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Mar. 6th, 2017

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In my talks, such as the talk I gave last week in Manhattan, I mention Jeff. Jeff is a gay entertainer; he does a show at the microphone where he intersperses personal anecdotes with edgy humor. Jeff, like me, is and has always been a feminine person, more like one of the girls than like one of the boys. He talks about this at the microphone, about himself growing up in a small town in the midwest, about watching the ballerinas on TV and wanting to be graceful and elegant like that himself. "See, I knew even then", he says. "I was only about eight. Me and my sisters all wanted leotards and tutus."

It has become a subject on which one's politics may be assessed for correctness, this question of sexual orientation and gender identity, and we should all pause, as if for station identification, and make the ritual disclaimer that gender identity is an entirely different thing from sexual orientation. It is true. They are not two different ways of saying the same thing. They are different. You can vary either one without varying the other and you can have any combination of the two that you can conceivably imagine.

But, for Jeff, being feminine—being like his sisters—is not a different thing from being gay. When he is at the microphone describing his days in high school and his experiences coming out, he makes no distinction between things that happened the way they did because he was a feminine person and things that took place because he was attracted to other males. The people surrounding him, reacting to him, didn't make any such distinction because to them being a gay male and being a girlishly feminine male were not separate things, and nothing in Jeff's own personal experience gave him a lot of reason to need to make such a distinction either.

So discussing gender and sexual orientation as if they had NO EFFECT on each other seems to be an unnecessary and unproductive interpretation of the maxim that they aren't the same thing.

Let's be blunt, shall we? The historically prevailing counterposition has not merely been that they are basically the same thing, it is that they are the same thing and that thing is sexual orientation. The people who deny that gender identity is a separate thing are usually trying to claim that it all boils down to sexual orientation, that being differently gendered is just a batch of fancy-schmantzy word salad and that if you strip the fancy words away you've got straight people and gay folks, nothing else to see here.

And a lot of the politically correct restating-ad-infinitum of the fact that they aren't the same thing is basically a frustrated denial to that counterposition.

In this posting I'm going to upend both assertions. They're both oversimplifications and they're both wrong.

Chloe is another feminine person. She has a lot in common with Jeff and with me. She has a bit more in common with Jeff because she, too, has a same-sex attraction. She's a lesbian.

Not everyone accepts her word for it that she's a lesbian. A fair number of guys find her interesting and cute. She's a feminine female. They keep smiling at her when she thanks them for whatever complimentary things they've said but declines their requests and offers, explaining that she's a lesbian. They keep smiling and they keep making requests and offers.

That would be annoying enough but except when it verges into hostility and violence she doesn't particularly care what a bunch of guys think. If only that were all there were to it! But she also gets flack sometimes from women. She's been accused of playing at being a lesbian because it's edgy and trendy, and told that she's obviously keeping her options open. And once or twice she's been told that because she passes as straight, she's got it easy. And that she's not committed to the lifestyle. Chloe indicates that she is totally committed to living her life as a lesbian, it's who she is, she's known who she was attracted to since before she got her first period.

Chloe and I have some things in common that we don't share with Jeff. People have tended to question my sexual orientation, too. Neither of us fit the stereotypes for folks whose attraction is towards female people. We both have had people indicating that they know better, that they know how we really like it. Or how we'd really like it if the right male-bodied person gave us the right experiences.

Our gender expression affects perceptions of our sexual orientation. Since both gender and sexual orientation are social currency, things that we don't just hold in our heads but communicate to other people, other people's perception of us in these parameters is part of our identity, whether we like it or not. We can get good at filtering things out but it's part of our ongoing experience of who we are. And thus our gender expressions color our sexual orientations and vice versa.

Meanwhile, one of the most centrally social aspects of sexual orientation is the market of potential partners and how you find them, appeal to them, and position yourself to be perceived by them as a person of potential sexual interest. This is a severely underdiscussed aspect of sexual orientation. You know how the moon only presents one side to us in perpetuity? Well, this is the back side of sexual orientation that never seems to be facing us, that so seldom gets discussed: not OUR appetite but the appetites of those we wish to find us appetizing, the attractions of the people to whom we find ourselves attracted. Obviously in a perfect (and ego-gratifying) world there would be complete overlap but in reality we seek not only those to whom we are sexually oriented and specifically attracted but also those who are sexually oriented to our type and specifically attracted to us in return.

As I also tend to mention in my presentation talks, OKCupid now allows a person to identify their own gender not merely as man or woman, but lets us pick from a long long list. But then you get to the screen where you specify which searches your profile will be included in and THOSE are still confined to searches for men, searches for women, or both. And for your own searches you can indicate that you're interested in men, interested in women, or both.

Nowadays, the list of personal gender identities that people may use for themselves is pretty long: man, woman, male, female, agender, demiboy, demigirl, female man, male woman, neutrois, genderfluid between man and woman, genderfluid between agender and demigirl, genderfluid between boy and demiboy, girl, boy, male girl, female boy, bigender, trigender, gender invert, genderfuck, genderfluid between neutrois and female boy, butch, femme, demibutch, demifemme, pangender, nelly, bear, twink...

How do those gender identities come into play when it comes to finding someone who would be attracted to you?

Concepts of sexual orientation lag behind the array of gender identities; it still assumes that people have a sexual orientation that would fall neatly into a very small and finite set of options: heterosexual, gay/lesbian, or bisexual. Heterosexual means that one is attracted to "THE opposite sex". If a person identifies as being a demigirl, what is "the opposite sex"?

Admittedly, that last question elides any distinction between gender and sex; these identities are genders, we said. But that raises the next box of questions: is sexual orientation generally an attraction on the basis of morphological sex, or is attraction more often by gender?

Gender, as we've come to collectively acknowledge, is one's self-assigned / self-verified identity. But attraction is in the eyes of the beholder, so (as if things weren't already sufficiently complicated) we should now perhaps distinguish between self-assigned gender and observer-assigned gender. At least long enough to consider the previous question of whether sexual orientation is actually gender orientation or if it's mostly about morphology and bodily plumbing.

There's more than a faint whiff of evidence that it is the latter, that what we typically conceptualize as sexual orientation is a fascination for a specific set of body parts and shapes. But there's less there than many folks think there is, because when making such considerations most folks (especially the more mainstream, those who would most likely identify as heterosexual) are once again subsuming gender into sex. In other words those who think of themselves as attracted to male-bodied people on the basis of them having male morphology are quite often also projecting onto those male bodies the expectation of a manly gender. Switch in in Jeff, or me, and they may wrinkle their noses in disapproval. Similarly, those who conceptualize themselves as having a thing for the female-bodied might back away if the example offered were a stone butch who was less feminine than they were. Not always, but I'm suggesting it's a counterbalancing trend that offsets the baseline morphological attraction.

So sexual orientation is also not just an attraction to someone with a specific physical morphology. Even though physical morphology would appear to be far from irrelevant.

Back to our hypothetical demigirl. She (or they, if they prefer) would, if being specific in looking for those most likely to find them sexy and desirable, want to find those people who are, a), sexy to them and b) attracted to demigirls. It might be the case that finding people who are attracted to girls in general, or to female people in general, would be sufficient for the latter specification... but it might not be. It depends on whether a generic taste for girls, or female-bodied folk, would have sufficient overlap. If it kind of tends NOT to, positioning herself to be perceived on the market as a girl (and/or female person) would just waste a lot of her time.

I know of whence I speak. I am a gender invert and I am a male-bodied girl. I present as male. (I do make some effort to present as a male-bodied feminine person, but I don't as of yet enjoy a surrounding cultural notion of what a male girl would look like). I have dated, and in fact I will confess that I probably put more time and energy between the ages of 16 and 41 into seeking potential partners than I spent on being a gender activist. I discovered early on that it simply did not work for me to position myself as a male, and there was no non-problematic way to position myself simply as a girl, either, insofar as I was male-bodied. I was still a virgin when I first realized I needed to position myself and advertise myself as a differently gendered individual, in order to meet people who would find that unconventional package intriguing and attractive. And it worked.

So, in short, rather than gender identity being something that collapses down into just sexual orientation if you stare at it hard enough and don't buy into a bunch of doubletalk bullshit, it's the other way around: sexual orientation is a subset of gender identity. In simple cases it may not be necessary to invoke one's gender identity to explain one's sexual orientation, but that's due to the things people can be counted on to take for granted. For the rest of us, to express our sexual orientation we needed to first explain our gender identity.

And to use that explanation as a mating call.

Yes, oh yes indeed. It's not the only area of life in which being perceived as the gender we perceive ourselves to be makes any difference. But sexuality is a central part of life. Of course it is. Of course it is a big part of why.

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