There have always been conflicts within the LGBT+ community. But the recent capture of Western political and cultural institutions by a faction of radicalized transgender activists presents a more existential type of crisis. The backlash against this clique’s overreach, which we are already beginning to observe, won’t be felt merely by the LGBT+ movement in whose name these activists present their demands, but by progressive causes more generally. Gender supremacists (as I call them) seek to entirely replace sex with gender as a legal category, an unpopular project that is squandering decades of hard-won LGBT+ social capital; contradicts the arguments that led to our most important policy victories; alienates our allies (especially in the women’s movement); and redefines gays and lesbians in a way that effectively erases us out of existence.
To be clear: Trans people should have the same rights as everyone else to live openly, freely, and safely. Gender identity and expression deserve legal protection under human-rights and anti-hate-crime laws. I am not arguing that the LGBT+ community’s component groups and their progressive allies should stop co-operating in the fight for human rights. But that mission is compromised when our organizations and communications channels are used to bully and misrepresent anyone who refuses to go along with the most extreme formulations of Queer Theory. For those of us who have been with the LGBT+ movement for the long haul, this hijacking of our cause doesn’t just represent a strategic miscue, but also an act of betrayal.
Perhaps the most surreal and unpopular claim offered by gender supremacists is the idea that sexual attraction isn’t triggered by physical bodies. Instead, the theory goes, we’re attracted by someone else’s internally felt understanding of gender. Similarly, terms such as “man” and “woman,” as commonly understood throughout history all over the world, are being redefined by Western academic theorists to refer to gender presentation, rather than biological categories. To pretend that sex isn’t a defining category when it comes to identity and sexual attraction is to gaslight human experience. Further, it serves to marginalize the vast majority of LGBT+ community members, and makes a mockery of the rationale behind the Gay Liberation movement itself. The “progressive” agenda of gender supremacists is, in its effects, just as homophobic as the reactionary right-wing discourse we thought we’d left behind.
Historically, biological sex has been fundamentally important for transsexuals (more on the use of this term below), whose self-understanding of being “trans” involves a physical transition to a body that appears like that of the opposite sex. In recent years, transgender activists have declared this term to be outdated and even insulting, bullying self-identified transsexual women for “centring their vaginas.” But outside of Twitter and other social media, it’s still used by plenty of older trans women who reject the orthodoxy that switching sexes (as opposed to genders) rests on a simple act of self-declaration. Indeed, they regard the attempt to eliminate usage of the word “transsexual” as an Orwellian attack on their right to name themselves, their experiences, and their form of self-understanding. They deeply resent that the abbreviation “trans,” which originally referred to them, has been rebranded by newcomers.
This betrayal of the wider LGBT+ community is felt most keenly, I believe, by those of us who experienced the political struggles that played out in the 1950s through the 1970s, and so understand, along with our allies in the women’s movement, that sex and gender are both important. Gender roles do need deconstructing. But the obstacles we overcame (and, in many places, still face) were very much connected to the sexed nature of our bodies.
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The LGBT+ community has so many intersections that it’s hard for anyone discussing its internal politics to avoid getting sideswiped—especially by the self-appointed “alphabet police” who are constantly changing the road signs. So, for clarity: Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals are biological men and women who are sexually attracted to same-sex bodies. Transgender is an umbrella adjective that refers to people, including some who are LGB, who feel they don’t fit within the conventional norms associated with their sex (even if perfectly happy with their sexed bodies). Transsexuals—again, a contested term, but necessary for this discussion, and which I use in deference to those who claim it—is a subset of trans individuals whose sexual dysmorphia is so acute that they feel the need to physically transition to the opposite sex.
Over time, different laws have targeted each group, a history that gender supremacists ignore, either due to ignorance or theoretical necessity. Buggery, sodomy, and “gross indecency” laws were specifically aimed at biological men who had sex with other biological men (and remain on the books, with this purpose, in many cultures outside the West). The “gender” of one’s partner was irrelevant. I grew up with a Canadian Criminal Code that classified gay men as “criminal sexual psychopaths.” Penalties for private, consensual, same-sex encounters included indefinite incarceration. Even Canadian progressive heroes who argued against jailing us, such as Tommy Douglas, based their arguments on the idea that we were mentally ill.
While today’s mainstream churches have been debating whether to marry or ordain us, we once received regular reminders that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for sodomy. Leviticus decrees that “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” The Church burned us at the stake up until the late 18th century. Spain’s King Alfonso preferred God’s instruction: We were castrated and hung upside down to bleed out on ourselves.
During the Lavender Scare of the mid-20th century, both the American and Canadian civil service purged anyone accused of same-sex encounters. We were understood to be security risks, on the (accurate) belief that our activities exposed us to blackmail threats. The cycle of homophobia was circular: the illegal nature of same-sex relationships ensured that our sexual encounters were anonymous, a fact that was then used to justify homophobic laws on the basis that we were depraved and perverted. It was also assumed that, because we couldn’t reproduce, we were pederasts who recruited from the ranks of impressionable youth. Ironically, the same conservatives who believed same-sex love was too vile to be mentioned explicitly also seemed to believe it was too hot to be resisted: One taste of the forbidden fruit and hitherto straight males would be permanently converted.
These attitudes extended to radio and television. It took until 1961 before the word “homosexual” was heard on screen. (And even in that case, the British film Victim was a story about blackmail; its incriminating visual being an arm around a shoulder.) In these early media appearances, we were coded as simpering fussbudgets or psychopaths. In family newspapers, we were referenced as pedophiles and perverts in stories that were exclusively about sexually abused boys, bathhouse raids, and rounded up drag queens. It was against the law to serve us, which made our bars prime sites for police entrapment.
The intensity of same-sex hatred got us fired from our jobs, denied accommodation, and ostracized by our families. So we cowered in the closet, forced to choose between unhappy marriages, celibacy, or furtive cruising, which could get us fag-bashed or even murdered. We couldn’t report these assaults, since police were among the bashers; and disclosure led to disgrace. To camouflage ourselves, we sometimes turned on our own, the most vulnerable targets being effeminate gays, drag queens, and cross dressers.
The closet reinforced our shame, guilt, and self-hate. In a pseudoscientific bid to eliminate same-sex desire, some of us turned to so-called conversion therapy, which included torture by electric shock and nausea-inducing drugs. The American Psychiatric Association only stopped declaring us mentally ill in 1973, when I was in my 20s. Effeminate men, sometimes dubbed “light in their loafers” and “artistic,” could survive if they publicly identified as straight. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), a stylish femme, was accepted while married. But he was ruined by a failed libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury, who’d called him “a posing sodomite.” Subsequently convicted of the offence, he was spat on by crowds and sentenced to two years at hard labour.
Not much had changed by the time pianist Liberace was entertaining 20th-century crowds under the (thin) pretense of being merely flamboyant. In 1956, London’s Daily Mirror called him “a deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother love.” To save his career, he likewise sued for libel, and denied he was homosexual or had ever had homosexual sex. Luckier than Wilde, he won his case. As late as 2003, Tom Cruise won $10 million in what headline writers called a “gay lawsuit”: More than a century after Wilde’s death, gayness was still seen as a legally actionable accusation.
Drag queens were the worst off, despised even by many gay men for playing to negative stereotypes; and by many feminists for their perceived send-up of women. Self-declared heterosexual male cross-dressers such as Virginia Prince, founder of Transvestia Magazine made a point of insisting they weren’t gay. Breaking gender norms was fine. Having sex with men wasn’t.
No wonder the US Department of Health and Human Services reported in 1989 that gay men were six times more likely to commit suicide than straights, and that gay youth accounted for 30 percent of teen suicides. All of this tragedy and shame originated in the fact that we were born with an instinctive attraction to male bodies with male genitals. It had nothing to do with the gender identity in somebody’s head.
In many ways, lesbians suffered as we did. Betty Friedan, president and co-founder of the National Organization of Women, tried to exclude lesbians from the women’s movement, calling them “a lavender menace,” and purged them from her organization’s New York chapter as a PR liability. Outed lesbians were dismissed as “vermin,” fired from their jobs, assigned to psychiatric interventions, and coded on screen as depraved, psychotic, and manipulative.
But in some ways, it could be easier to be lesbian than gay. Women have always walked arm in arm, shared apartments, and even gone to the bathroom together at restaurants without raising eyebrows. My husband’s lesbian aunt lived with her partner for 40 years; yet my father-in-law, typical of the time, only saw a poor sister who would die a lonely old maid. “Lifelong bachelors,” by contrast, lived under a darker kind of suspicion. Unlike women, who could claim they’d never been asked to marry, men were expected to be out courting a prospective mate.
In a male-dominated society, women’s sex lives were of interest only if they involved men. They were planets orbiting the male star; objects waiting to be picked up. If a woman wasn’t with a man, it was assumed she wasn’t having sex. Or, if she was having sex with a woman, it was in pornography made for men (with men being invited to imagine that they’d be welcome in a fantasy threesome). Unlike bisexual women, actual lesbians can provoke male resentment, even rage, because they reject male genitals.
It was once a normal thing for a man to pressure a woman into sex with some variation of the line, “What’s the matter? Are you a lesbian?” (Or “frigid,” which coded as lesbian.) In the case of women who actually were lesbians, this could lead to being involuntarily outed. In some cases, it could even lead to “corrective rape” that would supposedly render them straight.
Lesbians also could have their sexual identity dragged into child-custody cases, in which they were at risk of being declared unfit parents on the basis of their sexual orientation. (Divorced gay fathers were often limited to supervised visits.) Some lesbians also were denied custody on the theory that their children might be bullied on account of their mothers’ orientation. Which is to say that the courts not only inflicted discrimination on gay men and women, but then leveraged that discrimination as an evidentiary basis for more discrimination.
As with gay men, the pattern of discrimination against lesbians was entirely based on physically and sexually rooted phenomena: The law, and society more generally, penalized them because they were attracted to breasts and vaginas. If they’d been interested in someone with a penis, there wouldn’t have been a problem. (They also wouldn’t have been lesbians.)
Similarly, bisexuals had a problem only if they acted on their same-sex attractions: A couple that includes a penis and a vagina has always been good to go, no matter its self-identified genders. That’s why bisexuals had a hard time in the community; everyone knew they could return to the safety of conventional home lives. Bi men were scorned as gays in denial (“Bi now, gay later”); lesbians considered bi women traitors. As a result of this double stigma, bisexuals had worse health outcomes than any of us.
This brings us to the complex, overlapping legal and social issues facing trans people, some of whom, as noted above, are also LGB. As an umbrella adjective, the term “trans” has been constantly redefined since its adoption in 1965. Originally, it was conceived as an abbreviation for the nouns “transvestite” and “transsexual,” both coined by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), a gay Jew who pioneered contemporary understandings of sex and gender at his private Institute for the Science of Sexuality before being forced to flee Nazi persecution.
The word transvestite referred to cross-dressers, regardless of sex or orientation. Though now considered offensive, it’s how cross-dressing trailblazers once self-identified. Drag queen Sylvia Rivera, who co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries in Manhattan with fellow queen Marsha P. Norman, described transvestites as “homosexual men and women who dress in clothes of the opposite sex.” Virginia Prince, the above-mentioned publisher of Transvestia magazine, on the other hand, insisted that “true transvestites” were “exclusively heterosexual … The transvestite values his male organs, enjoys using them and does not desire them removed.”
Prince notwithstanding, male cross-dressers were assumed to be gay, unless they were in comedies. To protect public morals in the 1940s onward, American police resurrected old masquerade laws to arrest anyone in drag. New York’s 1845 law is an especially interesting example to consider in this age of stigmatized “transracial” identities: Its original aim had been to penalize white farmers who played Indigenous to avoid taxes. San Francisco’s law, which snared men as late as 1974, could yield a six-month jail sentence. But public outing was the real punishment, destroying lives and families. To cross-dress safely, straight men such as Prince created private ranches and resorts (as dramatized in a season one episode of the popular television series Transparent).
Cross-dressing women were another story. Drag kings such as Stormé DeLarverie, the black butch lesbian believed to have sparked the Stonewall rebellion, were at risk of rape. (Described as the gay community’s Rosa Parks, he “walked the streets like a gay superhero.”) Just as lesbian sex was fine if it included men, women in drag were okay if the audience assumed they were straight or bi, as with the famous case of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo.
Starting in the early ’20s, the term transsexual was used to describe people, straight and gay alike, who physically transitioned to the opposite sex. Dora Richter of Germany became the first person to undergo a complete male-to-female surgical change in 1931. Lili Elbe (of Danish Girl fame) was the second, a year later. Christine Jorgensen, who famously identified herself as “a woman who happened to be in a man’s body,” blew North America’s collective mind in the early 1950s. (Today’s activists might take a lesson from Jorgensen’s poised, self-assured charm as she bested talk show hosts Joe Pine and Tom Snyder. Now that’s stunning and brave!) Engaged to statistician Howard Knox, she was denied a marriage licence because her birth certificate read male. Knox lost his job when news of their engagement became public. By the time of Stonewall, however, sex-reassigned transsexuals were free of anti-cross-dressing laws.
The implicit distinction signaled by use of the word “transgender”—between an abstract notion of gender identity and one’s actual sex—is the reason the resolutely heterosexual Prince embraced it. By the mid-1970s, however, the term had evolved in a way that swept in some femme gays and butch lesbians. And by the mid-1990s, trans academic Susan Stryker had re-re-defined it as (deep breath) “all identities or practices that cross over, cut across, move between, or otherwise queer socially constructed sex/gender boundaries (including, but not limited to) transsexuality, heterosexual transvestism, gay drag, butch lesbianism, and such non-European identities as the Native American berdache [now 2 Spirit] or the Indian Hijra.”
Mission creep has continued apace. And the bureaucratic instinct within related fields of study has seen academics parse and sub-parse “transgender” into ever-new categories and redefinitions of old categories. “Since gender identity is internal, a person’s gender identity is not necessarily visible to others,” the American Psychological Association informs us. This means the trans umbrella can now include pretty much anyone who raises their hand—including me, if I so chose. Throughout my childhood, I behaved as what some would now describe as a gender non-conforming trans girl. I’ve also had a lifelong preference for writing first-person novels in a female voice. If I were into labels, or wanted to up my chances for an arts grant, I could now legitimately identify as a gender-queer, gender-diverse, non-binary, trans woman, who presents as male. Salt and pepper to taste.
Everyone’s unique, and I suppose it’s natural for people grappling with their identity to want exotic labels to describe themselves—especially the privileged young on university campuses, who were raised to believe they’re special. And that’s fine, aside from making the LGBT+ acronym ridiculously long. But the explosion of new terminology still describes the same old observable facts that have existed across time and cultures: Men and women are attracted to the opposite sex, the same sex, both, or neither. Their expressions of gender, by voice, physical mannerisms, dress, and all the rest are infinite, because each of us is one of a kind. And a very few people have acute gender dysphoria and feel the need to transition to the opposite sex.
That’s why, to LGBT men and women of a certain age, today’s fights echo the ones we fought in the last half of the 20th century. We’ve all grown up hating ourselves; coming out and finding each other; engaging in arguments over strategy and definitions, uniting for our common good when we had to; searching for the science to prove we’re normal; and having to make hard decisions when faced with existential threats—including threats from within. The past informs the present.
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I was born in 1951, well before the term gay was invented, when sex and gender were considered synonymous, and sissy-boys were beaten pour encourager les autres. (Nobody messed with tomboys.) I played with china elves instead of trucks, knitted, figure-skated, and skipped with the girls instead of playing hockey with the boys. Privately, I sometimes dressed in my grandma’s clothes, dreamed about the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, and wrote my first name beside the last name of various grade-two boyfriends to see what my name would look like after it changed when we got married.
That’s why I know from experience that gender identity is innate, rather than socially constructed. From birth, femme boys like me, and tomboys like my mother when she was a kid, instinctively embraced opposite-sex interests and behaviours. Despite environment and social pressures pushing against us, we are who we are; living proof that “blank-slate theorists” are on the wrong track.
I remember a couple of gang beatings after school, but I didn’t understand the stakes till around grade six, when I heard my stepmom tell my dad that if he didn’t stop me knitting, I could end up “funny.” Mom and I moved to London, Ontario, soon after, and I got a fresh social start in time for puberty.
My lisp had been corrected by a speech therapist. (Lisps signalled “tendencies.”) By observing other boys, I learned how I should move and talk, monitored my wrists and hips, and avoided bright colours, especially pink. I never dated or played sports, and was a mainstay of the drama club, but I managed to pass, thanks to turning myself into a schlubby nerd and never getting an erection in the showers.
Naturally, I thought I was the only one. Boys would taunt each other with fairy, pansy, faggot and queer, but they were just words. Real homosexuals didn’t exist, at least not anywhere around us. They were the boogey man. As a grade-nine friend warned me: “You’re too innocent. If you’re not careful, one night some faggot in a dress will jump out of the bushes and get you.”
I learned I wasn’t alone at university in Toronto, beginning in 1969. Every Halloween, the entire residence went over to Yonge Street to join a mob behind a police barricade, which jeered and egged the drag queens going to the St. Charles Tavern. It was terrifying. To paraphrase Toronto activist Tony Metie, you felt like you were them, and hated them for being what people said you were. Because you weren’t. Were you?
I was so afraid of losing my mother’s love that I didn’t fully come out until the AIDS pandemic in the early 1980s, by which time I was living in New York. That’s the cataclysm that fuelled the wave of post-Stonewall activists, which itself built on the early 1950s activism of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis—and included a rich roster of pioneers who crossed racial lines.
But this alliance was always fractious. Lesbian feminists separated from the umbrella word “gay” because gay men represented the patriarchy, had different views on porn, and weren’t much interested in women’s issues. And assimilationists worried about the optics of centring drag kings and queens. In the end, however, as with the civil rights movement and the campaign for women’s rights, most of us came around to the importance of making allies; and building public support by appealing to the empathetic better angels of society at large.
This meant working with the women’s movement on a shared vision of equality and more open gender roles. And through the Gay Liberation Front, we contributed to and connected with the Black Panthers, even winning Huey Newton’s endorsement. The greatest leaders of our movements knew that our common oppression united us, despite our differences.
Free speech was vital to our cause. We wanted to engage with our enemies because scoring legal victories without actually changing people’s minds would create a climate of resentment. In its simplest form, our message was, “we were born this way.” (In the case of transsexuals, it was, “we were born in the wrong body.”) And when people asked, “How did you know you were gay?” we answered, “How did you know you were straight?”
We wanted scientific proof we were normal. To that end, we excavated heroes from history whose same-sex lives had been airbrushed, and drew attention to gay sex across species. Much stock was placed in the theory of a gay gene: If found, some thought, it would end the nature/nurture argument; others feared we’d be aborted in the womb. (Either way, one can’t assert as fact what only exists in theory. Better to say no matter how one’s come to be, one simply is.)
The HIV/AIDS pandemic didn’t just set off a wave of public activism, it also forced us out of our own private closets: If we weren’t going to fight for our lives, who would? Yet at the same time, it created a new and more specific type of discrimination. Could we touch infected people? Should we be allowed to donate blood to the Red Cross? (It was “yes” to the former, but “no” to the blood bank.) At a time when AIDS was referred to as the gay plague and God’s judgment of sin, activists asked, why add to the stigma? After all, heterosexuals could contract AIDS, too.
But the blood-donation protests were counterproductive: Prioritizing our exclusion from the pool of donors was an issue of public health, not of morality, and our demands in this area made us appear selfish and self-absorbed. In North America, statistically speaking, AIDS really did overwhelmingly affect gay and bisexual men (in addition to intravenous drug users). Our maximalist insistence that this fact be ignored led to the loss of public support.
The larger existential threat to our movement came from our association with pedophiles and their apologists. In 1970, a survey by the Kinsey Institute showed that 70 percent of American respondents believed the falsehood that “homosexuals are dangerous as teachers or youth leaders because they try to get sexually involved with children,” or that “homosexuals try to play sexually with children if they cannot get an adult partner.” That fear was at the root of entertainer Anita Bryant’s 1970s-era campaign to strike down post-Stonewall ordinances against anti-gay discrimination.
Under the banner of “Save Our Children,” Bryant charged that gay men were “trying to recruit our children into homosexuality.” At one point, the organization won a special election to overturn a Florida county’s human-rights protections by a resounding margin, and a wave of anti-gay votes followed in other jurisdictions. Activists successfully called for a boycott of Bryant, but the anti-gay hate that Save Our Children unleashed would metastasize under Jerry Falwell’s powerful Moral Majority.
In the middle of this crisis, a Toronto LGBT publication called the Body Politic published Gerald Hannon’s Men Loving Boys Loving Men, a sympathetic portrait of middle-aged Big Brothers and primary school teachers in sexual relationships with the 11- and 12-year-old boys entrusted to their care. It’s true that to deal with predators and sociopaths, society needs to understand their point of view; that Lolita was deservedly acclaimed despite its depiction of heterosexual hebephilia; and that free speech is necessary to defend unpopular causes. But Hannon’s failure to include the experience of damaged children, not to mention the timing of his publication, caused enormous damage to the cause.
The article split the community and our alliance with the women’s movement. Most attacked it, but many felt the need to support a community paper and leader against traditional enemies. (The Toronto offices of the Body Politic were raided by police in late 1977, whereupon the publishers were charged with “use of the mails to distribute immoral, indecent or scurrilous material.”)
Then everything went sideways in a big way. Three men raped and murdered a 12-year-old Toronto shoeshine boy named Emanuel Jaques, and North America erupted in outrage. Months later, Boston police indicted 24 men on counts of statutory rape against boys aged eight to 15, which the prosecutor’s office declared to be just “the tip of the iceberg.” In light of the moral panic surrounding gay sex, and the long history of police entrapment and false accusations targeting gay men, a newly formed group called the Boston-Boise Committee called for solidarity within the gay community. “The closet is weak,” it argued. “There is strength in unity and openness.”
By today’s lights, the Committee’s stand appears baffling. But in the 1990s, dubious legal sweeps against gay men were being conducted by large municipal police forces to international media fanfare. In 1995, London, Ontario’s police chief had 54 gay men arrested as part of what was called “the largest child pornography investigation in Canadian history.” Yet after two years of ruined lives, the purported porn ring turned out to be non-existent. Police had fabricated evidence. And what little evidence did exist was misrepresented to the media (which continued to provide lurid coverage even after the hit job was exposed.) Such smear-and-run tactics are common, which is why culture-war battles of this type so often are fought over narratives rather than facts.
Moreover, it’s this history of repression and exclusion that helps explain the LGBT+ community’s lingering soft spot for fringe groups led by radicals. They’re among our founders—but, in their overreach, often have been our Achilles’s heel. The call for solidarity among Boston’s gay community, for instance, gave cover to the creation of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA), which loftily situated itself in the ancient tradition of Greek, Persian, Zulu, and Japanese systems of male mentorship, but really just offered apologias for criminal pedophilia.
Despite the outcry from mainstream lesbians and gays, NAMBLA attracted support from figures such as Allen Ginsberg (and later Camille Paglia), marched in Pride, and became part of the International Lesbian and Gay Association until 1994. Finally, after 17 years of self-sabotage, the Human Rights Campaign, which would become the largest LGBT advocacy group in the United States, declared that “NAMBLA is not a gay organization … they are not part of our community and we thoroughly reject their efforts to insinuate that pedophilia is an issue related to gay and lesbian civil rights.”
It was a critical break. Since then, the accusation of pedophilia has disappeared from (polite) mainstream discourse around homosexuality, and NAMBLA has been reduced to a few anonymous individuals. The lesson for our culture warriors was costly but valuable: While there is justified fear that yielding an inch will embolden opponents, a refusal to concede an untenable point can do enormous damage.
Since that era, success has followed success. Equal marriage and adoption rights have been enshrined in Western countries, as have protections against hate speech and discrimination. (In my own country, Canada, sexual orientation and gender identity were read into the Charter of Rights as far back as 1995.) Even in the United States, which has played catch-up to other countries in this area, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2015, and has prohibited employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity since 2019.
There remains work to be done, however. In the US, individual states typically control family law, housing, and private and public services, thereby creating a patchwork of injustices in red states. (Even formally protected marriage rights are effectively undermined in conservative jurisdictions, where a same-sex union can cause you to lose your job.) Moreover, legal and judicial rulings can always be rolled back. And attacking gay rights is one of the most predictable tricks that right-wing populist movements have used to demonstrate their supposed fidelity to family values. Some writers even compare our era to Germany’s pre-Nazi Weimar Republic.
During the Weimar period, Berlin was famous for its sexual and gender diversity. Yet this was the same community whose members were forced by the Nazis to wear pink triangles (the equivalent of the Jews’ yellow armbands) and in time got shipped to concentration camps, to be gassed or used for target practice or medical experiments. Even after the war, gay men were kept in prison, denied pensions and reparations, and erased from Holocaust history books. In 1960, Dachau’s mayor told an interviewer that “many criminals and homosexuals were in Dachau. Do you want a memorial for such people?” It wasn’t until the 1970s that these victims were fully included in remembrance protocols, by which point, sadly, the passage of time had dimmed the community’s collective memory.
I’m grateful, proud, and even somewhat astonished that during my lifetime the LGBT+ movement has grown from small groups of pariahs into a powerful cultural and political force. Yet I also see that many of us have come to take this power for granted, which perhaps explains why our rank-and-file have simply shrugged as a faction of academic priests speaking in our name have seized the movement’s moral legacy. It is a group that rejects our traditional tactics of plainspoken empathy and love, in favour of dogmas that are unconnected to everyday reality and incomprehensible to all but fellow acolytes.
Our history has shown that progress is fragile, and can be undone by overreach in the name of dubious causes—such as the one now aimed at dismissing the concept of biological sex, and gaslighting those who rightly insist on the relevance of sex to their own identity and rights. As I will argue in Parts II and III of this essay series, it is no exaggeration to say that the threat to the LGBT movement from the most radical gender supremacists is comparable in scale (if not in kind) to the threat we once faced from extremists who insisted that “man-boy love” be included in our cause.
Featured image: 1970 Gay rights demonstration in London, UK