Yes, I want to talk about this! Mainly because I’ve had some conversations recently, or seen some less than nice comments on social media, and sometimes I just generally feel a bit lost as to why some people think the way they do.
During and after my coming out process, one of the things that I always made sure to do was to start learning some history about my community. Maybe it’s because I always loved History as a subject, but I found it very important to be informed, and to at least have a basic awareness of who had come before me, and how they had managed to break through and overcome the many challenges that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people face growing up. And let me be clear: growing up in a Catholic country, mostly pre-internet, access to this kind of education was difficult. Most of what I was able to learn growing up was through the prism of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and some pop culture. I consider that my LGBT education officially started when I was 19.
However, even before then, this is something I always felt: my gender expression was not the same as the men in my environment. I started dancing and performing at a young age, I was in gymnastics, I experimented with fashion and hairstyle, I was an avid lover of pop music, and I had a deep affinity with girls and women. Maybe in certain cultures this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but to just give you an idea of the toxic masculinity in the environment I grew up in, I was always made to feel like a failure as a man, simply because I didn’t like and couldn’t play football (soccer for the American readers). I was literally good, even very good, at all the other sports, but because I couldn’t play the “king of all sports” (yes, the Portuguese actually say that!), I was always dismissed as less than a man. Now, I never felt like I was a girl – even though I often fantasised about being one – but what I’m trying to say here is this: I always knew my gender expression was different, freer, more fluid!! I felt gender fluidity before we called it that. And I’m sure plenty of other people felt it too. We just didn’t have the language to describe such feelings.
I also understood early on in my LGBT education that sexual orientation and gender identity were indeed different. A trans person can be, and often is, heterosexual. And a gay, lesbian, and bisexual person can be, and often is, cisgender. Cisgender is another term that has only gained traction in the past few years. We’re using it, so stop fighting it: it’s called EVOLUTION! For those of you who don’t know what it means, cisgender denotes or relates to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. I was born with a penis, my identity and gender correspond with male, therefore I am cisgender. When the identity and gender do not correspond to someone’s birth sex, that someone is transgender. If I identified as a woman, then I would be transgender. Additionally, nowadays, some people have actually begun to go beyond these labels and identifications and live outside the world of binaries: in a way, they might be everything and nothing at all, simultaneously. I find this very exciting and look forward to a world where this may be the norm, even though I probably won’t be around to see that happen.
But I digress: yes, I always understood sexual orientation and gender identity as different experiences, BUT extremely interconnected nonetheless. I always saw the inclusion of the “T” as essential to the wider struggle of the community, because I always felt that what all the letters in the acronym really do is this: they challenge everything that is systemically considered “normal”. Think about it: the simple notion of sexual and gender fluidity is, in itself, in absolutely radical opposition to the construct of most societies, their foundations and institutions. Whether you feel it or not, to be part of the LGBT community is to be radical and to live radical lives. Religion institutions tend to be our worst enemy because they are the oldest representation of the status quo of “normalcy”.
One of my first, and most important, jobs of when I lived in Scotland was at LGBT Youth Scotland. I think I probably met a trans person through that work for the very first time! And I was 20! By then, I had already started reading tons of queer and feminist theories and began to challenge my own perceptions of gender and sexuality as constructs, and my own privilege – even though we also didn’t really call it that back then. Most of this reading validated much of what I already suspected: that gender and sexuality could be, and were indeed, fluid rather than static. That one’s expression may change throughout one’s life, and even throughout one’s day. It felt very radical to read some of these things for the first time, and I remember feeling so special and unique, with so much to offer the world by way of just being. It enabled me to feel powerful in my difference.
Simultaneously, my manager at LGBT Youth Scotland would often report the differences in advocacy work from down south in England, where organisations insisted on separating the T from LGB, and I remember finding that incredibly counterproductive to the overall mission of liberation and freedom of every member of the community. It was also in Scotland, through my studies in International Relations, that I came across another level of understanding of gender dynamics in the LGBT community. I was writing an essay and researching LGBT movements in Latin America, when I read something which I probably had already witnessed countless times, but which I’d never stopped to think about until that moment: misogyny and patriarchy in the community itself. Suddenly, I could see it everywhere in the way gays treated lesbians, in the way “masculine” gays treated “camp” gays, in the way “butch” lesbians treated “lipstick” lesbians, and in the way both bisexuals and trans people were always ignored, if not dismissed. Suddenly, I could see that the “LGBT movement” was really only “gay”, and everyone’s needs were secondary. I remember being so disappointed at this realisation, because I just always expected that oppressed people would genuinely come together to fight common oppression, rather than waste time infighting.
But it was actually in England, a few years after leaving Scotland, that I came across my next level of understanding of gender. By then, I was volunteering with an organisation called Diversity Role Models and we went into schools to discuss homophobic and transphobic bullying and share our very personal stories with children and teenagers. Such powerful work! I got to meet many more transgender people and it was in one of those workshops that another facilitator mentioned “policing gender”, meaning that most of us in the community are initially marginalised not because of our sexual orientation per se, but because of our gender expression. And BAM! Lightbulb moment right there! I found this to be so true to my own experience. Think about it: you don’t think a child is gay or lesbian because you see them ACTUALLY loving children of the same sex; you think that BECAUSE their gender expression is different. We perceive people as having different sexual orientations because of their gender expression, not because of their actual sexual behaviour or emotional attraction. That’s why some gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals “pass” as straight. They don’t exhibit enough traits from the opposite sex, to elicit discrimination or oppression on the sexual orientation front.
I think what I’m trying to say is that our trans sisters and brothers deserve our unconditional respect, compassion, and support. In many ways, trans people represent the last frontier of dismantling every oppressive system there is. The true acceptance of gender norms as constructs, of gender as something fluid and non-binary is at the heart of a completely new way of being and engaging with the world. In many countries around the world, trans people are the victims of some of the most heinous hate crimes, their life expectancies are drastically lower than their cisgender counterparts, their mental health worse, so on and so forth. For as long as this continues, no other social justice movement will be truly liberated, as no other group in society embodies intersectionality of identities as wholly as trans people.
I understand that change at the collective and macro levels happens very slowly. I get that. So, I’ll start with baby steps, and start by calling on my fellow gay men. Learn your history. Attempt to understand gender and its many dynamics better. Acknowledge the entrenched misogyny and patriarchy and its negative effects within our community, and in your personal lives. Remember, that it was trans women of colour who started the riots against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York, which initiated the start of our movement together. Remember that this movement was quickly hijacked by the sole concerns of gay men, leaving behind the pioneers of their own liberation behind. Remember that during the AIDS crisis, as thousands of gay men died, it was mostly lesbians who came to our rescue, nursing us and helping us organise. And remember that after the breakthrough of HIV treatment, gay men once again pushed lesbians aside. In short, remember that even though we are still heavily oppressed for being gay, we are also the most privileged group within our community, because we are men, and we have the power, and I dare say duty, to help everyone else. Our own freedom depends on this.
Finally, I highly recommend you to watch The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson on Netflix, which chronicles the events pre- and post- Stonewall Riots, and documents the sad destiny of the two trans women of colour who led the liberation for gender and sexual fluidity. (In fact, not surprisingly, the research used for this documentary was conducted and gathered by a trans filmmaker and activist, who has accused the director of stealing her material to his own advantage.)
Ryan Campinho Valadas