Posted by: aediculaantinoi | April 24, 2013

Gender and Sexual Orientation: Rarely The Twain Doth Meet…?!?

There are piles of things I’d like to write about at some stage, hopefully in the near future. And, there’s a further major holy-day tomorrow (at least from my perspective), which you can consult my calendar to see what it is in advance of any postings by myself on it tomorrow! ;)

But, today, I’d like to get into a meatier topic, and one that is also profoundly personal. I hope it has relevance for others as well, but if it doesn’t have direct relevance for you, at least it might give you something to think about, or will help you who are readers of this blog to understand some of my own viewpoints and life experiences better.

One of the great “givens” of the modern understanding of gender and sexual orientation is that these two things are not the same thing. As far as norms go, this one is completely and utterly unquestioned. This is why one can be gay and “still be a man,” or one can be a lesbian and “still be a woman.” This understanding has become very important for the modern sense of gender that almost everyone who is of an atypical sexual orientation has built for themselves. And yet, this is quite contrary to what some of the earliest sexual orientation liberationists of the late 1800s thought. People like Edward Carpenter, George Cecil Ives, and others often thought that the “Uranian” sensibility meant they were of a different gender entirely. The remnants of this kind of construction persisted into the later twentieth century with people like Harry Hay.

This understanding also underlies a great deal of the trans movement. Many gay men distanced themselves from male-to-female transsexuals to underlie this construction. A male who loves other males, especially if the male in question is effeminate or enjoys cross-dressing, drag, and the like, does not automatically want to “be a woman.” While there are also mtf transsexuals who start out loving men and continue to love them after transitioning, there is also the phenomenon of mtf trans women who are lesbians (a.k.a. “transbians”); and likewise, there are ftm trans men who love men. (And then there are also mtfs who loved women before transitioning, but men afterwards; and vice-versa; and various other permutations, too…!) But, because gender and sexual orientation have been separated in theoretical and practical work around these matters, it takes the “requirement” out of the matter. One doesn’t have to be a woman to love men, or a man to love women, thus relieving gay men and lesbians respectively of the notion that therefore they are the “wrong gender” and must transition to make things right. There are some aggressively heterosexist notions in some parts of the world, however, which enforce this notion–apparently, in Iran, the only real hope for gay men is to undergo sex reassignment surgery so that they will then be the correct gender to go along with having relationships with men. But, I digress…

As you can see, this system is pretty well entrenched in the modern gender diverse and sexual orientation diverse communities. There is good reason for it to be so, and it has allowed many people to come to a better understanding of themselves than was possible in earlier eras when aggressive heterosexism suggested that it was “impossible” for a real man to love another man, etc.

But, as a proponent of queer theory and theology, and as one who has attempted to question everything where possible, I have to ask: must it be this way?

In my own case, I think of myself in terms of sexual orientation as pansexual–while I considered myself bisexual for a long time, I realized this was no longer adequate (though it is still a good and essential notion, and needs to be respected and made visible to a much larger degree than it has often been in the modern world, and in queer communities in particular) when I fully realized that there are more than two genders, and I can potentially be attracted to a person in any one of those more-than-two genders. But, a further question immediately arises for me, because I’m of one of those more-than-two genders as a metagender person. Because our own modern understanding of sexual orientation is based around a comparison of the gender of a subject to the gender of their desired love/sex objects, that means that the choices tend to be “different gender” (heterosexual), “same gender” (homosexual, i.e. gay or lesbian), or “either gender” (bisexuals). But, if I’m not either of those genders, then where does that leave me? Am I “heterosexual” because almost everyone I’m attracted to is of a different gender than me (as all males and females are)? Am I ever “homosexual” other than when I’m attracted to someone of my same gender (which has hardly ever happened, since there aren’t that many metagenders out there)?

A number of years ago, I came up with a silly pun for “metagender” that, oddly enough, I thought described it in a more accurate way than many of my most detailed and specific attempts at definition of it had created before then. It went like this: “I never met-a-gender I didn’t like.” So, this means in essence that my gender identity and my sexual orientation are quite intertwined and dependent upon one another to a greater or lesser extent. It makes of metagender a kind of “universal adapter” as far as sexual, erotic, and romantic attractions are concerned: I can plug into anyone, and anyone can plug into me! (More on that in a moment…)

Except for the fact that when I have suggested this, I’ve sometimes been immediately told by even the most liberal and accepting sexual orientation and gender activists that “No, that can’t be, because sexual orientation and gender are not the same thing–get a clue!”

Maybe not for most people; but, they are for me.

Now, let me explain how this works (or, as the case may be, doesn’t work) in practice. Let’s say I’m attracted to a particular gay man–yes, it’s happened once or twice! Now, let’s say said gay man is attracted back to me, but he sees me as “a man”–by definition, he’d have to, because gay men are attracted to other men (at least predominantly). However, after having a chat with said gay man in which he says he’s attracted to me as another man, I explain I’m metagender, and he says “I don’t think something like that exists; it’s just easier for me to see you as a man.” Well, sorry, but no matter how much I like that gay man and might like to be in a relationship with him, it’s not going to go anywhere, because he doesn’t accept me as I actually am. Every time I’ve made a compromise on this issue, it’s ended in disaster, confusion, and disappointment…and, more often for me than for them. It’s one of the cornerstones of my modus operandi now: in any area of life in which I am not accepted as an individual as being what I am (i.e. metagender), I cannot participate. This impacts relationships the most, but it also impacts a lot of my spiritual activities–if I get the choices of “male” or “female” in a particular ritual in some religion or other, I will not participate.

The above situation could replay with almost the exact same results, only the person to whom I might be attracted is a straight woman, because straight women, by definition, are attracted to men. Sorry, that won’t work either.

Now, the following has happened on several occasions for me (and for many others, I’m sure), where I’ve been attracted to a straight man or a lesbian, but because by definition each of those is attracted only to women, it hasn’t worked…again, because they see me as a man, but even though they’re not correct in that interpretation, nonetheless it doesn’t work. In reality, this is no different than the situations with gay men and straight women.

Then, there’s bisexuals. You’d think my track record amongst them would be far better, then, right? Nope. Because even though they’re “attracted to either,” the attraction still tends to be to “either of two options,” of which I’m not one. Strike three, you’re out…

Then, there’s trans people of either gender. Yes, I’ve found many trans women and trans men attractive over the years, and still do. But, for the most part, they’re also pretty well invested in the two-gender model of understanding these things, which means that unless I allow them to have their own perceptions of my gender, flawed though they may be, then I can’t be in a relationship with any of them either. Ball four, maybe? But, I don’t get a walk to first base with that…

(Please excuse the baseball metaphors. Why do they always come up in questions of sexual diversity? Bisexuals “bat for both teams,” or are “switch-hitters,” or are “pitchers and catchers,” etc. WTF?!?)

If a person’s perceptions of gender were widened out, though, to include more than two possibilities, yet the structure of “same” vs. “other” were still observed in terms of sexual orientation, then…the result would be that straight men and women would, ideally, be able to have relationships with me, because I’d be a “different” gender than them. Any gay man or lesbian who ended up in a relationship with me, likewise, could not define themselves as “strictly homosexual” any longer, either, since I’d be a different gender than them.

And, here’s where things really start to fall down…

In cultures that have more than two genders as a matter of their cultural norms, none of these problems ever occur. In the various Native American (and other indigenous) cultures which have three or four (or more) genders, pretty much anyone can be in a relationship with anyone else. “Two-Spirited” individuals in the various different native peoples where they occur can have husbands and wives, lovers, and other relationships with pretty much any individual they might wish to, with the possible exception of other Two-Spirited people. (Even though many modern Native Americans who identify as Two Spirits are not necessarily gender-variant, and may be what we’d understand as lesbian or gay, this sort of notion is rather non-traditional, and has come as a result of influence from the overculture; I’m not therefore saying it isn’t “right” or “shouldn’t happen,” I’m only noting that the modern understanding of Two Spirit has only been in effect since about 1991, and is different in a variety of ways than the various individual native groups’ understandings would have been originally.) In these societies, sexual orientation is pretty much “yes, sex!” rather than something that is based on an appropriate pairing between persons of one gender and another, or of two different people of one gender, and so forth. Gender is the way people are in the world and in their society; sexual orientation is not really an issue, then, because sex is something that anyone can share with anyone else (with a few exceptions).

So, for starters, the notion that “gender and sexual orientation are different” is a relatively recent notion, and a notion not shared amongst all societies. The existence of metagender individuals does not simply challenge the binary system of gender, but also the binary understanding of sexual orientation based on the comparison of the gender of one partner to the gender of the other.

But, I’d note on a very specific and personal level: just because I’m potentially attracted to a person of any possible gender (and/or sexual orientation) that there could be, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I automatically am attracted to anyone and everyone. Not unlike the Ekklesía Antínoou, which is “for anyone, but not for everyone” (in terms of it being available for anyone to join if they wish to, even though we likewise realize that not everyone will want to or should do so), so too as a metagender am I for potentially anyone to be in a relationship with, even though I know that not everyone will want to be…it’s nothing personal, but I am just not attracted to absolutely everyone, and in fact I’ve said “no” to people more often than I’ve said “yes.” (Though I’ve also been said “no” to more often than I’ve been said “yes” to…you win a few, you lose most, I guess…!?!)

I think, therefore, that it is really very worthwhile to examine any and every “rule” and “assumption” and “guiding principle” that has been set up on any and every issue that is out there, especially in some of these areas like queerness, gender identity, and sexual orientation, which are often thought to be these bastions of “anything and everything goes” by the overculture, whether or not they are well-disposed toward individuals of atypical sexual orientations or gender identities. Even these things which are the foundation stones of modern understandings of queerness must be questioned, I think.


Responses

  1. I’ve had similar difficulty in determining which label to use when describing my sexual orientation. Currently none exist which truly define which genders I like. For the sake of simplicity I usually identify as a straight woman being that I’m attracted primarily to men (and when I use the term ‘men’ I mean both cisgender and transgender men; I point this out because so many people don’t ever take trans* men into consideration when discussing male people). But then if I develop a closer relationship with someone or if the topic comes up in conversation I might go on to detail how I’m also capable of being attracted to hypermasculine women such as butch lesbians, a realization I’ve just recently begun to verbalize. Albeit my attraction to only the most masculine women is far less in comparison to my attraction to men. Further, I’ve found that I’m also attracted genderqueer people of several different varieties, but, like my attraction to women, it isn’t as strong as my attraction to men.

    ‘Bisexual’ doesn’t fit because I’m not attracted to two genders, ‘pansexual’ doesn’t fit because I’m not attracted to all genders, ‘heterosexual’ doesn’t fit because I’m not exclusively attracted to the opposite gender and it’s obvious why ‘homosexual’ doesn’t fit. These words we use to describe our sexualities hinge completely around the gender we identify as. As a trans woman, I initially identified as a gay boy when I came out in high school because my misinformed understanding growing up was that gay men felt that they were truly women inside and that lesbians felt they were truly men. So I’ve experienced first hand what you mean when you describe how gender and sexual orientation overlap onto one another. They are separate parts of our psyches but one is dependant on the other in the way we use to describe these parts of ourselves. We need better words.

    • Thank you for reading and writing, Catharine!

      That is, indeed, the problem: the words we have aren’t up to the realities we’re experiencing. Unfortunately, coming up with some new words has not exactly helped either, since they have to come into widespread currency in order to be understood. We can hope that some terms do become better understood and more visible, but it’s going to take a while…

      I am reminded of an attempt that was made in, I think, a book called The Natural History of Homosexuality which suggested that people be defined as either “androphiles” or “gynephiles,” which would generally mean that gay men, straight women, and bisexuals would be “androphiles,” and lesbians, straight men, and bisexuals would be “gynephiles.” It does rather nicely fit no matter what the gender of the person doing the “phile”-ing happens to be, which is a step up. However, what if it is wider than that? What if someone likes lots of different genders? Are we then just back to bisexual and pansexual, or–for those who say “but it’s not just sexual,” then biphilic and panphilic? I don’t know…

      So, yes: better words–bring ‘em on! ;)

      • I’ve heard of the terms androphile and gynephile. I kind of like them better. But yeah like you said it’s more complicated than that. I’ve been hearing more about people who are drawing a distinction between sexual attraction and romantic attraction which never quite occurred to me before. Someone might be sexually attracted to men and women, but only romantically attracted to men and vice versa. I just did some googling as I was writing this response and I’ve found a load more interesting terms to describe sexual orientation. Like skoliosexual: the attraction to genderqueer people. Oh look at me I’m all giddy about finding new words.

      • Mmm! Had not heard that one before…I will go and seek that out!

        Fritz Klein (who, alas, is no longer with us), was a bisexual researcher, whose most famous book was probably The Bisexual Option. I met him several times at a few different bisexual conferences, and he was always very cool. In any case, one of the things he did was to create the Klein Scale Sexual Orientation Grid (or KSSOG), which uses a modification of the Kinsey Scale (Kinsey used 0-6, whereas Klein uses 1-7), and then evaluates where one is on that scale in relation to about eight different areas (including social preference, romantic preference, sexual preference, etc.), and over three different time scales (past up to a year ago, present from a year ago until now, and “ideal”). It provides a much different reading of everything in relationt to this, and strangely enough, a lot of people who consider themselves “strictly gay” or “strictly straight” often end up feeling a bit weird and questioning of themselves when they fill out the grid fully, because it often shows they’re not quite as much that “one thing” as they may have thought. Those of us who are far more complex often go “Yeah, I knew that,” but then we at least have some numbers to show for it…

        However, the KSSOG also suffers from being tied to dualistic gender notions: 1 is “opposite sex” and 7 is “same sex,” and 4 is not “androgynous,” it’s “both.” So, not entirely ideal in every way…but, a start toward something a bit more accurate than the old Kinsey Scale (which far too many people still use, or find out about and think it’s a wonderful thing despite being about 60 years old!).

  2. Have you read Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man? It’s an sf novel where human society has five recognized sexes and nine recognized orientations. Much of the story is set on a world which only recognizes two sexes and one orientation, but there’s also some clashing among people of the more “open” society, when even those categories don’t quite fit appropriately with some individuals.

    • No, I haven’t–but thanks for letting me know about it! I may not get to it immediately, but it’s good to at least know about and I’ll be sure to look for it…

      I’ve had a thought about writing such a story in the last few years, where there would be five distinct and different sexes (humans having been genetically re-engineered by invading aliens), but no real sexual orientation to speak of, since it is assumed that all people are sexually interested in all others, even though individual preferences might skew in one direction or another. The problem in the story would come when a “feral human” who exists outside of the hive-like societal structure in which these five-sexed humans exist gets introduced into the mix…and hilarity/chaos/something ensues. Crikey…I probably won’t ever get around to writing it up properly, but one never knows. ;)

      • I would definitely read that, should you ever put that out to the world. Thanks.

  3. I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere until we understand that if person A and person B (and occasionally C, D and E) love each other, that’s all anyone outside the relationship needs to think about it.

    Much heteronormative anxiety comes from the idea that people who love people whose genitals are the same will somehow end up in no one having babies, and the human race will die out. Never mind that most humans are cisgendered and heterosexual and that’s probably never going to change.

    What starts terrifying me is when trans people become extreme versions of the sex to which they transitioning. I know a transwoman who chirpily described herself as a tomboy. I wanted to scream because by saying that, she was giving an excuse for not acting or appearing like a *stereotypical* woman. This is beside the fact that “tomboy” is a horrible, horrible word, saying that a girl who has “masculine” interests is an ersatz male.

    At the very heart of this remains a horror of the female. Interests must be assigned gender so that the “masculine” and the “feminine” can be carefully segregated from each other. If women start being interested in “masculine” things, then the alternative is men being “emasculated” by their interest in “female” things.

    This was my prayer I addressed to Paneros, because to look at me, I’m undeniably female. I am also a football fan, a soldier, and a metalhead. These are not “masculine” interests, at odds with my physical composition, they are MY interests and my physical composition has nothing to do with that. I hope for a world where people can just like what they like and love who they love without having to become a French philosopher to explain it.

    • Yes–that’s the really unfortunate thing about all of this (i.e. having to be a French philosopher in order to explain or understand the nature of these things).

      I remember one experience in particular of how different my filters and understandings are on all of this. I was at the North American Conference on Bisexuality, Gender, and Sexual Diversity up in Vancouver, B.C. in August of 2001. As I was waiting for the keynote (by Kate Bornstein!) to start, I was sitting with my friends near the restroom, and a woman walked by wearing denim shorts, a white button-up, a leather cap, and black boots. I thought to myself, “That’s the most butch woman I think I’ve ever seen in my life.” She ended up introducing Kate Bornstein, and it turned out she was trans but just butch rather than stereotypically feminine, which caused all sorts of problems for her when she was transitioning. It had never occurred to me that she was trans at all, because there was nothing “mannish” about her at all, and nothing about her physically suggested or even hinted to me that she had ever been anything other than female; but, she was butch in terms of her bodily presence, like most butch lesbians are…it’s hard to describe, but I think you see what I mean. Hers was one of many possible gender presentations for female that can exist, and not some aping of “manliness” or some “lapse” in her femininity.


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