Thursday afternoon I went to the big #TimeIsNow immigration rally at the Capitol and I was struck by the shirts we were all wearing that said “LGBT Families for Immigration Reform.” I felt like a bit of a jerk for criticizing the shirts later to a friend, but it just kept niggling at me. Why LGBT families? Why not LGBT people?
My question gets to a bigger problem that comes up a lot in LGBT organizing work when we want to develop messaging around “X Is a Trans Issue” or “X Is an LGBT Issue.” The challenge, generally, is to convince an audience of LGBT folks (or in my case, often trans folks) that some policy area that’s not usually associated with the core goals of the movement is at its heart an LGBT or trans issue. We usually do that in one of two ways:
- Link the issue to core LGBT movement issues. This is what the t-shirt example does. We tend to think of family issues as a movement priority, whether that’s marriage or second-parent adoption or binational family immigration issues. A lot of LGBT immigration reform proponents have used the example of binational couples to make the argument: if we agree that queer families are a core issue for our movement, then we should be concerned about the immigration laws because they often separate families. Other examples of this include linking reproductive rights to transition-related health care or framing health care as an LGBT issue via hospital visitation policy problems.
- Tell a tragic compelling story about a queer or trans person. Strategy B is what comes up when you don’t have a good hook with an agreed-upon issue, or sometimes alongside that hook. You find some really sad examples of violence/abuse/discrimination, preferably using people who are considered upstanding and acceptable according to movement values, and you tell their stories from a human rights angle. “This person is part of our community and the abuse he/she/they suffered is so bad that it triggers a need to consider this an LGBT/trans issue from a human rights perspective.” So for example, you might find a gay man and a trans woman who were raped in prison and use their tragic stories to illustrate why prison reform is an LGBT issue.
Neither of these ways are wrong, exactly. It’s true that the agreed-upon core issues often do touch others, like immigration, and it’s also true that compelling stories are a good way to remind people that we’re all human and we need to support human rights. But I think we can do better.
Why is immigration a trans issue? Yes, it’s about human rights, and thus we should care from a solidarity or ally perspective if we’re non-immigrant trans people. Yes, some trans people have experienced really shitty things at the hands of our immigration system, and we want that to stop. Yes, draconian immigration laws separate queer families, including families with trans members. But it’s also a trans issue for reasons that are less sexy and harder to describe.
Trans immigrants have to deal with a lot of shit, not only when they experience the really amazingly awful, front-page-headline story kind of treatment. They deal with daily microaggressions that are compounded by dual identities, and often also by race, class, and ethnicity. Some of these trans immigrants are not ideal candidates for a Facebook post or a fundraising email. They may have a history of criminality or be too politically radical to use in a carefully-orchestrated communications strategy. They may not want to be part of such a strategy. And then, beyond the individual people who are both trans and immigrants, our immigration system as an institution overlaps a lot with the problems trans people are fighting. The problems with our immigration system and the violence and discrimination trans people face are clearly part of the same disgusting web of policing, capitalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and kyriarchy. There’s not much difference between the vigilantes with guns who stand at the U.S.-Mexico border and those who beat up or murder trans women in the streets. There’s not much difference between police harassing immigrants with “papers please” policies and racial profiling and police harassing trans people with gender policing and asking for ID to use the restroom.
I have a problem with the “link to a core issue” strategy because I want to know who came up with those core issues. It’s not even that it’s a single-issue marriage movement, it’s that it’s a movement of five or ten or fifteen core issues. We have hundreds of issues, and how we prioritize them necessarily varies from person to person. Of course organizations and individuals have to prioritize their use of limited resources, and I support using strategies such as determining who is most marginalized within a community, determining what issue areas are tackled the least and thus need more resource commitment, and determining what issues a group can tackle most efficiently with given resources. But it doesn’t take many resources to simply say “we care about this.”
I have a problem with the compelling story strategy, and with the overall “we care about this because we are all humans” strategy, because it both privileges the easiest-to-package stories and can become weak and diluted. When we hear “X is a human right,” it may be absolutely true but we hear that so many things are human rights and it doesn’t necessarily speak to us. I think we need to acknowledge the specificity of our interest in different issues as queer and trans people. So again, immigration is a trans issue because we as trans people are dealing with this tangled web of policing and patriarchy and bullshit, and part of addressing that system is supporting immigration reform. Immigration is a trans issue because trans immigrants experience multiple forms of oppression that make them one of the parts of our trans community most in need of social, legal, and policy change.
I think that we have an enormous untapped creative potential as a movement, and that we need to start going all-in, taking risks, and supporting social justice in all its forms not simply because we are humans but because we are humans who know the tremendous pain and suffering a broken system can cause. We need to acknowledge that this is what queer and trans work is about, whether we’re working for marriage equality or health care coverage or immigration or protections for sex workers.
In recent weeks, I’ve noticed quite a few faux pas in headlines describing some segment of the queer population. My guess is that the writers didn’t really think their terminology through, so I’d like to offer a little guide that might be helpful, especially to those who are not part of the queer community, in deciding what language to use when describing us.
- Don’t use the whole alphabet soup to refer to a specific population. The term “LGBT” means “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.” It’s appropriate when referring to those four groups en masse, and at no other time. Often, the “T” is simply thrown in, as in “today, LGBT New Yorkers gained the right to marry.” While the marriage law did affect many transgender people, I don’t think that’s what the writer means there. It’s okay to say “gay, lesbian, and bisexual” or “gay and lesbian” if that’s what you mean. Even better with marriage is to simply say “same-sex couples,” which describes the exact population. Throwing in transgender people just to be politically correct is actually harmful, because you’re not referencing that population. If you do include the T, then include it: don’t be the group that holds an “LGBT” event and then excludes transgender people at the door.
- If you want to refer to the whole population, then use an appropriate term. I like “queer” because it can be used to refer to a range of gender and sexuality minorities. It works well when you’re not referring to specific populations, but to everyone who’s marginalized in this way. Of course, keep in mind that the goals of each population under this umbrella are not the same (see #1). Some like LGBT, LGBTQ, QUILTBAG, etc., but I tend to find that the alphabet usually leaves someone out. Others use trans/queer or queer/trans. When I say “queer,” I’m including trans, but that’s a matter of personal choice.
- Don’t use one term as a proxy for another. Lately there has been a lot of discussion about websites requiring people to identify as male or female. This gets characterized again and again as a transgender issue. Certainly, some trans people would like to identify as something other than male or female, but many of those affected by this issue identify as genderqueer or some variation. Instead of using the term transgender, it might make sense to describe it as an issue affecting non-binary genders, gender minorities, or non-conforming genders (I don’t love that one, but that’s for another time). I’ve also seen many “genderqueer” communities that are all about trans issues. It’s important to understand that genderqueer is a specific term with a specific meaning, not a proxy for transgender.
- Describe subsets of a queer population accurately. This is a problem in pretty much every area of activism, not just the queer bubble. Don’t say, for example, that “gay people have more money.” The ones with the money are mostly white, cis-gender gay men. If you’re doing academic research and the population you’re studying is white, young, middle-class, students, or some other subgroup, say so. The queer population as a whole has been done a tremendous disservice because those of us in a position of privilege tend to ignore huge subsets of the population–particularly trans people, youth of color, homeless kids, etc. It’s important to be clear and take note when you are making a statement that does not including one of these or another group. Define the subset clearly, then make your point.
It’s time to interrupt this mental-health induced radio silence for a very exciting update. If you didn’t hear, on Friday the UNHRC finally passed a resolution on LGBT rights, with 23 of the 47 nations in the Council voting in favor. This is the first time something like this has passed, and it follows on the heels of several attempts in recent years to get a declaration on sexual orientation through the General Assembly. Though the UNHRC is a smaller body, the plan to study the problem of LGBT rights violations is promising due to the effect it could potentially have on nations in the General Assembly that have voted against the declaration, but are not strongly opposed.
Although the rights of LGBT people are clearly protected by existing international law, those rights are not protected in practice or defended before international bodies. Change occurs slowly, as evidenced by the slow march of sodomy law cases in some countries and same-sex marriage cases in others. It is often courts, not legislatures, that decide these issues. And in the UN, even the ability to lobby for queer rights has long been restricted. It was only a few years ago that ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council) began granting LGBT organizations consultative status before the UN. Hopefully, this resolution is a sign that the pendulum is starting to swing, but action will be required both in the UN and at the grassroots level if we’re going to see concrete action for LGBT rights at the UN.