I’m Both an L and a T and I Don’t Want to Choose a Side

It seems like more and more often I’m seeing people talking and writing thinkpieces about how the lesbian community and the trans woman community are at war. We’re constantly fighting! We don’t have the same goals! We’re communicating across a great divide!

It’s true that there are lots of issues between these communities and that there is a very small but very loud contingent of cis lesbians known as TERFS (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who are almost entirely dedicated to the mission of bringing down trans women. But often these conversations fail to acknowledge that there are lots of overlaps, too. I am a lesbian and a trans woman, and I’ve found that we share much more common ground than drawn battle lines. Personally, I like existing and living in both communities rather than having to choose one over the other. I know that being the Trans Editor here at Autostraddle, I’ve kind of painted myself into a corner of being a Professional Trans Woman, but that doesn’t mean that I like other people pigeonholing me into that role. Especially when it means that they exclude me from other communities that I’m equally a part of.

A lot of the arguments about why trans women and cis lesbians don’t get along come from perceived problems between the two groups on an institutional level. While that’s important to discuss and to work on, when we focus solely on that, we ignore the very important personal relationships that often form between members of the two groups. I’ve found a lot of my current community among cis lesbians. I’ve found a lot of my current friends, a lot of my current co-workers and a lot of my current support system in the cis lesbian community. It was cis lesbians and other cis queer women who gave me the platform that I currently have as a writer and as someone who can help amplify other trans women’s voices here at Autostraddle.

In my real life, I don’t get in that many fights with cis lesbians. At least not as a group, at least not because they are cis lesbians. It’s usually because of other reasons, like they’re racist or a jerk or they don’t like Nicki Minaj or they’ve never seen Jurassic Park. Really, I find that the majority of my conflicts with cis lesbians on a structural level happen when I write about the relationship between cis lesbians and trans women. Even then, if I’m writing about dating and sex or even if I’m not, the conflicts usually boil down to a few cis lesbians saying “I don’t want to have to date a woman with a penis! But I’m not transphobic,” and a few trans lesbians reminding them that no one ever said that anyone should have to date anyone they’re not attracted to for any reason.

As a trans woman, I love seeing characters like Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black and Alysia Yeoh from the Batgirl comics. There are huge parts of their stories that I totally relate to and love to see on screen or on the page. But I also love seeing characters like Santana Lopez from Glee, Callie Torres from Grey’s Anatomy and Renee Monotya from the world of Batman. All of them are cis, but all of them are also lesbian (or in the case of Callie, bisexual) Latinas, and those identities are just as much a part of me as being a trans woman is. It’s really jarring for me when I read things telling me that since I’m a trans woman, I have to put that first and be in conflict with cis lesbians when I relate so much to their stories.

Let me expand on that point for a minute. As a queer Latina woman, I have a deep and strong sisterhood with my fellow queer Latin@s. Both on a personal level and a political one. So when I’m looking for community, I often have better luck finding it with cis queer Latin@s than with white trans women. My transness doesn’t overpower my Latinidad. And when I’m told that there’s this great divide between trans women and cis lesbians, I can’t help but wonder why people are so quick to paint both groups with such broad strokes.

A lesbian couple in Russia where one woman is trans and the other is cis. Photo courtesy Alyona Fursova

A lesbian couple in Russia where one woman is trans and the other is cis. Photo courtesy Alyona Fursova

Really, I’m not sure why we feel like we have to keep on amplifying this fight. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, only 23% of trans women identify as heterosexual. The 67% of respondents who identify as queer, lesbian or bisexual are therefore a part of the L, B or Q, as well as representing the T in the acronym. A solid two-thirds of trans women are on both sides of this so-called “divide.” Two-thirds of us are probably hoping for same-sex marriage and queer women’s representation and all the other issues cis queer women want. We may not be cis lesbians or cis bisexual women or cis queer women, but we’re still lesbians, bisexuals and queer women. Especially when it comes to interpersonal relationships, we’re still a part of that community.

As a trans woman, I’m much more afraid of, and much more angry at, about a dozen demographics before cis lesbians, and as a lesbian I’m much more afraid of, and much more angry at, another dozen demographics before trans women. Actually, I’m pretty over this pitting women against women thing, especially when we have so much in common. I feel much more kinship with cis lesbians than I do with gay men or most trans men, or to be honest, with many white trans women. Oftentimes I feel a bigger divide between white trans women and trans women of color than I do between trans women and cis lesbians.

Yes, I do have some problems with some factions of cis lesbian culture. Obviously I’m not on good terms with TERFs, I’m not on good terms with women’s shelters or music festivals or lesbian bars who won’t welcome trans women and I’m not on good terms with cis queer women who prioritize same-sex marriage at the expense of protecting trans lives. And I’m definitely not on good terms with cis lesbians who welcome trans men into their community but continue to keep trans women at arm’s length. But I’m also not on good terms with white trans women who appropriate the violence committed against TWOC in order to lift up their own voices. I’m not on good terms with trans women who constantly put down trans women of color like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, saying that they’re “too pretty” to represent “real” trans women. I’m not on good terms with trans women who police other trans women’s looks or lives, saying that they’re not trans enough or the right kind of trans.

Certainly cis lesbians aren’t perfect, and certainly they make plenty of mistakes. But in my experience, most of the issues they have with trans women are really born out of ignorance or inexperience. Once they learn, most cis lesbians and most cis lesbian groups I’ve come into contact with have fixed their mistakes and grown from them. And they usually do it much faster and much more willingly than most other groups. (For example: cis men!)

Laverne Cox and Janet Mock via glaad

Laverne Cox and Janet Mock via glaad

Things like trying to date a cis lesbian can be pretty tough as a trans woman. But for trans women who date men, things are often even more difficult, as shown by the even higher rates of domestic violence and even murders by intimate partners that trans women, especially trans women of color and even more specifically black trans women, often face. I am terrified, terrified every single day, for my TWOC sisters. I am terrified that I’m going to find out that one of my friends is the next trans woman of color to be murdered, and that fear doesn’t come from cis lesbians; it comes from the men who murder trans women of color. (Which isn’t to say trans women aren’t subjected to intimate partner violence from cis women, too — they absolutely are, and for more on that topic, read this.)

It’s usually not cis lesbians who are kicking their kids onto the streets when they come out as trans. It’s typically not cis lesbians who are introducing and supporting bills that don’t allow trans women to use the women’s bathroom. It’s not cis lesbians who are murdering trans women of color at a rate of almost one per week. On the other side, trans women aren’t blocking cis lesbians from adopting their partner’s kids. Trans women aren’t shooting queer teenage girls or lesbian couples. Trans women aren’t firing lesbian school teachers. We really have much bigger threats on both sides that deserve our focus. It’s easier, of course, to write about and focus on and attract attention to riffs within the LGBTQ female community than it is to tackle more significant threats from the outside. Mainstream media has always loved stories about feminist in-fighting, after all, but we owe ourselves and each other much better.

Whenever I see people talk about this issue, it makes me feel like they’re sort of saying that since I’m a trans woman, I don’t count as a real lesbian. That “real” lesbian culture is only for cis lesbians and that that culture is in direct opposition to me, excludes me. But I’m a real lesbian, and so the lesbian community is my community, just as much as the trans woman community is my community.

My experience and worldview are not defined by any one of my many identities. I am proud of my gender as a trans woman, but it does not singularly define me. I am proud of my sexuality as a lesbian, but that doesn’t singularly define me either. In fact, the two help to inform each other. I’m going to say this plainly. Trans women are women, and two thirds of us are attracted to other women. So please, can we stop pretending that we have to pick a side?

Mey Valdivia Rude is a bisexual Latina trans woman living in Los Angeles. She's a writer, comic consultant and a trans activist. She's a bruja, a femme, a pop princess and she loves comic books, witches, dinosaurs and crying. She has a cat named Sawyer and a very successful twitter.

Mey has written 574 articles for us.

50 Comments

  1. Many people fear the unknown and prefer to avoid what makes them uncomfortable. Some also choose to make rude and ignorant statements about people they don’t even know.
    Studies exploring gender identity, and sites like AS, are gradually providing more knowledge, and thus more familiarity, about translesbians( and transmales) making it easier to be accepted as the female and lesbians we are.

  2. I feel you on the Jurassic Park thing; it is currently the major point of contention in my relationship that my girlfriend hasn’t seen Jurassic Park. IT IS A CLASSIC AND DINOSAURS ARE AWESOME WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?!?!?!?!?

    But great post, Mey. I’m glad your voice is on Autostraddle!

  3. Wow I love this/you. Finishing it while on the bus, I was daydreaming about someone reading this out loud with a megaphone from street-corners… 🙂
    Which is to say, hope this gets very wide readership.

  4. There is nothing that you write Mey, that I don’t immediately want to read.
    More Mey, all the time!

    Also, more of your selfies, please!

    Thank you for always pushing the world into a kinder, better informed, more entertaining shape. You are amazing!

  5. “I’m pretty over this pitting women against women thing” YES. This. (And not just in the queer community either, but women in general.)

    As a cis queer woman, I don’t pretend to know what trans people experience, but I try to be the best ally I can. We’re all in this fight for equality together.

    Thank you for the wonderful piece of writing.

  6. THANK YOU! I so desperately want us to work together, to communicate, to learn, to find common ground, and to take steps toward finding safety and equality for EVERYONE. I’m so sick and tired of reading and hearing instigators tearing down – when can we begin lifting each other up, empowering each other and coming together in solidarity based on love and respect? I needed to read this tonight, after so much political fear and hatred in the news.

    (((Hugs))) <—safe, non-invasive ones!

    Laynie

  7. Please, please don’t hate me for not particularly being into Nicki Minaj’s music, but I’m with you on Jurassic Park! I randomly giggle when I look at a glass of water, waiting for the surface to ripple – and I can’t wait to see Jurassic World!

    Laynie (usually Delayne)

  8. I loved this piece. I haven’t really run into any hate from cis lesbians in the offline world, and tend to avoid online spaces where it is likelier to happen.

    The local lesbian scene was pretty quick to adopt me into the group once I started getting out. We’re a small to medium Midwestern city, and while I’m sure there are plenty of other lesbians around town whom I haven’t met, for the most part, it feels like I know most of the women who hang around the queer spaces, and everyone has been great.

    I was certainly very nervous at first, especially when I was first coming out, which was about a year or so before Laverne Cox and Janet Mock really became household names. At that time, pretty much everything I’d ever heard was “lesbians hate trans women.” I even met another trans gal who would make terrible jokes about ‘at least I’ll have someone to protect me’ or some other such nonsense because of my association with cis lesbian women. (She and I are not friends and don’t associate anymore.)

    This is getting long. But basically, I’ve found support and acceptance with my cis lesbian sisters. I’m far stronger because of them and can definitely say that I’d have none of the confidence and ability to be myself without their influence in my life.

    I haven’t tried dating, I’m a little over a year post-divorce and mainly working on being comfortable as/with/by myself. But the friendships have been amazing.

    • I can 2nd many of your impressions.

      I transitioned in SF about the same year as you described.

      At that time, I was nervous an afraid of cis lesbians. I had to live in the closet as a bi male for 20 years because of the transphobia in cis lesbian community in the 70’s, 80’s, 90′, and 2000’s. I am sorry, cis lesbian transphobia has caused great pain to my sisters an me.

      Today, in my daily life in San Francisco, I have not meet any phobia within the cis lesbian community. Actually, with the honest discussions happening in lesbian press about trans women issues has help. I feel understood by my community. Lesbians now see an interact with me as they would any other lesbian.

      Going forward, I have to accept that like any other minority my life has been deeply affected by discrimination, phobia’s and hate. Emotionally it is easy to attach myself to that pain an create resentment for past injustices. But, part of being trans* is an amazing skill for radical change and understanding. The past pain is in the past.

      Just as you implicitly accept my womanhood unquestioned, I have must accept the implicit love of those who accept me.

  9. We are deconstructing the old social “gender identity assumptions”…..and learning our way into the truth that our true gender is how we feel and want to “be” in life.
    For me, I have to help deconstruct “female”, “penis”, “vagina”, “old”, “pretty”……But I have had a sweet, sexy, and intelligent woman lover who helped me do all that, and discover my female identity in reality.
    I remember Rachel from AS saying how. if we simply changed scary names to female names, we would take the “fear” out of them…….she was deconstructing social constructs…….in a humorous but valid manner.

  10. The idea that cis lesbians needed to be separate from trans women is super racist/classist/etcist

    Terfs argue that trans women can never understand what it is like to be a ~woman~ no matter what they do. Even if it is living as one for years.

    But there is no one way to be a women. A black women living in the city has a very different embodied life experience then a white one in a small town.

    Fuck that idea. My gf (who is trans) and I both come from white middle class families and both were loner/weirdos when growing up and share a lot of similar interests. The idea that we can not understand each other because of her transness is absurd. And I can bet you money that any terf running around preaching such shit only has friends who are super similar to themselves and dont do any anti-racist work. pffft

  11. As a transwoman I’ve always exclusively been attracted to women, many of my peers would make fun of it and ask me questions like: Well wouldn’t it have been easier to have just stayed a man to be with women; my reply would be: Well on the similar premise in a society where more and more people are becoming accepting of gay male relationships wouldn’t it have been easier to have stayed a man that loves and is exclusively attracted to the male gender? Then I’d wait for it, the answer after the thought, and the realization that ones gender is a different subject then that of ones sexual attraction(s) to one gender or the other or both or all of the above.

  12. I love that you point out that individually we can have points of contention with one another. Individually we can always learn to be better allies to each other (as L’s and T’s, B’s, Q’s, Latin@s, white people, etc., etc.).

    But that doesn’t mean there’s a systematic problem (and it’s particularly illogical to imagine a rift between two groups that have so much overlap). I think that talking about big trends like this too much, as you point out, Mey, not only takes our attention away from the groups and issues that truly endanger us – but it also keeps us from addressing individual issues well when they do arise. If a cis lesbian is behaving in a way that bothers a trans woman, or vice versa, then they need to be able to talk about it and work through it without having to each speak for their collective group or correct the entire other collective group. And we especially need to empower voices of people who belong to multiple marginalized groups.

    And 99.9% of the time, I see that dynamic working out just fine in my groups and communities, with information flowing both ways and a lot of sharing similarities and love. I’m so glad you put this piece and your positivity out there!

  13. Characterising TERF hatred of transwomen as “L versus T” is a false analysis. Yes TERFs are anti-trans, and very nasty pieces of work. But TERFism is not a sub-branch of lesbianism.

    Some TERFs are lesbians, and many are not. Just like some female comedians are lesbians and many are not – but having a few prominent lesbians doesn’t make either TERFism or comedy into sub-branches of lesbianism.

    Besides, a lot of the supposedly “lesbian” TERFs are really only so-called “political lesbians” – i.e. they are not sexually attracted to women, but they hate men so much that they claim to be lesbians – that’s really messed up but is certainly not authentically lesbian.

    So portraying a few twisted hateful mouthy weirdos – i.e. the TERFs – as “L versus T” is a slur against lesbians. Don’t let’s blame lesbianism for TERFs.

  14. As a trans woman who is attracted to women I feel like I occupy a very hard to understand place in the world and that makes it hard for me to say “I’m a lesbian” because I feel like there is a barrier for me to claim that because I am a trans woman. I feel like for the most part cis lesbian women are cool with the idea of me doing what I do. They are excited and happy for me, but I feel like I am not really *part* of their world (cue the little mermaid soundtrack). Maybe I am claiming status and having to work my way in, who knows, but I do feel like I am seen as something quite different and not really belonging to any space exclusive to women (or even men, for that matter). I felt that way before transition, more so now. Big sighs and many lonely nights…

  15. Since so many commentors in this thread are transfemales, I would ask you a personal question of all of you. Since the most offensive slur to us is about having a “penis”, I would like to know if yours, like mine, has shrunk incredibly since I realized I am a female…..and I mean tiny!! I found it so ironic to think of her as “disgusting” when she is about the size of a large clit, that I put a link on my tumnlr site to show how tiny a penis can become when you are transfemale. I have no desire now that involves it other than being cuddled by a gf.

  16. Thanx Mey. I, too, am an L and a T. The thing is, I know I’m attracted to women. I was married to an amazing woman for 18 years until I came out to her. Now I’m post-op and I can’t say 100% that I would never be with a guy. The part that scares me is that guys can be very unpredictable and I’m afraid I would be killed for “tricking” him. I mean I can’t start every conversation with, “Hi! I’m Karen and I had a sex-change”, so I just don’t initiate it. I just feel safer with women. They’re more sensitive, sensual, and in touch with feelings. Trans dating has definitely been a challenge. Something I underestimated. It would be a good subject here. Anyway, Thanx!

  17. “Actually, I’m pretty over this pitting women against women thing, especially when we have so much in common.” So true! Thank you for writing this, I hope it will be validating to trans lesbians who worry that they’re not “allowed” to claim a lesbian identity. I’ve gotta show this to my wife. PS I can’t stand Nicki Minaj but hope we can still be friends. Lol

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