THE BLOG
06/24/2013 08:40 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

Born Which Way?

A great deal is going to be said about the recent publication of Kristin Beck's memoir Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL's Journey to Coming Out Transgender. Indeed, a great deal already has been said. While it is becoming harder and harder to be the first of any group to come out as anything, Beck is being hailed as the first out transgender former Navy SEAL. Given the nature of what it means to have a transgender identity, she was transgender throughout her successful 20-year military career, although no one who knew Chris Beck, as he appears on the cover of the book -- bushy beard, fatigues, intimidating dark sunglasses -- knew it at the time. That is the point of a powerful coming-out story: Until an individual comes out in a groundbreaking new way, many would never have known that someone like that could be someone like that. Each new coming out helps all of us recognize that anyone -- a professional basketball player, a fierce-looking former member of Navy SEAL Team 6 -- can have any identity -- homosexual, transgender.

Noting that these are two different things -- being homosexual and being transgender -- is part of the conversation surrounding Beck's memoir. Their difference is essential for Beck's story, given the fact that while gay and lesbian individuals can now serve openly in the U.S. military, thanks to Congress passing and President Obama signing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010, transgender individuals cannot. DADT governed sexuality, not gender identity, so despite the dire warnings of Rep. Duncan Hunter Jr. (R-Calif.), who insisted that repealing DADT would "open up the military to transgenders, to hermaphrodites, to gays and lesbians," the policy's repeal did nothing of the sort.

In a blog post about Beck's memoir for Jezebel on June 4, 2013, Meher Ahmed cites the incompleteness of the LGBT community's victory over DADT, if it is construed as a victory, as evidence that "[t]he LGBT movement often overlooks transgender issues that tend to get sidestepped for gay and lesbian rights." An LGBT movement that "overlooks transgender issues" is, of course, more of an LGB movement than an LGBT one. From a certain angle, this makes sense, since, as a commenter to Ahmed's post politely points out, "it's important to note that [Beck] suppressed her gender identity, not sexuality, to serve in the military. They are different things." To this Maher replies, "Thanks for clarifying. This was a distinction I wasn't aware of, but I'm glad to know for the future!" The comments section soon devolves into shock on all sides: Some are shocked that a person who didn't understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity would be covering the topic, and others are shocked that being transgender isn't a sexual orientation. Still others are shocked that a transgender female (to be clear: a person assigned a male gender at birth based upon external genitalia who identifies as female) cannot automatically be assumed to sexually desire men, and that even if a transgender female does sexually desire men, that would be an expression of heterosexual rather than homosexual desire. It's enough to make many a cisgender person's head spin. (Google it.)

The point I would like to make about all of this is not that the straight cisgender world doesn't get these nuanced distinctions. Rather, my point is that the rhetoric of the mainstream LGB movement, a movement that has come to be dominated by, if not synonymous with, the push for legal recognition of "gay marriage," not only "overlooks" transgender issues but often collapses gender identity and sexual orientation as thoroughly as anything I read in Ahmed's Jezebel post does. While much of the work of the LGBT movement over the past 50 years has been to challenge the notion that either gender or sexuality is determined by biological sex, the rhetoric surrounding marriage equality is steeped in a language of biological determinism.

For example, the Human Rights Campaign, one of the most well-funded and highly visible marriage equality advocacy organizations, sells a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "Born This Way." I happen to have one. It is bright purple, and each white letter of the phrase is made up of many repetitions of the words "gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," "transgender" and "straight." The argument implicit in this T-shirt is that full access to the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage for all people is predicated on the fact that no one chooses his or her gender identity or sexual orientation, and that rights should not be reserved to a certain population -- cisgender straight people -- based solely on an accident of birth. The T-shirt argues that sexual orientation is an identity, that a lesbian is who you are -- and who you've always been -- not just an indication of whom you desire. On the one hand, including transgender in the list of ways one might be born makes sense. I believe Kristin Beck has always "been" her female self even though the world knew her as a man named Chris up until she transitioned. On the other hand, Beck's transition, her choices and actions that help align her identity and the way the world perceives her, makes the claim "born this way" patently silly. More importantly, the argument of a "Born This Way" T-shirt, in spite of its saucy lip-synch of Lady Gaga, is not actually different from the argument implicit in the anti-gay nastiness of the fundamentalist Christian claim that "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." Each is a claim predicated on biological determinism; the claims differ only in terms of what they understand biology to have determined.

If the LGB community were paying more attention to the experience of transgender individuals' access to marriage rights, the impracticality of basing an argument for marriage equality on a claim about biologically determined identity would be apparent. In my home state of Illinois, where the legislature has recently and dramatically decided not to vote on a marriage equality bill, a person can only marry someone of the opposite gender. Transgender individuals, so long as they have taken the steps necessary to change the gender on their birth certificates, are free to marry any individual of the opposite gender. In 2005, however, an Illinois court invalidated a transgender man's marriage to his wife because he had failed to demonstrate a "complete" gender transition, having not pursued all available surgeries to make the body he was born with match the gender with which he identified. Complicating this matter, marriages wherein one party transitions after the wedding remain legal, producing legal marriages between legally same-sex individuals in a state where same-sex marriage is illegal. The contradictions and complications of adjudicating access to marriage based on gender identity demonstrates not the unfairness of restricting marriage to opposite-gender couples but the impracticality of basing the claim to any legal rights on authentic identity. Who is to judge what your authentic identity is? What evidence is enough?

I believe people should be free to marry whomever they choose. Basing that claim on who was born which way, however, demonstrates either ignorance or foolishness. An open discussion of gender identity might help all of us, LGB or straight, transgender or not, recognize this.