I’m going to go out on a limb here and attempt to tell part of a story that I think all LGBTQIAA individuals need to hear. I promise that I am not trying to compare oppressions, I just want to point out a similarity in the movements that is notable. [You can read a more detailed and professional version of this argument here.]
Regardless of one’s political status, it is difficult to break into a circle of senators and be accepted if you don’t subscribe to the same codes of conduct that they do. Straight white non-working-class men have been in charge of politics for a very long time. Often their political decisions have reflected the notion that, with the exception of straight white non-working class women, all of their constituents are – or should behave like – straight white non-working class men. The gay rights movement combats the pressure to conform to these heteronormative standards every day. In the past, however, the leaders of the movement have given in to the pressure to conform in order to be accepted, and so have the leaders of another large-scale political equality movement: African American civil rights. In trying to gain the same status as the straight white middle-class, leaders of both of these movements have pressured their followers to conform to straight white middle-class values. In doing so, they have marginalized and belittled groups of their population that stray too far from these behavioral expectations: working-class and transgender people.
At the start of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, transgender culture (especially drag performance) and working-class black culture in areas of large U.S. cities were virtually inseparable constructs. African American culture in these communities was at least acknowledging and protective of its queer constituents. When the stonewall riots took place, it was working-class ethnic minority drag queens that started fighting back first. In nearly every large African-American community, there were drag balls, and they were very popular. Every major African-American newspaper covered them with no apparent animosity. Before the civil rights movement turned into the MLK-influenced movement that we remember today, two of the most celebrated and widely followed African-American religious leaders, Prophet Jones and Sweet Daddy Grace, were extravagant gay men. They had hundreds of thousands of working-class followers. White GLBT people would often cross the segregation lines to patron gay clubs and bars in working-class neighborhoods. It was a much more accepting environment, and they benefitted from the sexual openness of black working-class culture.
Unfortunately, the 1950s were also a time characterized by “the greatest crusade against sexual deviancy in U.S. history.” After it became apparent that working-class black culture was accepting of homosexuality and other “perversions,” the powers-that-be made it clear that the black population would not be integrated unless it could conform to the heteronormative standard. When this happened, new preachers came and publicly condemned the popular religious leaders of the time, and newspapers and magazines stopped covering drag balls and started publishing articles on reformed homosexuals and family values. The ideology of “tolerance” soon became the vernacular, and this made it clear to African-Americans that the price of admission into society as a whole would be to conform to heteronormative lifestyles and surrender sexual freedom. This ideology was built into the foundations of the civil rights movement as we know it, and it was made clear that “nonheteronormative behaviors…historically associated with both African Americans and homosexuals – will block the path to citizenship.”
In much the same way that African American culture marginalized and excluded queer people from its rights movement, white middle-class gays and lesbians leading the gay rights movement have marginalized and excluded transgender people. Even though the presence of working-class (and subsequently very visible - due to an accepting culture) LGBT people was crucial to the foundations of the movement, gay advocates still jumped on the bandwagon of the “tolerance” ideology. It became clear that the gay and lesbian community was seeking the protection of invisibility and conformity in order to gain acceptance into mainstream American society. “Feminine” gay men and “masculine” lesbians were told to start acting like normal people, middle-class gay men adopted the term “queer” in order to differentiate themselves from the flamboyant “faries” in working-class culture, and then the feminists condemned butch/femme lesbians for adhering to oppressive heteronormative roles. Gender expression was under attack, and slowly but surely the transgender community was pushed out of the inclusion bubble.
According to earlier versions of the DSM, transsexuals couldn’t be attracted to the same gender as they identify. If they did, they couldn’t be diagnosed. This immediately separated them from the gay and lesbian population by strict definition of terms. The focus of treatment for transsexuals is to “blend in to mainstream society,” so it is virtually impossible for them to assemble, identify themselves, and organize. Then, decades later, a unified group emerged and sought inclusion in the gay rights movement and they were told that as a ‘new’ group, transgender people must wait their turn and cannot expect to ‘piggyback’ or ‘ride the coattails’ of the gay movement even though they are credited as the fire-starters of the whole shebang in the first place.
Basically, the idea that conforming to the standards of the status quo will elevate a group to the societal level of the status quo is self-serving, exclusionary, and discriminatory. Middle class people have resources that working-class people only dream of. Because they don’t have the money to obtain the power that it takes to instigate change, their voices are not heard. The entire African American culture changed practically overnight because of the willingness to sacrifice cultural diversity for the right to have cultural diversity. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not right, and it seems like no one ever hears this side of the story. Steven Epstein asks the question “Is it possible to put forward a vision of a collective identity without simultaneously silencing those within the movement who perceive themselves to differ from it?” I sincerely hope we all remember that the answer needs to be a resounding yes.