Stephen Ira, a junior at Sarah Lawrence College, uploaded a video last March on We Happy Trans, a site that shares “positive perspectives” on being transgender.
In the breakneck six-and-a-half-minute monologue — hair tousled, sitting in a wood-paneled dorm room — Stephen exuberantly declared himself “a queer, a nerd fighter, a writer, an artist and a guy who needs a haircut,” and held forth on everything from his style icons (Truman Capote and “any male-identified person who wears thigh-highs or garters”) to his toy zebra.
Because Stephen, who was born Kathlyn, is the 21-year-old child of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, the video went viral, garnering nearly half a million views. But that was not the only reason for its appeal. With its adrenalized, freewheeling eloquence, the video seemed like a battle cry for a new generation of post-gay gender activists, for whom Stephen represents a rare public face.
Armed with the millennial generation’s defining traits — Web savvy, boundless confidence and social networks that extend online and off — Stephen and his peers are forging a political identity all their own, often at odds with mainstream gay culture.
If the gay-rights movement today seems to revolve around same-sex marriage, this generation is seeking something more radical: an upending of gender roles beyond the binary of male/female. The core question isn’t whom they love, but who they are — that is, identity as distinct from sexual orientation.
But what to call this movement? Whereas “gay and lesbian” was once used to lump together various sexual minorities — and more recently “L.G.B.T.” to include bisexual and transgender — the new vanguard wants a broader, more inclusive abbreviation. “Youth today do not define themselves on the spectrum of L.G.B.T.,” said Shane Windmeyer, a founder of Campus Pride, a national student advocacy group based in Charlotte, N.C.
Part of the solution has been to add more letters, and in recent years the post-post-post-gay-rights banner has gotten significantly longer, some might say unwieldy. The emerging rubric is “L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.,” which stands for different things, depending on whom you ask.
“Q” can mean “questioning” or “queer,” an umbrella term itself, formerly derogatory before it was appropriated by gay activists in the 1990s. “I” is for “intersex,” someone whose anatomy is not exclusively male or female. And “A” stands for “ally” (a friend of the cause) or “asexual,” characterized by the absence of sexual attraction.
It may be a mouthful, but it’s catching on, especially on liberal-arts campuses.
The University of Missouri, Kansas City, for example, has an L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. Resource Center that, among other things, helps student locate “gender-neutral” restrooms on campus. Vassar College offers an L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. Discussion Group on Thursday afternoons. Lehigh University will be hosting its second annual L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. Intercollegiate Conference next month, followed by a Queer Prom. Amherst College even has an L.G.B.T.Q.Q.I.A.A. center, where every group gets its own letter.
The term is also gaining traction on social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr, where posts tagged with “lgbtqia” suggest a younger, more progressive outlook than posts that are merely labeled “lgbt.”
“There’s a very different generation of people coming of age, with completely different conceptions of gender and sexuality,” said Jack Halberstam (formerly Judith), a transgender professor at the University of Southern California and the author, most recently, of “Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal.”
“When you see terms like L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.,” Professor Halberstam added, “it’s because people are seeing all the things that fall out of the binary, and demanding that a name come into being.”
And with a plethora of ever-expanding categories like “genderqueer” and “androgyne” to choose from, each with an online subculture, piecing together a gender identity can be as D.I.Y. as making a Pinterest board.
BUT sometimes L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. is not enough. At the University of Pennsylvania last fall, eight freshmen united in the frustration that no campus group represented them.
Sure, Penn already had some two dozen gay student groups, including Queer People of Color, Lambda Alliance and J-Bagel, which bills itself as the university’s “Jewish L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. Community.” But none focused on gender identity (the closest, Trans Penn, mostly catered to faculty members and graduate students).
Richard Parsons, an 18-year-old transgender male, discovered that when he attended a student mixer called the Gay Affair, sponsored by Penn’s L.G.B.T. Center. “I left thoroughly disappointed,” said Richard, a garrulous freshman with close-cropped hair, wire-framed glasses and preppy clothes, who added, “This is the L.G.B.T. Center, and it’s all gay guys.”
Through Facebook, Richard and others started a group called Penn Non-Cis, which is short for “non-cisgender.” For those not fluent in gender-studies speak, “cis” means “on the same side as” and “cisgender” denotes someone whose gender identity matches his or her biology, which describes most of the student body. The group seeks to represent everyone else. “This is a freshman uprising,” Richard said.
On a brisk Tuesday night in November, about 40 students crowded into the L.G.B.T. Center, a converted 19th-century carriage house, for the group’s inaugural open mike. The organizers had lured students by handing out fliers on campus while barking: “Free condoms! Free ChapStick!”
“There’s a really vibrant L.G.B.T. scene,” Kate Campbell, one of the M.C.’s, began. “However, that mostly encompasses the L.G.B. and not too much of the T. So we’re aiming to change that.”
Students read poems and diary entries, and sang guitar ballads. Then Britt Gilbert — a punky-looking freshman with a blond bob, chunky glasses and a rock band T-shirt — took the stage. She wanted to talk about the concept of “bi-gender.”
“Does anyone want to share what they think it is?”
She explained that being bi-gender is like manifesting both masculine and feminine personas, almost as if one had a “detachable penis.” “Some days I wake up and think, ‘Why am I in this body?’ ” she said. “Most days I wake up and think, ‘What was I thinking yesterday?’ ”
Britt’s grunginess belies a warm matter-of-factness, at least when describing her journey. As she elaborated afterward, she first heard the term “bi-gender” from Kate, who found it on Tumblr. The two met at freshman orientation and bonded. In high school, Kate identified as “agender” and used the singular pronoun “they”; she now sees her gender as an “amorphous blob.”
By contrast, Britt’s evolution was more linear. She grew up in suburban Pennsylvania and never took to gender norms. As a child, she worshiped Cher and thought boy bands were icky. Playing video games, she dreaded having to choose male or female avatars.
In middle school, she started calling herself bisexual and dated boys. By 10th grade, she had come out as a lesbian. Her parents thought it was a phase — until she brought home a girlfriend, Ash. But she still wasn’t settled.
“While I definitely knew that I liked girls, I didn’t know that I was one,” Britt said. Sometimes she would leave the house in a dress and feel uncomfortable, as if she were wearing a Halloween costume. Other days, she felt fine. She wasn’t “trapped in the wrong body,” as the cliché has it — she just didn’t know which body she wanted.
When Kate told her about the term “bi-gender,” it clicked instantly. “I knew what it was, before I knew what it was,” Britt said, adding that it is more fluid than “transgender” but less vague than “genderqueer” — a catchall term for nontraditional gender identities.
At first, the only person she told was Ash, who responded, “It took you this long to figure it out?” For others, the concept was not so easy to grasp. Coming out as a lesbian had been relatively simple, Britt said, “since people know what that is.” But when she got to Penn, she was relieved to find a small community of freshmen who had gone through similar awakenings.
Among them was Richard Parsons, the group’s most politically lucid member. Raised female, Richard grew up in Orlando, Fla., and realized he was transgender in high school. One summer, he wanted to room with a transgender friend at camp, but his mother objected. “She’s like, ‘Well, if you say that he’s a guy, then I don’t want you rooming with a guy,’ ” he recalled. “We were in a car and I basically blurted out, ‘I think I might be a guy, too!’ ”
After much door-slamming and tears, Richard and his mother reconciled. But when she asked what to call him, he had no idea. He chose “Richard” on a whim, and later added a middle name, Matthew, because it means “gift of God.”
By the time he got to Penn, he had been binding his breasts for more than two years and had developed back pain. At the open mike, he told a harrowing story about visiting the university health center for numbness and having a panic attack when he was escorted into a women’s changing room.
Nevertheless, he praised the university for offering gender-neutral housing. The college’s medical program also covers sexual reassignment surgery, which, he added, “has heavily influenced my decision to probably go under the Penn insurance plan next year.”
PENN has not always been so forward-thinking; a decade ago, the L.G.B.T. Center (nestled amid fraternity houses) was barely used. But in 2010, the university began reaching out to applicants whose essays raised gay themes. Last year, the gay newsmagazine The Advocate ranked Penn among the top 10 trans-friendly universities, alongside liberal standbys like New York University.
More and more colleges, mostly in the Northeast, are catering to gender-nonconforming students. According to a survey by Campus Pride, at least 203 campuses now allow transgender students to room with their preferred gender; 49 have a process to change one’s name and gender in university records; and 57 cover hormone therapy. In December, the University of Iowa became the first to add a “transgender” checkbox to its college application.
“I wrote about an experience I had with a drag queen as my application essay for all the Ivy Leagues I applied to,” said Santiago Cortes, one of the Penn students. “And I got into a few of the Ivy Leagues — Dartmouth, Columbia and Penn. Strangely not Brown.”
But even these measures cannot keep pace with the demands of incoming students, who are challenging the curriculum much as gay activists did in the ’80s and ’90s. Rather than protest the lack of gay studies classes, they are critiquing existing ones for being too narrow.
Several members of Penn Non-Cis had been complaining among themselves about a writing seminar they were taking called “Beyond ‘Will & Grace,’ ” which examined gay characters on shows like “Ellen,” “Glee” and “Modern Family.” The professor, Gail Shister, who is a lesbian, had criticized several students for using “L.G.B.T.Q.” in their essays, saying it was clunky, and proposed using “queer” instead. Some students found the suggestion offensive, including Britt Gilbert, who described Ms. Shister as “unaccepting of things that she doesn’t understand.”
Ms. Shister, reached by phone, said the criticism was strictly grammatical. “I am all about economy of expression,” she said. “L.G.B.T.Q. doesn’t exactly flow off the tongue. So I tell the students, ‘Don’t put in an acronym with five or six letters.’ ”
One thing is clear. Ms. Shister, who is 60 and in 1979 became The Philadelphia Inquirer’s first female sportswriter, is of a different generation, a fact she acknowledges freely, even gratefully. “Frankly, I’m both proud and envious that these young people are growing up in an age where they’re free to love who they want,” she said.
If history is any guide, the age gap won’t be so easy to overcome. As liberated gay men in the 1970s once baffled their pre-Stonewall forebears, the new gender outlaws, to borrow a phrase from the transgender writer Kate Bornstein, may soon be running ideological circles around their elders.
Still, the alphabet soup of L.G.B.T.Q.I.A. may be difficult to sustain. “In the next 10 or 20 years, the various categories heaped under the umbrella of L.G.B.T. will become quite quotidian,” Professor Halberstam said.
Even at the open mike, as students picked at potato chips and pineapple slices, the bounds of identity politics were spilling over and becoming blurry.
At one point, Santiago, a curly-haired freshman from Colombia, stood before the crowd. He and a friend had been pondering the limits of what he calls “L.G.B.T.Q. plus.”
“Why do only certain letters get to be in the full acronym?” he asked.
Then he rattled off a list of gender identities, many culled from Wikipedia. “We have our lesbians, our gays,” he said, before adding, “bisexual, transsexual, queer, homosexual, asexual.” He took a breath and continued. “Pansexual. Omnisexual. Trisexual. Agender. Bi-gender. Third gender. Transgender. Transvestite. Intersexual. Two-spirit. Hijra. Polyamorous.”
By now, the list had turned into free verse. He ended: “Undecided. Questioning. Other. Human.”
The room burst into applause.
by MichaelL Schulman
Source – The New York Times