Under the common banner of LGBT, the first 3 categories are about sexual orientation, whereas the T is about gender identity. This difference has far reaching implications as does the diversity of identities and expressions cohabiting as transgender.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
A fraught assumption
Out walking I had a long conversation with someone about gender. Despite his open-mindedness, the person maintained that the position of transgender people compared to the rest of the LGBT community (1) was incoherent. Why? For him, the LGBT community was founded on the tenet that you must be true to yourself. Yourself being not only your sexual orientation, but also your body. From this point of view, it is easy to understand why he should think those who refuse the body they were given were ‘incoherent’.
Clearly for a transgender person, being ‘true’ to the body they were born in would be a betrayal. Their ‘truth’ and source of suffering if not distress is that they were born in the wrong body. Were the tenet mentioned above a reliable reflection of the whole LGBT community, it would necessarily exclude those who are transgender. Before rejecting that exclusion as unacceptable, we need to consider the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity and how that relates to the different groups brought together under the general label LGBT.
Sexual orientation and gender
Sexual orientation is about who one partners with (often when it comes to sex, but not exclusively) and is characterised in terms of the number and gender of those involved. Gender, in comparaison, is a question of the way an individual identifies themselves on a spectrum from male to female or a mix of the two or neither (2). In the LGBT community, the first three groups, L G & B, concern sexual orientation as defined here. Whereas the T group, those who are transgender, concerns first and foremost gender although that doesn’t preclude a variety of sexual orientations.
United we stand…
All groups making up the LGBT community are united in that their orientations and their life choices with respect to sexuality and gender set them apart from society at large and have them at odds with its expectations. As such, they share a common battle for recognition and acceptance in the face of hostility and rejection, if not a will to eliminate them. If that seems exaggerated, just think of the frequent violence against trans people. Politically, uniting forces is a wise move. However, this common front should not occult the fact that being transgender, as we’ve seen above, is not at all of the same nature as being gay or lesbian.
The wider public often think of being transgender as rooted in a conviction that the sex assigned to you at birth is not yours, with all the pain and suffering that could entail (3). That is what I have tacitly done above. However, it could also mean that you feel more at ease dressed as or behaving like the ‘opposite’ sex with no desire to permanently cross the sexual (4) divide. Or yet again, there are those who relish the ambiguity or rich possibilities of being both boy and girl, man and woman or neither. So, not only does the category ‘transgender’ differ fundamentally from its fellow partners in the LGBT community, but, like them, it also englobes a wide diversity of identities and expressions.
(1) I did not deliberately chose the term LGBT out of a desire to exclude the expanding number of other associated groups, but rather for ease of reading. However, as my thinking developed, I homed in on these four terms. I am aware that the diversity of groups coming together under this shared banner requires further thought.
(2) When I checked on the Internet, I found the following useful definition of transgender: An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or expression is different from cultural expectations based on the sex they were assigned at birth. Being transgender does not imply any specific sexual orientation. Therefore, transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. Source: The Human Rights Campaign https://www.hrc.org/resources/glossary-of-terms
(3) Being transgender is often associated with gender dysphoria which can be defined as, clinically significant distress caused when a person’s assigned birth gender is not the same as the one with which they identify. This medical condition is seen as a necessary characteristic by many lawmakers to grant access to hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery. Firstly, to put it succinctly, much of the distress of transgender people is due to the attitude of society and the incomprehension of family and friends. Secondly, without wishing to minimise the unbearable distress of many trans people, being transgender and affirming that identity need not be the cause of suffering, but can be a source of joy, pleasure and deep satisfaction.
(4) Words can be confusing if not tricky. I have spoken only of sexual orientation and gender identity here, but there is a third term being referred to in this sentence, the anatomical sex. The use of the word ‘divide’ tacitly assumes a binary division in physical sexual characteristics, a division that is inescapably anchored in our language despite justified, if not clumsy, efforts to rectify linguistic inadequacy. In reality, and increasingly so, anatomical sex is being recognised as far more complex and diverse.