Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have made a great deal of progress toward gaining equal status and rights in the US, particularly within the past decade. But, on the eve of the US Supreme Court’s consideration of same-gender marriage, we find ourselves still battling rigid stereotypes and prejudice.
Arguments against equal protections for transgender people continue to reduce them to their bodies and/or their sexualities, claiming their presence poses a risk of sexual violence for cisgender people. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual people continue to be depicted as a threat to children and families, often outright accused of sexual deviance, including pedophilia, bestiality, and sexual addiction. A great deal of the efforts to challenge anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination, and violence entails battling these myths and stereotypes, and promoting an image of LGBT people as mere humans.
The Importance Of Self-Definition
The extent to which LGBT people are oppressed in the US can be gleaned by the power that heterosexual and cisgender people hold to name, recognize, represent, and include LGBT people. As such, there are efforts by LGBT activists and advocates to address each of these elements of inequality: from challenging the exclusion of LGBT people from important social institutions, to challenging the use of “gay” as an insult; from promoting greater (positive) visibility of LGBT people in the media, to advocating for greater attention to sexual identity, and gender identity and expression in politics.
One aspect of LGBT empowerment, then, is obtaining the power to name oneself, and to be visible, represented, and included. Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins talks about the importance of self-definition for Black women’s empowerment in her scholarship on black feminist theory:
[S]elf-definition offers a powerful challenge to the externally defined, controlling images of African-American women. Replacing negative images with positive ones can be equally problematic if the function of stereotypes as controlling images remains unrecognized…The insistence on Black women’s self-definitions reframes the entire dialogue from one of protesting the technical accuracy of an image…to one stressing the power dynamics underlying the very process of definition itself…By insisting on self-definition, Black women question not only what has been said about African-American women but the credibility and the intentions of those possessing the power to define. When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so. Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions, the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women’s power as human subjects (pg. 114).
Gender And Sexual Diversities
The successful recognition of LGBT people as just that — LGBT — has only recently been achieved in general US discourse about sexuality and gender identity and expression. And, by no means has the acronym gained complete use over less inclusive terms: “gays and lesbians,” “homosexuals,” “gay people,” “transsexuals,” and so forth.
Of course, the acronym LGBT is not entirely exhaustive in its inclusion of all sexual and gender minorities. Queer is sometimes included, and the ‘T’ arguably includes all trans* people (e.g., transgender, gender non-conforming, transsexual, genderqueer, intersex, etc.); and, some use the longer LGBTQQIA to include queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual identified people. Still, others remain unnamed, though assumed.
To reflect this vast diversity in sexual identity, gender identity, and gender expression, a London-based therapy group for sexual and gender minorities, Pink Therapy, has proposed the term “gender and sexual diversities” (GSD). Initially, I would take no issue with a broader, more inclusive term to speak about such diversity. But, the proposal to replace LGBT with GSD — which, ironically, sounds like a mental illness (like PTSD) — put me on the defensive. I thought, “who are these people to make such a proposal?”
As I watched the interview to hear more about their proposed GSD umbrella term, I became more concerned about their intentions, and how their suggestion is given legitimate consideration — even a poll at the bottom of the HuffingtonPost Gay Voices article on the proposed name-change.
I agree that LGBT is not inclusive enough. But, the tired joke about the “alphabet soup” to name every gender and sexual identity is where we land when trying to move beyond exclusivity.
But, within their explanation, I noticed that their vision was broader even than sexual and gender minorities; in fact, their initial proposal of “Gender and Sexual Minorities” (GSM) was shot down because some they include are not necessarily minorities in the same sense that LGBT individuals are. In particular, the therapists name asexuals, members of kink and BDSM communities, and those in non-traditional relationships (e.g., swingers, those in polyamorous relationships) as individuals to be included in the broader “GSD” label.
To include swingers, who are largely conservative middle-class white heterosexual married couples, as well as similarly privileged people who are polyamorous or into kink or BDSM alongside sexual and gender minorities moves the discussion beyond the denial of rights and protections and exposure to prejudice, discrimination, and violence.
Indeed, the sexual practices and relationship structures of cisgender heterosexuals who engage in swinging, kink, or who are poly are stigmatized. But, this is a different matter than the stigmatization LGBT and queer people face because of their sexual and/or gender identities — who they are, not merely what they do.
At a minimum, I am suspicious of this proposal. LGBT people across the US are being asked to consider adopting the name “GSD” following the proposal of a small group of therapist in London that was elevated via HuffingtonPost. How did these people even pique the interest of the online newspaper? Just who are these people to come along with such a major proposal?
But, I think it is safe to say that I oppose this change for three reasons. First, it is proposed by some external source, rather as an act of self-definition. Second, likely related to the first, they advocate to include privileged people in our minority community. It is not for lack of sympathy or even awareness of the invisibility and stigmatization that poly, kinky, and swinging folks experience; rather, these are matters distinct from the marginalized status of LGBT and queer people. Third, also related to the first, is that the term seems silly as a name for a group. For example, Black people, whether self-identified as “Black,” “African-American,” “Caribbean Black,” and so on, do not identify as “racial diversity” or “diversities”; even racial and ethnic minorities, collectively as “people of color,” do not use such a label.
I ask, before this proposal goes any further, why? With such effort that has gone into recognition as LGBT communities, why abruptly shift to a new label that would include individuals who are not gender and/or sexual minorities?
A Note About Boundary Work
I know that I am walking the fine line of boundary work — that is, drawing the boundaries of who is included in LGBT and who is not. Like every group, whether privileged or oppressed, we have had a long history of drawing and redrawing the bounds of LGBT. Even today, bisexual and trans* people must ask why ‘B’ and ‘T’ are often reflected only in name.
But, I stress here that this proposal instigates these questions. I am sure that I am not alone in having the knee-jerk reaction to become defensive at the proposed inclusion of individuals who are not socially and politically marginalized in society. I also emphasize that we question who determines those boundaries. What authority do these two therapists have to rename an entire segment of the population? Who grants that authority, and how is it reinforced? These questions are at the core of Collins’s discussion of self-definition: interrogating who has the power to define us, if not ourselves, and why.
I recognize and celebrate the great complexity and diversity of genders and sexualities. But, we must hone the power to name ourselves for ourselves as a part of our path to true liberation.