CN: discussion of privilege and oppression within LGBT+ circles, especially transphobia; mentions of sexual and physical violence, death, suicide, mental health, crime; sarcasm; misogynistic slur
Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a cis able middle class white man… It’s a tough life. People listen to my opinions, nobody’s ever politely impressed that I can think for myself, and I’ve never been called ‘sugar tits’ (though the latter I think is something of a shame).
Oh, the trials and tribulations of being a GAY cis able middle class white man… nope, still listened to, still believably a thinker and still no sugar-tits.
I often find myself trying to articulate the many difficulties facing young gay men. Typically, this receives disinterested nods but sometimes it evokes a passionate response of ‘yeah, but’s that’s not as bad as this type of oppression’. In these situations, I’m faced with a bizarre game of Top Trumps. Misogyny, transphobia, racism, homophobia etc., all battle it out over which one can be declared the meanest. It can start to seem like the goal is to outdo each other on suffering; both historically and in contemporary life.
At first, this one-upping seems petty; why can’t we all just get along and try to help each other? If oppressed groups – from people of colour and people with disabilities to women and working class people – banded together, perhaps we could help each other out of our respective (perhaps collective) holes. This is what the concept of ‘LGBT+’ partially tries to do, and there are valuable aspects of sympathy and solidarity at play behind this desire to homogenise; aspects I want to hold on to.
Yet turning separate struggles into a collective movement poses a number of problems. Firstly, universal harmony does not exist between minorities; there are plenty of oppressed individuals who are racist, homophobic and the like. Then, there are natural cross purposes. You can fight for gender equality whilst simultaneously undermining the gender fluidity many trans activists believe in. And finally, perhaps the main danger of this clumping together is that it flattens the nuances between the injustices that minorities face, often making them much more difficult to fix.
It seems that there is something strangely necessary about these comparison games then; different groups do face different levels of social oppression and violence. In the UK, LGBT+ youths are far more likely than their peers to have attempted suicide, to suffer from depression, to be homeless, to take illegal drugs and to be at high risk of HIV and other STDs. In the US, half of those that die from violent hate crimes against LGBT+ people are transgender women; sexual assault and/or genital mutilation is a frequent occurrence in such cases. In addition, a 2009 report by the US’s National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs claims that for LGBT+ individuals, belonging to ‘traditionally marginalised groups along other axes of identity such as race, class, incarceration history, immigration status, or ability […] can increase targeting for severe violence.’
Some marginalised groups suffer steeper problems than others, and the more traditionally oppressed minorities you belong to, the more likely you are to face oppression; this almost goes without saying. In a discussion about us gay cis able middle class white men, you can see where I’m going with this. We lose top trumps.
As gay men fighting against homophobia we can offer solidarity with other minority movements. Though we must not get ahead of ourselves; we cannot assume our struggles are identical, we cannot assume that we can speak for them and we cannot assume they need us.
Thus far it has been necessary to trail-blaze through a minefield of cultural politics. For these final lines I will focus in on trans rights as I think gay men are somewhat indebted to the bravery of trans individuals and communities throughout history (yet much of what is said – about supporting other minority groups whilst respecting their inevitable distance – may be generalisable elsewhere).
Without getting bogged down in debates over who threw the first brick, what is certain about Stonewall is that by standing up to police brutality, thousands of queer queens and kings, trans women of colour, and others helped to spark the ‘gay rights movement.’ And that’s what happened, the ‘gay rights movement’ really did start moving at an astonishing pace. Only now are we truly beginning to glance around at those we left behind in a fight that they largely began. Treating trans rights as some kind of last minute addendum to the LGBT+ movement is quite frankly patronising. To quote Trans-Scripts, a verbatim play using the testimonies of trans women: ‘Bitch, we started this.’ It is far too easy for supporters of trans rights to sit motionless on a band-wagon vacantly grinning with their feelings of moral superiority but forgetting to actually do anything; I certainly catch myself in that position more than I would like.
Is this entire article an elaborate invitation to check your privilege? Absolutely. What I’m inviting you to do here is to join me in acknowledging that there is more we can do as gay men to support other strands of the LGBT+ movement. Indeed, it is a movement that might be homogenising and misguided – the union will be debating this later in term. In the meantime, join me in asking those who struggle more and in different ways than we do; what can we do to help? This is not a hollow inquiry; it genuinely invites response, and the more you ask it the more you will learn:
What can we do to help?
Greg Forrest, Get Real. contributor