I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further. Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.
First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent. This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized. This isn’t that. This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.
the problems with inclusion
Inclusion is a lovely impulse. Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent. And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality. Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm! Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution! I’m in!
But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community. But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities. Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:
- We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive. When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact. Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military. Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts. Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
- We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
- We don’t change our leadership structures. Most boards require major fundraising. That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
- We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities. We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions. We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people. And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.
I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite. I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way. And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.
(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people. That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)
why it keeps happening
With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion? Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits. Inclusion pacifies guilt. It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics. And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities. In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk.
None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent. The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you. And that support must exist on those communities’ terms.
Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.
same gender loving and two spirit
Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement. Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.
Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities. Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities. It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice. Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.
So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally? If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work? Then do it! Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.
Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female. Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?
This is the one that hits closest to home for me. Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female. As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex. In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people. So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.
As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion. But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain. Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.
Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means. But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work. And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.
Seriously, you guys? We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies. We welcome them with open arms, but really. The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.
When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do? Here are some options:
- Speak for yourself. Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
- Include a community when they ask you to. It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it. Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.
We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements. But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.