In the course of discourse about the rights of people who are sexually attracted to people of the same sex you are quite likely to come across the abbreviation 'LGBT.' The history of this clump of alphabet soup is an object lesson in inclusiveness gone wrong and the implicit abandonment of an ambitious project of individual, social, and political liberation.

Give me a 'G'...

It starts with the 'G,' standing for 'Gay.' When the gay liberation movement got going over the course of the 70s this was still a new term, chosen as a colloquial synonym for 'homosexual' because of its positive connotations and because of its lack of a history in its use in this sense. Fairly soon its use became or was deemed always implicitly to have been restricted to homosexual men. Since the proponents of gay rights tended to be sympathetic to the objectives of the feminist movement of the time (of which more below), it became common in political contexts systematically to refer to gays and lesbians in one breath.

Which of course was still not sufficiently inclusive: there are many people, and for much of the 80s it was a commonplace in some circles to accept that there is a majority of people, who are to a greater or lesser extent sexually attracted to both sexes. 'Lesbian, gay, and bisexual' is a bit of a mouthful, so the abbreviation 'LGB' became common.

Up until this point, the extension of the desired scope of what was originally referred to as 'gay liberation' was entirely logical and made political sense: the objective all along had been to combat discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and the move from 'G' to 'LGB' simply served to make clear the complete range of people affected. But that clarification was not the only one going on as time went by. And before I start complaining about the addition of the 'T', I will address some of them.

What is, what should be, and what must not be

A pervasive if naïve view of the human race would divide it into two categories: there are men, who are masculine, and sexually attracted to women, and then there are women, who are feminine, and sexually attracted to men. Male and female, the biological possibilities, are seen as correlated with masculine and feminine personality traits, and with sexual orientation: the biologically characterised set of an individual's potential sexual partners. Since even a minimal amount of thought and/or experience reveals that these correlations are not perfect, this naïve view is expressed or felt not descriptively, in terms of what is, but normatively, in terms of what should be:

Everyone should be:

  1. A man, who is
    • masculine, and
    • attracted to women
  2. A woman, who is
    • feminine, and
    • attracted to men

This view of how things should be is still fairly well entrenched in many if not most societies, and is expressed in social expectations, moral imperatives, and legislation. Those struggling for gay/lesbian/LGB rights were therefore not merely fighting against a prejudiced distaste for certain sexual practices, but against a pervasive perception of what should be and what therefore must not be allowed to be, a perception that is often enforced by State power.

In parallel, the feminist movement was struggling against the same normative view. The opponents to women having the same equal political, social, labour, and economic rights as men based their arguments on the premise that women, being feminine, did not want or were not suited to exercise these rights, or that if they were to want them or to have the capabilities required to exercise them then they were unfeminine and therefore deficient as women.

Some gay rights activists in the 1980s saw themselves as engaged in essentially the same progressive project as feminists, but not all. And the feminist movement was at least cautious about and at times hostile to the idea of identifying the two causes. The extent to which the two movements could be seen as engaged in the same struggle can, in my view, be usefully explained on the basis of the distinction between sex and gender:

Sex and gender

Sex is a biological given, gender is socially constructed. Whether someone is male or female is a matter of biology, while masculinity and femininity have to do with groups of character traits believed to belong together and the social roles believed to be appropriate for men and women. Although some radical theorists claimed that sex itself was socially constructed, since it only impinges on society through people's perceptions and beliefs, which themselves are socially constructed, this view was not widely accepted. Nonetheless, the term of choice now used in politically well-meaning circles to refer to sex is 'gender.' (This use of course makes it more difficult to explain the distinction.)

The social norm of heterosexuality effectively makes the sex to which a particular person should be attracted a part of their gender: part of what it is to be masculine (which is what men should be) is to be attracted to women, just as properly feminine women are attracted to men. Thus the social stereotypes of the 'ball-breaking' lesbian: a woman who is attracted to other women is ipso facto behaving in a masculine way and is therefore masculine. A conceivable objective for a limited gay rights agenda could be simply to adjust the range of acceptable masculine or feminine sexual behaviour, without calling into question the fundamental expectation that men should be masculine and women should be feminine or addressing its full range of its oppressive social and political expressions.

Such a limited agenda was not an attractive option for the feminist movement. Gender-based expectations and attitudes had (and have) a too obviously pervasive and negative effect on the freedom, prosperity, and physical security of women. Thus the 'radical' feminist agenda of doing away with the social, economic, political, and legal effects of gender as a means to overcoming patriarchy: the systematic injustice to women that has characterised our societies since the start of recorded history.

Since the terms 'radical feminist' and even 'feminist' have acquired some negative connotations over the decades, I would point out at this point that it should be clear that if there were generalised acceptance, reflected in social expectations, moral judgements (or the lack of them) and legislation that:

  • people may not necessarily have a determined biological sex
  • people of any or no sex may acceptably have any combination of some or all of the traits traditionally regarded as 'masculine' and 'feminine'
  • people may acceptably fulfil any social role traditionally regarded as masculine or feminine, and therefore
  • any adult people may acceptably be sexually attracted to any other adult people

then there would be there would be a lot less inequality, oppression, and misery in the world. If you don't want to besmirch this vision with the name of 'feminism', I won't try to force you. But it should also now be clear that there is a distinction between a limited agenda of attempting to adjust the content of gender without calling its normative correlation with sex into question, thus implicitly continuing to accept oppression and discrimination based on that correlation, and a more ambitious agenda of comprehensive liberation from the oppression of gender norms.

Nothing's what it used to

It is only to be expected that compromises will be made when ideals run into reality. Just as it is to be expected that superficial success in the fight for reform might lead to a reduction in effort in pushing for it. Legislative discrimination against women and non-heterosexual behaviour is a thing of the past in most of the richer part of the world. It turned out to be incomparably more difficult to change attitudes, expectations, and common-sense beliefs, as also to increase people's awareness of the ways in which they willingly co-operate in their own oppression. As a result, women still earn less than men for doing the same work, and are less likely than men to be doing the higher-paid kinds of work in the first place, while people who are attracted to people of their own sex still tend to have an unhappy adolescence, which in many places is likely to be followed by a distorted life.

But what has all of this got to do with the 'T' in 'LGBT'?

A transsexual is a person with a kind of body dysphoria, that being a fancy Greek term for 'being unhappy.' People suffering from body dysphoria are morbidly dissatisfied with some aspect of their body, although there is nothing actually wrong with it. A transsexual has gender dysphoria, and is dissatisfied with their sex: the sex of their body does not match the gender with which they personally identify.

Men who want to be women and women who want to be men are discriminated against. This discrimination is without doubt oppressive, and is founded in the fact that transsexuals do not behave appropriately for the socially sanctioned gender corresponding to their biological sex. It may therefore seem appropriate to include the fight against it in the LGB rights agenda, which also addresses oppression arising from that source. But there are several crucial differences:

Firstly, transsexuality has nothing to do with sexual orientation: men who want to be women do not all desire sex with men, and women who want to be men may nonetheless desire sex with men. A confusion is understandable for someone who thinks in terms of the social stereotypes of effeminate gays and butch lesbians, but not for those who are trying to overcome the basis for such stereotypes. Thus some transsexuals are unhappy about the efforts of the LGB movement to co-opt them, and with the use of what they see as over-inclusive terminology such as transgender and genderqueer to theorise the basis for doing so.

Secondly, the whole point of the LGB rights movement was that there is nothing wrong with not being heterosexual: it is not a problem, and no-one should make a problem out of it. Gender dysphoria is a problem, not just in the view of society, but in the view of the transsexual themself, and the basis of that problem is the normative equation of maleness with masculinity and femaleness with femininity that leads to the oppression of the non-heterosexual. If there is no requirement for people with typically feminine feelings, attitudes, interests and desires to be women, then why should those 'feminine' people who are men regard it as a problem that they are not women? If there is no need for a match between gender and sex, then there can be no mismatch. Transsexuals have internalised the very set of expectations and attitudes that lead to their own oppression, as to that of non-heterosexuals and of women in general.

This is not to imply that transsexuals do not have a real and sometimes very distressing problem, nor to claim that they just need to think things through a little more carefully to see their problems magically dissolve, nor even less that there is any justification for the discrimination they face and the obstacles placed in their way. It is not reasonable to expect everyone to be able to resist social conditioning from the very earliest age, nor to expect people to wipe out its effects by learning some useful bits of theory. But if the normative link between sex and gender is broken, there is quite literally no problem involved in any person with any kind of body having any kind of personality. Transsexuals would benefit from that in that they would no longer find themselves problematic or be seen as problematic by others.

So there are good reasons for not including transsexuals in the scope of a movement whose objective is combating discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation: that they are not identified by their sexual orientation, and that they are identified on the basis of structures of beliefs and attitudes that need to be overcome to fully realise LGB rights.

Goodbye to Utopia

Given these reasons not to put the 'T' on the end of the 'LGB', what conclusion can we draw from its constant presence? An optimistic interpretation would be that people are just being careful not to exclude anyone, and that transsexuals are included because they would benefit, if in a different way, from a liberation from gender absolutism, and because there is nowhere else for them to go. More realistically, it could be an indication that the agenda has narrowed: rather than liberation for all from the tyranny of gender-prescription-based oppression in private, social, economic, and political life, what is pursued is the right to a comfortable life within a slightly more flexible version of the existing order. If all that is desired is adjustment of the status quo to be more accommodating to supposedly effeminate men and supposedly masculine women, then it makes sense to have the transsexuals on board as well.

Confirmation for the suspicion that this is the direction in which things have moved can be found in other developments, such as the movement to end the statutory discrimination between homosexual and heterosexual partnerships (a.k.a. 'gay marriage'), and the amazingly widespread view among contemporary gay men that there are in fact no bisexual men: they are all homosexuals in denial. The first of these developments indicates a desire to be integrated into the existing order rather than to overcome it, while the second indicates a disturbing rigidity of attitudes to human variation among people who would have (in some cases did) suffered greatly from such attitudes only a generation ago.

Reality does not always conform to our political aspirations. It may be that universal tendencies in the way human beings think about each other and the world have as a consequence that it will never in fact be possible to dissociate sex and gender in people's minds and thus never be possible to achieve the (in that case) utopian ideal of a society in which anyone is truly free to be anything. It is true that as far as we know there has never been such a society. On the other hand, we can be reasonably sure that there has never been a society with the levels of prosperity, literacy and commitment to ideals of personal freedom found in ours. We do not yet know what is possible and what is not, and giving up without a fight is no way to find out.


I've read all sorts of things over the past few decades and then forgotten who most of it was by. The above is hugely incomplete, and absolutely riddled with unsupported assertions and wild generalisations. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination to write the book that would be required to deal with these deficiencies. The book would of course also address the various further condiments (Q, Q, I and A) sometimes added to the soup in the name of even greater inclusion. Don't stop reading, it oils your mind.

What, L, G, B and T? All at once?

As discussed elsewhere under this heading, it has become customary to talk about gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans questions all under one umbrella (to which may be added queer, intersex, allies and probably half a dozen other somewhat-overlapping labels). From my perspective there is too much in common between the parallel struggles for acceptance of the non-heterosexual and the non-cisgendered for the two to be neatly separated - and if they can't be neatly separated, I question whether it is worth separating them messily.

As DonJaime acknowledges (see above), the struggle for gay rights and acceptance is in some senses inevitably bound up with the wider fight for acceptance of differing gender roles. It's not just about who can have sex or fall in love with whom; many gays might otherwise conform closely with established gender roles, but many don't. Some gay men are naturally uncomfortable with the expectation that they will be effeminate, or particularly concerned with their physical appearance - and many lesbians are not remotely butch. On the other hand, many do in fact wish to be accepted while possessing traits that are contrary to society's expectations of their sex and gender.

So fighting for acceptance only for homosexuals who otherwise entirely fit the pattern that mainstream society has assigned to their sex would mean fighting for acceptance just for some homosexuals; it would be like fighting racism while insisting that it's acceptable to discriminate against people based on characteristics that happen to be heavily correlated with race in your society. What this means is that the LGB fight is, to a significant extent, inherently also a T fight, where T is interpreted to mean transgendered, not transsexual - a distinction which is important, but far from absolute (some prefer to just say 'trans' rather than emphasising the distinction).

The transgendered are particularly concerned with not conforming to the gender roles assigned by society to people of their sex; transsexuals are specifically uncomfortable with the sex assigned by biology. There is, needless to say, a great deal of overlap between the two - but also enough dissimilarity to cause considerable friction at times.

If we're already fighting for the acceptance of people who do not conform to traditional gender roles, where does that leave us with respect to transsexuals? It is true that some transsexuals are very keen to conform as completely as possible to the gender role usually assigned to the sex they were not born into - and that some are also very good at achieving this. But once again, many are not! The fight for acceptance of transsexuals cannot be only the fight for people to be able to change their sex outright and be accepted as whatever sex they choose; it, too, needs to take in its stride the existence of many people who just do not conform very closely to society's gender norms, whether or not they want to.

That said, there is considerable non-overlap. Yes, transsexuals generally suffer from gender dysphoria, which is largely irrelevant to homosexuals, who also will seldom have to consider the ramifications of changing their identity, appearance and probably their name at some point in the middle of their life. Yes, the most fundamental concern of homosexuals is the right to sleep with or love whoever they like, which is largely irrelevant to transsexuals in most countries, although the right to marry is a shared concern.

There are of course practical, not just theoretical concerns with seeing something as part of a wider struggle. What if you disagree on a quite fundamental level with some of the things people are saying in the wider movement? What if the voices speaking out for your particular concerns are lost in the hubbub? These are questions that seemingly affect every movement everywhere, which is why I won't speak to you if you identify with the People's Front of Judea rather than the Judean People's Front. You splitter. The truth is there are no simple and correct answers here, which is not surprising when you consider the complementary questions - what about all the fundamental agreements? What if your voice is heard because you're part of a wider movement?

There is a dream that some people have - a utopian ideal - of a world where people are free to explore self-expression and lives outside of the mould of traditional gender roles and relations. It's a big part of what feminism is about, and it's a lot of what gay liberation is about. It is a big chunk of what trans people need, too, along with some consideration for people who feel for whatever reason that they can't be happy with the sex of the body they were born in. From where I'm standing the effort to keep the struggles separate would cost a good deal more than it would gain - but then, it is true that I'm not aware of any fundamental disagreements I have with most of the people involved on any side, and I suppose I might feel differently if I did. However you look at it, though, there is enough in common between the challenges faced by these separate but overlapping groups that they can't help but fight many of the same fights. That they also need to fight a number of independent fights strike me as a lousy reason not to stand in solidarity.

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