LGBT: a Disection
By David Thorstad (counterpunch.org, 15/7/2016)
“LGBT” is everywhere these days. But is it here to stay, or is it a passing fad? Where did it come from? Why was it promoted? By whom? And to what end? How did it acquire its seemingly endless variants?
The acronym, in its many permutations, designates a movement very different from the gay liberation movement it evolved from. Some might see it as progress, expansion, and greater inclusivity, others as a tombstone for what was once a radical sexual liberation movement.
It did not result from any democratic discussion or consensus among gay and lesbian activists. Not since the early 1980s has the gay movement held national conferences open to all groups and factions where issues could be debated and decided democratically. The acronym appeared as if out of the ether without input from the very people it is supposed to represent. One can only speculate as to the reasons for this. This article will attempt to do that.
I joined New York’s iconic Gay Activists Alliance in 1974. GAA was formed as a single-issue alternative to the Gay Liberation Front a year after the 1969 Stonewall Riots. GLF soon left the stage, but GAA went on to incubate a number of other gay and lesbian groups, among them Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Gay Teachers Association, an SM group, gay academics, and gay religious groups. At its height it included most gay subcategories, including transvestites, drag, leftists, Democrats, academics. It followed Roberts Rules of Order, so meetings were long and cantankerous. Over time, groupings split away to form their own groups. In the mid-1970s, GAA sponsored monthly forums for a year on numerous topics, some of them pathbreaking, such as “Bisexuality and Gay Liberation: How Are They Related?,” “Religion and Gay Liberation: Are They Compatible?,” and, in 1976, the first-ever forum by any gay group anywhere on man/boy love (“Of Men and Boys: Pederasty and the Age of Consent”).
I helped organize the bisexuality forum, whose panelists included Kate Millett. I went to a meeting of National Bisexual Liberation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to invite them to send a spokesperson to the forum. They did. But the vibes I got from some men at their meeting bordered on hostile. They appeared to resent my blatant homosexual presence and to be calling themselves bisexual as a way of avoiding being branded with the “H” word. That was common in the 1970s. Almost every gay man I knew, and most of the lesbians, were technically bisexual because we had experienced sex with the opposite sex and some of us continued to do so—even occasionally with each other. But most of us identified as gay or lesbian. Saying you were bisexual looked like you were trying to give the impression that you weren’t “really homosexual.” Unlike gay-identifieds, you were not a pervert. Nevertheless, GAA embraced bisexuality by holding the first-ever forum by a gay group on the topic. It was part of our experience as human beings. The title of the forum didn’t ask if homosexuality and bisexuality were related, but how they were related. We saw ourselves as falling somewhere on the Kinsey scale of 1–6, but it didn’t matter precisely where.
We wore “Gay Is Good” and “Better Blatant Than Latent” buttons. But some activists resisted labels. A photo in the early newspaper Come Out!, for example, shows GLF activist Jim Fouratt holding a sign that said “I Am a Humansexual.”
In the immediate post-Stonewall period, the movement for homosexual rights was called gay liberation. No acronym. Four years after Stonewall, in 1973, that was still the case when the National Gay Task Force was formed by some former leaders of GAA who wanted an elitist group not hindered by democratic decision making. (It subsequently changed its acronym from NGTF to NGLTF and now calls itself the National LGBTQ Task Force.)
By the mid-1970s, as the women’s liberation movement grew, with lesbians playing a key role in it, lesbians were chafing at their alleged “invisibility” in organizations run mostly by men. Their assertiveness led to gay liberation becoming gay and lesbian liberation, or lesbian and gay liberation. In those days, feminists and lesbian feminists argued that some oppressions were more oppressive than others, and the longer the list of oppressions was, the greater the badge of distinction. Thus, an example of “the most oppressed” might be a black lesbian single mother on welfare. This kind of mechanical weighting of oppression was simplistic and ahistorical.
Feminism in the 1970s saw a strange phenomenon called “political lesbianism”—women who identified as lesbian even though they had never had sex with another woman. Men were the enemy, and sleeping with them was retro, oppressive, something to escape. Identifying as a lesbian was more radical, even though the “political lesbian” might never have actually engaged in lesbian sex. This outlook was inspired by Ti-Grace Atkinson’s phrase “Feminism is the theory; lesbianism is the practice.” Some who espoused this view apparently considered sex dirty, but saw cachet in identifying with lesbians as supposedly more radical, even chic, sisters. I have never encountered anything similar among males. Most straight men would have considered being labeled a “homo” as a fate worse than death. But this marriage between identity and antisexuality lives on in “LGBT,” where sex and sexual liberation are replaced by a focus on anodyne, de-sexed identity and gender.
As late as the late 1980s, “lesbian” and “gay” were used interchangeably. The 1987 New York Pride Guide, for example, used “gay and lesbian,” not “lesbian and gay.” But over time, “lesbian” came to occupy first place. By the late 1970s, lesbians had conquered the first place in New York’s pride march—a tip of the hat to the belief that lesbian oppression is more harsh and more worthy of acknowledgment than that of gay men, even though that is not borne out by the history of acute gay male oppression in the West by the Judeo-Christian tradition and Anglo-Saxon legal codes. It would be more equitable to alternate between lesbians leading the march one year, gay men the next.
Sometime in the 1980s, the B was added, and by the 1990s, LGBT had become the generally used label.
This evolution was highlighted in the booklet published in 2006 by the Duluth–Superior Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Allied, Queer, and Intersex pride committee relating how its name grew over the years. In 1991, the committee became the Twin Ports Gay and Lesbian Pride Committee. In 1992, it added “Bisexual” to its name. In 1995, “Transgender” was added. The next year, it changed its name to Duluth–Superior GLBT Pride. In 2001, “Allied” was added, followed by “Queer” in 2002. Finally, the addition of “Intersex” produced the unwieldy GLBTAQI.