Challenges Faced by the LGBTQ+ Movement Today

Damian Algabre

Summary: Explores transgender issue in connection with the larger LGBTQ+ struggle, in the face the global anti-queer offensive and the opportunism of some LBGQ advocates – Editors

2022 has been a particularly frustrating year in the context of the last few years. In the US, Trump’s election in 2016 signaled a change in politics which made clear the political fissures in the country, validated outspoken bigotry, and emboldened both elected officials and citizens to live under the credo might makes right. (In fact, Oxford dictionary chose ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year in 2016, referring to the weight that feelings, biases, and placating fictions have over truth in informing our social realities.) Trump, along with other authoritarians like him since 2016, has taken a paternalistic attitude towards the general public and, in doing so, has cast just about every historically marginalized group, including LGBTQ+ folks, into the role of an outside threat. There is plenty of agitation and fear to go around, and LGBTQ+ folks are just one of many handy groups to look to as a scapegoat. As we inch closer to the end of another year (and, for US citizens, midterm elections), the perennial question remains: What comes next for us?[1]

 

Queer Life and the State

First, it’s important to evaluate what queer issues have looked like at the state level as of recent. 2022 is by far the worst year for abortion rights in the US in half a century, building off of 2021, which held that record prior.[2] But it’s also been the worst year for LGBTQ Rights in the US due to the amount of anti-LGBTQ bills filed (mostly targeting trans folks), a statistic that beats yet another record “worst year” from 2021.[3] These laws, especially the plethora of bills meant to exclude trans women from sports, bathrooms, and other public spaces have been broadly conceptualized as efforts to protect girls from predatory “men” (i.e., trans women), but in practice have ironically made life harder for trans youth and cis women.

The scrutiny that targeted trans women in sports has also been a recurring theme on the international stage, with cis female Olympic competitors from South Africa and China facing accusations of being males infiltrating women’s sports. (The accusations here also take on a racialized overtone: Though just as often dehumanized by means of hypersexualization, Black women and East Asian women have also historically been dehumanized when seen as not womanly enough through the lens of a largely White European beauty standard.) The case of Caster Semenya (a cisgender and intersex woman), the South African Olympic runner, is a clear example of this. After public speculation that she may have male sex organs/chromosomes, the international track and field governing body World Athletic prompted Semenya to test and lower her natural testosterone levels in order to compete. When compared to the case of Michael Phelps, a cis male swimmer whose body is very unusually suited to his sport, Semenya’s biology being punished as unnatural while Phelps’s is generally embraced as miraculous, which smacks of old-fashioned misogyny and sexism.

At this rate, I have little hope that 2023 won’t continue in the same fashion, with an onslaught of attempts to legislate queerness (except for, perhaps, token representation) out of public existence working alongside attempts to control the bodies of women and queer non-women. I should note here that queer youth have long comprised one of the biggest populations of unhoused youth in the US (up to 40%), a statistic that is often compounded with race, making young, queer People of Color (POC) one of the largest and most vulnerable unhoused populations in the US.[4] That is to say, as a largely unhoused population, young POC are already among the most visible yet most broadly ignored groups in the US, and a population that cannot opt out of a public existence simply because they are unhoused. There is no “getting rid” of a public LGBT presence without the visceral, physical reality of getting rid of LGBT people.

Just as the attempt to police transgender people has resulted in increased policing and surveillance of cisgender women’s bodies, attempts to control cis women’s bodies also spell danger for trans folks’ autonomy over their own bodies. In the US, there has been speculation about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the US Constitution protects the right to abortions, for at least as long as the beginning of the drastic shift in the composition of Supreme Court Justices under Trump. The ruling in the case that overturned Roe v Wade, Dobbs v Jackson, was finally decided on June 24, 2022. While the annulment of national abortion protections has been largely covered as an issue of women’s rights, the overturning of the Roe v Wade decision also drastically changes the legal landscape for queer folks. In a straightforward way, the Dobbs decision also affects non-women with functional female reproductive anatomy by exacerbating 2 dangers that the trans/gender-non-conforming community already faces—high rates of enduring physical, including sexual, violence and high rates of being denied access to crucial medical services (including but certainly not limited to gender-affirming medical interventions).[5] However, just 4 days after the overturning of Roe v Wade, Alabama’s attorney general urged a federal court to allow Alabama to ban all gender-affirming care in the state since gender-affirming care, much like abortion, is not a right “deeply rooted” in the nation’s history and tradition—one of the arguments used to overturn Roe v Wade[6]. Other rights that many expect to be targeted based on the Dobbs decision include the rights to same-sex marriage, marriage equality, access to contraceptives, and privacy; this threatens to destabilize the safety, financial security, and families of women and queer folk.

The Alabama attorney general’s argument for banning gender-affirming care in Alabama was preceded by an order from the Texas attorney general to investigate parents and medical professionals who enable gender-affirming treatments for transgender children as potential “child abusers” — an order that is legally little more than symbolic yet has initiated a series of potentially family-breaking investigations that the Department of Family Protective Services are within their legal rights to carry out.[7] These kinds of statewide efforts fuel anti-trans hysteria and will only encourage more state officials to try to push similar measures through.

Florida’s aptly-dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was also passed this year and only enacted in Florida’s Orange County school district a week prior to this July convention, broadly made illegal any “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”[8] Many proponents of the bill point out, conveniently, that the bill itself does not overtly distinguish between discussions of cis-heteronormative and queer gender/sexuality— that the bill is meant to prevent premature discussions of “mature” topics with young children. In practice, of course, the lack of clarification here is entirely unnecessary. According to the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, educators with same-sex spouses have already been ordered by their district to preempt litigation by hiding the fact of their marriage (while their straight counterparts are not held to this same standard), and to not wear, say, or display anything that might show allyship with their queer students (e.g., flags, pronoun badges, etc.).[9] Meanwhile the law also effectively bars any visibly trans or gender non-conforming educators in that school district from employment in their field.

Outside of the US, too, queer existence continues to be treated like an ideological plague. In fact, Polish president Andrzej Duda described LGBT as an ideology “even more dangerous to mankind than communism,” a statement that is in line with the 2019-2020 declarations of “LGBT-Free Zones” (zones that have declared themselves unwelcoming of “LGBT ideology”) within Poland.[10]  In 2020 and 2021 (the rankings for 2022 have yet to be released), Poland has been the worst country in the EU to be LGBT as ranked by nonprofit group ILGA-Europe. The 2020 Poland Protests, also colloquially known as “Polish Stonewall,” were a confrontation born from high tensions between queer activists and Polish law enforcement, which resulted in the violent arrest of 48 people—some of whom were not active participants in the protests but were only visibly queer.[11]

Perhaps not surprising to those following the fallout of J.K Rowling’s spirited and longstanding attack on transgender “ideology” that has encouraged an alliance of puritanical conservatives and anti-trans gays activists, UK Parliament members are currently discussing instituting a ban on conversion therapy that covers sexuality but pointedly leaves out gender identity.[12] This has led many to view the ban as little more than symbolic, since homophobia in modern healthcare in the UK is almost universally more insidious and related to access to care rather than blatant conversion therapy while the social climate has never been more blatantly transphobic.

In the US, trans folks’ access to healthcare is spotty and, even when within reach, still entirely at the mercy of their providers’ discretion. The depathologization of homosexuality is relatively recent—In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-3), released in 1980, both homosexuality and transgender behavior were listed as “psychosexual disorders.” The DSM legitimized treatment (i.e., conversion therapy) of homosexuality up until 1987 and it was only with the publication of DSM-5 in 2013 that any iteration of homosexuality was stricken from the DSM. At the same time, the DSM-5 softened “gender identity disorder” with the less pathologizing term “Gender Dysphoria.”[13] Diagnosis has always been required for people in the US to legally begin ID changes and any gender-affirming treatments such as hormonal and surgical interventions. These diagnoses used to be more prohibitively costly, harder to access, and longer to complete, with so much untread territory within which medical practitioners and state bureaucrats could make transgender folks’ lives a living hell without any oversight.

Now, the replacement of GID with Gender Dysphoria frames treatment as a remedy to symptoms and not a cure to mental illness. Today, specialists are easier to find and some clinics even initiate medical treatment in adults under an informed consent model, which strikes the need for psychiatric gatekeeping altogether. However, access to these resources is still largely rooted in metropolitan centers and in states with greater acceptance and legal protections for trans people. Therefore, the question of access to gender affirming care (just as with so many other issues of healthcare access) remains solidly tied to one’s class.

The variable pressure (based on social location/class) to maintain the medical “validity” of transgender existence in order to access gatekept care has resulted in a divide between trans folks and medical practitioners who stand behind a strict interpretation of gender dysphoria and trans folks/medical practitioners who view gender identity as a matter of self-determination. As part of this ideological battleground, the lives of people who have detransitioned have also become deeply politicized and dramatized by anti-trans activists. Their stories are used to prove the dangers of “transition regret”, even though most people who do detransition either don’t regret trying transition treatments or retransition at a later point in their lives when their circumstances allow themselves to do so in a more favorable way. Trans scholar Kinnon MacKinnon’s research[14] shows that people who detransition (either with or without regret) require just as much assistance as trans folks in navigating social, legal, and medical decisions, a problem that doesn’t get addressed when their stories are wielded as a misleading warning against transitioning in the first place.

When affirming medical treatment is not accessible through traditional routes, trans folks can take matters into their own hands. To fill in for all the gaps in access, there are many online resources where trans folks assist each other in procuring and self-dosing hormones on the black market. Since medicines procured this way (and, similarly, gender-affirming surgeries in other countries that are secured without clearance from primary care providers) often can’t be checked for safety, this is usually a last resort. For trans folks in the US that face a lack of transition resources based on their geographic location yet still have the money to begin legal medical transition, boutique mail-order businesses have popped up to provide these services at a premium. These businesses follow models that birth control providers addressing similar access issues have established years before, providing remote evaluations and check-ups to patients before mailing them the appropriate treatment. (Unfortunately, this treatment model is also restricted in certain states.) While self-determination is an ideal that ought to hold true for all queer folks, the medical arena provides significant and unique pushback to trans people trying to live their best lives.

One last legal arena to note is the issue of same-sex marriage. In 2019, same-sex marriage was legalized in Austria, Ecuador and Taiwan (the first Asian country to do so). In 2020, Costa Rica and Switzerland followed suit. Although same-sex marriage has been legal throughout the US since 2015 and has long since had its equality to heterosexual marriage ensured, the Dobbs decision now endangers that right.  During the years leading up to the legalization of gay marriage in the US, marriage was viewed by some cynics as little more than a piece of aspirational respectability politics. Whether or not this is true, the idea that this right may be repealed in the upcoming months stands to deprive married gay folks of much more than a privileged social position: things like custody of adopted children, home ownership, and financial agreements are contingent on the legality and equality of gay marriage.

That being said, while the new instability of gay marriage threatens to shake up the quality of life in same-sex households, this threat remains the tip of a huge iceberg. As other countries make inroads in securing the rights of queer folks to show up in the same public spheres as their cishet counterparts, queer (and especially transgender) folks are uniquely hypervisible and vulnerable in the current moment.

 

Culture Wars

The aforementioned anti-queer attacks, which make a clear link between gender/queer rights (and also cover the embedded struggles of race, class, ability, and legal status) could only be possible in a time like this. Apparently, the current zeitgeist is so deeply steeped in misogyny and patriarchal “common sense” that the simple existence of queer folks is enough of a public threat to warrant such targeted aggression.

Maybe these conservative fears of a “pink threat” aren’t entirely unfounded. According to the 2021 Gallup poll, a record number of 7.1% of US adults now identify as LGBTQ+ and 20.8% of Gen Z identify as LGBTQ+. Both of these groups’ percentages are approximately double what they were in 2012.[15]

The dramatic increase over the course of a decade indicates just how drastically the common understanding of normative gender and sexuality is changing. Rather than viewing these changes as a mass “coming out” in a more tolerant society, it’s more prudent to question the qualitative changes in how people understand their own behaviors in relation to gender and sexuality and, moreover, what these changes mean for patriarchal structures. In my own experience, while it is true that I’ve seen queer folks become involved in leftist spaces in large part because of their queer experiences, I’ve also often seen leftists come into organizing with little self-reflection on their own gender and sexuality, and then, in breaking down sexism and patriarchy, find that they aren’t quite as straight or gender-conforming as they had first thought.

Perhaps because the rise in queerness is due to these transgressive shifts in understanding and not a sudden uncovering of people who were simply “born that way”, LGBTQ+ advocacy hasn’t fallen neatly into the realm of assimilationist tactics. The rainbow-washing of oppressive institutions has not been enough to capture the scope of queer activism in the last few years. Ever since the powerful influence of Black Lives Matter and subsequent calls to defund the police, the history of police brutality against queer POC (especially Black queer folks) has informed queer antagonism against their historic oppressors. Organizers and groups throughout the US continue to resist police presence at Pride parades through different means, including banning officers in uniform, keeping any required police presence outside of main event areas, and boycotting Pride events where police presence is non-negotiable.[16]

Nevertheless, though trans women like Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera have risen in recognition as historical figures of Gay Liberation, there has been a revival of lesbian, gay, and bisexual conservative activists petitioning people to “Drop the T” from the LGBT acronym (never mind the Q and all other groups that have been added after). These LGB activists, in league with self-styled “sensible” anti-trans activists like Graham Linehan in league with concerned Mumsnet mothers,[17] paint transgender existence and gender diversity as a pathological issue in contrast to what they put forward as the naturally occurring and inherent diversity of human sexuality. It’s important to recognize that the pressure that LGB folks face to distance themselves from trans folks has everything to do with assimilating into an anti-queer culture, a tactic that can only leave them vulnerable to anti-queer fervor once lobbying against trans existence erodes enough rights (and public acceptance) away to lead to the targeting of another subject.

Trans folks already face difficulties when advocating for themselves. In the case of trans men, the low visibility of trans men in comparison to trans women and the under-acknowledgment of medical abuse and general violence that trans men experience (which, according to the initial U.S Trans Survey done in 2015, actually outranks the amount of hardship experienced in categories of domestic violence and medical abuse)[18] makes it difficult for trans men to make the violence against them a public issue. There is no widely accepted language/narrative for men to talk about issues regarding access to reproductive care, for example. Therefore, trans men are stuck in a catch-22 as we continue to face the same structural misogyny as cis women in regards to medical access and state surveillance of our bodies while being minimized in discussions around bodily autonomy.

Trans women, on the other hand, are hyper-visible in the media and, when represented, are often represented in violent circumstances either as aggressors or as victims. As victims, they are often depicted as perpetrators of “deceit” that warrant domestic violence towards them (i.e., the “panic defense”) or as victims of a public hate crime that reinforces the message that it is not safe to simply be trans in public. As aggressors, they are often shown as overpowering and emotional. Fallon Fox, the first openly transgender MMA fighter, became a pariah after fracturing her cisgender woman opponent’s skull in 2014 despite that specific injury being a common injury in that high-risk sport.[19] Videos of trans women shouting back or threatening people after being misgendered or otherwise dehumanized also tend to become viral, accompanied by comments that laugh at how manly they are acting. As a result, trans women are inundated with the message that they mustn’t speak up or defend themselves, that they can’t assert their rights when wronged, and that any attempts to do so will only further delegitimize them as women and as human beings.

Finally, if the medical system is full of pitfalls for binary trans folks, non-binary and genderqueer folks deal with being even more incomprehensible to a system of insurance and medicine designed to deal in binaries. But, ultimately, dropping the T is so dangerous not just because trans people are a uniquely vulnerable part of the acronym, but because the moral panic foisted upon the trans community has only been transposed onto us from where it was more commonly associated with the LGB. Trans folks, especially trans women, are still seen as being particularly predatory and mentally ill, corrosive to family values and wholesome gender norms. If efforts against trans folks become fully accepted and their threat is “contained,” there is little to stop this moral panic from informing the same puritanical offensive against LGB folks.

Where to go from here?

In the latter half of the last decade, it has become decidedly clear that, despite the fun and excitement of queer media representation and the ever-present signage of rainbow capitalism, neo-conservatives have doubled down on what their ideal society looks like. With proto-fascist leaders imbuing these conservative ideals with anger and encouraging action, anti-queer structural and direct violence has been more obvious than it’s been in a long time. It is also clear that “gender ideology” is the first thread to pick in a tapestry of LGBTQ+ rights both because of the proximity of the issues entailed within gender-expansive rights being parallel to developments in women’s rights and because of trans folks’ novelty in the fight for mainstream acceptance.

The task for the LGBTQ+ community today is to insist upon staying a community in the face of such a pernicious and stubborn threat to our existence. Doing that requires a deep acknowledgment, also, of the ways that struggles are combined between issues of race, gender, sexuality, class—to acknowledge the different ways that we are all dehumanized under capitalism. For cisgender-heterosexual comrades, the task remains largely the same. Of course, there will be pragmatic and urgent battles to be had: I anticipate the need to defend legal rights that the queer community takes for granted while also fostering solidarity and organizing for liberation that goes beyond simple legal acceptance and protection.

We must also ruthlessly critique the state’s paternalistic attitude toward society when it runs counter to our self-determination. The viral #protecttranskids is often invoked on social media when some news of discrimination or a legal threat against trans minors surfaces, but protecting trans youth depends on much more than reacting to these threats. Children must be taught in a way that is truly liberatory; rather than limiting their imaginations to the contours of the present and people’s roles within it, the next generation needs the tools to critically examine their surroundings, honor their own experiences, and carve out space for greater humanity within the world.

When asked about the issue of Gay Liberation, Raya Dunayevskaya said this:

You can’t make your right to your own kind of love-making as if that is the answer for everyone. People want to have a conclusion on the question of love—what is love, whether it’s physical, whether it’s emotional, whether it’s total, and all that sort of thing. But I don’t think it’s correct for us to try and solve it for others. I think what we have to do is to create the conditions for everyone to be able to experiment with choices, we’ll really have those choices, in love, in the family – and I don’t think we’ll really have those choices until we get rid of capitalism.[20]

I can say little else to sum the issue up more succinctly. There is no doubt that our shared understanding of gender and sexuality, of love and our ways of relating to one another, will continue to evolve. Trying to pin down some shared lexicon to describe queer reality isn’t a useful exercise to protect the lives of queer people. What remains evergreen is how necessary it is to fight for a world where the freedoms to explore these issues are beautiful, unfettered by capitalism and all other systems of domination so deeply entangled with it.

 

Footnotes

[1]  I will be using “queer” in lieu of the acronym for the rest of this report for my own convenience.

[2]  Nash, Elizabeth, and Guttmacher Institute. “State Policy Trends 2021: The Worst Year for Abortion Rights in Almost Half a Century.” Guttmacher Institute, January 12, 2022. https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2021/12/state-policy-trends-2021-worst-year-abortion-rights-almost-half-century.

[3] Lavietes, Matt and Elliott Ramos. “Nearly 240 Anti-LGBTQ Bills Filed in 2022 so Far, Most of Them Targeting Trans People.” NBCUniversal News Group, March 20, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/nbc-out/out-politics-and-policy/nearly-240-anti-lgbtq-bills-filed-2022-far-targeting-trans-people-rcna20418.

[4] Morton, M. H., Samuels, G. M., Dworsky, A., & Patel, S. Missed opportunities: LGBTQ youth homelessness in America. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, 2018. https://voicesofyouthcount.org/brief/lgbtq-youth-homelessness/

[5] James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality, 2016. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.; The Report of the second U.S. Transgender Survey, using 2022 data, has yet to be released as of August 12, 2022.

[6] Chandler, Kim. “Alabama Cites Abortion Ruling to Argue for Transgender Medication Ban.” PBS. Public Broadcasting Service, June 30, 2022. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/alabama-cites-abortion-ruling-to-argue-for-transgender-medication-ban.

[7] Klibanoff, Eleanor. “Texas Supreme Court Allows Child Abuse Investigations into Families of Transgender Teens to Continue.” The Texas Tribune, May 13, 2022. https://www.texastribune.org/2022/05/13/transgender-teens-child-abuse-texas/.

[8] Villarreal, Daniel. “Florida Teachers Told to Hide Their Same-Sex Spouses Due to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law.” LGBTQ Nation, June 30, 2022. https://www.lgbtqnation.com/2022/06/florida-teachers-told-hide-sex-spouses-due-dont-say-gay-law/.

[9] Villareal, “Florida Teachers Told to Hide Their Same-Sex Spouses Due to ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law.” LGBTQ Nation.

[10] “‘Próbuje Się Nam Wmówić, Że to Ludzie, a to Jest Po Prostu Ideologia.’” TVN24. TVN24, June 13, 2020. https://web.archive.org/web/20200827011625/https://tvn24.pl/wybory-prezydenckie-2020/wybory-prezydenckie-2020-andrzej-duda-o-lgbt-probuje-sie-nam-wmowic-ze-to-ludzie-a-to-jest-po-prostu-ideologia-4609609.

[11] Ciobanu, Claudia. “Mass Arrest of LGBT People Marks Turning Point for Poland.” Balkan Insight, August 13, 2020. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/08/13/mass-arrest-of-lgbt-people-marks-turning-point-for-poland/.

[12] Mann, Nick. “RE: UK’s Ban on Conversion Therapy Should Include Transgender People.” The BMJ, June 20, 2022. https://www.bmj.com/content/377/bmj.o1453/rr.

[13] “Homosexuality in the DSM.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, July 4, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexuality_in_the_DSM.; In broad terms, gender dysphoria is the severe discomfort felt when one’s body does not align with their gender identity.

[14] Étude Re/DeTrans Canada Study. Accessed July 6, 2022. https://twitter.com/ReDeTransCanada.

[15] Doherty, Erin. “One in Five Gen Z Adults Identifies as LGBTQ, Gallup Finds.” Axios, February 19, 2022. https://www.axios.com/2022/02/17/lgbtq-generation-z-gallup.

[16] Contreras, Russell. “More Pride Organizers Banning Police from Participating in Annual Parades.” Axios, June 1, 2022. https://www.axios.com/2022/06/01/lgbtq-pride-events-police.

[17] Wakefield, Lily. “Graham Linehan Hijacks ‘Mums in Politics’ Mumsnet Chat to Grill MPs on Eddie Izzard.” PinkNews, February 2, 2022. https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2022/02/02/mumsnet-trans-graham-linehan-stella-creasy-caroline-nokes-eddie-izzard/.

[18] “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2016. https://transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS-Full-Report-Dec17.pdf.

[19] Zeigler, Cyd. “4 Myths and Flat-out Lies Being Told about Trans MMA Fighter Fallon Fox.” Outsports, February 23, 2021. https://www.outsports.com/2021/2/22/22296155/fallon-fox-trans-mma-fighter-lie-inclusion-misleading.

[20] Raya Dunayevskaya, Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution. (Humanities Press, 1985), p. 180.

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