iOS app Android app More

If ENDA Doesn't Protect the Transgendered, It Doesn't Protect Me


The decision by the Democratic leadership in Congress to eliminate transgendered people from ENDA, the bill to ban discrimination against gays in the workplace, has ignited a genuine firestorm in gay political circles.

It's heartening to see that LGBT activists are coming out of the woodwork to insist that any meaningful bill that does not protect the transgendered isn't worth the paper it's written on.

But criticism that the bill is a betrayal of the most vulnerable among us, while well-intentioned, doesn't go anywhere near far enough.

A bill to protect gays from discrimination that excludes transgendered people isn't merely a betrayal of the transgendered -- it's a betrayal of all gay people. Because (as I wrote in an Advocate column a few years back, which I will quote from liberally here), in a very real sense, all gay people are transgendered.

And I believe that an emerging understanding of how all gay people are transgendered is the wave of the future, both politically and socially.

This idea stems in large part from the growing body of research into what sexual orientation actually is. The jury is still out on whether the roots of sexual orientation are biological or environmental or both or neither, but this much can be said: Researchers have found that the heterosexual majority and gay people differ in far more than just the most obvious sexual respect.

Most heterosexuals tend to feel and act and desire and respond and present themselves to the world in what researchers call a fairly "sex-typical" or "gender-typical" way: pretty much mostly male or mostly female.

Gay people, on the other hand, exhibit a whole range of "sex-atypical" characteristics, meaning characteristics that are commonly associated with the opposite sex, at least among the heterosexual majority.

These traits obviously, and perhaps most importantly, include our attraction to members of the same sex. But they also include our inner feelings of maleness or femaleness, our outward appearance as butch or femme, the unconscious way we speak and move, even the way we throw a ball or change a tire.

For reason yet to be understood, most gay people exhibit sex atypical traits most clearly when we are very young. Many gay boys -- the vast majority in some studies -- report that they identified strongly with girls when they were very small. Many even thought of themselves as more female than male. The opposite seems true for most lesbians.

As we grow older these feelings tend to subside for many of us, so that as adults the only major sex atypical trait that we retain is our sexual orientation.

But not for everybody. Some of us grow up to be mannish women or femme men. Some become occasional cross-dressers or drag kings or queens. Some become transgenderists (people who live full-time as the opposite gender without desiring surgery). And some become pre- or post-operative transsexuals.

Researchers now think that this is all connected, that all gay and transgendered people occupy places on a continuum between the two main genders.

At one extreme are masculine gay men and feminine lesbians who could easily pass as straight, and whose only obvious sex-atypical trait is their sexual orientation. At the other extreme are people who are so gender-atypical in so many ways that some choose to have an operation to bring the body in line with the soul. But what distinguishes us is that we all, to some degree or another, have major traits that place us somewhere between the two primary genders.

In that sense, all LGBT people are transgendered.

Not only does this idea offer a more expansive definition of what we really are, but it also better explains why we are oppressed.

Homophobes don't merely hate us because of how we make love. Rather, they hate how we make love because it violates our expected gender roles. Really, we are hated for gender transgression.

For example, when I was 10 and was taunted for throwing a ball "like a girl," I'm quite sure those school-yard bullies did not suspect me of actually sleeping with members of the same sex. They bashed me for not being boy enough.

That goes for almost all of us. Whether we face prejudice for being too butch or too femme, or for being cross-dressers or androgynes, or for simply being perceived as gay or lesbian, we are all ultimately disliked for the same basic reason: Transgressing our expected gender roles. Sexual transgression in the bedroom is just one aspect of that, although a very important one.

So just as all gays are in a basic sense transgendered, all homophobes are first and foremost "transphobes."

This new understanding is revolutionizing researchers' conception of sexual orientation as just one aspect of a larger kind of difference. And I believe that if we're smart, it could revolutionize the way LGBT people look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a movement.

The modem gay world was born out of a limited 19th-century psychological concept, namely that some people -- "homosexuals" -- are inherently attracted to members of the same sex.

We accepted that limited idea and built our identities and our movement around it. We thought of sexual desire as the basis of our identity, even though it's a basis that leads to endless fragmentation based upon what, exactly, you desire: Lesbian. Gay. Bi. Trans. Whatever.

Now, however, 21st-century research has produced a new concept: That the root of our difference is not merely how we make love, but the larger fact that we exist between the two genders in a variety of gender-atypical ways, some sexual and some not.

This idea has immense implications, because if the ultimate cause of our oppression is gender transgression, then shouldn't it also be the focus of our identities and our movement? Shouldn't we stop being the les-bi-gay-trans-whatever movement, with a new syllable added every few years, and simply become the trans movement?

I think we should. And ultimately, I believe we will. Once we stop thinking of ourselves as oppressed by what we do in bed and start thinking of ourselves as oppressed because we occupy a space between the socially-expected norms of the two genders, the sexual differences between us will fade into unimportance, and our common humanity will emerge into the light. If that's not a higher form of liberation. I don't know what is.

So in light of that, the decision to remove what we currently call transgendered people from a bill to ban anti-gay discrimination in the workplace couldn't be more misguided.

Yes, sure, all the other arguments against the removal of transgendered people from ENDA are valid, foremost among them that we are sacrificing the most vulnerable among us for the political expediency of getting a bill passed.

But if you look at LGBT people as all, in a sense, transgendered, such a bill is not merely sacrificing the rights of one sexual minority within our movement. It's betraying and denying the strange, wonderful, mysterious and very human thing that makes us what we are.