Blurred Lines: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

I have long recognized that for some people the line between gender identity and sexual orientation is blurred. While I recognize that for many people this differentiation between gender and sexuality is not blurred at all, it is important to recognize that for some the line really is blurred. It was clearly the case in the early struggles for our rights. It has continued to be the case for some in communities of color and for effeminate gay men and sometimes for butch lesbians. I think it is important to look at this issue now because some people are trying to tear the “T” away from LGBTQ. This is a huge mistake. For many years we shared the same fight for liberation. It was only when the fight for marriage equality became the central focus that the trans and gay communities began to seperate. Now is the time to look at our shared history, culture and battles. I will start this piece by sharing this post from the Genderqueer Identities Tumblr followed by my response and a thought provoking essay from 1996.

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graphic via The Good Men Project

Gender and Sexual Orientation Sometimes *Do* Overlap

Since I am in a general human sexuality class currently – the first I have taken that involved a biopsychosocial approach rather than the sociocultural approach I had been used to in LGBT studies classes – and am about to embark on SFSI’s sex ed training program, I have been spending more time thinking about sexuality and its difference from and relation to gender.

Before I go further, I will post a couple of my own personal definitions without getting too detailed or off-track. The complexities of the term “sex” will also not be regarded here, since that is a whole other topic and would only confound this article.

Gender can refer to sense of self (gender identity), perception of self by others (including gender recognition or misgendering), behavior, expression, and role. There are both psychological (arising in the mind) and socio-cultural (determined by others, ideas about what is masculine and feminine, and role expectation) aspects of gender. Some ideas about gender hinge on assumption about the sex of the body and others hinge on different attributes, or are more free-floating.

Sexual orientation can refer to who one is attracted to sexually, often described in relation to the gender or sex of oneself or object/s of affection, and/or the style in which one experiences and explores their sexuality. A/an (a)sexual orientation may be coupled with a/an (a)romantic orientation, or one may stand alone without the other.

Meanwhile, I have also been some material crop up on the web and in print intended to be educational stressing that not only are gender and sexual orientation not really the same thing, but that there is no overlap…at all. In my own approach, I agree that they are not the same thing, but to say there is no overlap is not quite correct, and there is quite a difference. Let me explain.

Rather than naming names, since many of the organizations and even books about gender and sexuality that have the “no, gender is not EVER even close to sexual orientation!” approach are doing good works to advance important causes in gender and sexuality minority communities all around, I will just say that many of those that have this notion are also often emphasize a “we’re just ‘normal’ people” approach and in doing so is likely attempting to minimize the anxieties of potential or actual allies and to remove the common misconception that they are necessarily alike, even when it is at the cost of providing more complete, accurate information.

Resources that do, however, acknowledge some overlap tend to have one or more of the following characteristics:

1) Their scope is in addition to or altogether beyond Western culture. Some cultures around the world include specific identities that blur the distinction between gender identity and/or expression and sexual orientation. I should note that this continues into the present day. Sometimes I hear even educators speaking of the days in which sexual orientation and gender identity were conflated more tightly in sexological history, as if to imply how much more enlightened we are now, without regard to the real and meaningful ways in which there can be overlap. This approach is unwittingly similar to the way that the term “third gender”, anthropologically, has been up until perhaps more recently relegated to the “Other” everywhere else in the world, even though identities beyond the binary have been in these same Western anthropologists’ vicinities all along.

2) They have consciousness of performing / “doing” gender, either in an academic sense (see Judith Butler’s work) or a personal lived sense of difference from cis- and/or hetero-normativity in the way some people express or perceive themselves. Butch, femme, twink, metrosexual, and leather identifications – to name a few- provide some examples of how someone might tie up their gender expression and/or identity with sexual orientation, although of course not all of those descriptors are applied as such. A gay man, for example, may see his version of masculinity, femininity, androgyny or otherwise as being very different in relation to a straight man’s attributes, just to offer one point of comparison; or, he may not. This is very individual, remember. Recently reading Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men’s Dress in the Twentieth Century by Shaun Cole and Faeries, Bears, and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering the Masculine by Peter Hennen, is what prompted me to write this post, I should note.

3) Some transgender, genderqueer, non-binary, or gender non-conforming identities and/or expressions may be included which make more plain the difference, as well as the relationship, between gender identity and sexual orientation. I have noticed this especially with genderqueer resources. Some people’s identities very specifically have to do with the way that their gender and sexuality interrelate with one another; some people’s don’t.

The intended message of the well-meaning sharp distinguisher between the two, I am aware, is something more along the lines of “just because someone is [a particular gender] and/or has [a certain expression] doesn’t inherently imply someone has [insert sexual orientation here].” (and various permutations of the previous) If this is the intended message, it should be stated more clearly rather than leading someone to believe there is never any connection at all, which can be disproved as soon as the myriad and global examples are taken into account. Cues of gender expression and symbolic gestures and adornment can have a variety of meanings cross-culturally and for each individual, and it is key to remember that these may or may not include sexual meanings.

This is so important, particularly now with some gay men and women wanting to drop the T from LGBT. The truth is that the whole construct that there is a rigid line separating sexual orientation and gender identity is a very Caucasian, middle/upper class demarcation. Within communities of color the line is frequently blurred.

In the early nineties I was co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. I n gathering testimony and doing research we found that the line between sexuality and gender was frequently blurred in both African American and Latino/a communities. We heard from some gay men that it was more acceptable to be seen as female while being attracted to men. On the other hand butch men who were attracted to men faced more prejudice.

I was a close friend with two African American Trans Women who were people with AIDS. I frequently noticed when talking about themselves they would fluctuate between transsexual (this was before widespread use of “transgender”) and gay. It was like a dual identity they had integrated into their identity. I recall an experience I had once when speaking with a mostly African American and Latino/a audience at the Boys and Girls Club in the inner city. I told my story about being gay (this was 2 decades before I came out as agender). When I opened up time for questions, the vast majority had to do with how I dressed or acted in a feminine manner. This despite presenting as a masculine bear. Yes, some of it probably was some astute realization that I had a hidden female side but mostly it was because they associated gay men with being effeminate. There are several other examples of this blurred line between sexuality and gender I could relate but I think you get the point.

A great example of this blurred line is the real people profiled in the documentary Paris is Burning. The whole House Ball scene was/is a glorious intermingling of gender and sexuality.

It is a good time to bring this up to counteract this horrible drop the T movement that wants to split the LGB from the T, leaving transgender people to fight the battle alone.The truth is that we have all been part of the same movement. It is just the transphobic and effeminaphobic minority that want to get their rights and see trans people as an impediment. It is a huge mistake and, in my opinion, a bigoted action. We belong together!

I first started thinking about this issue nearly 2 decades ago. It was this opinion piece that appeared in The Advocate in December of 1996 that prompted my own internal gender journey. The piece is dated and incorrectly uses the term “transgendered,” but it is interesting to see that the lines between gender identity and sexual orientation was really blurred here. I think, shortly after this appeared, the mainstream gay community began to reject any association between being effeminate and being gay. I am posting this just so you can see a place in our history where we could have strengthened the advocacy for trans rights and garnered support from gay men who recognized the prejudice we faced was quite similar.

Transgendered [sic] Like Me

The Advocate, December 10, 1996 by Gabriel Rotello

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Gabriel Rotello, photo from Knox College, accompanying information about a lecture series, Dimensions of Dying and Death

TAKE A LOOK AT THE PICTURE ON THIS PAGE. Do I look transgendered [sic]? By the standard definition of that term, probably not. Yet I increasingly believe that I am transgendered [sic]. What’s more,I believe that if you are lesbian or gay or bisexual, you are too. And I believe that an emerging definition of all gay people as transgendered [sic] is the wave of the future.

This idea stems in large part from the growing body of research into the “cause” of sexual orientation. The jury is still out on whether that cause is biological or environmental or both or neither, but this much can be said: Researchers have found that the heterosexual majority and gay people differ in a key respect. Most heterosexuals tend to feel and act and desire and respond and present themselves to the world in a fairly “sex-typical” way: pretty much all-male or all-female. Gay people, on the other hand, exhibit a whole range of “sex-atypical” characteristics, meaning characteristics that are most commonly associated with the opposite sex, at least among the heterosexual majority. These traits obviously include our attraction to members of the same sex, but they also include our inner feelings of maleness or femaleness, our outward appearance as butch or femme, the unconscious way we speak and move, even the way we throw a ball or change a tire.

For some reason most gay people exhibit sex atypical traits most dearly when they are very young. Many gay boys, for example the vast majority in some studies, report that they identified strongly with girls when they were very small. Some even thought of themselves as more female than male. The opposite seems true for most lesbians. As we grow older these feelings tend to subside, at least for many of us, so that as adults the only major sex atypical trait that we retain is our sexual orientation. But not for everybody. Some of us grow up to be mannish women or femme men. Some become occasional cross-dressers or drag kings or queens. Some become transgenderists [sic] (people who live full-time as the opposite gender without desiring surgery) or pre- or post-operative transsexuals. Researchers now think that this is all connected, that all gay and transgendered people occupy places on a continuum between the two main genders. At one extreme are masculine gay men and feminine lesbians, whose only obvious sex-atypical trait is their sexual orientation. At the other extreme are people who are so gender-atypical in so many ways that some choose to have an operation to bring the body in line with the soul. But what distinguishes us is that we all, to some degree or another, have major traits that place us somewhere between the two primary genders. In that sense we’re all transgendered.

Not only does this idea offer a more expansive definition of what we really are, but it also better explains why we are oppressed. Homophobes don’t merely hate us because of how we make love. They hate how we make love because it violates our expected gender roles. Really, we are hated for gender transgression. When I was 10 and was taunted for throwing a ball “like a girl,” I don’t think those school-yard bullies suspected me of actually sleeping with men. They bashed me for not being boy enough. That goes for almost all of us. Whether we face prejudice for being too butch or too femme or for being cross-dressers or androgynes or for being perceived as gay or lesbian, we are all ultimately disliked for the same basic reason: transgressing our expected gender roles. Sexual transgression in the bedroom is just one aspect of that, although a very important one. So just as all gays are in a basic sense transgendered, all homophobes are first and foremost “transphobes.”

This new understanding is revolutionizing researchers’ conception of sexual orientation as just one aspect of a larger kind of difference. And I believe that if we’re smart, it could revolutionize the way we look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a movement. The modem gay world was born out of a 19th-century psychological concept, namely, that some people — “homosexuals” — are attracted to members of the same sex. We accepted that limited idea and built our identities and our movement around it. We thought of sexual desire as the basis of our identity a basis that leads to endless fragmentation based upon what, exactly, you desire: Lesbian. Gay. Bi. Trans. Whatever.

Now, however, late-20th-century research has produced a new concept: that the root of our difference is not merely how we make love but the larger fact that we exist between the two genders in a variety of ways, some sexual and some not. This idea has immense implications because if the ultimate cause of our oppression is gender transgression, then shouldn’t it also be the focus of our identities and our movement? Shouldn’t we stop being the les-bi-gay-trans-whatever movement, with a new syllable added every few years, and simply become the trans movement?

I think we should. And ultimately, I believe we will. Once we stop thinking of ourselves as oppressed by what we do in bed and start thinking of ourselves as oppressed because we occupy a space between genders, the sexual differences between us will fade into unimportance, and our common humanity will emerge into the light. If that’s not a higher form of liberation. I don’t know what is.

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About Fairy JerBear

A disabled, trans/agender fairy bear living in the American Southwest and passionate about social justice, the environment, Trans/ LGBTQIA+ equality and combating bullying.
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