The Diversity Fallacy

First published at on December 10, 2007.

I won’t have any transgender people at my Christmas party this year.

Actually, I won’t have any non-transgender people either: I’m not hosting a party this Christmas. But in years past I’ve hosted many, and I’ve never had any transgender people attending, unless you count one former women’s studies student who identified as transgender “for political reasons.”

I have nothing against transgender people; I just don’t know many. Nor do I have anything against diversity—indeed, my parties have been quite diverse: young and old, gay and straight, nerdy academics and slick business types (not to mention slick academics and nerdy business types).

On the other hand, they’ve been populated by mostly white, mostly educated, mostly professional folks—the kind of people my partner and I typically encounter in our daily lives. Our parties have had relatively few lesbians and surprisingly few blacks, given that we live in a majority-black neighborhood in an overwhelmingly black city (Detroit). They would not impress most college diversity offices.

And I don’t really care.

Please understand: I’m a proponent of diversity. I’ve written in support of affirmative action, and I vocally opposed the initiative that ultimately banned it in Michigan public institutions. But imposing it on our social gatherings is just foolishness—which is not to say that people don’t try.

A few years ago some friends of mine observed that Detroit’s lack of a “gayborhood” meant that gay city dwellers often felt socially disconnected. So we started brainstorming about ways to draw them together—an online community, a series of house parties, that sort of thing—and we formed a group. Then one of the local GLBT organizations got involved. Every time we tried to sponsor an event, they’d interrupt: “Wait; you don’t have enough lesbians on board.” So we brought more lesbians on board. “Wait; you don’t have enough African-Americans on board.” So we brought more African-Americans on board. “Wait; you don’t have enough working-class people on board.” And so on.

Now we have no one on board. The group never got off the ground, having collapsed under the weight of the artificial diversity imposed on it. What began as a band of like-minded gay Detroiters was forced—on purpose—into a hodgepodge of individuals with relatively little in common. Not surprisingly, those individuals very quickly decided they had other more pressing interests.

When “birds of a feather flock together,” why fight it? It’s one thing if those groups are hoarding resources that others are entitled to; it’s quite another if they just want to hang out.

Ironically, the insistence on diversity sometimes results in a rather opposite problem, stemming from what I call the Diversity Fallacy. It would seem that, for any minority group X, having more members of X creates more diversity. But that’s true only up to a point, after which the group is no longer underrepresented and the principle becomes fallacious. So, for example, adding another African-American to the Detroit City Council (eight of whose nine members are black) would not make it more diverse: it would make it less so, all else being equal. This is true despite the fact that, even in Detroit, African-Americans are thought to “count” toward diversity in a way that whites do not.

Obviously, this problem is not unique to the GLBT community. It arises anywhere cultural identity and diversity attempt to coexist. But the GLBT community has been revisiting it of late, mainly because of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA).

ENDA passed the House in a version that includes sexual orientation but not gender identity. As a result, the GLB community has been accused (largely from within its own ranks) of throwing transgenders under the bus. Critics have recalled the women’s movement of the early ’70s, many of whose leaders denounced lesbians as a hindrance to the movement’s goals.

The analogy is clumsy at best. Every lesbian is a woman; not every transgender person is gay. Sexual orientation and gender identity (unlike womanhood and lesbianism) vary independently, even granting that they have important affinities.

What the ENDA debate reminds us is that the GLBT “community” comprises diverse sub-communities, which overlap in various and sometimes awkward ways. No G’s and L’s are B’s; some G’s, L’s, and B’s are T’s; all T’s are either straight or GLB. Every one of us has both a sexual orientation and a gender identity, though one or the other of those traits may dominate our individual political agendas.

But the debate also reminds us that communities are at least partly a matter of choice: choices about which alliances to form, when to form them, when to honor them and when to break them. Choices that are easy to make when sending Christmas-party invitations become far more difficult when people’s livelihoods are at stake.