Gender Binary Versus Gender Spectrum: Implications for Gay Rights

The “T” in GLBT causes anxiety for some gays and lesbians, or so I’ve heard. It’s not only that a minority seeking mainstream acceptance may feel tempted to push some of its more flamboyant members out of the spotlight. Trans-people demonstrate the fluidity of gender, which potentially threatens one common argument for gay civil rights.

Conservative Christians tout the dubious successes of “ex-gay therapy” to alter sexual orientation. Since change is possible, they contend, there really is no such category as homosexuals, and therefore they should not be a protected class under the law. Understandably, gay activists point to scientific research and personal testimonies suggesting that same-sex attraction is biologically based, innate and mostly unalterable.

From what I’ve read about the ex-gay movement, it seems that the evidence is not on their side. Most participants merely learn to avoid acting on their undiminished desire for the same sex, and to conform to current stereotypes of masculine and feminine self-presentation–what Eve Tushnet satirizes as “salvation through pantyhose”. As Tanya Erzen observes in her excellent sociological study Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, these attempts to instill heterosexuality through gender performance (lipstick for lesbians, football for gay men) concede that gender is socially constructed, contrary to the movement’s explicit ideology that male and female roles are God-ordained and distinct.

Meanwhile, the recent investigation into world-champion runner Caster Semenya shows that even scientists are divided on how to determine whether someone is male or female. For a few people, the answer may legitimately be “neither”:

“About 1 percent of people are born with some kind of sexual ambiguity, sometimes referred to as intersexuality,” according to The Associated Press. “These people may have the physical characteristics of both genders, a chromosomal disorder, or simply have ambiguous features.”

Steve Connor, science editor for The Independent, speculates that Semenya may have “androgen insensitivity syndrome,” a condition that affects 1 in 20,000 women. They “look, feel and behave like women,” and have female genitalia, but they have XY chromosomes, making them genetically male. Often, says Connor, these women do not know they are male until they attempt to have children.

A chromosomal test alone does not produce a definitive result, however. “Women who tested positive for ‘male’ genes might still have most of the physical characteristics of women,” says The Times of South Africa. Therefore, physical examinations, hormone tests and other tests are needed to verify the results.

Even after the comprehensive testing is complete, it will not be entirely clear whether Semenya is a woman. Alice Dreger, a professor of medical humanities and bioethics at Northwestern University, told The New York Times, “There isn’t really one simple way to sort out males and females. … At the end of the day, they are going to have to make a social decision on what counts as male and female, and they will wrap it up as if it is simply a scientific decision.”

As GLBT activists, we may find ourselves speaking as essentialists with respect to sexual orientation, but social-constructionists with respect to gender. This isn’t really coherent. If gender can change, as exemplified by trans-people, why can’t sexual attraction? To put it another way, if my own “femaleness” is to some extent a performance overlaid on my essential self, why is the “maleness” of my partner non-negotiable? Perhaps a better argument for the rights of sexual minorities would be to say that it’s abusive to introduce shame, judgment, and stereotypes into the most intimate place in a person’s psyche, the source of their ability to love and be loved.

Trans-people might even say that they’re not so much changing their gender as bringing their external appearance into harmony with an inborn sense of themselves as male or female. Like sexual orientation, this self-concept may feel so fundamental that it cannot be comfortably suppressed. 

Northampton’s most fabulous transwoman, Lorelei Erisis, has a new column in The Rainbow Times, Western Massachusetts’ GLBT newspaper. This month, she addresses a reader’s question about the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation. (Lorelei’s column begins on pg.6 of the PDF of the August issue.) “Confused Dyke” asks:

…What is happening in our LGBT community
with the confusion over who is trans and how
trans has really become the new “queer.” With
that I mean, how can a trans man or trans
woman turn around and say that they are gay?
To put it frankly, I thought that a trans person
suffered from gender dysphoria and that once
they transitioned they would be engaging themselves
in relationships with members of the
opposite sex. But, what I see is that trans
women are with women, and trans men are
with men. Wouldn’t it have been easier (since
you’re going to end up loving the opposite sex
that you were originally born in) to simply have
stayed biologically male or female and then be
with someone of the opposite sex? Why make it
so complicated and difficult to understand for
all of us and especially the mainstream closeminded
society that surrounds us….

An excerpt from Lorelei’s response:

A transperson changes their gender presentation,
whether full-on surgically or through less
dramatic means, so as to more accurately
match the gender that they feel they are or
should have been.

This has very little to do with who they are
attracted to.

We are attracted to the people we are attracted
to based not on how well, or not, our genitalia
fit together, but for a whole host of other
reasons that I think most Gay, Lesbian and Bi-
Sexual people are fairly familiar with. There
are whole fields of research dedicated to this.
In short it’s usually some combination of inherited
disposition, environmental development,
hormone wackiness or sometimes because you
just happen to find punkguys with big blue
mohawks super hot! Okay, maybe that’s just
me, but I think you get the point.

Allow me to present my own example. I was
born male bodied. I knew from very early on
though that I was not male. Somehow, appearances
to the contrary, I knew I was a woman. As
I grew up, whenever I looked in the mirror, I
saw a stranger with my eyes looking back. I
was disconnected from this admittedly handsome
man looking back at me. Since I have
begun to transition and my body has been
changing, that has changed. More and more
often when I pass a mirror, even naked, I catch
a glimpse of a beautiful woman and when I stop
and look, I see myself standing there! It is me!
My own reflection as I knew I should have
been! As I knew that I was. It is an incredibly
liberating feeling.

For many years however, for a variety of reasons,
I did try to live as a man. I had always
considered myself to be bi-sexual, but in general
practice I was mostly attracted to women. I
fooled around and experimented, but guys just
never did it for me. I think I liked the male-female
dynamic more than anything else.

When I began HRT (Hormone Replacement
Therapy), and began to live full-time as a
woman, some funny things happened. First,
since I have been in a long-term relationship
with a super-sexy woman, my sweet love
Widow Centauri, I discovered that I was now a
lesbian by default. I regularly Out myself, without
even realizing it. I’ll mention my girlfriend
in conversation, without thinking anything of it
because I had previously been perceived as a
mostly heterosexual man. I will watch people’s
faces go from “My God, you’re a gigantic transsexual!!”
to “And you’re a lesbian too?!?!!?”

The other thing that happened, that caught me
off guard, is that I am now also very attracted to
men! Not simply theoretically, but in a suddenly
distracted, “Oh wow, check HIM out” sortof-

Physiologically, with the HRT, I’m going
through puberty a second time, with all the
attendant 14-year-old girl hormonal madness.
Simply put, I’m suddenly Boy Crazy!
Thankfully, I have an open relationship and an
encouraging girlfriend, so I’m free to explore
these bright shiny new feelings!

I’m a girl now and I want to see what it’s like
to be with a boy. Does that make me straight?
I’m fairly certain that cute boy in the Red Sox
cap I saw going into Hooters would disagree.
But is there any good reason?

Plus, my head still whips around when a cute
girl passes me by in the street! So what does
that make me?

Further, why shouldn’t a pre-op transman and
a cisgendered (not trans) gay man have hot gay
sex?!!? Last I checked, there was no end to the,
umm, sexual inventiveness gay people are
capable of in the pursuit of a good, gay time!!

We have as wide a range of sexualities as the
rest of the population. Being trans simply
means that we have re-aligned our gender in a
way that more closely matches our self-image.
That self-image may be a man who is gay or a
woman who is not. Or, like me, that self-image
might alter subtly as we attain our true selves
and learn more about who we are.

It’s just an example of the complexity of the
interactions between our gender and our sexuality.
They are separate things, but it’s not a
closed system. There is overlap and influence.
Unexpected things can happen when you go
playing with gender! That is also why we are so
inextricably intertwined with the LGBT
(QQIK, etc….) community and why we belong
in the movement.

As long as the rest of society looks at anyone
who doesn’t match their idea of the hetero-normative
gender-binary (did I mention my girlfriend
is a sociologist?) and indiscriminately
labels us “fags” or worse, we will be fighting
the same fight on the same LGBT team, whatever
our self-image might be.

Read the whole article here.