The mainstream Western LGBT movement has become a commercialized monolith in the years since 1960s “gay liberation,” and its impact is in no way limited to the US and Europe.
This mainstream movement not only embraces a “with us or against us” mentality that demands queer people come out (as L, G, B, or T only) or be left behind, but it also creates a very narrow definition of acceptable genders and sexualities. The movement then punishes those who don’t fit into that definition by stigmatizing non-mainstream identities and refusing to allow these stigmatized gender and sexuality minorities to have a voice on legal and policy priorities.
There are countless examples of how the mainstream LGBT movement uses stigma to limit access to legal and policy agenda-setting to those who meet its narrow identity criteria. In this post I’d like to focus on two places in particular: the example of third-gender kathoeys in Thailand and the example of alternative queer genders and sexualities in the US.
In Thailand, as Sonia Katyal describes in her piece “Exporting Identity” (14 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 97-176), there was an understanding before the Western mainstream LGBT movement showed up of three genders: male, female, and kathoey. If the word “gay” did come up, it would probably refer to a kathoey, but what Westerners would term “homosexual behavior” was generally private. When the Western LGBT movement arrived in the 1980s on the heels of globalization and the spreading AIDS crisis, a new masculine-identified image of the gay man showed up in Thai culture. “Gay” became public, seeking legitimacy through masculinity.
The word “gay,” Katyal posits, may have come into common use in Thailand specifically to distinguish these masculine-identified gay men who aligned themselves with the Western movement from kathoeys. Whereas gender identity had not previously been regulated by the state, the adoption of the Western LGBT model in Thailand made private public. Thai gay men turned social stigma on kathoeys, alienating both kathoey identity and effeminate gender expression. They began to define themselves in opposition to the newly-stigmatized kathoeys, who were then socially and legally sanctioned due to their public visibility. Ironically, they also became an easy target for state actors who objected to the arrival of the LGBT movement in Thailand.
This shift in understandings of gender and sexuality also affects access to legal and policy priorities in Thailand. As Katyal explains, kathoey identity is not a public sexuality, so rights such as protection from sexual orientation-based discrimination and the freedom to identify as gay without being harassed are far less important to this population than rights such as privacy, the legality of private sexual acts, the right to education, and the ability to legally identify as a third gender.
The Western LGBT model is also harmful in that it tries to address all gender identity issues by using a Western understanding of transgender identity. Non-binary genders are either stigmatized or simply erased. For example, a 2008 TIME Magazine article conflates kathoey identity with transgender female identity and puts most of the spotlight on ID cards and bathrooms. Though some Thai people who would fit into the definition of the English term “transgender” are now lumped in with kathoeys in Thailand, the original definition is closer to “third gender,” and many kathoeys do not want to transition from male to female, but rather consider themselves a separate gender that should be legally recognized as such.
This is not only a problem in Thailand. My own experience in the United States is that queer minorities are often pushed aside and stigmatized, encouraged to feel shame for not slotting neatly into the mainstream LGBT movement. Those who practice alternative sexualities–for example, polyamorous or kinky queer Americans–are particularly stigmatized as the LGBT movement tries to focus on family, assimilation, and marriage. Anyone who deviates into gender fluidity or alternate sexual values risks being avoided, ignored, or actively shunned by big players in the LGBT movement, whose priorities include marriage, adoption, and gays in themilitary.
In the media, mainstream LGBT leaders meet conservative fears of leathermen in parades, drag queens teaching their children, and a slippery slope into polygamy with the language of assimilation. “We’re just like you,” these spokespeople are quick to reassure. “We have normal families, our kids go to school, and our identities are not about sex.”
As someone who writes and talks about sex, is pro-kink, and is openly polyamorous, I am discouraged from being too vocal in mainstream spaces. I don’t feel comfortable attending many activist workshops or social gatherings because I do not fall into the LGBT acronym as a queer, genderqueer activist. Online, I have found some support at the margins, but am discouraged by threads such as this one on Queerty, where gay and lesbian commenters take the attitude that trans people, lacking money and power, simply must live with the fact that only LG(B) priorities will be achieved. The numbers of gender fluid, genderqueer, and non-binary people are of course even smaller.
Even as the acronym expands (QUILTBAG is the largest I’ve seen so far), the use of an acronym itself alienates those who can’t claim one or more letters and the movement still tends in reality to focus on the L and the G, and much more infrequently, the B and T. Other groups may get a letter, but that’s pretty much all we get. For example, I’ve frequently seen issues that are mostly of relevance to non-binary genders, like the problem of “Male or Female” checkboxes on forms, described as a “transgender issue,” meaning that many non-binary people might not be able to find the discussions that are relevant to us. We are encouraged to push ourselves into the T as much as possible, and if not, resources and support may simply be unavailable. While trans identities are stigmatized on the one hand by many gays and lesbians, fluidity is stigmatized on the other. Even when “queer” is part of the acronym, this means little in practice.
In my experience, stigma operates as a silent force to keep our priorities on the back burner. It’s not only vitriol in comment threads that makes me think twice before coming out as polyamorous, standing up for the legal right to practice BDSM, or loudly criticizing the same-sex marriage movement. It is a fear that I live with after years of hearing “innocuous” comments about gender and sexuality, the kind of fear that piles up when a marginalized community is subjected to stigma and shame. It is a fear that comes from not hearing many loud voices like mine and thus allowing stigma some power over me, the possibility that I may really just be weird and my priorities unreasonable.
This fear is very powerful, because it doesn’t require a constant voice to keep us down. I don’t have to ask my boss whether she’d fire me if I talked openly about my gender and sexuality. I don’t have to poll the organizations I might like to work with one day to ask how they’d feel if they Googled my name and found an article on alternative sexualities. I know that the loss of opportunity and livelihood is a real danger if I am open about my marginalized gender and sexuality. I also know from the above examples that the mainstream LGBT community is unlikely to support me and that it is a huge uphill battle to amass enough funding to achieve my policy priorities.
However, I would like to end on a hopeful note. If you feel marginalized by the LGBT movement, wherever you live, there is hope for change. If we can find each other, start building our own movements, and figure out creative ways to be sustainable, then we can start to change the conversation. From a place of stigma, we can say “enough is enough” and build pride around our identities without requiring anyone in our community to feel a certain narrow way about hir gender or sexuality.
If this sounds good to you, please follow me @queerscholar or consider contributing to the YouAreNotAlone video project, an “It Gets Better” alternative that lets marginalized and stigmatized queer youth know that whether or not it gets better, there is community support.