More T, LGB? A brief history of trans inclusion post-Stonewall

The trans sector of the LGBT community continues to be seen as disposable by campaigns seeking mainstream acceptance.

Feature by Alma Cork | 01 Dec 2008

The modern LGBT rights movement harks back to one pivotal event in Greenwich Village, New York, where a group of Latina and African-American street queens, queer kids, leathermen, dykes, and transgender people, with nothing to lose in the face of constant police oppression, decided enough was enough and fought back. The ever increasing shockwaves filtered through a slowly emerging underground gay press until the riot became a symbol in the fight for queer equality.

A month after the Stonewall riots, a group of activists formed the Gay Liberation Front, members of whom left later that year to form the Gay Activists' Alliance. Included among these activists were Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman who threw the first bottle at Stonewall, and Brenda Howard, a bisexual member of the BDSM community who was responsible for the first annual remembrance of the event – what we now call Pride. However, there seems to be continuing resentment between both trans and bi people and the mainstream lesbian and gay movement. How, after a riot that involved transgender people and bisexuals, did we end up in this situation? I did some digging, and picked the brains of an activist and writer who was involved with the early GLF in the UK: Roz Kaveney.

The early days post-Stonewall were beset with anti-transgender sentiments. The GAA dropped trans concerns from its civil rights agenda, as they were considered too ‘extreme’, despite Sylvia Rivera's work to get a gay rights bill passed. Then, in 1975 a Democratic senator opposed trans inclusion in a gay rights bill as he felt it would cause the bill's defeat. As lesbian and gay groups began to find their own voice they seemingly denied the chance for trans people to have theirs. As Roz Kaveney says, "Trans people were thrown off the bus so long ago; what they are trying to do is to stop us getting back on it."

Anti-trans sentiments came from the lesbian separatist movement, most notably with Janice Raymond's The Transsexual Empire in 1979, which argued that transsexuality is a patriarchal plot to infiltrate women's space. This text, according to Roz, "gave a lot of people a sense of entitlement about being horrible to trans people in public". Lesbian-identified trans women came under verbal and printed attack, as did their friends and lovers; if one accepted a trans woman as female then "you are guilty yourself". Lesbian clubs, spurred on by anti-trans rhetoric from radical feminists such as Shelia Jeffreys, started to exclude trans people. Other groups were also facing exclusion, such as the banning of BDSM practitioners and bi people from the London Lesbian and Gay Centre in 1985. All the while, the face of gay liberation was becoming increasingly conservative and mainstream in an effort to appear 'respectable' to the prevailing culture, thereby excluding 'undesirable' elements.

Trans attacks continued into the 1990s, especially with Germaine Greer's vicious outing of Rachel Padman. The same period saw the beginnings of organised trans visibility: Press For Change, a trans lobbying organisation, was founded in 1993, and in the later part of the decade the internet enabled a disparate 'trans community' to start connecting with each other. Debates amongst trans people also gained pace, including whether or not the T should be in the LGB at all, given that trans is about gender, not sexuality. However, advances were happening, such as the 1999 employment protections for trans people and the repeal of Section 28 in 2000. Lesbian and gay media representation seemed to become less hateful, although they did not advance greatly for trans people. The LG community even contributed to misrepresentations of trans people, such as the suggestion that Calpernia Addams, whose lover was beaten to death, was actually a gay man rather than a trans woman. Jim Fouratt, who was present at the Stonewall riots, also asserted that transsexuals were "confused, crazy queens" and transition a forced "cure of homosexuality". Around the same time Germaine Greer published The Whole Woman, calling genital reassignment surgery "mutilation".

In 2003 another academic attack came from J. Michael Bailey's The Man Who Would Be Queen, which argued that trans women are either extremely effeminate gay men or simply men who are aroused by the idea of being a woman. The uproar this caused was only intensified when the LGBT Lambda Literary Foundation nominated the book as a finalist for its transgender award. Protests were made, and the nomination was eventually dropped. Then, in 2004, Julie Bindel published the Guardian article Gender Benders, Beware, where she trotted out similar tired old clichés, and in a moment of paranoid delusion suggested that "Kwik-fit sex changes are on offer to all and sundry".

Further rifts occurred in both the US and UK over 2007-2008. With echoes of 1975, The Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the US dropped its cover of trans people as a means to try and get the bill passed, and similar arguments also arose in the UK over trans inclusion in the Equality Bill. On Radio 4 Julie Bindel asserted her belief that sex change is unnecessary mutilation and that trans people should instead be offered "talking therapies". And, in the last few months, Stonewall England nominated her for Journalist of The Year.

The waters broke, and the largest known trans protest in UK history was staged outside Stonewall's annual awards ceremony. Trans people and allies attended to show their frustration at being left out in the cold for so long.

Of course, not all is sour between the LGB and T. Organisations are becoming increasingly inclusive, with Stonewall Scotland, unlike its Welsh and English counterparts, representing all LGBT people. Younger queer-identified campaigners and activists, who don't share the strict identity politics of their forebears, are also finding their voices. Thanks to easier and quicker methods of communication, increasing visibility, a common goal of equal rights and an understanding of intersectionality, the movement is becoming more cohesive. Hopefully, very soon the issue of T inclusion will be relegated to the past and trans people can work on including others, rather than just trying to get their own voices heard. After all, when we've got every letter of the alphabet working together for equal rights, then surely we've succeeded.