May 2021, and someone on Facebook has circulated a notice to elementary teachers in Ontario, Canada, offering training on inclusivity in relation to LGGBDTTTIQQAAPP. No, my finger did not get stuck on the keyboard. This is explained by them as Lesbian, Gay, Genderqueer, Bisexual, Demisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Twospirit, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Asexual, Allies, Pansexual and Polyamorous. This is the longest list I’ve seen so far. Stonewall is currently using LGBT (by line – ‘acceptance without exception’ and a much longer glossary of terms) but QI+ are also added by some organisations, with the list being deliberately left open-ended by the plus, leaving room for many more ‘identities’.
Identity politics are currently highly contested across all parts of the political spectrum. Part of the problem in understanding and working through these ‘debates’ is the language used and the failure to agree terms; the frequent merging and confusion around the terms sex and gender, for example, being particularly vexatious. Confusion also arises because many wildly different things are in fact being addressed collectively and, far from articulating a clear agenda, the aggregation of letters representing an ever-increasing range of life choices, preferences, orientations, sexual practices and performative gender roles is confusing and self-defeating. Indeed, as is shown above, the number of letters appears to increase at an alarming rate, and the uncritical liberal agenda is to accept it all as somehow an expansion of cool lesbian and gay rights (‘it’s all just like Section 28’), without much thought. Underpinning that acceptance is the notion that there is a much wider definition of sex, sexuality and gender than we have previously been led to believe and that anyone who doesn’t get with it is an old-fashioned bigot.
So, let’s take a look at LGBTQI+ – what does that mean? Firstly, the first two letters represent lesbians and gay men, two distinctly different groups with different agendas, cultural manifestations and histories right there. To state the bleeding obvious, which is no longer so obvious to some, lesbians are women, and gay men are men. Both are in a very different relationship to power, women being oppressed as women living within our male-dominant culture and subject to misogyny as well as discrimination and hostility in relation to their same-sex orientation. In the early days of Gay Liberation, women left the GLF as they came to that understanding and joined rather with the Women’s Liberation Movement, aware that gay men can also be misogynistic and that their interests as lesbians were not part of the men’s agenda. Both being defined as homosexual attraction didn’t mean that they occupied the same social space or had equal access to agency and power.
…the number of letters appears to increase at an alarming rate, and the uncritical liberal agenda is to accept it all as somehow an expansion of cool lesbian and gay rights (‘it’s all just like Section 28’), without much thought.
Through the subsequent years, that has become increasingly clear as gay men have been much more successful in entering society at all levels, from the cultural to political inclusion. And their agenda of assimilation i.e. just wanting to be an accepted and a successful part of the existing system rather than radically changing it, came to pass. The number of gay MPs and business men, the power of the pink pound and the corporate nature of Stonewall demonstrates how much progress has been made by gay men. Lesbians, not so much. Adding insult to injury, many lesbians and gay men have been infuriated by Stonewall’s autocratic dictat that homosexuality is no longer a valid concept, but must be replaced by same-gender attraction. As a consequence, we have seen the founding of many new LGB and lesbian organisations both here and abroad, based on same-sex attraction, and a bitterly fought rejection of such notions as the ‘female penis’ or that ‘men can be lesbians’ and must be accepted into lesbian spaces and their sexual practices. This denial of homosexual rights, the right to define and determine our own lives, has been a step too far for many. The irony of Stonewall’s origins in the struggle for lesbian and gay rights is not lost on us.
Bi people encompass both aspects of sexuality, same-sex and straight. Their relationship with both the lesbian and gay men’s communities has been fraught over the years with frequent accusations of hostility, mistrust and of not being accepted by either community. Clearly, bisexual people would also encounter prejudice against lesbians or homophobia, depending on how they were expressing their sexuality at the time but it’s all a bit more complicated than that. Does a bisexual man become gay in a relationship with another man, or remain bisexual with all the complications that ensue? Suspicion of bisexuals in the lesbian community is commonplace with fears that there is a lack of certainty about their identity and lack of loyalty to women. It’s not a comfortable or settled relationship for many.
Then we come to the T. Transgender identity is not about sexuality at all. It does not speak to sexuality – a transgender person may identify as gay, straight or in any other way they chose in relation to their sexuality. Transgender is what it says on the tin, however, essentially about gender expression, and defined as a condition in which the person’s gender identity (which many see as somehow innate) is different from their natal sex. Although agreed definitions are hard to find, gender identities are reliant on gender stereotypes, i.e. if you are a boy who likes stereotypical feminine things, you are born in the wrong body and are therefore trans. There has been some retreat from the ‘born in the wrong body’ discourse lately, as it’s very hard to defend, but it is still commonly used when speaking of children’s preferences and the perceived signals that indicate they have been born ‘trans’. Both lesbian and gay men have always challenged those stereotypes by their very existence, making it evident that one can be a ‘feminine’ man or a ‘masculine’ woman. And by the way, in this piece I am using the common definitions of man and woman as meaning man and woman.
The umbrella term often used to identify the whole community is ‘queerness’ which currently seems to mean, not necessarily being lesbian or gay, but anyone who doesn’t see themselves as ‘straight’… This is another form of fuckwittery given that the origins of the term lie in the abuse of lesbians and gay men.
Transsexuals (people who have usually undergone surgical and chemical transition), however, are not currently included in the Stonewall list of letters, and indeed are often despised by adherents of gender ideology and trans rights activists because many transsexuals have made it clear that they do not agree with the current preoccupations and ambitions of the gender identity lobby. Some have bravely stated that they are very well aware that it is not possible to change biological sex and are often deeply concerned at the prejudice being whipped up against them as many people respond negatively to the extreme trans agenda (i.e. trans women are women and should be given access to all women’s protected spaces and never differentiated from natal women). Many also resent the current wide definition of trans in which they are supposedly included alongside cross-dressers and those who chose to go through no form of transition – many transsexuals feel that that demeans and misrepresents their experience. So even the T is referring to very different viewpoints, practices and identities. The images that are often used to represent the T in the media are of fey young people, so frail that they may commit suicide if not allowed to go onto drugs, hormones and possibly surgery. Pictures rarely used, however, are the predatory looking middle-aged men who are self-identifying as women in prison, or haunting lesbian dating sites.
What is also obscured and rarely addressed openly by these groups is the prevalence of men with autogynephilia in the trans community, but this is often referred to in social groups and by individuals who freely admit to being sexually stimulated by wearing ‘women’s’ clothing. I am not going to go into the range of fetishes which are now often present on Pride marches, the pups and the furries, for example, except to say that this is a whole other extension being included in what started out as a movement for lesbian and gay rights and which many lesbian and gay people do not see as having any relevance to their cause.
Non binaries, as I understand it, reject the binary of male and female gender stereotypes. Again, this is about gender non-conformity, is closely akin to what used to be called androgyny, which again is not about sexuality or sex, but the expression of a, possibly fluid or changing, social identity.
And then we come to Q which sometimes represents queer, and sometimes questioning. Does ‘questioning’ just mean people who are thinking about things, sex, gender, sexuality, whatever? Those who haven’t made up their minds yet? I would imagine we all go through some form of questioning, particularly during our teens and early adulthood, perhaps even throughout our lives. Inclusion in this list suggests that the right to be allowed to question and change is a right that is lacking. Don’t all young people question their identities? In what ways do they not have this right? Or does it just mean that whoever you are, you can be included in the list of special people?
The I stands for intersex people. This group has been used by the gender ideologues to ‘prove’ that sex isn’t binary and that all kinds of variations can be found. The hapless Clownfish and various other species are often used to argue this point too. The genetic variations covered under this heading have been very poorly understood – intersex people have a sex and there are a number of statements from members of this group to the effect that they do not see themselves as trans and do not want to be used in this debate. The existence of a small number of genetic variations does not ‘prove’ that our species is not sexually dimorphic or validate the unscientific notion that sex can be changed or chosen.
LGBTQI+ is no single community, no single experience, agenda or reality – it’s not possible to speak clearly about it as one thing and make sense.
The umbrella term often used to identify the whole community is ‘queerness’ which currently seems to mean, not necessarily being lesbian or gay, but anyone who doesn’t see themselves as ‘straight’. There are for example, male and female couples who describe themselves as queer because they don’t think they conform to gender stereotypes. This is another form of fuckwittery given that the origins of the term lie in the abuse of lesbians and gay men. This broad use of the term also depends on a denial of biological or material reality. A male and female in a sexual relationship are, of course, heterosexual, and we all know which one will get pregnant if they don’t use birth control – no matter who is wearing the nail varnish or who is on the bottom. Indeed, we could also ask ‘how straight is straight?’ Men and women’s experiences of being heterosexual are markedly different and can’t be usefully addressed as a simple or singular thing.
LGBTQI+ is no single community, no single experience, agenda or reality – it’s not possible to speak clearly about it as one thing and make sense. Covering over the differences, pretending there are no conflicts of interests, and most especially prioritising the interests of one group, (the emphasis on the rights of men who identify as women is overwhelming) is dishonest and unwise. One cannot force a sense of unity on people by denying their lived realities and we are already seeing the break- up of this superficial alliance.
The Stonewall definition of trans includes everything from full-on post-operative transsexuals, to Friday night cross-dressers, the businessman who occasionally wears women’s clothing (and then gets an award for women in business), and those who undergo no transitional process at all, but have a feeling. To be precise, they include the terms transgender, transsexual, gender-queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois (no, me neither). It, thereby, reduces every meaning to ‘anyone who says they are’.
Recently there has been a call to stop using the term BAME, to disaggregate what has become an unhelpful and at times racist assumption of similarities where there are great differences. If one were trying, for example, to create a practical programme for better attainment in schools, it would be absolutely necessary to understand the very different cultures and experiences of, say, boys from Caribbean or Chinese heritage. The picture would vary again if sex were taken into account. All the pictures vary when sex and race are taken into account. Any practical measures would need to be tailored to the specific needs of very different groups, or they would be meaningless gestures.
The same is true for other communities and to get beyond the slogans – ‘trans rights are human rights’ – ‘trans women are women’ – we need to understand the different and sometimes clashing demands. And by the way, a list of demands is not necessarily a set of human rights. And especially not when it impacts on the human rights of others. Women’s rights are human rights. Lesbian and gay rights are human rights – it doesn’t help just to reiterate. All the agendas discussed are changed when sex is taken into account. It is oppressive and disrespectful to women to pretend that sex is irrelevant as if patriarchy has magically disappeared in the queer universe.
The Stonewall definition of trans includes everything from full-on post-operative transsexuals, to Friday night cross-dressers… To be precise, they include the terms transgender, transsexual, gender-queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, crossdresser, genderless, agender, nongender, third gender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and neutrois (no, me neither). It, thereby, reduces every meaning to ‘anyone who says they are’.
If we want to address the needs and demands of different groups and communities, to create a political agenda that makes sense and can be realistically pursued, we firstly need to recognise that there are very different groups and communities involved, and listen to, not silence, dissenting or questioning voices. Women have been silenced. Lesbians have been silenced. It is not accidental. We know there has been a deliberate strategy to embed gender ideology into the lesbian and gay movement, to refuse debate and definition, and to attack any divergence from this orthodoxy. As women, we challenge the notion that you are whatever you say you are, that life has no reality other than our individual identities – we know that isn’t true and we refuse to ignore what our experience of being girls and women has taught us, or to relinquish our language, our fundamental right to name ourselves and our bodies and we refuse to give up our hard-won rights as a sex. No other group has the right to demand that of us, or any oppressed group, to accommodate their demands. The disproportionality of this incursion into women’s rights is shocking. Women are more than half the population. Those who identify as trans are fewer than 1%. But the desires of a small number of men are held to be superior to the needs of half the population for single-sex services and protections. The injunction to just ‘be kind’, which frequently accompanies this, ignores the need for kindness and consideration to some of the most vulnerable groups in our society i.e. women in prisons and hospitals, women who have been abused, women for whom sex-based services are vital.
To create a relevant, achievable agenda or real alliances we will need to unpack the alphabet, separate it out into needs and rights we can address. Although it would seem that, at the moment, many of the current obsessions and articulated demands revolve around gender validation rather than practical measures in achievable political programmes. Swallowing wholesale an imposed and regressive ideology, in the name of a liberation it fails to offer, is not a radical act. The unquestioning acceptance of gender ideology that is being demanded of us all relies on an uncritical ignorance of the lives and communities involved and a pretence that different things are the same. To question this incoherent amalgamation is to be dismissed as exhibiting hatred and phobias. I challenge anyone to create a practical agenda that relates to the whole of the LGBTQI+ mantra. We must reject these disingenuous slogans that serve only to demonstrate obedience and conformity to an ideology, and try to formulate our politics in terms of real, lived lives in the material world. A good feminist methodology.
Lynn Alderson is a long time lesbian feminist activist with a history of working in feminist publishing and bookselling. She is currently involved with Labour Women’s Declaration and Lesbian Labour. She doesn’t have any cats.