The Gender Binary
Human sexuality is a difficult subject for most people. Most people have difficulty identifying their own sexual needs and desires during their lifetime. Many of us are unfamiliar with our own sexual orientation until we begin to have sexual encounters and experiences. Most of the population identifies as straight, being attracted to member of the opposite sex, gay, being attracted to members of the same sex, or bisexual, attracted to members of both sexes. This is in part because of our gender binary, identifying as male or as female. You may identify a man, and you might like other men or women. This identity, for most people, becomes a fundamental part of their whole personality. It can function as a way to meet people, who to date, who their friends are and the course of their life; if they get married, have children, or change their household.
Imagine you begin seeing somebody that you feel to have a romantic connection with. You identify as a man, and believe this person to be a woman. Your sexual orientation is straight. Your relationship with this woman finally becomes intimate, and you are ready to become physical. This is when you discover that this woman used to be a man. They have all the common features of a woman, breasts, long hair, slender, and even a vagina, but you learn that this person has male chromosomes. You discover she is a transsexual, a person who identifies differently from their biological sex. Or, you believe she is a female, but discover she has a penis; how do you react? How does this change the relationship? Does this make you gay? And more importantly, how does the woman identify? Is she a gay woman? A gay man? A straight woman? What happens when your gender identity isn’t ‘normal?’ In a world that it so determined to categorize people and their identities, we first need to identify her gender to identify her sexual orientation.
When a person’s gender identity challenges the gender binary, the traditional definitions of sexual orientation are challenged. We first must define gender and sex. Gender is how a person identifies, being male or female and is associated with traditional masculine or feminine characteristics. Sex is the biological standard for determining gender, and is typically associated wit the genitals and the chromosomes. The gender binary skews the meaning of sexual orientation for people that fall outside the gender binary. Not only do transsexuals have to deal with personal identity surrounding gender, but they also have to deal with the uneasiness of explaining their bodies, and their lifestyle to other people, particularly those who they wish to become intimate with.
Ethan Zimmerman is a transsexual who identifies as a transfag (a male identified, transsexual who is attracted to members of the same sex). Ethan was a woman who transitioned into a man. He recalls his experience through an essay titled “Transie” that retells his story surrounding his identity. He refers to the many questions he not only asks himself, but what other people ask. His encounters, his fears, the judgment, the alienation, and the confusion. He says “Things people say: Are you a he or a she? Are you a girl or a boy? You’re a he/she, aren’t you? What sex are you? How can you be a faggot? You must be confused. Why don’t you like women? You must hate your own body. Why do you want to get our tits cut off?” (Zimmerman 190). The sheer fears that must arise when he gets asked these questions, because how does he even know how to answer? The questions, why don’t you like women, or how can you be a faggot are precisely the difficulty I am addressing. Just because Ethan identifies a certain way than expected doesn’t necessarily change the sexual attraction he feels. Suddenly, it is his identity as a transsexual that changes what his sexual orientation is. If he had decided not to change his gender, and remain a woman, his sexual orientation would assumingly be straight. This would not have any repercussions, nor would anyone question his actions, nor his desire to be with men. Even if Ethan remained a woman and had an attraction to women, his sexual orientation wouldn’t be questioned either. It is his gender bending, so to speak, that makes his sexual orientation so difficult to comprehend, even for him.
He goes on, “Things I say to myself: What will my mother think? Was I born this way? Why do I like to suck dick so much? How come I never liked being a lesbian?” (Zimmerman 191). Ethan’s questioning about being a lesbian is based around the fact that he had to transition into a man, ultimately to become attracted to members of the same sex. Many people would question this desire to be gay when he could have been ‘gay’ when he was a woman, or been with men. This overwhelming confusion as to why he isn’t ‘normal’ or why he doesn’t ‘like a certain thing’ is simply due to the fact that he once may have been a woman but feels like a man. And unfortunately, we simply do not have the language to support that way of life.
This is also complicated by who is acceptable to date. Men who identify as gay? Other female to male transsexuals? Women? Zimmerman addresses this, “How come my only dating options are straight men who see me as a girl and fags who don’t quite see me as a boy? If I had a real dick, I’d be happy. If I had a real dick, I’d be a fag who is sometimes sad,” (Zimmerman 192). In addition to identifying their gender, part of becoming ‘whole’ for some of these people is identifying what they’d need in order to complete this whole-ness. Ethan also addresses the lack of community and lack of dating options for him. Unlike those of us who identify as straight and are surrounded by a majority of other straight identifying individuals, that is not the case for someone like Ethan.
Another story that relates gender identity to sexual orientation, particularly the struggle with trans identity, is an anonymous author on NOVA online. This person identifies as a woman, gave birth to a child, but had her clitoris removed as a newborn. Due to testing because of lack of medical records, she discovered that she was born with enlarged clitoris. While she identifies as a woman, not everyone sees her that way. She explains getting referred to as “sir” occasionally and being seen as a man. She talks about her gender dysphoria and the struggles she has faced given her identity. According to her sexual orientation she says, “Life as a woman has been very difficult for me. Straight people see me as a lesbian. Lesbians know that I am not. I feel the most comfortable with gay men. In fact, I put ‘heterosexual’ in quotes because what I feel most like is a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. I’m attracted to men but not as a woman,” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/story_011101.html). The sheer complexity of this statement makes it near impossible to have her identify a sexual orientation, so much that her sexual orientation according to her is in quotations. She feels most comfortable with gay men, identifies as a woman, but feels like a gay man in a woman’s body. Because she feels comfortable with men, and is a woman, she is heterosexual. But what would happen if she transitioned her gender to become a man, and began to identify as a homosexual? This is just further proof of just how complex and detailed this issue becomes as the lines become more blurry and people’s own identification is just as complicated as how they identify sexually.
Just as we need new ways to refer to gender, or perhaps eliminate the terminology, we need a way to change the way we view sexual orientation. As things get more and more complicated, the original “heterosexual,” “homosexual,” and “bisexual” simply will no longer suffice. How can we explain someone who is a male to female transsexual who prefers to be intimate with gay men? The gender binary not only has complications for those who don’t perfectly identify with it, but it causes many other complications as well, particularly with sexual orientation.
Gender Equity Resource Center at UC Berkeley
The Center at San Diego
“Share Your Story: Part 2.” NOVA Online, 2001. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/gender/story_011101.html
Zimmerman, Ethan. “Transie.” GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Ed. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. New York, NY: Alyson Books, 2002. 190-193. Print.