On August 30, 2014, the prominent UK lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) rights group, Stonewall, held a workshop with representatives from Britain’s transgender community to consider whether that organization could, and should, incorporate gender identity advocacy within its current body of work.
For many people, the fact that Stonewall does not already address transgender concerns may come as somewhat of a surprise. Given the growing visibility of sexual orientation and gender identity issues, and the leading role which Stonewall has claimed in many recent policy and legislative debates, members of the public could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that Stonewall is the unofficial mouthpiece for all LGB and “T” matters in the United Kingdom.
Yet, reviewing the organization’s website today, Stonewall clearly self-identifies as “the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity.” Indeed, Stonewall’s often troubled relationship with the transgender community is symptomatic of wider difficulties which have historically undermined the creation of a cohesive and united movement for sexual orientation and gender identity rights. While well-publicised coalitions between “gay rights” and transgender activists have existed for more than forty years, the relationship has frequently not been one of parity and good faith. On many occasions, transgender advocates have struggled to have their voice heard within the wider LGBT rights movement. The result has been successive agendas, driven by gay men, which, at best, have neglected the needs of the transgender community and, at worst, have expressly compromised gender identity rights to promote greater equality for gay men and lesbians.
Perhaps the most high profile example of the inter-LGBT schism arose in 2007 when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), one of America’s most influential LGBT advocacy groups, decided to support Representative Barney Frank’s Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), even though the proposed bill omitted protections for transgender persons. The ENDA controversy has haunted the HRC ever since, and continues to be a major stumbling block in that organisation’s efforts to build a truly “rainbow coalition.”
In recent weeks, a number of events have recalled the fractious relationships which exist within LGBT coalitions. On August 19, 2014, the Guardian newspaper noted that Mariella Castro, daughter of Cuban President, Raul Castro, had cast a rare dissenting parliamentary vote, protesting the passage of employment non-discrimination legislation which, although protecting LGB individuals, made no provision for transgender persons. Similarly, on August 21, 2014, the Daily Mail reported on the first openly transgender serviceperson to see frontline action with the UK army. The article highlighted that the fact, while the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was hailed as an historic victory for the entire LGBT community, transgender persons are, in fact, still denied access to America’s armed forces.
In the recent case of Hämäläinen v Finland, the applicant, a married transgender woman, challenged Finland’s requirement that she dissolve her marriage before accessing legal gender recognition. Ms Hämäläinen had sought to distinguish her case from the wider same-gender marriage debate, arguing instead that, having contracted a valid marriage, she and her wife could not be made to divorce without a pressing justification. For some gay and lesbian commentators, Ms Hämäläinen’s strategy was tantamount to selling out sexual orientation equality. In trying to differentiate her case from same-gender marriage, Ms Hämäläinen was accused of relying upon her former “heterosexual privilege” in order to access a marital institution which is not available to any other same-gender couples. However, such criticisms ignore the cultural context in which many transgender activists have struggled to advocate for basic equality rights over the past half-century. They implicitly suggest that, even when transgender persons break free of the restrictive binds of “LGBT politics”, they must still prioritise the well-being of gay men and lesbians.
It goes without saying that there are many LGBT groups which have successfully married sexual orientation and gender identity advocacy, doing so without compromising the rights and integrity of transgender individuals. The committed participation of Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) at the recent March for Marriage in Dublin illustrates the powerful impact of united, mutually respectful, LGBT coalitions. Moving forward, as sexual and gender rights activists achieve further successes, they must be careful to maintain a truly inclusive agenda and to not lose sight of “T” concerns within the complicated forest of LGBT politics.