Say What We Mean

Seeking to be inclusive by using ''LGBT'' rather than ''gay'' can sometimes exclude the reality of transgender issues

By Sean Bugg
Published on April 4, 2012, 11:51pm | Comments

So Tony Perkins, the longtime bigoted mouthpiece for the rabidly anti-gay Family Research Council, was rather apoplectic this past week over the news that a soldier in Afghanistan raised a rainbow flag on the base. That the soldier in question would appear to have been straight — the woman who claims him as her husband actually posted a photo on Facebook of him raising the flag — doesn't really matter to someone like Perkins, who is both personally and professionally committed to finding the imminent destruction of American civilization in even the smallest displays of gaiety.

''There, in the dusty desert of war, an Army outpost saluted the colors of the homosexual lobby by flying a rainbow flag in place of Old Glory,'' said Perkins. ''These displays are an uncomfortable reminder of the open policy that few of the troops support.''

I think it's pretty well settled by now that Perkins represents the policies that are only supported by a few of the troops these days.

Case in point, in a story first highlighted by Dan Choi and picked up by Instinct magazine's website, a drill sergeant at Fort Benning, Ga., reportedly engaged in a campaign of homophobic abuse of a soldier he perceived to be gay, including rock throwing, physical choking and firing of blanks at close range. After some straight fellow soldiers "came out" and received the same treatment, the drill sergeant was investigated, he was removed from duty and he appears to be facing some severe repercussions for his bigotry.

That's not the type of action you'd expect from a military deeply opposed to the repeal of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell.''

But embedded in the story is a perspective that is becoming problematic for our community. Instinct nodded approvingly in its blog coverage of the Fort Benning case, saying, ''[W]e have to say, we're impressed by the steps the US Military [sic] is taking to make it an LGBT friendly environment.''

Here's the problem: The military isn't taking steps to make it an LGBT-friendly environment – it's taking steps to make the armed services a gay- and lesbian-friendly environment. There is a significant difference there. As much of an accomplishment repealing DADT was for gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers, it did nothing to change the situation of transgender servicemembers. Trans people in the military still live under threat of expulsion and harassment, with no recourse.

This is what happens when people reflexively use "LGBT" as a synonym for "gay." (I'm not picking on Instinct, it's just that this is a particularly telling example of a fairly widespread problem.) The move from "gay and lesbian" to "LGBT" is something that sprung from noble motives of inclusion and, in general, it's been a successful and good change. But language matters and "LGBT" simply isn't the right term to use in every context. In the case of post-DADT military issues, it's incredibly important to make that distinction because, again, transgender servicemembers are still explicitly barred from service.

Saying that the military is making itself "LGBT friendly" obscures that fact, encourages complacency, and, in a somewhat ironic way, uses an "inclusive" term in a way that excludes the people actually represented by that "T."

Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. Email him at Find him on Twitter at @seanbugg.

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