Some time ago, I overheard someone say that people shouldn’t refer to marginalized groups by calling them this or that “minority”. I didn’t catch the reason why they said this at the time. And then I found myself sitting in the theatre at a queer film festival. The film was about creative non-fiction writers telling their coming out stories, and at one point, an individual who had become a queer radio host after coming out as transgender started to talk about the word minority. She said that referring to a group of people as a minority has the effect of directly minimizing their needs as much as possible. Thus, when the first major pushes for LGBTQ equality began, heterosexuals everywhere could be heard declaring that gays and lesbians are a minority. And the inevitable declarations of “why should we?” followed. Why should we change the way we talk to protect your delicate feelings? Why should we change this law so that you aren’t thrown in prison for holding hands in public? Why should we de-classify same-sex love as a mental illness? Why should we even care? In other words, you’re a minority. You don’t matter as much as everyone else. Stop trying to inconvenience us and just get over it.
This may come as a surprise to heterosexuals of this generation, but the same thing is happening within the LGBTQ movement, as trans* people demand to be acknowledged as human beings, to have access to better and more humane healthcare, and to receive better and more humane treatment from all of society (but especially from our so-called “allies”). This is what that radio host was talking about in the documentary. When she came out as transgender, people demanded to know of her, all sorts of “Why should we?” Gays and lesbians have been becoming an echo chamber for the same series of “Why should we?” that were used against them by heterosexuals, and it’s all pointed squarely at trans* people. The radio host stated, quite plainly, that this needs to stop. If it wasn’t a good enough answer for gays and lesbians demanding equality, it isn’t a good enough answer for trans* people demanding equality, either.
But why exactly is this idea of a minority so problematic (it’s statistically true that there are fewer LGBTQs than cisgenders and straights)? How do we answer all the associated questions starting with the words “Why should we?” How does this work? The answer to all of these questions is the purpose of this blog post today. And it starts with acknowledging that one of the reasons LGBTQs were (and still are) considered a minority in the first place: a lot of them were (and still are) entrenched in the closet, because being visible could (and still does) bring about dangerous repercussions. Not only does any out LGBTQ face the possibility of violence and homophobia that can further expose them to hostility or violence from other individuals or groups (e.g., does the Westboro Baptist Church come to mind for anyone else, here?), but they are also likely to face barriers to securing housing, gainful employment, family support, support from friends, access to healthcare (e.g., one pharmacy in Vancouver, BC is legally allowed to maintain a trans-exclusive policy, enforced entirely upon visual inspection alone), and access to emergency shelter and trauma services (e.g., Vancouver Rape Relief Society won a BC Human Rights Tribunal legal battle, gaining the right to maintain blatantly bigoted policies towards trans* people by repeatedly publicly humiliating and shaming a transwoman).
What choice does someone left in this position really have, but to either deliberately get caught in the act of committing a crime so that they wind up in jail (a roof over their head and three squares a day), or to do whatever else it takes just to stay warm and suppress their appetite when they don’t have access to food (i.e., illicit drug use and sex work)? And how is that going to help them or anyone else over the long term? People who experience marginalization to this extreme rarely gain the social freedom necessary to work their way back into society from the fringes. And I can tell you from my direct experience, that even when a person pushed that far does make it back out again, that experience is with them for the rest of their life.
When I first learned that same-sex intimacy was actually a crime in Canada until 1969, and that systematic censorship of LGBTQ literature has only recently begun to finally wear off (somewhat), it put things into perspective. Then I learned what inhumane “psychiatric” treatments gays and lesbians were subjected to, for experiencing same-sex attraction until it was finally de-classified as a mental disorder in 1973. And then I learned about what was happening to intersex children in North America until this injustice finally became sufficiently visible to the general public in the 1990s, to generate enough social pressure to stop it.
And you know what else I found out about? Innumerable gays and lesbians (even in my current home of Vancouver, BC) who had sought sex reassignment even after same-sex love was de-criminalized and de-classified as a mental illness, because they couldn’t change who they were attracted to but felt enormous social pressure to socially pass for as straight as possible (many of whom transitioned back again in the 90s). Because de-criminalizing and de-classifying homosexuality just isn’t enough to make it socially acceptable — social attitudes need to change too, and changing a law isn’t like waving a magic wand that all of a sudden makes LGBTQs a socially desired population. This back-and-forth (and sometimes-back-again) transitioning still happens today, though perhaps for more complex reasons in many present-day circumstances (individual mileage may vary). This is just one more thing that is used as an excuse against all trans* people, to keep structuring gate-keeping policies so as to make medical sex re-assignment as inaccessible to as many people as possible.
And if all that didn’t induce a spontaneous emetic episode (or at least a touch of nausea), get ready, because it still gets worse. Trans* people who successfully access medical sex re-assignment are often persistently badgered, by the medical professionals they are forced to engage with, about their sexual orientation at every step of the process (right up to just seconds before they are being wheeled into the operating room). Though regardless of the answer an individual trans* person gives in regards to how they describe their sexual orientation, they cannot be refused for surgery for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, either before or after re-assignment, they are still interrogated about it as a part of standard gate-keeping protocol. A pre-operative patient who has been, for all intents and purposes, heterosexually inclined for all the years prior to their decision to transition (e.g., a pre-operative transwoman who is sexually attracted to women and has been even before she was came out about her gender identity), is pressured to somehow change who they are attracted to and thus become heterosexual after surgery (e.g., that same transwoman, now post-operative, suddenly becoming attracted to men for the first time in her life). Even in Canada.
Oh yeah. And trans* people who successfully access medical sex re-assignment are actively encouraged by the medical team putting them through all of this gate-keeping bullshit, to step back into the closet when they wake up on the other side of their surgery booking. They are strongly discouraged from ever telling another soul that their flesh-package once looked different, or that they once lived differently because they were under a totally different set of social pressures. They aren’t even offered advice on how they might share their radical life change with an intimate partner in the event they are ready to do so. Not all trans* people want to, and it should always be their choice. But when you are only presented with one option or narrative to live by, you are not being presented a choice because the decision is clearly already made for you. Instead, post-operative trans* people are only ever advised to embrace what amounts to a double-life (not at all unlike how it feels to be in the closet prior to transition), and pretend that their entire life prior to transition just never happened. I’m sure that’s real helpful for dismantling the parts of the social script that promote transphobia and homophobia. Thanks for that, Western medicine!
“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
– Japanese proverb
The fact is that LGBTQs who were discovered anywhere outside prison cells prior to 1969 were treated worse than pedophiles and rapists are now; and it may or may not surprise you to know that people who are HIV+ and dare to have consensual sex are treated no different from pedophiles and rapists today (regardless of their sexual orientation). Take a guess at which group is disproportionately more likely to come up against that barrier too. I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what “choices” are left for a poz trans* person of colour (who finds themselves registered as a sex offender for no reason other than their HIV status). Think it’s already hard getting a sex change? Try getting one once you’ve been converted. And once you’re done playing around with that idea, I’ll just remind you that in 1948, the United Nations held a convention to define the term genocide, which concluded that forced sterilization fits this definition. And what do you know, but LGBTQs and people living with disabilities have been (and still are) targeted for forced sterilization. This is generally referred to as eugenics. Unless of course, the people you’re sterilizing aren’t legally people, or whose feelings towards people with genital symmetry make them all criminals. Then I guess you’ve found yourself a cute little loophole!
Literally, LGBTQs were (and still are) forcibly confined to minority status. This isn’t to say that gays will produce gay babies; rather, it is to expose the social conditions that threaten to hammer down or remove every “nail” that sticks out. Shouldn’t the issue then be, not precisely what proportion of the population are LGBTQ, but what is being allowed to happen to them (or what is/has been literally sanctioned by the government to happen to them against their will)?
This is why that first person I overheard said that we need to stop talking about marginalized people as “minorities”. This is why gays and lesbians didn’t just stop pushing when straights responded to them with the first “But you’re a minority” and “Why should we even care?” And this is why trans* people aren’t going away when the Gender & Language Police start putting them on notice for failing to present normative and use binary pronouns, either. We might not even be a minority if we weren’t being methodically trampled down, sliced up, and forced to the margins of society, where we are often neglected or policed to death.