Much is written debating whether the rainbow alphabet acronym LGBTQ really needs to be that long, and specifically, why T needs to be included. The question of letters of political and legal coalitions isn’t just about acronyms, of course — it’s about political and cultural maneuvering in the pursuit of equality and fairness.

There are some (perhaps many) who are skeptical of the mash-up of L, G, and Q with T. Some lesbians and gays question the wisdom of having gay rights “dragged down” by transgender people, and there are some trans* people who feel very uncomfortable having their issues expressed as part of the rainbow agenda. In an ideal situation, family, friends, politicians, judges, legislators, and employers would have enough attention and interest to engage the LGBTQ communities separately, listening and learning about the specific concerns, issues, difficulties of lesbians separately from transsexuals, gay men separately from gender-queers, and so on.

But in the real world, society has lots and lots of different issues, and as far as most of the world is concerned, all the lesbians, gays, queers, and transgendered people are the same, and thus can be treated as one homogenous entity. To the outside world, we LGBTQ’s all violate two widely-held social belief systems.

The first is called heteronormativity, or the concept that what’s right and normal is men falling in love with women and that these dating/love/sex relationships are normal and right and everything else is abnormal and wrong. The second concept that rules the outside world is called gender normativity, or the system of clearly discernible differences in behavior between the feminine and the masculine, the rule that men are always masculine and women are always feminine, and a belief that adherence to these norms is normal and right and anything else is abnormal and wrong.

Theorists are generally able to distinguish between these two rule systems (hetero- and gender-normativity), but the rest of the world often conflates these two systems, and this conflation is what chains us all together and makes the LGBTQ acronym meaningful.

What do we mean by conflating, or mistaking, the two systems? Let’s use a couple of trite, but useful examples.

You may be a perfectly straight man with a girlfriend, thus adhering to all the “rules” of heterosexual normality, but if you violate gender norms, and are perceived by others to be a “girly-man,” a sissy, then some bullies are going to call you a faggot and give you a hard time. What are they reacting to? You’re being called a fag and yet you’re in a happy, heterosexual relationship. “Fag” is a verbal assault regarding your violations of gender-normativity, rather than your inner sense of what attracts you.

Or you’re a normal heterosexual woman who’s always been a tomboy, avoiding rigid gender expectations of femininity. Although you’re not a lesbian, you hear the insults of “dyke” or “lezzie,” and you’re lumped together with your LGBTQ friends whether you like it or not.

The same thing goes for gender-normal LGBTQ people, or straight-acting gays and lesbians. “Straight acting” means not showing public displays of affection for a same-sex partner, but it mostly means adhering to gender norms, so that women act “feminine” and men act “masculine.”

You need to ask yourself which is safer in the presence of homophobes, a gender-variant straight person, or a straight-acting homosexual? Do they care what you are?

See, I think that pushing orientation or identity, while feeling like a good and true strategy, is going about things all the wrong way. Orientation and identity are things are are essential and internal, while gender or sexual expression is external. No matter what you *are* inside, there’s no way for the outside world to know about your inner truth except via your expression of that truth. And that goes for gender, sexual attraction, philosophy, or any number of “essential” qualities.

If we’re interested in protecting transsexuals or gays or lesbians, I don’t think it’s enough to protect sexual orientation or gender identity — we should be protecting the expression of that sexual orientation or gender identity because that’s what’s observable to the outside world. It’s telling that more and more laws and policies are beginning to use language that says something like “sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or the perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” and this approach gets at what’s important: that you don’t need protection for what you *are*, but rather for what people see you express.

I have begun a wonderful correspondence in Facebook with an old graduate school buddy, whose invitation to be her friend came out of the blue to me. Rachel Peacock writes about how, as a lesbian, she felt pressured to be the go-to woman for all things queer, including teaching queer theory, retooling her research interests to cover queer issues, and generally embodying the concept of queer in her person and her job. She describes her metamorphosis from Rachel to “The Queer” as the old faculty retired and were gradually replaced by newer scholars. She also writes about the few times we met in the past, but never got beyond the cordial how-do-you-do’s, and laments why we didn’t talk more substantially.

I especially feel for her as she battles the sticky label of “The Queer” — in fact, it really frightens me, the possibility (eventuality?) of my becoming “The Tranny,” because it’s not an identity I aspire to, but rather just a nature I’m becoming. If we express our nature, it’s both invisible and pervasive because it’s not something we wear or put on airs about, but something that infuses our countenances and our speech and our gestures. You can see it if you look hard enough for it (like Whitman under your bootsoles), but it’s invisible in normal relations. I’m intellectually excited about the times to come, and I’ll help out around the university and the city when it comes to trans* issues, but I’d rather not be the token Trans*person. It’s as frightening as being the Black, or the Woman, or the Marxist — those categories box us in and the labels are so sticky as to be virtually indelible.

In reflecting on Rachel, I thought she didn’t like me when we were introduced. Contrary to her hypothesis that I held back because I might be discovered, I didn’t really ever worry about being discovered by lesbians or gays because I had learned over the years that just because you had Gaydar didn’t mean you had Transdar (see Ellen Andersen’s column about my announcement in Bilerico). But what I was afraid of, especially with Out gays and lesbians, is that I would feel squashed down into my little pre-defined category of straight, boring, white guy, when inside I knew I was a lot more than that. I envied their exuberance and ended up becoming exactly what frightened me most: the uber-closeted tranny, thus perpetuating the shell I disliked.

Rachel was much more closed, or perhaps subtle, and I doubt I felt these things about her. If I can recall, I suspect that I felt her judgment, intellectual, gender, and human — maybe that’s my fault for building her up as a person of exceptional quality, or maybe it’s just that people who are like her and me, naturally quiet and reserved, convey what other people perceive as judgment or confidence, when in reality, we’re just observing the world and listening to the non-stop inner monologue that narrates our lives. If Rachel feels that she missed out in chumming it up with me, I feel an equal loss.

I wonder how many potential relationships end up in the “non-actualized” pile because of mutual fear, hesitation, or reticence? It’s not really a rhetorical question, at least these days, because what I’ve discovered is that when you make an earth-shattering announcement about your very identity, the people who don’t run screaming (and they aren’t many, really) see it as an occasion to open up and share their stories. I have “met” a bunch of people I thought I already knew before, but actually only skimmed the surface, and I like it. I feel like I’m part of humanity, like I’m finally part of a larger conversation that I barely knew was happening. I’ve been standing outside a nice house, seeing through partially shuttered windows the party guests laughing and chatting and touching and whispering, not fathoming what they’re saying or doing, but knowing deep down that I have been excluded somehow.

The internet is a beautiful thing, a garden that allows these sorts of relationships to grow — maybe because we’re unburdened from our face-to-face sizing-each-other-up or our jealousy or our sexual attraction or our timidity. However these seedlings get started, I’m committed to nurturing them, and living the second half of my life tending them — there’s a lot of living to do and a lot of hiding to make up for, and if flying to meet Rachel or flying her down to Bedford Falls to spend some time is part of that process of relationship husbandry, I’m game.