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Following is an essay I wrote for use as a writing sample, but I had been meaning to express my thoughts on this subject for quite a while anyway. There have been several stories regarding transgender's inclusion in the LGBT movement lately so I thought now would be a good time to share this with a wider audience. I approached this from a rational perspective. My intention was to give equal weight to the natural and social sciences, and what they each have to tell us about human sexuality and gender. Enjoy, and feel free to share thoughts and criticisms.At the time of this writing, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) is making its way through the United States Congress. ENDA is a proposed federal law that would outlaw workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and, possibly, gender identity. There has long been a debate within the gay community[1] about whether or not to include protections for gender identity. On one hand, some gay and lesbian Americans cite solidarity with transgender people and issues, and insist that ENDA should pass with transgender protections, or not at all. Others argue that some protections are better than none, and point out that social change is often a slow, incremental process characterized by compromises and losses, but generally progress over time. Still others want nothing whatsoever to do with transgender people or issues. They may argue that transgenderism and homosexuality are unrelated, and more extreme attitudes take the form of outright hostility toward transgender people.

My intention is not to write about ENDA or otherwise get mired in politics. I present the issue here for the sake of context. It is against the background of ENDA that I typically encounter debates among fellow gay men over whether or not transgender people should be included in the gay rights movement. I strongly believe they should, and furthermore that we should not always have to be looking at LGBT issues in terms of a current political controversy. It very well may be that at this particular moment in United States history, a version of ENDA without transgender protections has a better chance of passing in the House and Senate. Political expediency, however, does not equal morality; nor does it mean that transgenderism is not worth considering along with homosexuality and bisexuality in practically all contexts.

I want to briefly touch on the scientific perspective of human sexuality, which I feel often gets overlooked in sociopolitical debates. Let us be forthright: it should be obvious to everyone that the primary biological function of sexuality is to facilitate procreation, and that humans have different sexes because our ancestors evolved to reproduce via sexual reproduction. I realize this statement might make some LGBT readers bristle, but note here the emphasis on function, rather than purpose. Scientific explanations describe reality, they do not dictate behaviors or values. Acknowledging the obviousness of sexuality's association with reproduction is not the same thing as saying sexual behavior in humans should necessarily be for the purpose of producing offspring. Anyone who claims that non-procreative sexual behavior is unnatural, and therefore morally wrong, is committing a particularly egregious logical fallacy. They are also woefully uninformed, as sexual behavior throughout the animal kingdom is routinely directed toward all sorts of various non-procreative purposes. Still, this diversity can be acknowledged without ignoring that the primary biological function of sex and gender—the reason they evolved in the first place—is related to reproduction. In light of this, it can also be conceded, without fear or judgment, that sexual desire and behaviors that are not clearly directed toward procreation, and people whose genders do not seem to conform to male or female, intuitively seem like outliers. Simply put, LGBT people are different. Our existence challenges any simple and naive understanding of human evolution and sexuality. For this reason alone, I believe it makes sense to study lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues together in an academic context.

Moving on to the definitions themselves: it is now generally understood that the acronym LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Unlike the words lesbian, gay and bisexual, which refer to three major variations on human sexual orientation[2], transgender is an umbrella term that has grown to encompass various topics related to gender identity: having to do with people's internal sense of their own gender, and outward expression of it, and not necessarily having anything to do with their sexual attractions. Transgender, then, may seem like the outsider here, and adding to the confusion is the fact that in casual conversation, transgender is often used interchangeably with transsexual: specifically, a person whose inner gender identity does not match their physical sex (i.e. a so-called “man trapped in a woman's body” and vice versa). Transsexualism is one type of transgenderism, but social scientists and critical theorists now use the word transgender to describe a broad range of phenomena including transsexualism, but also: transvestitism (the desire to dress up in the clothing usually considered appropriate for the opposite gender—the majority of transvestites being heterosexual men); androgynous or genderqueer (a person's gender identity is ambiguous or otherwise does not fit conveniently into preexisting taxonomy); drag queen/king performers (a person dresses like the opposite gender for entertainment purposes); and sometimes intersex (a person possesses ambiguous biological sex characteristics, usually the result of a congenital condition).[3]

I believe that the frequent conflation of the umbrella term, transgender, with one specific category underneath it, transsexual, may be one factor in contributing to misunderstandings and even negative attitudes toward transgender people among some fellow gay men.[4] I do not intend to explore the etymology of the term here; nor do I wish to challenge it or invent new, better terms myself (although I can see that being a worthy undertaking). Regardless, what our society has been left with is a somewhat confusing popular acronym, LGBT, which seemingly describes disparate biological phenomena and social identities; and contains definitions that do not necessarily share a consistent logic. My argument is that, despite the problems with the definitions as they stand, it is still reasonable to group LGBT people together, because while each may be separate phenomena (with, for all we know, completely different biological, psychological and social causes), they all rest on the same conceptual foundation, namely that some people do not conform to society's prevailing gender norms.

Transgender, as an umbrella concept, is monumental. Its implication is that there exist in society prevailing notions of what constitutes appropriate dress, vocation, behavior, mannerisms, interests and temperaments for either men or women, which are usually maintained through tradition and religion. Men are expected to behave like men, and women like women. This sounds simple enough, but in reality, gender roles are incredibly complex. They differ between and within cultures, and depend on the values of the individual observing them. The ability to breach gender barriers without consequence may be event-specific (e.g. I once dressed in drag and attended a Halloween party in a small town dive and was roundly accepted, despite the fact that a man in a dress would not be tolerated by that bar's local patrons on any other day of the year). More insidiously, double standards may be applied to people of certain races, ethnicities or religions (an important topic I will not address in detail here). Essentially, gender norms may seem rigid, but in truth they are incredibly elastic, and often downright contradictory. And in a sense they must be, for who among us actually meets all the criteria of any given gender norm? Or any traditional role or stereotype, for that matter?

One could spend a lifetime investigating the complexity of gender norms, but suffice it to say, since the very nature of gender roles is difficult to pin down, the notion of violating them is just as amorphous. The topic becomes difficult to grasp, but there is a useful conceptual tool that makes it easier to comprehend: the idea of passing. Passing essentially means “flying under the radar”; the ability to navigate the public sphere without being identified by others as transgressing gender boundaries. A male-to-female transsexual who can walk around in public and be perceived by others to be a woman is passing successfully. Passing is not a fine line. Perhaps this woman is convincing to most but not all. I like to imagine gender non-conformity as a spotlight shining down on a darkened public square. Many people have no trouble walking around it and going undetected, but some may be on the edge or stumble into it from time and time, and others are unable to ever escape scrutiny.

This spotlight analogy helps me make my point about transgender's undeniable relationship with homosexuality. We know that some gay men and lesbian women are noticeably gender atypical. We must acknowledge that effeminate gay men and masculine lesbians will find themselves in the spotlight. An effeminate gay teenager who is bullied in the school hallway for being a “sissy” is not being targeted because of his sexual orientation per se, or any other invisible characteristic. He is attacked because of his outward violation of gender norms. In this sense, he is arguably transgender.

Yet, one does not even need to be overtly gender atypical in dress or mannerisms in order to be violating prevailing gender norms. We would be foolish to ignore that gender roles do not just dictate superficial appearances, they run much deeper than that. They reach into every aspect of our lives, including our personal relationships and family structures. Namely, a key part of the traditional gender roles in our society is that women are expected to love men, and men to love women. Taking this into account, if we view transgender as a concept rather than a distinct biological phenomenon, then arguably it describes all gays and lesbians just as much as it describes people who change their physical sex. Since we fall in love with members of the same gender, gays and lesbians defy traditional gender expectations. We are all transgender (likewise, bisexual people are transgender, although whether or not they will be detected as such at any given time—whether or not they will stumble into that spotlight—depends on whether they openly explore same-gender relationships).

I feel compelled to wander into philosophy for a bit here, if only because I have personally debated this issue with gay men who have some knowledge of college level academic discourse. Some of them resist this concept because they associate it with a strain of postmodern feminist or queer theory that seeks to “deconstruct” or “problematize” existing academic disciplines and their methodologies (and sometimes, science and logic itself). However, I do not consider myself a postmodernist in this sense, and I am certainly not a hardcore epistemological relativist. I do not believe human gender is entirely “socially constructed”. Clearly males and females have different biological characteristics.[5] Likewise I consider both homosexuality and transsexualism to be very real, and different, natural phenomena that are each subject to rational, scientific inquiry. I am not saying the distinction between the two is relative or trivial, and as a gender typical, non-transsexual (or cissexual) gay man, I do understand the importance of having my own masculinity acknowledged, as well as the desire to not be mislabeled or taken for something I am not.

I am simply saying that although the openness of transgender as an umbrella concept can lend itself to some confusion, it nevertheless points to an underling truth about the social injustice all LGBT people face: that it is ultimately based on gender discrimination, and enforced through “traditional”[6] gender roles and family structures. One does not need postmodernism or queer theory to accept this, and it is no more evident than when I examine the public statements and literature of those who oppose equal rights for LGBT people, and observe how they constantly fail to distinguish between homosexuality and transgenderism (“Gays can marry? What's next, men wearing dresses? Men in women's bathrooms?”); and that often when transgender people are attacked, it is reported that the victims were subjected to anti-gay slurs. Simply put, bigots do not distinguish between the L, G, B and T. The fact that we all transgress gender boundaries makes us all suspect in the eyes of those who champion conformity to socially conservative gender norms and family structures. We are all queer. We are all faggots. We are all transgender. This is not a radical political statement. It simply extends logically from the terms themselves, owing to the fact that transgender has grown to mean more than simply transsexual.

“We're all in this together” might seem like a trite statement, but I genuinely feel it sums up the situation of all LGBT people in the United States. I for one want a society that is fair and just for everyone. I am not interested in only working for the rights of a particular demographic to which I happen to belong, and I find the complaints about including transgender people to be ignorant, distracting and illogical. Activists, politicians and lay people can argue amongst themselves over whom to include in the struggle for equality, but it is simply not accurate to say that sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated.[7] Simply ending discrimination on the basis of traditional gender roles and family structures would resolve most or even all legal and social discrimination against LGBT people. Even then, outside any immediate political discourse, sexual orientation and gender identity are still more than worthy of being considered as parts of the whole topic of sex and gender diversity in human beings.


1. Normally I avoid using the term “community”, since there is no such thing as a monolithic gay or LGBT community. I use it here for the sake of simplification, and because I know it will resonate with casual readers.

2. It may be logical to acknowledge asexuality as a fourth major human sexual orientation.

3 Social scientists differentiate between sex, which is biological, and gender, which is psychological and social. Whereas transgender generally refers to gender, intersex refers to biological sex characteristics.

4 It is not by any means the only factor, but at the very least, resolving confusion of these terms can only help.

5. Male and female characteristics are different, but not as much as people sometimes believe. All of us begin our existence as a sexually undifferentiated zygote. From there, sexual development is not cut-and-dry, it is the result of complex interactions among chromosomes, hormones and environmental factors. Considering this, it is hardly surprising that the factors responsible for determining sex do not always line up exactly the same way every time, and can sometimes result in intersex conditions. I have no trouble believing that differences in sexual orientation and gender identity are also made possible by the complexity of our sexual development. In any case, differences in biological sex are real and important enough, but they are still not a sound basis on which to discriminate, either socially or legally.

6. Many notions of “tradition” are recent and based on ignorance of real history; for example, the idea that marriage has always been “one man and one woman” is utterly false, as anyone who has read the Bible should know.

7. If anything, the simple 3-part model of sexual orientation (LGB), based as it is on a simplistic binary definition of gender, fails in the face of the diversity that actually characterizes human sex and gender.

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