as this might be to hear, former First Lady Melania Trump’s efforts to stem the tide of bullying in this country with her “Be Best” campaign did not, in fact, halt the scourge of bullying. So we’re forced to carry on.
The gross insensitivity to the community can be found in our justice system, the carceral sphere, legislation and politics, to be sure. Beyond these structural frameworks, there is a cultural component that has undoubtedly contributed to the lack of progress made on these fronts. From literature to Hollywood, there’s a very casual reinforcement of heteronormative behavior through the reproach of “non-heteronormative” behavior.
It’s why authentic representation of historically marginalized groups in the media is so critical. It sounds ridiculous to even say it when you back up just a bit, but it really is important to “normalize” trans people on television, in literature and in the movies. I say ridiculous because of course this implies that trans folk are somehow abnormal, but that’s the point. We can’t understand what we cannot see. And we have to see it often for it not to be strange. You have to train your untrained eye in order to rewire your brain. Take, for example, a show that I became obsessed with on Netflix. It’s called Sense8 from the Wachowski sisters. For my money, some of the most creative and important television ever made.
What was important about this and other shows that have been developed over the past decade is the honest representation of trans people, specifically. We’ve been conditioned to see gay and lesbian characters—though most have been gross exaggerations for comedic purposes—but TV and Hollywood have made a concerted effort to more authentically portray marginalized groups.
But the battle for trans rights and acceptance, as much as I hate to even use that word, is current and real. I place “acceptance” in the same category as tolerance, which is something we have to move past. But it is part of the process; you can’t have progress and equity without passing through the difficult stage of acceptance. And it’s not just the white male patriarchy that is frustrating progress in the trans movement.
Take, for example, the year-old controversy over J.K. Rowling's transphobic comments. Rowling claimed her feelings came from her experience as a feminist or, as many refer to her, a “TERF,” which stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist. And she’s not alone. The idea among some feminist leaders is that men are essentially stealing power from women by asserting their rights to transition. It’s this kind of stance that makes this so difficult as a cisgender white male to even reflect upon. But, at the risk of pissing someone or everyone off, I have to back the trans perspective here.
There are very distinct aspects to this issue that are largely misunderstood. Apologies to the community because I know these are the basics—table stakes, as we might say—but it’s a good time to quickly review sex, gender and identity.
Gender identity is how you see and perceive yourself. You, in your own mind and body, regardless of your identity at birth.
Gender expression is how you express yourself to the world which, as the Human Rights Campaign so perfectly puts it, “may or may not conform to socially defined behaviors and characteristics typically associated with being either masculine or feminine.”
Biological sex refers to the stuff you’re born with. Organs, chromosomes. The physical nature of being.
As opposed to sexual orientation, which is your emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people.
Again, we’re only scratching the surface, as this is a very nuanced conversation with lots of language, interpretations and personal attachments to these terms.
Now, here’s the hard part for some of us to wrap our heads around. Each of these, identity, expression, biology, sexual orientation, all exist along a spectrum. In a world that requires answers and absolutes, that views everything in black and white and binary terms, this is a hard concept to digest. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. Terrified of what we don’t understand.
And that’s why language matters. I talked about this up top, and how the essence of the pragmatist is that life is truth, but language is how we express this truth. It’s the tie that binds us together as a society. This week, we released a conversation with Harry Wallace, Chief of the Unkechaug people, who spoke about the importance of language reclamation because it was what connects his people to their history and their culture.
What seems elemental to many of us is still a giant leap for so many more of us. So it’s important that we have this discussion, even if we don’t get it 100% right. As we’ve shown, even within the community itself, there is a continuing evolution of thought and language. As Unf*ckers, it’s important that we walk the path together in allyship and partnership.
To those in the LGBTQ community, it’s important to extend grace to those of us who are still learning and struggling to keep up. None of us will get it right all of the time, but it’s essential that we try.
This moment is especially important to the Transgender community because, in many ways, it has the hardest road ahead. But you might rightly ask why this is part of the UNFTR journey. How does it correlate to the topics we cover and our stated mission of examining the nation through a socioeconomic lens? It’s a fair question, and a good point for us to conclude this episode.
The intersectionality is tangible and evident. In past shows, we’ve explored mass incarceration. And today, we showed how LGBTQ and trans people specifically experience even greater hardship and risk when swept up in the criminal justice system.
We’ve explored our culture of militarism. The Trump administration attempted to ban trans people from military service.
We discuss economics at length on this show, and yet the myth that gays and lesbians live lavish lifestyles is belied by the statistics that clearly demonstrate LGBTQ community members are just as likely, if not more so, to experience poverty in the United States.
And we talk about violence and injustice in marginalized communities in the United States and Canada. To that end, the Human Rights Campaign recently released a report showing that 2020 was the most violent year on record with respect to violence against Transgender people, and 2021 is trending to be even worse.
Like gender and sexuality, discrimination and socioeconomic factors also exist along a spectrum. It’s why I felt it was important to introduce this language. As you know, I treat UNFTR as almost a podcast curriculum, with building blocks laid to better understand ourselves and the system we have designed. It’s hard to break something down if you don’t understand how it’s built.
And so, this is dedicated to those who have done the work and taken the pain to get to this point. To David, who taught me to meet people where they are. To the Unf*ckers who have supported us every step of the way and joined in this Unf*cking undertaking to right some wrongs and help create a better shared language. And, personally, it’s dedicated to Jeff and Evan, two people in my life who have transitioned. I see you. And I love you.
So let’s end with a small, but meaningful, expression of our Tyson Principal—and that’s what we can do. Add your pronouns to your email signature and social media profiles. Add it to your Zoom and Google Hangouts identity at work. Quietly invite the conversation. Familiarize yourself with the differences between identity and expression, biology and sexuality. Read, learn and advocate. The more we participate in holding up a new language, and the more space we give to community members to work through this process to live their truths, the easier it will be for us to build a policy framework that goes beyond tolerance and acceptance. One that just is.
My name is Max. My pronouns are He/Him. Wherever you are, I’ll meet you there.
Here endeth the discussion.
Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).