IDAHO: A Plea for Honest Initiatives

So today is apparently the “International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia” aka IDAHO. Which is all well and good… except wait a minute, what? Why is transphobia tacked on to the end, there? Shouldn’t it be IDAHOT, if anything? Well, no, not really. Not only does it make the acronym less “catchy” (uh, if you could ever really call it that), but there doesn’t appear to actually be any appeal to transphobia being made here, at all.

You see, the big event for this day is a same-sex Kiss-In, which… yep, you guessed it, doesn’t address transphobia at all. And the reason why May 17th is being celebrated in the first place? Because it’s the day that twenty years ago, the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality—homosexuality, and not transsexuality—from its list of mental health disorders. Gender Identity Disorder is still an institutionally sanctioned diagnosis of mental illness in America as well as much of the rest of the world, and will remain so under the new name of “Gender Incongruence” with more extensive coverage, according to the DSM-V’s Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders workgroup’s current proposal.

Yeah, but who cares about that, right? Not the group behind IDAHO. I haven’t seen anybody talking about that at all, except for the excellent coverage going on over at Asexual Explorations, which is of course completely unrelated to this event. [Edited to add: Check out this link, if you haven’t already; it’s a letter by Dr. Allen Frances to the APA Board of Trustees on what is going wrong with the DSM-V—as Andrew says, “When the heads of DSM-III and DSM-IV are going ‘Holy shit! Holy shit!’ you know things aren’t going well.”]

So why the hell is transphobia being included at all?

This is just one instance of a larger trend within the GLBT community of tacking trans issues on to the discourse as an afterthought, without really doing anything to help alleviate them. It’s kind of like, “Oh yeah, and transphobia is bad too.” It’s a disingenuous way of making nice, and while the people involved might actually honestly believe that they are doing something to be inclusive and helpful… they’re not.

Transphobia and homophobia are very much separate issues, and that is a point that most people don’t seem to understand. Trans people can be homophobic (take Christine Jorgensen for example), and lots and lots of gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals are transphobic. Gender and sexuality are two different things. Some members of my girlfriend’s family approve of me because they think it is somehow a sign that she isn’t trans after all, that eventually she’ll come around to lead a straight life as a man. That’s not going to happen, because she’s trans whether or not she decides to date girls or boys. Yet because “transsexual” sounds like “homosexual” and “bisexual,” and because the T is tacked on to GLBT without acknowledgment that trans issues are different from issues of sexual orientation, people seem to see connections between the two that aren’t there.

I mean, at the very least, if you’re going to say you’re against transphobia, wouldn’t you try to at least discuss the issue? The closest IDAHO gets to that is some petition they’re creating against homophobia and transphobia in religious discourse. Which, uh, yeah… fat lot of good that is going to do. I mean what are they going to do, hand it to a bunch of religious leaders? Yeah, I can’t see someone like Fred Phelps buying it, can you? Or the Pope. Or much of anyone else, except for religious organizations that already support gay (and maybe trans) rights.

It’s all well and good to have a day set aside to celebrate the removal of homosexuality as a diagnosis of a mental disorder, and promote acceptance of that. But it’s totally dishonest to claim that this has anything to do with transphobia, which isn’t even mentioned at all on the page which explains the origins of the event, so I have no idea at what point somebody decided it would be best to add it. So why do it? If it’s a move to be inclusive or politically correct, it’s a bad one, because simply mentioning that something is bad without taking measures to stop it doesn’t really constitute inclusiveness in a political sense. It may even do more harm than good, because saying that you’re fighting transphobia while you’re only really focusing on homophobia creates the misconception that the two words are synonyms.

Let’s be honest: it was never about trans issues, and it still isn’t. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; there can be other days set aside for trans stuff, where the focus is not split by another, more well-known issue. But if you’re going to say you’re fighting transphobia, then it’s best to actually do it.

Edited to add: I realize now that apparently, last year’s IDAHO was more focused on transphobia. And individually, some people have chosen to focus their own efforts on it this year. However, I still feel that this is not sufficient. I think it’s still problematic to call attention to the issue once and then go back to focusing almost solely, on a collective official level, on homophobia. Transphobia needs to be given an equal level of acknowledgment every time the day comes around, or else it becomes support in name only, and that is not good enough. We should not let trans people be kicked to the curb again and again and again, as they have been so many times already. In order to be true allies, we need to have higher standards than that.

Why Acronyms are a Bad Idea.

Lately there’s been a bit of a stir around this blog post, wherein some gay dude rants about how asexuals aren’t worthy enough to add a letter to his sacred acronym, because we’re disabled, repressed, traumatized, pitiable, not oppressed enough, and dammit, we all just need to stop being anti-sexual prudes and get laid. And some other ignorant drivel that’s really not worth repeating, and has already been well argued against.

For some reason (likely because I’m bored and bed-ridden, and can’t do much of anything else), I sat there skimming over the comments today, unable to get myself riled up about any of it.

I found the most salient comment of that entire discussion to be the one about how the guy doesn’t seem to care about the trans community either, which rings true with my own experience of GL(bt) groups. Frustrating as it is, there is a ton of in-fighting and prejudice within these types of groups, especially towards the most minor of the minority groups. Nobody gives a thought to asexuals, and trans people are the first to get jettisoned should the group face any major resistance to whatever law they’re trying to pass (case in point: the ENDA debacle).

I know not everyone thinks like this, as I have had some success at getting asexuality included within a few local queer groups, although it is still largely ignored until one of the active asexual members brings it up. As for trans stuff, they will mention whatever PFLAG is putting on, or the things they do every year (out of habit, by this point), but they don’t seem to know or care exactly what it’s about. Mostly, they just seem to care about parties (and fundraising for them). It’s all about social events, and has very little to do with real activism. At this point, people have gotten so fed up with the incompetence and petty drama that the group split into different factions, and active members (which once filled the tiny room we are assigned to bursting) are down to a small handful.

The main problem I have had with these groups (aside from general incompetence) is that they are so very self-interested that they fail to see the larger picture. I think in large part this has to do with the group’s focus, which is reflected quite clearly in the name. I would argue that not only does the intended focus of the group contribute to its name, but that the name also shapes its focus, sometimes in a way that can be quite detrimental to its ability to get anything productive done.

I am not the first to recognize the trouble with acronyms; many groups have seen that, not only is there a linguistic hierarchy clearly visible in the structure of the name (Gay > Lesbian > Bisexual > Transgender > * > * > * etc.) that reflects badly on the group because it points out a real underlying hierarchy with regards to the weight of importance given to the issues of each respective smaller community, but that it quickly accumulates into an unpronounceable alphabet soup in any attempt to include additional minorities. Some people, like the above-linked blogger, seem to take issue only with the latter problem, and advocate a non-inclusive approach. Others have decided, instead, to change the name of the group to one that’s both easier to keep track of and more inclusive: Queer-Straight Alliance, or QSA.

That’s a bold move, because “queer” is a very broad term. It can be re-envisioned to mean almost anything that goes against the norm, although in this context, I would assert that it was originally meant to include not only minority sexual orientations (challenging heteronormativity), but also those challenging sex (as in male/female) and gender norms–because athough you might take a narrow view and claim that trans people automatically challenge heteronormativity just by switching genders, that argument is specious because for such a long time, trans people were only considered to have transitioned successfully if they were straight in their target genders. There is also the issue of the inclusion of an I for intersex, which, while it isn’t universally accepted, also makes it clear that an essential component of this definition of “queer” is the challenging of gender norms, not just heteronormativity.

It has been argued that asexuality is not or should not be considered queer by this definition, and I think a key point here is that gender norms are being challenged on two different dimensions: 1) on the level of the physical self, self-expression, and gender roles; and 2) the idea that the only right way to do things (sexually, but also implies romantically) is to have a male-female couple. A lot of people don’t seem to fully grasp the enormity of what it means to challenge these norms, focusing solely on the male-female couple bit. I think this is why trans, intersex, and asexual people so often get left out, and especially so for asexuals. Some asexuals are accepted as queer on the grounds that they form same-sex couples (with or without sex), or because they are trans or intersex, but cisgendered heteroromatic and aromantic asexuals may find themselves excluded because they are otherwise considered straight (by secondary orientation or by default). So, some asexuals may be considered queer for other reasons, but asexuals, simply by virtue of being asexual, often are not. I would argue, however, that such a view misses an essential part of what it means to be queer, what it means to challenge this particular set of societal norms.

To express the big picture to its fullest: What all of these minority groups have in common is that they challenge the idea that male and female are mutually exclusive categories, which are pairs of opposites, and thus naturally complete one another through (penis-in-vagina) sexual intercourse.

Therefore, any of the following is not natural and constitutes a pathology or defect: a same-sex couple, a transgendered person, an intersexed person, or any person sincerely not interested in copulating (not making the choice to abstain, but sincerely uninterested).

What I am saying, here, is that this set of norms has a specifically sexual component, and to be asexual is to challenge the part of that idea which says that people are completed through sexual intercourse. And so, we should be able to legitimately call ourselves queer. It is, admittedly, a less gendered part of the equation, which is probably why it so easily gets overlooked. But we ARE challenging heteronormativity, even if we don’t directly challenge gender norms (although many of us certainly do). Because the idea that men and women are complementary opposites that complete each other implies that men are supposed to be sexually attracted to women and vice versa, but if there is a naturally-occurring segment of the population which does not experience attraction to either, well. There you go.

In the interest of brevity (ha!), I won’t argue the point too finely, because I’m sure I’m pretty much already preaching to the choir, here. I’m sure there will be people, both asexual and not, that continue to say that asexuals should not (by virtue of being asexual alone) be considered queer, but I wanted to point out that it’s all in how you define things. If you take a broad view, we fit. If you take a narrow view, we don’t–but personally, I think if you’re going to take a narrow view, you ought to just stick to the acronym approach. I think even many of those who have accepted the QSA approach, though, are still thinking strictly in terms of same-sex couples, and not about the larger implications of using the term “queer.” The ugly hierarchies still exist, and many gays and lesbians even question the validity of bisexuality, never you even mind transgender, intersex, or asexuality. I think it’s time for people to stop using acronyms, stop thinking like they’re still using acronyms, and truly give some deep thought to what it really means to be queer. If we’re going to have a more inclusive community, then both the name and the focus of the community ought to reflect that–and that means being more sensitive to the more minor minorities involved. That way, hopefully the members will actually stick around.