Whimsical, queer exploration of all things gender.

Posts tagged ‘identity’

On being an ex-gay queer

Identities are tricky things. They can be used as a shorthand to tell people something about you (from the gender of your partner/s, to what sort of music you like), and they can be grappled with in coming to understand ourselves better as we grow and move through our lives. I’d like to try and use some of my own process and movement to talk about tensions and limitations of (sexual) identity, and how this can also be okay. This is a bit of a thought-dump, so I hope it’s navigable.

I came out to my friends and parents as gay when I was 18, and that was completely fine (a privilege that is informed by my position as middle class, white, and English). It was only later as I accrued more life experience (in both intimate relationships and intellectual ideas) that I was to turn attention to how I conceived of myself again.

Much of this experience relates to gender. Sexuality is both entwined with and separate from gender identity – who you go to bed with is not the same as who you go to bed as, yet if you’re attracted to say, exclusively girls, your gender is what is then used to position you as straight, or a lesbian. My experiences have forced me to confront often unspoken assumptions about what sexuality means for an individual. There’s an assumption that when we say ‘gay men’ we’re talking about cis gay men (because of cissexism), and thus whoever a gay man is interested in/sexual with is also cis. Far from it. By experiencing and acknowledging intimacy with trans gay people, gayness is decoupled from dominant assumptions that this means two people with the ‘same’ genitals.

Also, through deconstructing and questioning my own gender identity and attempting to negotiate feelings around the rejection of masculinity and manhood, identification with and as non-binary has become something I’ve increasingly positioned myself with. It’s important that we don’t assume that identification is as simple as putting oneself inside or outside of particular boxes – particularly when the labels on the boxes can have radically different meanings for different people. Therein lies something that attracts me to both non-binary and queer as identity categories – they position one within an umbrella LGBTQ+ discourse, without any rigid over-simplification of personal experience. They can tell people what you want them to know without having to have an existential crisis over the details of selfhood every time one outs oneself.

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An important point though is how I found gay didn’t really work without erasing the complexities around my feelings of my gender. It also (for me) would potential disenfranchise the gender of my partner, who identified as male when we met, but does not now. Whilst there may (must?) be trans women out there with AMAB gay identified partners who don’t have a problem with the language their partner feels a resonance with to describe their sexuality, some will feel that this positions them as not ‘real’ women. As I don’t identify particularly as male, does that mean I would feel erased if I were to be involved with a guy who identified as gay? I don’t think so. Maybe this speaks to some internalised stuff about ‘not being non-binary enough’, but it would be far more important to me that they didn’t internalise essentialised notions of gender in articulating their sexuality (that ‘attraction to men’ makes assumptions about what a ‘male body’ is, or what gender expression ‘should’ be, etc.).

Further, if telling someone ‘I’m gay’ as someone read as male, this will result in people making an assumption about my partner’s gender, whether she’s there or not. Plus, we’re still together. I’m with a woman. So whether conceiving sexuality of who you’re sexual with, attracted to, in a relationship with, and then your own corresponding gender identity, I’ve royally muddied the waters on all of these fronts. In addition to all of that, over time I’ve felt a significant alienation from notions of a gay community – a social phenomenon that my experiences of have been very white (and racist), very male (and misogynistic), very cis (and transphobic), and very apolitical. Something I think is very important to acknowledge is that gay community is NOT homogeneous. In so far as my experiences have given me those associations, this is something that is obviously not inevitably symptomatic of all individual white cis gay men, or necessarily communities. If tensions with other individuals who share your identity label were all it took to result in disidentification, then identity would fragment apart into nothingness. Identity categories are inherently limited in grouping together people, when people comprise difference.

So if I was gay, but I no longer identify as such, that makes me an ‘ex-gay’ right? I say this very tongue in cheek, fully aware of the evangelical Christian undertones that the label ‘ex-gay’ is associated with, and how such a reading assumes both the possibility and success of conceptually repugnant and psychologically damaging ‘reparation therapy’. It’s slightly telling all on its own about how erasing society is in general that if not gay, we thus immediately leap to straight. Which I can at least confidently say I am not. I am queer – I cannot easily categorise the bodies, identities, appearances, or personalities of those I find attractive romantically or sexually. I can identify patterns, but such details don’t lend themselves well to identity labels. I’ve learnt not to worry about it any more.

No-Gay-Cure

What it means to ‘be gay’ is also undergoing social transmutation. Queer people (particularly in youth or internet subcultures) might use language such as ‘I’m hella gay’, in a way which resonates or communicates far more something queer than something rigidly, discretely homosexual. This echoes the historical phenomenon where before identities such as bisexual, pansexual, or even transgender were understood and demarcated, ‘gay’ itself was a catch-all term, but which erased people in a way that queer does not. The difference between this historical use of gay and of contemporary use of queer is how ideas of gender and sexuality have developed in the meantime and fed into community consciousnesses.

I do sometimes wish I had a simpler, easier experience of gender and sexuality, as it would make it easier to relate with certain parts of the world and to communicate. But I also think this is a trap. What I really wish is that I could tell anyone that I’m queer, and not worry about what they think that might mean, whether they’re okay with it, or whether I’m going to have to navigate various assumptions made about gender and orientation. Giving time to process the potential complexities of gender and sexuality can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly important as it equips us all to be more respectful, and more understanding.

 

On the Liminality of Sexuality and Gender: Personal Reflections

I like the word liminality. It’s a bit obscure, but really useful in certain contexts. Originally in reference to rituals observed by anthropologists, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage […] when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete”. To be liminal positions you on the border of the definition of something, or on both sides. There is an uneasiness and a complexity to defining where liminal things sit, without a sense of ‘hm, yes, but…’.

It might be pretty easy for some people to see how this relates to sexuality and gender. In the familiar cultural process of coming out, be that as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, or anything else, there can be a period in which you’ve at least vaguely got to grips with accepting a label, but you haven’t told anyone. Maybe you don’t want to. Maybe it’s too scary, or dangerous, or complicated. So say if, like me, you came out as a gay guy. you feel that that’s what you are, so you don’t identify with ‘straight’ any more. But no-one else knows this, and if asked ‘are you gay’? there would definitely have been contexts where I would’ve said no. I was transitioning, getting to grips with things. My visibility as gay (and I’m not referring to my style of dress or other aspects of presentation) was nil. I wasn’t even out and proud in some contexts whilst not in others, so the identity label as gay didn’t hold any public significance to me at all. Because of my personal, internal processing of myself I didn’t fit as straight, but I wasn’t yet ready to take on a ‘gay identity’, and wasn’t ‘positionable’ as such by anyone. I was liminal.

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Some might argue that regardless of my self-awareness or comfort, I was always gay. I don’t think this is the case. There would’ve been times that I would’ve been very distressed or disturbed if someone had tried to convince me of this. Of course this is a product of heterosexist cultural factors,  which make camp, queer, or variant children prime targets not only for bullies but for social disciplining of adults and society alike (“boys don’t cry”, “only girls wear pink!”). Also to think about labels pragmatically, in the case of sexuality and gender, it can really foul things up when you try and force an essentialist definition of labels – that is, “if you do X, you are Y, end of story” – rather than considering how and why people label themselves the way they do.

Regarding gender, things can be more complicated, and non-binary people experience particular challenges. Because gender is socialised as very much ‘one or the other’, there is no way to obviously present as non-binary. Plus, there is no ‘one way to be’ non-binary either. Not that there is one way to be male or female, but because of how things are culturally coded, if pushed people can say ‘they have a masculine walk’, ‘that top is quite girly’, and conglomerate these things into an overall picture. People don’t even have to think consciously about it – made especially easy by the majority of people ‘doing’ their gender in ways that plonk them obviously into the categories of male or female.

Queer scenes  and spaces can mean that clothing and style choices especially can take on new significances, due to the knowledge and understanding people in these spaces tend to have, which means they read people in different ways. There are lots of different ways to have a ‘queer uniform’, but when you’re familiar with such spaces you might recognise dapper, AFAB individuals (or people you assume to be or read as AFAB) in jackets with bow ties, undercut hair dyed all kinds of colours. AMAB (again, assumed) people wearing makeup with an alternative style – who may not ‘appear’ to be gay men, but also not making it obvious that you should assume they are a trans woman and that you should use feminine pronouns. This highlights an important point that isn’t the one I’ve set out to make – that it’s dangerous to make assumptions about people’s genders (and therefore pronouns) and that presentation doesn’t necessarily tell you anything, especially in queer spaces.

The reason why I needed to set all that up in order to get to some personal reflection is this – I don’t really identify as gay anymore (gender, I’ll come back to). This is partly a conscious, social decision in that I don’t strongly identify with a movement that has become predominantly cisgender, white, middle class, and increasingly apolitical or, unrecognising of its comparative privileges. Racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, and homonormativity are all common enough for me to find alienating. Secondly, my queer relationships have made me critically engage more. I can be attracted to and engage romantically and sexually with trans men, trans women, binary and non-binary people. Does any of this mean I can’t identify as gay? No, absolutely not (or you’d be back to not only ‘if you do X you are Y’ but also ‘if you do X you CAN’T be Y’ which is shitty and breaks down very easily). But I feel much more of a resonance with the label ‘queer’. It’s a word that doesn’t pin a person down. It leaves ambiguity, in a way that I find to be confident, defiant, and mischievous.  It also doesn’t require me to have a clear cut understanding of my sexuality. I’ve thought about it to the point of exhaustion and came out now so long ago that I’ve in some ways stopped caring. The bottom line is that I’m not straight and things are a bit wibbly-wobbly-sexy-wexy.

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With gender (more complicated!) I’m more cautious. I will readily accept the descriptor of cisgender – I was assigned male at birth, I present as such and I don’t experience gender dysphoria. But my relationship with my gender isn’t entirely straightforward, as I’ve never liked the word ‘man’ or being identified with it, though not to the preference of being positioned into another category. The best way I can articulate it is that I don’t think I ‘feel’ gender very strongly. I don’t feel like I strongly identify with masculinity or femininity – much of the time. Sometimes I lean one way or another – or another, in that I might put on a shirt to ‘play up’ masculinity a bit because I know my partner likes it, I can enjoy expressing myself through drag (in a way that is more important and personal than simply ‘fun dressing up’), or I might feel like expressing myself in ways that aren’t so readily within the binary – for instance wearing foundation, mascara, and a red lipstick with my otherwise typical jeans and jacket, which I have only had then inclination and bravery to do publicly once. With pronouns I don’t have strong feelings about ‘he/him/his’ (perhaps paradoxically?) but I will also happily embrace singular they.

My muted experience of gender doesn’t feel like a nullness – I don’t feel that I am agender or neutrois. Could I be some flavour of demigender  – perhaps demi-agender or demifluid? I’m not sure. However, I am unwilling to position myself as not cis. This is in part due to the fact that I possess cis privilege. Even were I not to simply situate myself as a guy (I really detest referring to myself as a man enough that I don’t even want to write it!), I don’t experience fears and oppressions as a result – it’s entirely something internal (well, until I wrote this) and I wouldn’t want to appropriate or co-opt the personal and political struggles of transgender people. Maybe it’s that I don’t feel I’m ‘non-binary enough’ to dare to use another label. It’s also important that given the nature of my scholastic engagements that I wouldn’t be read by trans people as ‘strategically identifying’ in order to gain access to spaces or conversations, which would be disgustingly underhanded. There are also discourses of people being accused of identifying in particular ways out of an adolescent desire to be a ‘special snowflake’. This has been a very poisonous attack on non-binary people. However, when levied against particular otherkin community members – such as to internet subculture fame, the person supposedly identifying as a dragon who was upset about not being able to eat their mother’s diamonds – it may be seen as a reasonable criticism of younger people detracting from the legitimacy of transgender people’s struggles.

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I am lucky. I’m not shying away from a non-binary identity for fear of violence, or rejection, or even because of how difficult it would be to explain something to people I don’t really understand myself. I don’t identify as other than cisgender because I worry about what that would mean politically, and I’m not certain that I’m not. Ultimately what I am pretty sure about is that I’m queer, and occupy a blurry, uncertain borderlands regarding my identity. I still am liminal, in a new way to before. There can be a great deal of pressure for people to ‘know’ who/what they are. However there is no objective, absolute knowledge of the self! More important is well-being and happiness, which are my priority in preserving even as my life-long journey of self-exploration continues.

 

Facebook Gender Categories Explained

In case you didn’t know, Facebook allows for a user to fill in their own gender identity, rather than be forced to select ‘male’ or ‘female’. This is great news for everyone, including many people who ARE male or female. But what is meant by many genders can leave some people puzzled.

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Oliver Haimson et al. has gathered some data which shows what people who use the custom gender option actually define themselves as:

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Whilst the numbers total over 100%, that’s due to there being no restriction on how many gender identity labels a person can hold. It’s a good graph to get a rough sense of the identity categories that people are using. There’s also many categories where the differences may not be clear. What’s the difference between transgender and transsexual? What’s the difference between ‘trans’ and ‘trans*’?

Of course, the meaning of a label can differ depending upon who you’re talking to – different terms resonate differently with different people, and two people’s understandings may easily contradict, so there is never going to be an easy ‘factual’ list that can be referred to. Identity is a highly personal thing, and can only be defined by an individual. This post simply acts as a guide to give some basic explanation of these categories. Some labels may seem to overlap completely in one person’s eyes (say, trans man and trans male) whilst highlighting an important difference to someone else. I’ll be grouping some identities together due to similarity, but it’s important to bear this in mind and that of course, much variation can exist between people who may identify with the same gender identity. I’ll also explain some of the differences between some of the labels.

It is important to remember – gender identity is not sexuality! A person of any gender identity may associate themselves with any sexuality (though of course some may be more common than others. Whilst a cisgender man would not identify as a lesbian, a transmasculine person may have a more complex relationship with this identity for example).

This list is not intended to be authoritative or exhaustive. No-one knows your gender identity better than you yourself! If anyone wishes to expand or add in the comments section, please feel welcome.
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 Genderqueer/Non-binary

Often used as umbrella categories, these terms both refer to gender identities other than simply ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – people who exist outside of the gender binary. Neither tells you much about a person’s gender besides that they’re not (exclusively) male and not (exclusively) female. Some genderqueer or non-binary people may embrace or express masculinity, femininity, both, neither, a mix, or vary depending on time, place, or people – regardless of the gender that person was assigned at birth. The possibilities are practically endless.

Gender fluid/Bigender

Being gender fluid can mean that a person sometimes identifies as male/man, sometimes as female/woman, or sometimes as androgynous other non-binary identities. Similarly, people identifying as bigender may experience two differently gendered personas, typically ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ which may change. Whilst not frequent enough to come up on the Facebook chart, the identity of trigender may be used by people who can change between male, female, and non-binary identites too. Note that someone may potentially have more than two gender identities and still identify as bigender – a person cannot ‘identify wrongly’. It is simply what a person feels fits with their sense of themselves.

Agender/Neutrois

Sometimes also described or understood as ‘neutral’ or ‘null’, some people may experience these identities as an absence of any gender, or, subtly different, as a neutral gender identity that isn’t male or female. This doesn’t tell you anything else, such as whether a person identifies as transgender, or has any wish to engage with a transition.

Gender nonconforming/Gender variant

These gender identities are quite self-explanatory, and broad. These labels don’t share information about the person’s relationship with maleness, femaleness, masculinity or femininity – but that their gender expression may not fit with cultural expectations of their gender assignation. Someone identifying as gender nonconforming or gender variant may identify as trans, or may not.

Two spirit

A non-western gender identity, two spirit is an umbrella term for gender identities associated with the cultures of some indigenous North Americans, such as the Oglala Lakota (note: I say ‘cultures’ rather than culture to avoid conflating different tribes and groups, which are distinct). There isn’t a simple way to generalise, though historically two spirit people often engaged in work or cultural practices not associated with their assigned birth sex. Called ‘Berdaches’ (a problematic term no longer used, and considered a slur) by western anthropologists, two spirit people may identify with both male and female gender roles and thus be recognised as a third gender within indigenous American cultural contexts.

Transmasculine/Transfeminine

A transmasculine person identifies more with maleness than with femaleness, but may not necessarily identify entirely as ‘a man’ (some however, might – and use this label as an indicator of their position regarding masculinity). Likewise a transfeminine person vice-versa – identifies more with femaleness but not entirely as ‘woman’. In accordance with the ‘trans’ aspect of this identity, transfeminine people are assigned male at birth and transmasculine people are assigned female at birth.

Androgynous/Androgyne

This is an identification with the mixture of masculine and feminine presentation so as to be a mixture of the two, and ambiguous in gender presentation. The terms can be used quite broadly, however.

Other

What can be said here? Other. Something else. Gender unknown space unicorn. Being deliberately vague is often a deliberate political decision.

Neither

Not male or female. If you know the person well you may know more detail (though you probably shouldn’t ask out of idle curiousity). The individual themselves may not have a clearer definition than this – sometimes it’s easier to know what you aren’t than exactly what you are, and that’s completely fine.

Intersex

Intersex people, by arbitrary medical definitions, may not physiologically fit into the gender binary in one way or another (most commonly, through having what are termed ‘ambiguous genitalia’ at birth). Intersex infants may be surgically altered without their consent, in order to assuage the  gendered anxieties of parents and doctors. Some people who may be ‘diagnosed’ as intersex may identify as men, women, or other gender identities, whilst some may feel their intersex status is something they identify with.

Pangender

Whilst pangender may imply an identification with all genders, more usefully it can be understood as fluidly experiencing a multiplicity of genders. A FAQ can be found here – where it is also clarified that appropriation of gender identities from other cultures (such as two spirit, or hijra) isn’t okay.

Gender questioning 

This is the process of questioning or working out one’s own gender, and may not be a permanent identity – though there’s no set amount of time someone might do this for! A questioning person may not be sure of what they identify with, and might not come to an answer – which is absolutely fine.

Transgender/Trans/Trans Person/Transgender person/Trans woman/Trans female/Transgender female/Transgender woman/Trans man/Trans male/Transgender male/Transgender man

Transgender people are people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans is a shortening of transgender. The differences between ‘man’ and ‘male’, and ‘woman’ and ‘female’ may be something an individual has a solid opinion on, or they may feel unconcerned about the implied difference, or not see one. By specifying ‘person’ in a Facebook gender identity, someone may be iterating that whether they identify as male or female or otherwise isn’t something they want to share there.

Trans*/Trans* Person/Trans* man/Trans* male/Trans* woman/Trans* female

Some people use the asterisk to specifically highlight they are using ‘trans’ as an umbrella term, rather than to refer specifically to (binary identified) transgender people. There have been discussions both for and against the use of the asterisk, further indicating how personal comforts are a big part of identity label choice.

FTM/Female to male/MTF/Male to female

Often used by binary identified transgender people, these identity labels are used as a shorthand way of indicating the gender the individual was assigned at birth, and what they currently identify as. The terms don’t necessarily imply ‘I was a man and I am now a woman’ for example, as many MTFs would also say that they were always women, simply assigned incorrectly at birth based on their genitals. Thus the implication of having changed from one thing to another is something some trans people have a problem with, whilst others still find the identity label useful.

Transsexual/Transsexual person/Transsexual female/Transsexual woman/Transsexual male/Transsexual man

Transsexual is now quite an old-fashioned term, most associated with medical language and discourses of the mid-20th century. Many trans people don’t like the term or may find it offensive, but others may embrace it, particularly older trans people. The term is also typically used in a binary fashion.  Transsexual females/women are women who were assigned male at birth. Transsexual men/males are men who were assigned female at birth. Some people make a distinction between transsexual and transgender based on whether gender affirming surgeries have been undertaken, but this isn’t very common and can problematically create some artificial distinction between men and women who have certain medical procedures and those who don’t.

Cis/Cisgender/Cis female/Cis woman/Cisgender female/Cisgender woman/Cis male/Cis man/Cisgender male/Cisgender man

Cis is simply short for cisgender. Cisgender is the ‘opposite’ of transgender, and is used to indicate that a person identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth. So if at birth the doctor exclaimed ‘it’s a girl!’ and that person grew up to say ‘yes, I identify as female’ – that person is cisgender. Some individuals have claimed this is a slur, which is nonsense – the term exists as a neutral way to talk about people who are not trans, without positioning cisness as ‘the normal’ gender identity, or that ‘man/woman = cis man/cis woman’, which is the product of cissexism.

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