Seshadri, P. and L. Ramakrishnan. 1999.
Queering Gender: Trans Liberation and Our Lesbigay Movements
Trikone Magazine. July issue. 14(3): 6-8 & 18

Queering Gender: Trikone Magazine July 1999
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As our queer movements grow in numbers and strength, the diversity within them becomes increasingly visible. Minorities within minorities come out and seek acknowledgment of their specific concerns and validation of particular experiences of self. Such "multiply queer" people include people of color within mostly-white queer groups, womyn and transgendered people in predominantly gay groups, queers who are differently abled, queers of working-class, persons with AIDS in South Asian queer groups and so on.

The broader queer movements respond to increased visibility of multiply queer people in various ways. Some groups do not regard issues of multiple queerness as being significant enough for mention, or, worse, fear that these issues and individuals threaten their reputations or "more mainstream" goals. Yet other groups opt to acknowledge the membership of multiply queer people explicitly - hence the expansion of Trikone and other such organizations over the years from being "gay" to "gay and lesbian", with "bisexual" and "transgender" being added on in due course.

Such inclusionary trends are important and laudable, but to be meaningful they have to go beyond an ever-lengthening laundry list of labels tacked on to mast-heads and mission statements: we need a genuine recognition of the commonalities of our struggles and a desire to address the specificities of multiply queer experience with understanding and support.

Here we discuss the concerns and struggles of those of us gendered queer, who, despite historical associations and identification with lesbigay people and activism, have in recent years been becoming increasingly alienated from them because of the mainstreaming of the lesbian and gay movements. We conclude with some reflections on lesbigay politics and a call for unifying struggles against gender oppression.

Who are the genderqueers?

"We are ... masculine females and feminine males, cross-dressers, transsexual men and women, intersexuals born on the anatomical sweep between female and male, gender-blenders, many other sex- and gender- variant people, and our significant others. All told, we expand understanding of how many ways there are to be a human being".
--- Leslie Feinberg, in Trans Liberation: beyond pink or blue.

We use the term genderqueer as a culture-neutral and inclusive signifier for those who deliberately or involuntarily violate the binary categories of male and female sex, and/or the gender constructions of man/masculine and woman/feminine. People marked as being visibly gender-different are ubiquitous throughout history and across cultures (Feinberg 1996). Most attempts to unearth queer histories have appropriated genderqueers of yore under the culturally loaded and simplistic labels of gay and lesbian, be they the napumsakas of ancient India or the two-spirit people of Native American cultures. Genderqueers these days may identify with transgender, transsexual,stone butch, cross-dresser, drag queen, drag king, kothi, hijra, intersexual, herm, transfag or any number of other labels.

And some of us may not identify as any of the above.

There is a long and sordid history of genderqueer lives (and deaths) being studied, discussed and judged by gender-normative people eager to distance themselves from their subjects and read them as psychologically disturbed, as biological oddities or as objects of anthropological curiosity. Even in writing about ourselves we are acutely conscious that first-person accounts risk being mistaken for authoritative and comprehensive representations of a diverse community. We could not be more heterogeneous in terms of our desires, politics, or perceptions of ourselves. Our intent here is not to define but merely give readers an idea of this heterogeneity.

There is little consensus about particular labels and what they signify, even among genderqueers. Politicized genderqueers have united in recent years under the identity of trans or transgendered, while several others have resisted such labeling and have been quick to point out the differences among themselves. For instance, some heterosexual cross-dressers resent being taken for gay drag queens. Some males who do drag (eg. Desai 1995) identify as gay men. Others, such as the Pakistani genderqueers in New York who dance at straight community functions vehemently eschew gay, hijra or transgender identification, call themselves "women" (or in one case, "artist"),and often have sex with straight Pakistani men (Ahmed 1998, Gayatri Gopinath, pers. comm.)
To add to this complexity, gender-normative folk readily impose their own restrictive world views on genderqueers. When one of us (LR) was interviewed on a gay and lesbian radio program in 1996, the interviewer, a gay white male, insisted on referring to hijras as Indian drag queens with the supreme arrogance and obsession with categorization that characterizes so many in the urban GWM cultures in the US. He also insisted that we avoid saying anything about gender equality, the reason being that his was a gay and lesbian program not a feminist program (sic)!

Some kothis, who are genderqueer males in parts of southern Asia, view themselves as women or not-men. A few opt for castration so they can join the hijra communities (Rajiv Dua, pers. comm.). Some stone butches feel at home in the lesbian community and have no desire to change sex, while others see "stone butch" or "transgender butch" as a gray zone of identity somewhere between lesbian and female-to-male transsexual, and yet others who have chosen sex re-assignment surgery (SRS) regard their butchness as a proto-transsexuality. In a letter to Trikone (Ali, 1995), a female-to-male transsexual wrote that he considered his mental gender to be that of a man and knew he was not lesbian even during his period of female-identification. Essays in a recent issue of GLQ, an academic journal of gay and lesbian studies, articulate viewpoints from both sides of these butch/ftm border wars (eg. Halberstam 1998, Hale 1998).

Many genderqueers experience some degree of discomfort with our birth-assigned sex and/or with our gender identities or roles. Some may opt for SRS and hormones in an attempt to re-align sex and gender. Some harbor the notion of being born in the "wrong" body; a few others furnish this standard description in order to meet the Gender Identity Disorder diagnostic criteria (APA 1994, HBIGDA 1998) needed to qualify for SRS. Many desire to pass as the sex/gender of choice, which is mostly a matter of survival in a transphobic world, and sometimes a consequence of pressure from gender clinics to be "gender congruent" (Earl 1998). Others choose not to identify as either gender (eg. Bornstein 1994) or even refuse to call themselves transsexual maintaining they were not born in the wrong body but in the wrong culture (Wilchins 1997). The propensity of transsexuals to hide pre-operative histories and construct entirely new histories based on their newly assigned sex has been questioned by Sandy Stone (1991) in her landmark essay "The Empire strikes back: A Post-transsexual Manifesto".

We genderqueers come in all sexual orientations. Despite the stereotype that those who opt for surgery do so because they are homophobic or cannot conceive of themselves as gay or lesbian, many mtf post-operative transsexuals in the West are in fact lesbian-identified and some (Weinberg et al. 1994) bisexual. And though many ftm transsexuals desire women, some are attracted to gay men (eg. Louis Sullivan, founder of FTM International) and yet others bisexual, pansexual or asexual (Morton et al. 1997) .

Notwithstanding the variety and complexity of genderqueer experience, many of us - along with other queer people - share common oppression resulting from the binary sex/gender schema to which most of the modern world subscribes. This oppression manifests itself in transphobic responses from "nons" both straight and queer, in forced surgical "correction" of infants with ambiguous genitalia, and in violent acts of hate that do not discriminate between the intricacies of gender variance and minority sexual orientation.


"Puhleez keep them out ... first we had lesbians coming in, now slowly hijras, tomorrow we will have transvestites and then animals maybe, who knows..."
--- gay Indian male on internet group GayBombay

Transphobia is fear, discomfort or dislike of genderqueer people. Queer and straight people can be transphobic.

Most people have deeply ingrained notions of what it means to be a man or woman. Because homophobia arises from a pervasive misogyny that deems females and feminine males to be inferior to "real" males, many gay and bi males have sought to gain acceptance by trying to convince the heterosexual world that loving someone of the same sex or opposite sex is an issue of sexual orientation, not of sex or gender, and that being queer does not make them any less manly. Not surprisingly, many tend to be uncomfortable with genderqueers in their midst, whether these are drag queens, transsexuals or feminine males. Effeminophobia, a manifestation of transphobia, is all too common in gay males who specify "no fats or femmes" in personal ads or complain that drag queens give them a bad name.

While the lesbian and feminist communities are somewhat more accepting of "soft" androgyny, transphobia exists and manifests itself in discomfort with stone butches ("too much male energy"), in accusations that mtf transexuals are female impersonators who should not be allowed in women's spaces and that ftm transsexuals are self-hating women who have "become the enemy". The most vitriolic attack published against transsexuals to date has been Janice Raymond's 1979 book "The Transsexual Empire: The Making of The She-Male" (cited in Stone 1991) in which Raymond posits that mtf transsexual lesbians are malevolent agents of the patriarchy seeking to invade women's spaces and appropriate women's power (Stone 1991). We would be the last to deny the reality of oppression meted out to those socialized as women, and remain committed to ending this oppression. Nevertheless, we suggest that transphobic reactions of some feminists only serve to firmly establish "woman" as an essentialized and monolithic entity, which is antithetical to the "anatomy is not destiny" and "women are made, not born" paradigms (Douglas 1990) of feminism.

Unfortunately for us, transphobia is not confined to the rants of academics or subscribers of internet groups. Our real enemies are far more ominous and our dangers much more threatening. Genderqueers who do not or cannot pass, or passing transsexuals who get outed, risk losing jobs and lives, just like gay people who are not "straight-acting". The similarity between passing and acting straight directly refutes claims that sexual orientation is only about object choice and has nothing to do with gender identity. Homophobic hate crimes are usually directed at "obvious" gay and presumed-gay people whose visible mannerisms and gender expression are assumed to indicate sexual orientation. Transphobia and homophobia are often indistinguishable when it comes to gender crimes - victims in both cases are "punished" for transgressing gender. Transgendered male prisoners are incarcerated with other males and are at enhanced risk of being raped for their expression of gender. Brandon Teena, a young man in Nebraska variously described as lesbian, butch and transgendered, lived as a straight man till he was kidnapped, raped and subsequently murdered in 1993 upon the discovery that he was anatomically female (Hale 1998). Homosexual panic is implicated in murders of pre-op mtf transsexuals and cross-dressing males who pass as women till after are picked up by heterosexual males for sex. In January 1999, 18-year old Donald Scott Fuller, a cross-dressing youth also known as Lauryn Paige was brutally stabbed to death in Austin, Texas. While these particular incidents were well publicised, it appears that murders of many transsexual and transgender people are under-reported in the queer and straight press (Gonzalez 1999).

Trans liberation

The goals of trans liberation are to end all transphobias, particularly those institutionalized by the medical, police and legal establishments (Feinberg 1996). The International Bill of Gender Rights (ICTLEP 1995) is a document that was publicly approved and adopted by the Second International Conference on Transgender Law and Employment Policy. It includes the rights to define and express our gender identities and sexual orientation, the right to secure and retain employment, to control and change one's own body to express a self-defined gender identity, the right to receive competent medical and professional care and the right to freedom from psychiatric diagnosis or treatment as mentally disordered solely on the basis of our gender identity or expression. Many of these rights are identical to those lesbigay people would like to have, some are specific to transsexual and/or intersexed genderqueers. In national US politics, genderqueers are fighting to have gender non-discrimination be part of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (see below).

Genderqueers and mainstream lesbigay activism

Genderqueers have been at the forefront of many civil rights movements. The first movement for gay and liberation at the turn of the 19th century in Germany, was reportedly led by a cross-dressing gay man (Feinberg 1996). The famous rebellion at Stonewall Inn in 1969 was initiated by genderqueers such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson who belonged in the drag and gay communities and were fighting for their right to survive.

Since Stonewall, however, segments of the queer community in the US have grown steadily mainstream, procuring for themselves visibility and "virtual equality" (Vaid 1996) but no real protection from violence and discrimination. Gay and lesbian leaders seem to have forgotten the history of their struggles and have decided that the Gay movement is for themselves and others of their ilk alone.

An ongoing (at the time of writing) Internet poll on trans inclusion being conducted by the gay and lesbian magazine Advocate reveals just how exclusionary the movement has become. Juli Goins-Maclean, a trans supporter, sums it up: "queer people of privilege...middle-to-upper class, white, gay men have put so much work in the notion that being gay is as good as being straight, rather than summoning the courage and deference in the face of right-wing reactionist policy that made Stonewall possible in the first place".

As a consequence of this rush to assimilate, the concerns of genderqueers, queers of color and lesbians have been ignored or downplayed. The Human Rights Campaign decision to leave transgender issues out of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (Dahir 1999) is an example.

Genderqueers and the desi queer movements

Trans activists in the West emphasise the cultural and historical relativism of transphobia and hold up non-Western (including southern Asian) cultures as examples where genderqueers were well accepted in society and had significant social or spiritual roles (eg. Feinberg 1996). The Sampark Project initiated by activist Anne Ogborn is in keeping with this phenomenon: it is a proposal to faciliate cultural exchange between the US transsexual and the Indian hijra communities.

At the same time, the emerging lesbigay movements in southern Asia are looking to the West for their model of "real" gay culture. A proliferation of Internet lists such as GayBombay, GayDelhi, GayBangalore and GayChennai and discussions therein suggest that a significant proportion of the visible gay and lesbian demographic in these urban areas is middle- to upper- class. We expect conflicts between new identities and old ones resulting from a combination of transphobia and classism: individuals with homegrown identities such as kothis tend to perceive themselves as differently gendered and are of lower socio-economic strata than those with access to gay, lesbian or bisexual identities and discourse. Anecdotal evidence (Rajiv Dua, pers. comm.) suggests that such tensions are indeed brewing. However, in recent correspondence to Trikone, Pawan Dhall (1999) of the Calcutta-based Counsel Club has clarified that "gay" is a far more inclusive, hybrid and affirming label in the Indian context than in the West, and that a strict equation of "gay = alien Western concept" is misleading and dismissive of their efforts at self-determination. This point is well taken, but we do hope that genderqueers will be consciously included in the evolution of these movements and that their concerns will not be sacrificed in the scramble for assimilation.

Coming home: the desi queer diasporas

Those in the diasporas have successfully used identity-based organizing and outreach to foster a sense of community among gay and lesbian desis. Bisexuals and genderqueer people have remained largely invisible to date for obvious reasons: there is precious little space within these communities to be open about gender variance or fluidity of orientation and expect any kind of affirmation or acceptance. We hope inclusionary policies will eventually work their way into minds and hearts.

We respectfully urge the community to broaden its political focus and work on building a movement that addresses all forms of gender-oppression within the southern Asian diasporas. Misogyny, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, even child- and elder- abuse are all legacies of the heteropatriarchal power structure that will continue to stifle our lives so long as we remain focused on fighting for our slice of the "rights" pie to the exclusion of others more marginalized than ourselves.


The authors thank Rajiv Dua, Gayatri Gopinath, Anne Ogborn and Kalyani Pandya for their insights, and Juli Goins-Maclean for permission to quote from her post.


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Appendix: Online resources

FTM International:

GenderPAC home page:

Harry Benjamin Standards of Care for GID:

International Bill of Gender Rights:

International Foundation for Gender Education:

Intersex Society of North America:

This page has been visited times since July 1999.