When Being Trans Also Makes You Gay — And Why Our Obsession with Labels Provides a Platform for Hate
So you know how, like, you're just living your life as a straight cis person and then one day you realize you're trans but your sexuality doesn't change so now your gay and trans?
Cool. Yah. I know, right? Weird.
But in a nutshell that's basically my story. It's not totally unique but it's definitely not the most common experience, and gay trans people are probably the most underrepresented members of the LGBT+ community. That's not to say we're specifically targets of discrimination substantially more often or to more vicious degrees than trans people who identify as straight, although sometimes we are.
Factually sexual orientation is not tied to gender identity, but interestingly, language describing sexual orientation is. So as a trans woman who has always been attracted to women, upon waking up to my female identity, and thus the fact that I'm transgender, in an instant I seemingly went from a straight, cisgender man to a lesbian trans woman. Let me tell you why that really sucked—at first.
Before I do let me say this: wow was I missing out on yet another entire amazingly beautiful aspect of living my authentic truth. I'd spent my whole adolescent and adult life up to 28 pursuing straight women (see this post about relationships for a decent recap). Straight girls are all well and good, mind you, but oh-em-gee queer women are my people. In this context I'm using queer as an umbrella term for "non-hetero sexual orientation," by the way; much like "trans" is an umbrella term for people of various gender identities and expressions that don't align with society's expectations of a person with their assigned birth sex.
It's amazing how the dots tend to connect in your life when you let them. There's so much of my existence that makes sense when I regress it to the origin of being female; pieces that are now falling into place since I've allowed myself to fully be me. I believe so much of our anxiety comes from trying to jam round pegs into square holes, and the natural connection I feel and cherish with so many queer women now that I have come to recognize myself as a queer woman is, in my own life, powerful evidence of that. But I digress.
So why did it suck to wake up and realize I was a lesbian? Because being trans by itself is more than enough of a helping of unexpected LGBT+ identity to absorb right off the bat. Don't get me wrong: I was always an ally and an advocate of queer/trans people (can we give the beautifully short and sweet acronym "Q/T" a trial run in this piece?), so I wasn't mortified to learn of my belonging in the community. That actually made a ton of sense and was very welcome. But also having to wrap my head around being "gay by association" as a result of being trans was just too much at once. I couldn't take myself seriously. The idea of being a lesbian stacked on top of being a trans woman sounded cartoonishly foreign and extreme from that early uncertain place, and the fact that it was inseparable from my transness made being trans even harder to accept by itself.
To be clear, just because gender identity doesn't dictate sexual orientation or vice versa doesn't mean orientation can't fluctuate or evolve over time and with transition. Between the deep psychological and emotional catharsis that can accompany accepting one's true gender identity, the mind-expanding experience of transition and the effects of HRT, sometimes mental blocks dissolve or sexuality simply expands its boundaries and things change.
So far it hasn't for me, except that as a Q/T (queer/trans/adorable) woman, it's queer rather than straight women that I now find myself being romantic with.
So yep, I'm a lesbian trans woman. I got over what purely amounted to a shift in descriptive language. But some people struggle to, and as a species our hangups on labels are the source of a lot of oppression, discrimination and hate, which pose a real threat to our progress—especially within the Q/T (LGBT+) community.
At the 2018 London Pride Parade a small unsanctioned group of protesters broke onto the parade path and laid down on the ground holding signs that said, amongst other things, "transactivism erases lesbians." They believe that the existence of trans people is inherently "anti-lesbianism."
Now, from the perspective of a lesbian trans woman that is almost comically absurd and quite sadly misguided. In that context it seems they were specifically talking about trans men, whom apparently stand to "erase" lesbianism because many trans men identified prior to accepting their trans identities as lesbians. But not to worry! They hate trans women too. A representative of their group told Pink News, "... a person with a penis cannot be a lesbian."
Interesting. Tell that to the cis girl/girl couple I'm dating, and while you're at it ask them if they see me as a man or a woman, and if what I have in my pants has any bearing on that.
There's so much wrong with this group and their beliefs, statements and actions. Of course the reality is that nobody’s identity or orientation ever invalidates anyone else’s identity or orientation. Trans women’s womanhood in no way deflates or waters down cis women’s womanhood. And of course reducing any part of the discussion to genitals (as they predictably did), simply misses the higher truth that gender is not the same as birth sex.
Their argument that “transactivism erases lesbians” is shamefully insecure. It beckons back to the early days of queer visibility when fearful conservatives would argue that the existence of gay people would influence otherwise heterosexual people to be gay. One does not “become” trans because they realize it’s a possibility. If a person previously identifying as a lesbian cis woman decides to transition to male, he was never cis to begin with. Knowing many healthy, loving, well-adjusted lesbians and queer women I'm willing to bet the vast majority of his lesbian sisters would be thrilled that he found himself and continue to accept him fully.
Fortunately my transition has taught me a lot, and I’d like to think given me a bit of wisdom too. Small minds are always loudest, and the protest at London Pride was just another case of fear boiling over into the territory of hate. But what are these people afraid of? Based on their message it seems to be diminishment; erasure. Being lesbian is so core to their identity that the reality that some trans people come from the lesbian community and cease to identify as lesbians is threatening to them, so they oppose transness altogether.
Therein lies the problem with giving labels too much weight. If the 'lesbian' label wasn't such a core aspect of this group's collective identity, would they be so incited to protect it from what they perceive to be a cannibalization by trans masculine people as to protest their very existence?
If they weren't so concerned with the definition of their precious word, would they draw so deeply from the darkest parts of themselves and attempt to minimize trans women based on nothing more than their body parts in effort to prevent them from using it ? To these people are we simply the sum of [body + associated mainstream social expectations]? If so it’s a sad day for the living protest that our community once embodied.
From an objective place one can empathize with the group’s defensiveness to a degree—albeit not in the way they've allowed it to manifest as hate. Just like every sub-community, lesbians have had to fight for decades to be seen, recognized, and respected, and furthermore to be seen as independently valid irrespective of gay men. There is legacy, honor and triumph in the word 'lesbian,' and one might understand how egos could flare up in the face of a perceived threat to its strength and standing.
Nonetheless there are a ton of logical and ethical holes in their stance that run far deeper than just the anti-trans way they chose to package it and I could challenge it cogently without much trouble. But the purpose of this piece is to draw attention to the bigger issue they've simply brought to the surface.
Because of fear turned to hate over a perceived threat to a label they identify with, a group of LBGT+ people invaded an LGBT+ pride march and protested against the rights and existence of LGBT+ people. I almost cried writing that sentence.
How toxically infected does a person's mind have to become before they not only miss that irony, but then proudly commit such a heinous act in public against members of their own community?
All because of a fucking word.
Some of the same people that express a die-hard loyalty to the integrity of certain words will criticize and scoff at the stricter aspects of organized religion for what at the end of the day amounts to an equivalent degree of rigidity, exclusivity and discrimination.
One of the main reasons I like the simplified acronym Q/T so much is because (in addition to sounding like cutie) it has a unifying effect. There's no need to assign a discreet label to every possible iteration of sexuality or gender identity. It's actually impossible considering both are spectra. What are we at currently? LGBTQIA+? According to Wikipedia it gets as long as LGBTTQQIAAP in some circles, and the article's immediate next sentence explains that this form is "sometimes criticized for being confusing and leaving some people out." Even the standing name for the queer/trans community in trying to be inclusive is a victim of our obsession with labels. It's ridiculously long and still doesn't even do the job.
The worst of all this isn’t exclusionary groups like the above one's dangerously small-minded and ego-driven stances. It’s that to the world they could be seen as representing the greater (in this case lesbian) community. Unless we stand up and strongly combat these messages of hate and discrimination through clear and proud solidarity across sub-groups, outspoken oppressors like these could cause a divide within the larger LGBT+ community.
The community commonly referred to as LGBT+ came into existence because non-heterosexual and birth-sex nonconforming people needed to band together to survive. We needed support when we weren't getting any, love when there was only hate, and numbers to combat the mainstream population that wanted us to disappear, in some cases by any means necessary. That unity and collective history is worlds more important than any one word, and that is why I'm proud to be a lesbian trans woman. Joining those ranks and being able to radiate love and active support to the entire Q/T community from within is both a gift and a passion.
We can choose to forever honor our history—both collective and individual—without holding so tightly onto words that we cross the line from pride in ourselves into fear and hate of others. To forget our roots in love, support and community is to dishonor that legacy of perseverance and triumph, as this group at London Pride did. Labels have always been questionable in their utility, so in the face of an assault on unity and our values driven by labels, I'll relinquish mine in an instant to stand with my siblings and continue to rise.
I am queer. I am trans. But more importantly I am human and I choose love.