We. It’s a word filled with massive meaning packed into two letters. “We” evokes familiarity, solidarity, and loyalty. The word suggests not just a sum of individual parts, but a result of something bigger from the interconnections.
In terms of the LGBT umbrella, this is, for the most part, true. Under that umbrella are many different, but often overlapping communities. And although the push for equal rights has not always uniformly benefit those under the umbrella, the use of “we” to encapsulate the whole is a form of optimism that a victory like the momentum of same-sex marriage or the fall of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” acts as fuel to move all members closer to equality.
While seductive, the optimism should not be conflated with actuality. It is imperative to not blanket assume that “we” all stand at the same place of privilege. In Canada, for example, the battle for inclusion of trans rights in anti-discrimination and hate laws continues without a clear win in sight. Is this the same country, one must wonder, that had its first same-sex marriage over a decade ago?
And, would those within the umbrella who fought so fiercely for marriage rights suit up again to prevent the firing of a person because they were transgendered? The answer, sadly, is “no.” In fact, the ignorance of the lives and rights of the trans community by some gay cis men is stunning. Think of how casually and carelessly we used the phrase “hot tranny mess” without any self-consciousness.
This is where the imagery of an umbrella can fall apart. Those that carry the umbrella can sometimes lean it in a way that lets others get wet; they can be selfish. This reality reflects the fact that the bonds between the communities are not innate—there is no magical connection between members within the umbrella just because we are all considered “queer.” Although there can be shared lived experiences, strictly, gay cis men are not lesbians are not bisexuals are not trans people. There is enough wiggle room to craft a significance separation if one desires.
Take, for instance, gay cis men’s sexual relationships to gay trans men, and the fundamental resistance to accept trans men as partners. Part of the problem is that gay cis men can be wholly invested in sexual orientation without extending that interest to gender identity, even though liminal spaces exist between the two. And thus, the privileged role of the penis in signaling maleness serves to delegitimize the inclusion of gay trans men in a non-exoticized fashion.
In the view of some gay cis men, gay trans men are not men; vagina is verboten. Under one umbrella and yet so far apart. It’s why Buck Angel with his same-sex pornographic work is so important in its challenge to this anachronous concept.
This and examples like it are fractures, cracks in the “we.” Paradoxically, the progress that is blanket labelled as LGBT rights could exacerbate these breaks, with some members being seen as more legitimate than others. I can’t speak for — nor would I — the trans community in terms of the current state of relationships within the umbrella, but judging from the disproportionate push for cis rights, there appears a gap. It brings up the questions of: What keeps communities together and strong? What maintenance is necessary to prevent the LGBT umbrella from being a hollow construct?
The answer may lie in another concept we, as queer people, learn and pass on, that of a chosen family. We may not choose the families we are born into, but we can choose a second family, to surround ourselves with people who love and cherish us, people who fight for us and us for them. And with any family, blood and chosen, there is work involved: to not coast on historical tethers.
An umbrella can be flimsy, swept away with a gust of heavy wind. It can appear over our heads and then get tossed away. Perhaps we need something stronger. We could transform the umbrella into something more, into a large, extended, boisterous chosen family. (Of course, many people already do, but many also don’t.) Believing in a “we” that matters means taking on a responsibility toward other members of that “we,” as one expects them to return in kind. For me, I can’t imagine a family without trans members.
As gay men, we don’t get a free pass to ignore trans issues. We aren’t exempt from the education and scholarship necessary to act as proper allies. Practically, this translates into listening to more voices from the trans community to become a better ally. It involves being a student of how to respectfully negotiate relationships with my trans friends without assuming I would know how they feel or what they want. It’s knowing that we are doing more than just sharing an umbrella, we are family.