A Clan, a Network, a Tribe, a Family

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” — Author Jane Howard

“Remember, there are two things that keep us oppressed – them and us. We are half of the equation.” — U. S. Congresswoman and lesbian Tammy Baldwin

Now that Daniel has graduated college, he and his partner Chris have started talking about purchasing a home together. Two houses down from Chris live Susan and Casey, who are on and off girlfriends. Jason lives on the corner; he’s straight for the most part, but he doesn’t mind letting a guy take care of his sexual needs sometimes. One street over lives Andrew, “Anita” after he’s in full drag and the curtain goes up.

Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Transgendered. Welcome to my neighborhood, an extraordinarily diverse one with a much higher than normal percentage of GLBT people, especially considering it isn’t near a “gay mecca”. Incredibly diverse people within a few blocks of one another, each with his or her own challenges. Can one organization represent the legal and social needs of all these people?

Many organizations try. From the Human Rights Commission to The GLBT National Help Center, advocacy groups strive to support and represent all these groups of people. Yet the needs of each are so dissimilar that it begs the question as to whether any organization can adequately meet them. Why is it that these four groups – gay / lesbian / bi- / transgender — have been lumped together into one category? Is there a common bond that links them, and if so, what is it?

In academic circles, queer theory has come to mean any aspect of homosexual behavior and history, excluding bisexuality and transgenderism. However commonly, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders are viewed as one entity. Gay Pride celebrates all four groups, and while there may not be much intermingling of the four, advocates for one group will argue that their social and political needs are directly related to the needs of the other three.

Many major institutions view gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders as one community in their work for equality rights. The Human Rights Commission; The GLBT National Help Center; GLBT Historical Society; The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) Health Access Project; and even the National Education Association are just a few of the organizations that provide resources about and for the GLBT community, although none offers any explanation as to why or how the needs and concerns of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders should be represented as one unit.

Not only does the GLBT community view itself as one movement, society has mandated that the groups are linked — if not intentionally, then through selective exclusion. Both legislative and judicial bodies have felt compelled to “define” homosexuality, transgenderism, and bisexuality (although to a lesser extent), but few of these same bodies have similarly defined heterosexuality. Therefore, the groups are implicitly associated as those whose inclinations falls outside the heteronormative standard.

Yet, such association is not necessarily warranted. Not only does each group have different cultural influences and social standards, each of the four is comprised of remarkably dissimilar subgroups. A young gay man in a small rural, conservative town faces far different pressures than a middle-aged, gay shop owner in the Castro. Likewise, an openly bisexual couple will confront more prejudice than the man or woman who keeps his or her same-sex dalliances secret. Lipstick lesbians. Feminist lesbians. Biker lesbians. All viewed differently by society. And the comparisons could go on.

While it may be understandable to associate gays, lesbians, and bisexuals due to same-gender sexual practices, the inclusion of transgendered individuals is peculiar. Of the multiple organizations and resources checked, only one,

Lambda.org, notes that transgenderism is a matter of identity and not organization:

…while transgendered people are commonly supported together with the gay, lesbian, and bisexual movements, transgender is not a sexual orientation. Transgendered persons have specific attractions to sexes. Being transgendered is related to gender identification and the roles of sex and gender. But because this falls into a similar category as sexual orientations, and many trangendered persons themselves may experience some confusion as to their own orientations, I openly include them here. (“Symbols of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Movements”)

Still, many transgendered persons consider themselves heterosexual; once gender reassignment is complete, they go on to pursue straight relationships.

Nonetheless, identity alignment plays a significant role in the association of these four distinct groups. In his book A Genealogy of Queer Theory, author William B. Turner maintains that the recognition of “variously overlapping, disjunctive, cooperative, clashing identity categories” has led to a rethinking of our notion of identity. The fact that we all belong to a plethora of identity categories makes us each unique — no two people share the same set of categories (once relatively minor traits are included, one would assume). This distinctiveness would seem to overthrow any concept of categorization; ironically, though, it is necessary to have these categories in order to define our selves as unique. Further, Turner notes that “…the peculiar requirements of the identity politics of the late twentieth century increasingly point up the ways in which categories of identity fragment those supposedly unique individuals and significantly determine the options open to any given one of them.”

Thus, society determines what opportunities and rights are available to an individual based on how society classifies that person. It is the exclusion of GLBT individuals from the enjoyment of opportunities and rights available to the heterosexual community that binds these individuals together. Facing discrimination from some segments of society and government results in solidarity among GLBT persons.

The LGBT Health Channel provides insight as to what the problems are associated with such discrimination. Although the site frames its list in the context of medical and health issues, the issues discussed can be viewed in a larger societal context. Among the challenges named are”

– problems with body perception

– the perceived need to conceal one’s sexual orientation or gender identity

– depression or suicidal thoughts stemming from real or perceived rejection due to one’s sexual orientation or gender identity

– lack of health insurance or availability of health care coverage and services for same sex partners or medical issues associated with homosexuality or transgenderism

– antiquated parenting laws which fail to recognize the rights of one or both partners in parenting relationships or discriminatory laws and rulings which assume the inability to effectively parent based on one’s gender identity

– violence and hate crimes directed at GLBT individuals (“Defining LGBT Health: Overview”, LGBT Health Channel)

While not listed, the failure of the legal system to recognize the rights of same-sex partners in contract law, banking decisions, and employment situations could also be included, as well as the failure to validate the right of a person to seek gender reassignment without repercussion (loss of job, refusal to admit transgendered persons into organizations or businesses).

Regardless of how homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgenders came to be associated — whether through similarity of need or through social perception — the fact is that the groups are now inextricably linked. Whether or not one agrees that such association is fair or justified, the successes and failures of one segment directly affect all segments. For instance, the act of granting employment protection rights to homosexuals without granting the same rights to transgenders diverts attention away from other legal struggles, as activist groups must reallocate resources to seek justice for the one segment of the population continuously excluded.

Ideally, the shared problems and challenges facing the various members of the LGBT community would result in absolute solidarity. Such is not the case, however. Just as other demographics face divisiveness and prejudice within their ranks (light-skinned blacks discriminating against darker blacks, for instance), gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgenders are remarkably intolerant of one another. Bisexuals are viewed as gay-wannabes, gays and lesbians deny one another admittance to “their” bars and social circles, transgenders are treated as freak shows, and so on. While society may consider the four groups as one entity, members of those groups still label one another with antiquated stereotypes that promulgate the very legal and social hardships that these groups fight together to prevent.

It may still be questionable as to how effective any one organization can be in representing the social, medical, cultural and legal needs of all these varying individuals, but thanks to progression in the GLBT movement, no one establishment need undertake such a monumental task alone. Today, a multitude of political think tanks, social clubs, resource centers, and legal and health professional associations, to name a few, exist to cater to the specific concerns of particular LGBT demographic singularities. Working in conjunction with larger, more inclusive organizations, headway has been made in achieving a state of equity for LGBT persons. Greater accomplishments lie ahead, but only with solidarity and singular focus of cause. We are, after all, the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community — a clan, a network, a tribe, and a family.