A column by Brad Polumbo last fall in the online magazine Quillette was headlined It’s Time for LGB and T to Go Their Separate Ways. In essence he argued that gender and biological sex are the same and, therefore, sexual orientation is inseparable from gender.
According to Polumbo sex is set at birth. “My sexual attraction is based on hard-wired factors beyond my control,” he wrote. “Transgenderism is a separate concept [because] it offers a categorical redefinition of what it means to be a man or a woman.” Polumbo, a self-described conservative gay man, wants nothing to do with what he considers radical gender theory.
I guess it’s fair to call all the new letters beyond the original LGBT “radical theory,” and indeed the LGBT letters were and continue to be radical. But what’s wrong with being radical?
Radical comes from the word “root,” and the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s observation is one for the ages. “I don’t know how radical you are, or how radical I am,” he said. “One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” Wow!
Queer scholar Judith Butler was indeed radical in her groundbreaking 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she introduced the theory of “gender performativity.” It’s a complex concept, and one that has led to a whole new field of scholarship.
Building on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Butler maintains that one is not born a certain gender, but rather becomes a woman or man through a stylized repetition of acts determined by social, cultural and political forces. Although gender is performed and socially constructed, it is no less real. In fact, it is the performance and discourse that creates the reality.
It’s troubling to me, then, that there is so much resistance to LGBTQIA+, not so much from heteronormative folks, but from those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual. I’ve had enough conversations with my LGB brothers and sisters to know that many in these communities have real trouble with the new letters.
Polumbo quotes fellow gay conservative Andrew Sullivan to support his position. “Transgender ideology--including postmodern conceptions of sex and gender--is indeed a threat to homosexuality because it is a threat to biological sex as a concept,” wrote Sullivan. And who wants to argue with Andrew Sullivan, who is such a thoughtful and influential writer?
In my decades of college teaching I always tried to create cognitive dissonance in my students to get them to think for themselves. This meant asking questions about everything, especially the received wisdom and cultural influences that they brought into the classroom.
I often told my classes that three things were true about life: chaos, ambiguity and paradox. Perhaps I talked about these a little too much: One class gave me a T-shirt with the three concepts emblazoned on it.
But my professorial observations do speak to the issue at hand. The expanding alphabet and the color additions to the original 1978 rainbow flag (this does indeed present a graphic design challenge) call for more education about what’s going on.
There has always been controversy within as well as without the LGBTQ spectrum. For some time, the word homosexual was all there was. Then G for gay came along, and everyone seemed happy. Next, lesbians made a strong case for the L, followed by the B for bisexuals. (Remember that for a while the B was controversial and considered by many as a byway on the road to L or G rather than an orientation of its own.)
After all those who preferred the Q, you could say that the spate of other letters was destined to follow.
It’s time we all learn more about the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. The resources available are plenty, and our regional LGBT Center of Central PA, Harrisburg, is an excellent one. Attending the various center events and educational programs, not to mention simply stopping by to chat with our fine staff, will do a lot to clear up misperceptions.
I need to finish this column by expressing some disappointment, and then issuing a challenge to my central Pennsylvania brothers and sisters.
I’m disheartened, and yes, a bit frustrated by those who are too quick to avoid dealing with these thorny issues. Think about it: In 2020 our country is still full of heterosexual people who do not understand and therefore do not accept the LGB spectrum. They just don’t get it, and too many seem not to even want to try.
The LGBT Center of Central PA and other organizations fighting the good fight need more support from those who went through their own struggles in the past. We all need to support the people--especially the young people--who now are creating new alphabet letters for themselves. The fight for justice and inclusion is far from over.
We often say we are all in this together, and that means all of us, period. Keep the faith!
Trum Simmons has served on the Board of Directors of The LGBT Center of Central PA.