Pride season is upon us and I’ve been struck by the tension that still exists across various Pride events around the B and T parts of the LGBT acronym (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans).
Two friends attended EuroPride to be on a panel about bisexuality. They reported back how they were faced with the usual stereotypes about ‘making your mind up’ and scepticism about the existence of bisexuality. Another friend attended a Pride London event where the words ‘gay’ and ‘homophobia’ were used throughout by speakers, despite Pride London claiming to be an LGBT+ event.
Other friends attended the London DykeMarch, the week before London Pride, and were met with a protest by a group of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) who shouted transphobic abuse at one of the speakers. The speaker in question has written about this here. Whilst we may well have reached a transgender tipping point – and media representation has certainly improved dramatically in the last few years – trans remains a serious point of contention in some feminist movements, and there is also a good deal of scepticism around non-binary genders now that these are receiving media attention.
I think that this trouble around bisexuality for gay/LGBT+ movements, and around trans and non-binary genders for feminist movements, stems from the same place. Recognising this provides a way forward that will not only be more inclusive for B and T people, but will be better for everybody, if we’re brave enough to do it.
The roots of feminist and gay rights movements
Very broadly speaking, feminist and gay rights movements emerged in similar ways.
With feminism, the world in which it emerged said that there were men and women, and that women were inferior to men. Feminism therefore began to work to get women treated equally to men.
With gay rights, the world in which it emerged said that there were straight people and gay people, and that gay people were inferior to straight people. Gay rights movements therefore began to work to get gay people treated equally to straight people.*
The problem is that while early feminist and gay rights movements rightly challenged the second part of what the world around them said about gender and sexuality (the inferiority bit), they generally accepted the first part (that everybody could be divided into the binaries of men and women, gay and straight). They didn’t realise that the first part was also an intrinsic part of the patriarchal and/or heteronormative systems that they were trying to challenge.
Of course many feminists and LGBT+ rights movements since then have noticed – and corrected – this error (intersectional feminism and queer activism being just two examples). However many mainstream feminist and LGB/T rights organisations and campaigners retain those underlying binary assumptions. And it is generally their voices that get heard.
Retaining binary assumptions
I think that this explains why, when I talk to people from many LGB/T organisations and media outlets, they argue that they need to keep working to get gay and lesbian people accepted, and homophobia eradicated. Only once that has happened can they start to address bisexual people and biphobia (despite the fact that there are probably more bisexual people than LG people, and research suggests that they suffer from even higher rates of mental health problems). This results in the strange situation whereby some campaigners who know lots of bisexual activists, and who even experience sexuality in non-binary ways themselves, still default to talking about ‘gay’ people and ‘homophobia’. The concern is that bisexuality might ‘muddy the water’ because of the binary assumptions that their campaigns are based on. They don’t seem to consider the possibility that it might point the way to an alternative model of sexuality which could be more – rather than less – palatable to the people whose opinions they are trying to change.
The acceptance of binary assumptions also explains why some feminists are so troubled by trans and non-binary genders. The basis of everything they’ve worked for has been that there are two categories of people – men and women – with one oppressing the other. It therefore feels important that that those categories are stable (that people remain in the gender they were assigned at birth), and that those categories are easily readable off a person’s general appearance and genitals. If this is not the case, then people worry that campaigns based around women’s experience, or what men do, might be called into question, as well as there being difficulties in creating safe spaces for women.
Thinking about it this way helps us to understand why the LGBT+ movement often looks like a GGGG movement, and why some radical and liberal feminists struggle with trans and non-binary genders. There is a real, profound, and understandable fear of engaging with fluid and non-binary sexualities, and with genders that don’t map onto those assigned at birth, or which are beyond the binary. The fear is that – given that the whole movement has been based on a binary assumption -any questioning of that assumption will somehow challenge, or even invalidate, everything that has been done.
But we have to return to those assumptions
However, we do have to return to those assumptions, and not just because of the exclusions of B and T people.
We have to return to them because they are wrong: because gender and sexuality simply do not work like that. And we have to return to them because those assumptions are an intrinsic part of the very patriarchal and heteronormative systems that we are trying to change. We won’t be able to change these systems if we accept a major part of what they are based on. Perhaps the very reason that we seem to keep stalling on achieving the eradication of sexism and homophobia, is because we are working from a starting point which enables those very things.
An alternative: Gender and sexual diversity (GSD)
So what alternative am I – and many others – proposing? It is this: that we start talking about gender and sexual diversity (GSD) rather than about men and women, straight and gay.
To give one example, current campaigns encourage school education to include LG(B) people and to empower girls and raise boys’ awareness of sexism. We could achieve these same goals – and many more – through a broader education about gender and sexual diversity.
For example, education about the range of sexual experiences (including attraction to different genders, enjoyment of different practices, and having different levels of sexual desire) could benefit not just young people who aren’t heterosexual. It could also help all young people to understand that there are (often safer) alternatives to penis-in-vagina sex, and that is okay to want sex and to not want sex, and to have all kinds of desires. This could enable them to communicate more openly and consensually about sex, and to respect it when they find that other people have different types and levels of sexual interest to themselves.
Education about diverse genders could not only benefit trans and non-binary young people, enabling them to find ways of making sense of their experience and articulating it to others. It could also help everyone to understand the ways in which narrow gender roles restrict their possibilities, and help them to find ways of experiencing and expressing their genders that don’t limit them (whatever their gender) or constrain others. Such an approach would also lend itself to exploring how sexuality and gender intersect with other aspects of experience (e.g. race, class, ethnicity, age, and religion), and how oppressive systems function across all of these areas.
Education is just one example. A GSD approach also has a great deal of value in terms of how we address gender and sexuality in relation to health, crime, the workplace, and media representations. And it is particularly appropriate in relation to international campaigns where we are often working with cultures who do not understand gender or sexuality in a binary manner anyway (otherwise attempts at feminist and LGBT+ rights interventions risk enforcing compliance with a western understanding of these things in a very problematic way).
It is understandable that some feminists and LGBT campaigners are fearful of returning to the underlying assumptions of their movements and changing them. This would involve challenging how they’ve been doing things in some radical ways, and it is really hard not to be invested in the ways we’ve been seeing the world and fighting for our rights for so long.
But I think there is a real possibility that, far from undermining our movements, such an approach could give them more strength and power than they’ve ever had before. Research suggests that between one and ten percent of people identify as LGBT (depending on which study you read), and probably similar numbers identify as a feminist. However, well over a third of people experience attraction to more than one gender, or find that their attraction is not tied to a person’s gender but is about other things, or don’t experience sexual attraction at all. Studies of young people are finding that many of them are using terms other than straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual to identify their sexuality. Similarly over a third of people feel to some extent like the ‘other’ gender to the one they are seen as being, or as being ‘both’ genders, or as being neither. And young people are using a wide variety of terms to capture their gender experience.
If we come from a starting point of gender and sexual diversity, we open up our movements to all of these folk as well as to those who identify explicitly as LGBT or as feminist. With numbers like that we could really change the world.
* Thanks to several people for reminding me that this is an over-simplification. Of course it was only in a specific, western, context that gender and sexuality were viewed in this way (not across the whole world – a vital point I return to later in the post), and even there this binary thinking was a relatively new thing, with gender and sexuality having been understood in quite different ways in the past. Also right at the start of the gay movement, the term ‘gay’ was used more widely to refer to same-sex attraction and there was more of a sense of sexuality being on a continuum, thanks to Kinsey’s research in this area amongst other things. This only evolved into the widespread idea (in the gay community) that there was something inherent and fixed about being gay around the late 70s and early 80s (influencing the world in which the current wave of gay/LGBT+ campaigners grew up).