Binary systems, or systems in which there are two categories, are the easiest form of categorization – as well as the most harmful. If it’s not round, it’s square. If it’s not night, it’s day. When applied to people, we get male vs. female, white vs. people of color, man vs. woman, straight vs. gay, rich vs. poor. Yeah, we may know that technically there are shades of gray in any binary system, but we still unconsciously think of the larger binary form because it’s easier. But those binary systems leave people out. It’s not possible to be just white OR black (Asians, Latinos/as, multiracial people, etc.), male OR female (intersex people), etc. However, it’s easy to screw over those few people ignored by the system (in some cases, like with race, large groups of people), because their voices are not loud enough. And that is oppression. Ignorance is oppression, no matter what.
Gender is foremost in my mind right now. After working at a social justice institute called Anytown, I have been mulling over my place in the gender binary and questioning what gender really is. Many people think “gender” is the same as “sex” and that the two words are interchangeable. If you are one of those people, please allow me to enlighten you: “sex” is your biological make-up. Male or female, penis or vagina. (There are also shades of gray within the sex binary: intersex people, or people who are a biological mixture of both, or neither. An intersexed person may be male- or female-bodied but still have characteristics that make hir intersex. Go Google it for more information, it’s pretty interesting. There’s also a fascinating short documentary called One in 2000 about intersex people: http://www.logoonline.com/video/one-in-2000-full-documentary/1595418/playlist.jhtml ).
Anyway, back to sex and gender. Gender is how a person feels to be: a man, a woman, both, neither, something else. Gender identity is NOT a choice. The binary gender system upholds that there are men and women, and that men are male-bodied and women are female-bodied. If a person’s gender matches their sex (a male-bodied man or a female-bodied woman), they are called cisgender. However, there are people who are men and are female-bodied, or people who are women and are male-bodied. These people are known as transgender. Sometimes they have sexual reassignment surgery to have their sex match their gender. They are then called transsexuals. Transgender people who identify as a man or a woman still fit into the gender binary; they just are the opposite gender that they've been assigned at birth. But, there are some people who don’t fit into the gender binary at all, and that’s why I’ve been struggling with the gender binary. The gender binary fucking sucks. It’s wrong. It’s been ingrained into all of our minds from day one. People are expected to be the gender that matches their sex. People are not allowed to be a gender other than the two genders that are assigned by the system.
I came to the realization that I am not cisgender during the social justice institute. All my life I have constantly bent uncomfortably to fit society’s expectations. As a male-bodied person, I am expected to be a man. “Wear manly clothes. Do manly things like play sports and fix cars! Date women. Play with boy toys. Don’t cry or show emotion! Look and act like a man!” I always considered my discomfort with these expectations to stem from my sexual orientation – I am predominantly attracted to other men – so I never once questioned my gender identity. Because of my small-town upbringing, I was exposed to LGBTQPA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, queer/questioning, pansexual, asexual) culture only through the media – and the media usually portrayed only gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual people as stereotypes. Gay men were always effeminate, complete with handbags, tight clothes, gelled hair, lisps, and emotional baggage. Lesbian women were aggressive, sloppy, and ill-tempered; they usually came in the butch/femme lesbian couple and sang hippie songs and protested social injustice. Bisexual people were promiscuous. Their sole purpose in life, as portrayed to me as a child, was to have sex with as many people as possible all at once. Trans people were often the butt of jokes, and other orientations like pansexual and asexual didn’t exist. LGBT characters were always in supporting roles, usually as comedic relief. Tense moment between the protagonist and her boyfriend? Let’s have the flaming gay man come in and make a joke about interior home decoration or fashion, and the heterosexuals at home can laugh at his insipidness and pray that their sons will never be one of those. Meanwhile, the young LGBTQPA people coming into their identity pick up tips on “how to act gay” from these stereotypes.
All this sickens me now, and one of the reasons why I hate it so much is because it shaped who I was for a while. The stereotypes also kept me ignorant of my gender identity, because I believed the feelings of not belonging were because of my sexual orientation. For instance, I thought I was uncomfortable using cisgender restrooms and locker rooms because I was gay, not because I felt I didn’t fit in with those people, and that discomfort led to me never using the restroom in high school a single time. Not once. I’d hold it until I got home. Later, when I finally started hanging out with other LGBTQPA people, I would still feel different and detached from other gay men. They seemed perfectly comfortable in their bodies, where I was still hesitant.
But Anytown changed that. Anytown pulled gender, sex, and orientation apart from one another and allowed me to examine them each individually. Sex and orientation were fairly easy, I know I’m biologically male and I’ve always been attracted to other males. But gender…I saw myself with new eyes. I broke down into pieces when I realized how I’ve been lying to myself and how society has been stifling me for the last twenty years. All that pain, self-loathing, and thoughts of self-harm…all because I was ignorant and oppressed, because of that fucking binary gender system that rips apart and fucks over people who don’t fit. Those of you reading this who are cisgender can never really know the feeling. Those of you who identify as a sexual orientation other than heterosexual definitely know a part of that pain from your own struggles, but it is truly a separate issue. I can’t put the feelings into words. I don’t want to think about them.
After Anytown I started identifying as a gender variant, a term I picked up there. I still dressed and appeared like a man, and still used male pronouns (he, him, his). I didn’t feel like a woman or desire to use female pronouns (she, her, hers); neither was I comfortable with using gender neutral pronouns (ze, hir, hirs) when referring to myself. I was in a very confusing transition. I started questioning the labels of sexual orientation because they are based on the binary system of gender – a gay MAN likes other MEN, a lesbian WOMAN likes other WOMEN, etc. But what about the people that identify as something other than a man or a woman? What about the gender neutral people, the gender non-conforming people, the genderqueers, the gender variants? Again, they are ignored. And ignorance is oppression. And though it is easy to think of those people as a very small minority, be aware that there are far more than you can imagine, and that many of them are in similar situations that I was in – completely unaware of their identity because of society and their own internalized oppression. The only orientation label that seems to include ALL people was pansexual (a sexual orientation in which a person is attracted to and loves other people regardless of their sex OR gender identity), but I only liked men and males. However, since I myself no longer identified as a man, I couldn’t call myself a gay man.
That’s when I discovered the terms “androsexual” and “gynosexual.” Androsexual is an attraction to men and males while gynosexual is an attraction to women and females. These labels do not assume the gender of the person whom they describe – so anyone attracted to males or men is androsexual, including straight women and gay men. Androsexual and gynosexual are labels primarily used by transitioning people, because once they transition to a different sex, labels like "gay" and "straight" become unclear. I started identifying as androsexual. This meant I was not necessarily a man but could potentially be attracted to cisgender males, transmen, or male-bodied gender variants like myself. I experienced some relief in having a label again.
It is very important to note how essential it was for me to find an appropriate label. Remember how important categories are to human beings? Well, when you find yourself in a situation in which you don’t clearly fit into a category, it really messes you up. I’m not usually prone to depression, but I was for a while after my identity crisis. It felt like a huge, integral portion of my identity had been ripped away, and all I could do was feebly struggle to redefine myself. I know there is a lot of push for the abandonment of labels, but labels are how we are able to connect with other people. “Label-less” or “Without a Label” is just another label for people who wish to connect with other people like themselves. Labels are a paradox.
So now, I am feeling comfortable identifying as an androsexual gender variant, although I’m starting to get tired of having to explain it to people, even those who are familiar with LGBTQPA topics. But then one night, in a Barnes & Noble parking lot of all places, I get into a deep conversation with one of my closest friends about gender and orientation. That person, who identifies as pansexual, clarified that pansexual people are not necessarily attracted to males and females equally. We kept talking about how society impacts people’s gender identity and sexual orientation and came to the conclusion that EVERYONE is pansexual – that is, everyone is capable of loving another person regardless of their sex and gender identity. However, people are socialized to only allow themselves to be attracted to the people to whom they are primarily attracted to – that is, gay men and lesbian women are primarily attracted to the same sex as themselves, so they only look to form attachments there, whereas heterosexual people are primarily attracted to the opposite sex, so they only allow themselves to be attracted to the opposite sex. A lot of heterosexual people question their sexuality…I believe that this is the human being’s innate pansexuality emerging (although I cannot say for sure since I am not a questioning person). However, heterosexuals’ suppression of potential attraction to people of the same sex as themselves is magnified by society’s mandate that same-sex activity is gross and wrong. Most people freely admit they think gay sex is disgusting. Even people who consider themselves allies experience a slight, almost intangible thrill of revulsion at the thought of two gay men having sex or two lesbian women having sex – admit it! I know this because in growing up, I at first felt repulsed by gay sex, even being gay! Conversely, those people that consider themselves “hetero-flexible” or “homo-flexible” are people that have realized their innate pansexuality despite their attraction to one sex over the other. Then there are people that say no to all orientation labels and refuse to define their sexuality to avoid limiting themselves. This is the point when I really started liking the Kinsey scale as a measurement of sexual orientation (Wikipedia article on Kinsey scale -> en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_scale ).
Yes, the point of sex is to procreate, so how can I say everyone is pansexual if we’re meant to procreate? Well, I don’t believe love has anything to do with procreation. It certainly helps keep a mated pair together to maximize success in raising children. But does a bond between two people have to result in children? Sex, in addition to being a method of procreation, is an act of intimacy. Heterosexual people have sex for pleasure, fun, and intimacy all the time – so why does sex-for-non-procreation have to be between people of opposite sexes? Why can’t we have same-sex sexual relations for bonding, fun, and intimacy?
Now, I identify as pansexual. I am primarily attracted to men and males, but I don’t let that tendency get in the way of me forming an attachment to a person who is not a man or a male. I don't care what a person's gender identity is - love is love. What if I miss an incredibly special opportunity because that person isn’t someone I’m “allowed” to be attracted to? Why limit ourselves to whom we can love? If you think same-sex love or gay sex is gross, I ask you to think about why. Is it because of a past experience or bad memory? A social stigma? What your family, friends, community, or religion dictates? I know it is difficult, I’ve been down that road, and I am not asking anyone to change their beliefs or sexual orientation because of what I believe. It’s just that I really think we cannot truly come into our identities until we have considered the experiences that have shaped us.
Back to gender – I’ve had similar struggles. I didn’t like “gender variant;” to me, it seemed too open-ended. When I look back on my thought processes, I came to the conclusion that everyone is a “gender variant” in that there are a variety of genders, including man, woman, neutral, etc. Using “gender variant” to define my gender felt like using “human” to define my race or sex – it just seemed too broad.
One night, after watching a documentary called “Southern Comfort” (full documentary here: http://www.logoonline.com/shows/dyn/southern_comfort/videos.jhtml ) about the struggles of a transman (in it, he is denied treatment for ovarian cancer because all the doctors he went to did not want to “embarrass” their other patients by admitting a transperson – how fucked up is that), I started wondering if I was trans. Maybe I was a woman, and just am so used to conditioning myself to be a man that I’ve never realized it. I spent the night thinking about it and came to the conclusion that I was not a transwoman. I am comfortable in my male body and comfortable expressing myself as a man most of the time. A few more weeks of mulling it around led me to start identifying as gender non-conforming. I primarily appear masculine, as a man. However sometimes I feel more gender neutral, or even feminine, and my day to day dress and mannerisms reflect how I am feeling. I started questioning using he/him/his pronouns. I since have started telling that little voice of socialization in the back of my mind that says “be a man! act like a man!” to fuck off, and I’ve never felt freer or happier in my life. I am comfortable in my non-conforming status. Many of you cannot imagine how much of a relief it was for me to finally LIKE myself. What does it mean to be gender non-conforming? It means I do not bend to society’s standards of gender – I don’t act or dress the way I am "supposed to" as a male. What do I ask of you? Please DIScontinue the use of masculine pronouns when referring to me; gender-neutral pronouns (ze, hir, hirs) are preferred. (CRASH COURSE IN GENDER NEUTRAL PRONOUNS: He told me his umbrella was his = Ze told me hir umbrella was hirs) I ask you not to refer to me as a man, a guy, etc. (however I am still male, my sex has not changed). Please refer to me as a person, or Mike, whatever, just nothing that forces me back into the "man" box. I invite any questions you may have for me.
My story is not over. I may discover more about myself and alter my identity to fit myself better – I don’t want to tie myself down. However it's important to remember I am the same person, just with something extra. If you don't like this, or think I'm crazy fucked up, or that I'm confused or possessed, I really don't care. I don't give two shits at what the privileged majority thinks about me anymore. I am SO done being forced to meet someone else's expectations. I'm happier than I ever have been! I am more myself.