Over the weekend, USA Today ran a terrible op-ed advocating for a “divorce” between the LG and T branches of LGBTQ. (Bisexuals and members of the wider queer community, per usual, were not mentioned.) While the piece is ostensibly pegged to a transphobic school bathroom bill currently sitting on South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s desk, the writer—lawyer and “conservative commentator” Joseph R. Murray II—is really just expressing a nasty sentiment that has long existed among certain cisgender gay people.
Echoing a similarly stupid “Drop the T” petition to queer advocacy organizations and media outlets that raised hackles last fall, Murray writes that lesbians and gay men are fundamentally different from transgender folks because of their relationship to biology. “Unlike members of the trans community, who are working against their biology and trying to change who they are physically,” Murray explains, “gay or lesbian people are trying to be nobody but themselves.” Therefore, our goals cannot be the same, and we must part ways.
I suspect if Murray talked to many trans folks, he would quickly learn that being themselves is precisely what they are trying to do—and, it’s worth noting, at great risk to their personal safety and social capital. But the content of this wild-eyed piece makes such conversations seem unlikely. Murray swerves drunkenly from some thoughts on biological sex that should be obvious to “any middle schooler who passed science” (always a good metric of truth) to the history of marriage to the apparently dangerous “drama surrounding Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner” to whether kids are reliable witnesses regarding their gender identity. Why we should trust middle schoolers to speak on the science of gender, but not on their lived experience of it, is unfortunately not explained. Nor is his assurance, midway through, that “this is not to say the trans community is wrong or misguided”—even when the surrounding paragraphs say exactly that. But I’m sure Murray will offer up some homespun solution to those discrepancies soon enough.
In the meantime, we’d be well-served to consider how, aside from everyday illogic and prejudice, this kind of argument manages to hold sway in the community. Murray’s understanding of sex and gender are rudimentary at best; but his basic appeal to biology as a source of truth (or at least argumentative authority) should not come as a surprise. In the wake of the AIDS crisis, the mainstream gay rights movement (the correct term here) went all-in on a rhetoric of biological innocence—if we were “born this way,” how was it fair to discriminate against us for something we couldn’t help? This was obviously an effective political strategy, but it sacrificed certain values that had previously been a part of our activism—namely, that a truly equitable society would allow adults to make choices about their sexuality and gender expression without need for justification. And make no mistake: Regardless of where sexual orientation or gender identity ultimately “come from,” biology is a kind of justification. The trouble is, for as much persuasive power as it holds, it’s also deceptively limiting.
If biology is your framework for understanding and evaluating difference, it’s true that sexual minorities (gays, lesbians, bisexuals, etc.) and gender minorities (trans and genderqueer folks) are not the same thing. The biological mechanisms that define us are clearly different. But there are other frameworks you could use. If you look, for example, at how homophobic and transphobic prejudice works, it’s really all about gender—which gender another gender is supposed to desire; who or what determines which gender you “are.” The fundamental discomfort is with gender, and so, from that point of view, LGB and T have a great deal in common—the difference is just a matter of degree. Or you could judge compatibility via the decades- (if not centuries-) long history of being social outsiders. Sexual and gender minorities have all lived through that, and though we’ve absolutely felt and dealt with otherness in different ways, the core experience binds us.
The biological frame that Murray voices in this op-ed ignores all of those points of connection in favor of a grossly reductive (and shamelessly strategic) understanding of identity, and it repeats the abandonment of truly progressive social change that the LGBT movement has been guilty of for years. That his particular piece is laughably incoherent does not diminish the power of the broader logics that support it—logics that Murray is far from alone in believing. It’s the Murrays of the world who threaten LGBTQ progress, not trans people. We dismiss him and those like him at our peril.