What’s in a Label? Transhumanism and the “LGBT+” Acronym

The question of where LGBT rights cross transhumanism can receive several answers. An obvious one is individual freedom of choice: individuals are free to act according to their self-perceived identity, or not. Another may reside in the use of reproductive technology by same-sex couples. Another, again, is the possibility of body adaptations for transgender people – just to mention a few. But what is “LGBT”, and how does looking at the history of changing attitudes towards that label help understand transhumanism?

As a philosophical and social movement, transhumanism increasingly relies on labels. The horizon looks, from this viewpoint, extremely far away. Have you ever heard of transabled people? Probably not. They are individuals who intentionally amputate themselves or lose one of their senses because they feel that being disabled is part of their identity. Some just want to replace their lost limb with a bionic one. Neurobiologist Kenneth Hayworth even suggested he would commit suicide to upload his mind to a computer.

The ability of the LGBT community to label new identities contributed to raising awareness about LGBT rights and identities. The same phenomenon is at work in transhumanism. It might be useful to use the lessons learned from the construction of LGBT identities in a more general fashion in respect of transhumanist identities.

 

History of the LGBT label

Labels and their meaning change throughout decades. While the acronym “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) was essentially unknown until the late 1980’s, it is now part of our everyday language almost everywhere. It seems difficult to find an informed citizen in 2016 who is unaware of what LGBT means. And yet, it certainly does not come as a surprise to anyone that LGBT can barely include all possible non-heterosexual self-identified individuals.

The LGBT label, as any label, is exclusive… Eventually, the same could be said of “H+”, the acronym for transhumanism.

History clearly illustrates this problem. At first, all non-straight people were simply labelled as homosexual –just as “transhumanist” encompasses anyone who seeks to enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological abilities through emerging technologies. In the 1970’s, to avoid the word’s negative connotation the word “homosexual” had, activists started calling themselves gay, until the expression “gay and lesbian” gained momentum. When they extended their political objectives to non-discrimination based on common personal characteristics, they had to include both bisexuals and transgender people, which in turn raised new cases for inclusion.

However, bisexuals were included with caution. Some perceived them as closeted gay or lesbian and sought to erase them from the social spectrum (the so-called “bisexual erasure”). On the contrary, transgender people were assumedly placed along the border between sexual orientation and gender identity. Addressing an LGBT audience, sociologist and sexologist Aaron H. Devor suggested that the reason behind the emergence of a single acronym was that “although many of you may not identify yourself as having very much in common with trans people, many of your allies, and most of your enemies, see lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people’s interests as being almost the same, if not identical, to those of trans people” (Devor, 6). Hence, GLBT or LGBT.

 

The exclusive nature of labels

“LGBT” is successful because it is short and sonically sound. Many, however, do not feel themselves fit in the acronym. Consider for instance the following dialogue, taken from an episode of the VH1 show Hit the Floor. Zero and Jude just slept together for the first time. Zero is the attractive captain of the L.A. Devil basketball team. Jude, also quite attractive himself, is Zero’s manager:

Jude: So, that’s it?

Zero: You seemed pretty satisfied a minute ago.

Jude: What are we doing?

Zero: Having a good time.

Jude: You’ve done this? Had a good time with a guy before?

Zero: I’ve been with men, and women. And men and women. It’s not deep, Jude. Because I don’t make it deep. I don’t do relationships.

How would you label Zero? He is not gay. He may be bisexual. But what is evident from the dialogue is that Zero does not like labels, essentially because labels “make it deep”. In other words, besides their implicit symbolic force, they play a substantial role in contemporary societies.

On the one hand, LGBT is clearly underinclusive. For instance, it does not contemplate asexuals, who by definition miss any sexual attraction to others. Asexuals experienced an increased visibility in term of activism (Rosky, 485-6) and attention by legislators (Emens, 347). Also, where is the intersex, i.e. one not fitting the typical definition of male or female body (a UN definition, by the way)? What about queers? And the Natives’ experience of the so-called “two spirits”? Where can we put those simply questioning themselves about their sexuality? And let us not forget LGBT’s “allies”.

The LGBT label, as any label, is exclusive –or underinclusive, which amounts to the same in terms of practical results. Eventually, the same could be said of “H+”, the acronym for transhumanism.

In order to be free from heteronormativity (or handicapism), we created a new normative prescription to conform to existing labels.

On the other hand, the more identities are added, the more confusion it generates. Both activists and the society at large seem extremely confused by this acronym, which attempts to encompass all the complexities and variables of non-heterosexual identities. Some went as far as attempting to create an all-inclusive acronym, LGBTQQIP2SAA* (the asterisk being, ça va sans dire, the highest symbol of inclusiveness), which looks quite aberrant, and not only phonetically. As the Italian gay historian Giovanni Dall’Orto articulates it, this abbreviation resembles a “linguistic monster”, “a monster, ideologically and phonetically, which dismembers human beings and put their limbs back together, juxtaposing them under the assumption that they will function better, without ligaments.”

As a matter of language, labels are too dangerous a tool. They tend to oversimplify the reality and they are the exact opposite of the freedom they were constituted to affirm. Paradoxically, in order to be free from heteronormativity (or handicapism), we created a new normative prescription to conform to existing labels. If someone does not conform, we urge that person to create a new label for herself.

A solution could be to take LGBT easy, putting a “+” after it. LGBT+ is only a descriptive label: if you think you do not fit, you should simply stop using it to describe yourself. While legal labels necessarily require us to use general descriptive umbrellas such as “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”, when it comes to everyday life, I think we should focus on what unites us, not on what divides us. That is the quintessence of such an acronym.

Does anyone genuinely believe that when New York mayor Bill de Blasio recently declared to stand by “the LGBT community”, he deliberately meant not to include asexuals, intersex or any other discriminated sexual minority?

As (now) watchers of Hit the Floor, you may like either Zero or Jude, or even both notwithstanding their different approaches to relationships and sex. But if you think that Zero should admit explicitly to be gay, or at least bisexual to stay with Jude, all you should do is grab your remote and change channel –just as you should do if Zero were to replace his arm with a bionic prosthesis while not calling himself a transabled person. Or, quite simply, you could continue watching: maybe Zero and Jude will get together as a same-sex couple, because at the end of the day all we should do is being ourselves. And, of course, make it deep if we so wish.

 

Matteo M. Winkler is Assistant Professor at the Law & Tax Department of HEC Paris

Suggested Reading(s)

Devor, H. (2002) Who Are “We”? Where Sexual Orientation Meets Gender Identity. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Psychotherapy 6(2), pp. 5-21.

Rosky, C. (2014) LGBTA: Asexuality Becomes a Movement. Jotwell: The Journal of Things We Like (Lots). pp. 485-487.

Emens, E.F. (2014) Compulsory Sexuality. Stanford Law Review 66. pp. 303-386.

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