Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bi Inclusion Isn’t Just a Letter


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

”Ah, my taste … includes both oysters and snails.”

— Dalton Trumbo, screenplay, Spartacus (1960)

The overall Queer community has done a good job paying lip service to the inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in its constituency alongside Lesbians and Gay men. It started in the early 1990’s with the unlovely term “LesBiGay” and grew thereafter into the even more indigestible acronym “LGBT” — which Queer humorist David Sedaris joked made us sound like a sandwich (“I’d like an LGBT on rye, please, hold the mayo”). I’ve heard Queer activists use the phrase “LGBT people” in political meetings, while non-LGBT people in the audience stared blankly at them because they didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. More recently, that set of initials has grown even further, to include “I” (intersexuals, formerly known as hermaphrodites, people who are born with sex organs of both genders), “Q” (“questioning,” usually used to refer to young people who haven’t decided what their sexual identity is and are still working it out), and another “Q” (for “Queer,” the remaining all-inclusive term which we at Zenger’s use despite its historical negative connotations).

What the Queer community hasn’t done as well is to revisit some of the fundamental assumptions made over the 57 years of continuous Queer activism in the U.S. about who we are and why we are who we are and love whom we love. The mainstream Queer community in particular has based virtually its entire case for equality and civil rights on the idea that sexual orientation is an “immutable characteristic,” fixed at conception, birth or shortly thereafter. It’s a superficially attractive notion because if, as it argues, we are “born” Gay or Lesbian, then we can’t help being who we are and therefore we shouldn’t be discriminated against over it or feel social pressure to “change” and live heterosexual lives. It also happens to be demonstrably wrong, and more than anything else it’s the increasing presence of Bisexual and Transgender people in the Queer movement — and the education we’re receiving from them on how they see their sexuality and live their lives — that are making the “born that way” myth increasingly unsustainable.

The concept that Gay and Lesbian people are “born that way” was part of the Queer movement from the formation of the Mattachine Society in 1950, largely by people who’d participated in the civil-rights struggles of African-Americans as members of the Communist Party, U.S.A. and other Left-wing groups. When the original radical founders of Mattachine were purged in 1953, what was left of the Queer movement struggled for the next 16 years with a metaphor borrowed from the medical community. It bought into the idea that homosexuality was per se a mental illness, but said that it wasn’t our fault that we were sick, and therefore we shouldn’t be discriminated against because of it. Instead, we should be helped to live “normal” lives in spite of our “disease.”

That changed in the 1960’s, when the African-American civil rights movement exploded into the national consciousness and provided a model for other mass movements against social discrimination. Women, other people of color, people with disabilities and Queers all seized on the civil rights movement as a model. By 1969, even before the Stonewall Inn riot in New York, there were “Gay Liberation” groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles which rejected the “sickness” model of homosexuality and insisted that Queer folk were just as good, just as worthy and just as sane as everyone else. Even the specific political demands of the Queer movement that emerged, especially as its activists became more mainstream in the 1970’s and 1980’s, were largely borrowed from those of African-Americans and other people of color: anti-discrimination legislation, equal service in the military and an end to restrictions on who we can marry.

The problem was that relying on the metaphor of sexual orientation as an “immutable characteristic” similar to race or ethnic ancestry has locked us into a dependence on bad science and an ideology that denies the legitimacy of the lived experiences of Bisexual and Transgender people. We rush to hail each researcher who pops out of a lab with evidence, however flimsy or dubiously interpreted, that seems to support the “born that way” hypothesis — and our community’s adversaries, buying into the same stupid argument, think that if they can prove we’re not “born that way,” they have delegitimized our case for equality and proven that anti-Queer discrimination is O.K. We hail a person who, after 20 years of a heterosexual marriage and children, suddenly comes out as Gay or Lesbian as having finally connected with the “real” nature they had all along — yet if a person who has identified and lived as a Gay or Lesbian for 20 years suddenly falls in love with a partner of the opposite gender, we denounce him or her as a “traitor” and accuse them of living a lie.

It’s hard enough to fit Bisexual people into a “born that way” scenario about sexual orientation. It’s even more difficult to fit Transgender people into it. After all, it’s hard to imagine a more “immutable characteristic” a person could have than the physical configuration of their body as male or female — but the biggest lesson Transgender people have taught us is that sometimes the genetics of a person’s gender are irrelevant to their psyche and experience. Even if they don’t have their outside plumbing remodeled to fit their inside identity, plenty of Transgender people live in the gender identity they feel truly describes them — sometimes neither “male” nor “female,” but their personal combination of both — and display attractions to men, women or other Transgender people that mock the idea of an inborn or “immutable” sexual orientation or gender identity.

To maintain the illusion that we’re “born” Lesbian, Gay or straight, we need to deny the lived experience of Bisexual people — including most of the people on those lists we sometimes publish of so-called “Famous Lesbians and Gays in History,” almost all of whom were actually Bi. We end up criticizing not only the motives of radical-Right activists who run “conversion ministries” and offer “reparative therapy,” but the lives of the people who go through these programs and actually marry opposite-sex partners and have families with them. Ironically, we’re not only clinging to biological determinism when virtually every other civil-rights movement challenged it — Blacks, Latinos, Asians and women all had to attack the idea that they were biologically inferior as they established a case for being treated equally — but we’re doing so at a time when racial identity, the attribute we picked as our ruling metaphor, is being subdivided in so many directions that more and more mixed-race people are questioning whether any specific racial category describes their experience of their heritage.

Indeed, one of the civil-right’s movement’s greatest victories — the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia (1967) that bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional — created the conditions that have steadily broken down notions of race as an essential identity. Straight and Bi people of different colors took advantage of that ruling and brought forth children who aren’t really “white,” “Black,” “Latino” or “Asian,” but some combination thereof. Tiger Woods coined the term “Cablinasian” to express that he had African, European and Asian ancestors in his gene pool — and he didn’t consider any one of those identities more important than the others in shaping who he was or how he conceived of his origins. More recently, Barack Obama has emerged as a major contender for the U.S. presidency just 40 years after the fall of the laws specifically designed to make sure people like him couldn’t even exist. Interracial people face a dilemma long familiar to Bisexuals: how do you see yourself and how do you get other people to see you as you see yourself when you don’t fit neatly into binary categories like “Black/white” or “straight/Gay”?

The inclusion of Bisexual and Transgender people in the overall Queer (“LGBT”) movement forces us to rethink whether we’re really “born this way” and whether race is still the best metaphor for us to use in our struggle for liberation. I think it isn’t; just as we outgrew the disability model in the 1960’s, we’ve outgrown the racial model. Perhaps the best metaphor is religion. You can stay within the “faith of your fathers” or you can explore. You can sign on to an established religion or you can invent your own from bits and pieces of your own and others’ insights into the nature of God. You can choose not to believe in God at all, or to remain uncertain (“questioning”) as to whether there is anything beyond material, physical reality, and if there is, what it’s like.

The Queer movement of the 21st century will go beyond establishing “rights” and banning discrimination against groups of people arbitrarily defined by their sexuality. It will embrace the totality of human sexual experience and will celebrate the right of all people freely to choose their sexual expressions, subject only to a few basic social rules: no coercion, no exploitation of children, and respect for the bodies of ourselves and the others with whom we play. The concept of holism taught us that we are body, mind and spirit; the U.S. Constitution guaranteed us freedom of mind and spirit in 1791 when the First Amendment was adopted as part of the Bill of Rights, but it didn’t guarantee freedom of body until the Supreme Court issued the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003. The challenge Bisexual and Transgender people present to the Queer movement is not to set up two more boxes labeled “B” and “T” to go with the ones labeled “S,” “G” and “L,” but to tear up the boxes and work towards a world that accepts the right of people to choose their sexual identities, experiences and partners, without being judged either by a condemnatory religious tradition that regards only heterosexuality as acceptable or a sometimes equally hard-line Queer community which regards homo-to-hetero sexual fluidity as a form of treason or betrayal.