Sexual Orientation

What does it mean to occupy a queer sexual orientation? The problem with sexual orientation is that it tends to apply fixity to identity, much like gender identity does. That’s fine for people that have a binary identity, but much less so for people who are outside the binary or who are fluid.

I think my critical perspectives on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation all have to do with my commitment to gender abolitionism. After all, if gender as we know it was obliterated, would sexual orientation even be said to meaningfully exist in any way?

Right now there is such a hyper-normalized sex-gender-sexuality trajectory. If you are labeled physically male, you identify as male, you present as masculine and you are attracted to females. If you are labeled physically female, you identify as female, you present as feminine and you are attracted to males. Obviously, sex, gender and sexuality diversity transform this trajectory. To their credit, categories of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation help to illuminate some of the diversity that exists in terms of intersex, queer and transgender people.

However, all of these categories have become overdetermined. And the rigidity of the binary has congealed and hardened. Are you male or female? Are you masculine or feminine? Are you gay or straight? For some of us the answer to these questions is not possible. We exist outside of binaries in terms of bodily geographies, our gender expressions and our desire or lack thereof.

Many refuse to acknowledge intersex, trans and non-binary and ace, pan or bisexual orientations. Even adding these additional identities is insufficient. We can add dozens more words or we can trash the concepts altogether. My own view is that the terms will continue to be used for some time to understand diversity and may even prove useful in doing so. They provide a pedagogical function. But after a while people will tire of having to identify their sex, their gender identity/expression and their sexuality. It is not just a question of eschewing labels. It is constructing a new vision of personhood in which people do not have to grossly simply the complexity of who they are.

Many people are now fond of saying “everyone has a gender identity” or “everyone has a sexual orientation.” But what gives someone the right to say that? Do people not have the right to opt out of these categories? Why are they now seen by so many as fundamental components of the self? Why do some get so incredibly angry if someone ELSE says that for them sexual orientation is a choice? If sexual orientation is not a choice for someone I would never attempt to abrogate that reality but if someone chooses their sexual orientation [for whatever reason] I also support that. What if someone chooses to be queer because they like to be different? Who does such a choice harm?

I am well aware that my dream of gender abolitionism is not going to happen any time soon. The concepts of sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are also not going anywhere anytime soon. However, we can in the interim continue to problematize them, continue to stress fluidity, spectrums and continuums, defend a person’s right to choose to be queer or trans and support a person’s right to “opt out” of any of these identities. My criticism is not a questioning of identity politics; it is a far deeper questioning of ontology. What does it mean to be a human being? Why are sex, gender and sexual identity so often cast as basic building blocks of the self? And do they need to be?

 

Gender Expression

Gender expression is the communication of gender to other people in the social realm. It is made up of things like clothing, hair styles, cosmetics, jewelry, gait, voice and more.

Gender attribution is the process of assigning (i.e. attributing) a gender to another person. Generally, in our society, this is done by visual appraisal of a person’s outward gender expression or the tone of their voice. Gender attribution was coined by sociologists and it is not often discussed but it is a vitally important concept.

Attributing a gender to someone is not a taken-for-granted process. Because of the strength of the binary gender system, I think far too many think of knowing a person’s gender as a cut and dried thing. It is not. Gender identity, gender expression and gender attribution are all related but ultimately different things. Gender identity is a person’s core internal sense of themselves as a man, a woman or something else entirely. Gender expression is the way someone is expressing gender. Usually someone’s gender identity and gender expression match, but not always! For instance, someone could inwardly identify as female but have a “masculine” gender expression. This could be because they haven’t started the process of social and physical transition yet or it could be that they are never going to transition and are opting to inhabit a body where gender identity and gender expression are in permanent incongruence. Then when we add in gender attribution to the mix it gets even more complex. People have genders attributed to them all the time that they do not identify with. This is called mis-gendering. It could be accidental or intentional but the effects are the same: hurtful and invalidating to the person whose gender is not being seen correctly.

We look at someone and make snap judgments and determinations about their gender. We are taught through socialization what a boy/man looks like and what a girl/woman looks like. We are not taught how to deal with people who look like both or neither. Thus we either try to re-stuff them into one of the two existing boxes or discount their existence altogether. I have felt this keenly many times. Because I fail to evince adequate masculinity or femininity, I cease to be an actual human being.

For me, I do not wish to present a coherent or stable gender expression. Since I am non-binary, my very goal is to confuse and confound people. I do not do this out of a sense of malice, but out of a sense of rebellion against hegemonic gender norms. Clothing is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly oppressive but it can also be incredibly liberating as well. Sometimes it is hard for me to see the liberatory potentiality because I get so stuck in the rigidity of the gender system and how hard it is to wiggle out of these cultural requirements of gender. Genderqueer, gender-fluid, non-binary and gender nonconforming people can seize upon clothing, hair styles, jewelry, cosmetics, shaving/not shaving, etc. as tools to confuser and confound people. The goal is for this to happen enough so that people realize the whole project of gender is illegitimate. The more the category itself is assaulted through strategic subversion, the more it will cease to be a meaningful cultural entity.

For some people, including some trans people, their gender expression is very important to them, and they are dedicated to a masculine/butch or feminine/fem(me) appearance. I do not mean to imply that those of us who are genderqueer in our gender expression are politically more progressive or subversive. However, people with masculine or feminine gender expressions do not need anyone advocating for them. This is the dominant cultural norms. Those of us who have betwixt-and-between identities or expressions that are outside of binary gender altogether deserve special support and attention. We often lead challenging lives as we walk through the world with gender expressions that are not culturally legible or intelligible.

Finally, as with gender identity, do we have to “have” a gender expression? What if people just do their thing and it is what it is? While the concepts of gender identity and gender expression may be useful pedagogically or sociologically, from the standpoint of human diversity or radical political ideology they can seem like a real drag, pun intended. What does it mean to just BE, without the need for elaborations of one’s identity or expression thereof? My gender identity is nothing, It is unknown, It is X. My gender expression is nothing. It is unknown. It is X. If concepts like gender identity and gender expression are useful to some people to illuminate their personhood then I have no problems with that. But they should not be compulsory. There is the option to opt out. And I am taking that option.

Gender Identity

Does Gender Identity exist? This was one of the questions that was asked at a recent hearing for a transgender nondiscrimination bill in the state of New Hampshire. Opponents of the bill believe that “gender identity” is a made-up concept that cannot be said to exist because it cannot be independently corroborated.

I believe that gender identity exists. But it exists within a particular gender system and hyper-genderized society. Gender identity does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes I think: gender identity, do I have one of those? If your gender is not male or female, can it be said that you have a gender identity? I would say yes, you can have a gender identity. It would just be that your gender identity is neither male nor female.

I think opponents of the concept of gender identity struggle with it because it is not something that can be seen or measured in any way. It is a psychological construct. It exists through discourse. People self-report what their gender identity is. This usually does not cause a problem when one is a cisgender male or cisgender female. The problem arises when the self-reported gender identity does no match the assigned sex at birth. This is when an identity falls somewhere under the transgender umbrella. People become extremely uncomfortable when a gender identity does not match a perceived bodily formation or gender expression. Transphobia is the irrational fear and hatred of transgender bodies and transgender lives. Transphobia erupts when a person’s self-reported gender identity does not match the body that they walk around in. Hormones and surgery can bring this body into greater alignment with the gender identity, but it is fair to say that the transgender body will never be completely identical to the cisgender body, at least not at the current level of scientific expertise. But this does not make the transgender body in any way “inferior” to the cisgender body. It just makes it different.

If gender identity exists in a specific cultural context, one must ask difficult questions about the universality or coherence of gender identity as a concept. For instance, if we did not live in a virulent gender binary, in a tyrannical system of gender conformity, how would this affect gender identity? If we lived in a society where all gender expressions from A to Z were wholeheartedly embraced, would there continue to be a need for gender identity? If society become genderless, wouldn’t gender identity cease to exist? I am a gender abolitionist. I loathe gender and wish to see it completely disappear. Therefore, while I acknowledge the existence of gender identity in the current society, I would like to see “gender identity” disappear along with gender in the more radical society that I envision and seek.

My gender identity is agender or genderless. If my gender identity is agender or genderless, is this an identity still or does it cease to be an identity at all? This is not just an intellectual exercise. It becomes particularly hard to explain my trans-ness because the general definition of trans-ness is that of a person who does not identify with the sex assigned at birth. Therefore I am essentially forced to have an “identity” by default in order to make my trans-ness legible and intelligible. But in many ways I feel that I don’t even have a gender identity. This is does not mean to in any way, shape or form deny the validity oif other people’s deeply felt sense of gender identity. And I do feel some level of “gender dysphoria” even though I think that is an ugly sounding term that makes the experience of bodily discomfort sound like a terrible affliction.

What if you are the identity that is not one? What if you place yourself under the trans umbrella and claim that as an identity but do not claim a gender identity? Is that an oxymoron or a distinct possibility? This blog entry may seem like I am anti-gender identity. I am not. I know that bigots and opponents of transgender rights state that gender identity does not exist. I accept the existence of gender identity but problematize it. Usually one states that everyone has a gender identity. But is that really true? Can one simply opt out of even having a gender identity? I think part of it comes down to the question of agender identity. Is agender a gender identity or is it the absence of a gender identity? I struggle with it because I do see asexual as being a sexual orientation. So logically speaking one would see agender as a gender identity. But for some reason I resist seeing my agenderism as a gender identity. There is something about the paradigm of gender identity that feels limiting to me. I feel constrained under the auspices of gender identity. We can ask: why must one have a gender identity? Is this not part and parcel of the attempt to artificially impose orderliness out of a chaotic society? That if one’s internal sense of self does not match their bodily geography, they must take on a coherent and static “gender identity” to explain the complexity of their exitence to a world that seeks controllability and intelligibility.

I am gender identity-averse but I understand that it exists and it is a needed concept for many transgender people to explain their identities. I have laid out some of my objections herte but l know that my desires for a radically different societal organization is very much based in futurism and not likely to appear any time soon. Still, we must problematize and complicate simplistic notions of gender identity and interrupt the psychology textbook definitions to illuminate the beauty of the spectrum of gender and the grave limitations of the bipolar gender schema.

Performance

There is something very special about performance. Unlike film or TV, it is live and in person. There is something unique about the live-ness of performance. When people gather together to see a live performance, to me it represents hope. And our society certainly needs way more hope. The live-ness of performance elicits an emotional response that is hard to find in pre-recorded media. I rarely see live plays but when I do I am very much transfixed and brought right into the present moment. I would like to start seeing more performances because there is nothing like them.

The other thing I would like to talk about in relation to performance that queers the subject is the way in which gender is a performance. In 1990, queer theorist Judith Butler wrote the groundbreaking academic text Gender Trouble. It is brilliant, difficult and foundational. She applied a postmodern lens to gender and took social constructionism to the next level. In the book she interrupts the specious notion that gender is constructed while “sex” [the category] is real and essential. Both sex and gender are thoroughly constructed and imbedded with multiple cultural meanings. “Gender is performative” has become a common slogan now within the fields of women’s, gender, sexuality, queer and transgender studies.

What does it mean? If we think about drag, we can easily see how someone of one assigned biological sex/gender is performing the expression of the “opposite” sex/gender. Drag performance highlights the constructedness of gender. Gender is not a real, stable or coherent essence. It is something that is filled with social, cultural and political meanings. The meaning of gender is constantly being created by social actors. It is constantly being made, remade and unmade. Its meanings differ across cultures and across historical periods. But drag is simply the more obvious manifestation of the performativity of gender. It is literally performed on a stage. We see an exaggerated version of femininity or masculinity that the drag queen or king is typically portraying on that stage. So while it highlights the constructedness of gender, it should be known that this “drag” performance moves beyond the stage to the realm of everyday life. RuPaul said you’re born naked and the rest is drag.

Some misunderstand the performativity of gender to mean that it is as easy as wearing a suit one day and a dress the next. While that may be true for some non-binary or gender fluid people, for others it is not that simple, including many trans people. Judith Butler states that this mistakenly see gender as voluntarist. In Philosophy, voluntarism is the doctrine that the will is a fundamental or dominant factor in the individual or the universe. What makes people perform gender in a particular way is not entirely known. Just like we don’t know why some people are trans and so thoroughly dis-identify with the sex/gender assigned to them at birth. Gender performativity for everyday people is usually not done in a willful manner like it is for drag performers.

But we must not stop the analysis there. Why is gender expression so automatic for so many people? Is this due to something essential within the person or due to the fact that the binary gender system is so ubiquitous and so tyrannical? Gender expressions that do not conform to one’s assigned sex are heavily punished, even to the point of violence or murder. If all gender expressions from A-Z were routinely accepted, I doubt if people would feel so boxed in to the gender role expectations of only one rigid category. In fact, I believe expressions of gender would become so variegated and multiplicitous that gender would cease to have any meaningful existence, hence my desire for gender abolitionism.

Performance is live and agentic. It gives spectators hope and inspiration. With gender, however, gender is performative but not voluntarist. We do not know the limits of gender performativity because we live in such an oppressive binary gender system that punishbes people for transgressing assigned gender roles. If we lived in a radically different culture, there’s no telling what gender would look like and how its expressions would multiply due to a lack of fear of reprisals for stepping outside of the narrow box.