I love Matt Baume’s podcast The Sewers of Paris. He interviews gay men about a piece of culture that changed their life. A question which occurs often in these interviews – and in any interview that touches on sexual identity – is “when did you know?”
Before I get going, an aside: I’m about to get intimate and personal. What I write here bears on my feelings and identity, not on my expectations for any other person.
That Matt’s guests are able to answer this at all astounds me. At nearly 40 I’m happily married but I never knew anything meaningful about my sexual identity.
Another aside: let me define the terms I’ll use; my definitions may be inconsistent with others’. If so I apologize for further confusing such important and delicate topics – hopefully the following will at least clarify my intent. I use “sex” to mean physical and biological indicia: genitalia, frame, secondary sex traits (eg breasts), chromosomes and sex hormones (eg testosterone, progesterone). I use “gender” to describe the emotional, psychological and affectional identity a person brings to their sex and sexuality; a transsexual’s gender and sex at birth are, to my understanding, mismatched. I’m using “sexual identity” as a more outward-directed version of gender – gender flavored by sex and reflected back: do you read as gay, as male, as straight, as female, as something else? Do others read you differently than you read yourself? I am hoping to make my sexual identity match my gender identity.
I thank the effort at inclusion and considerateness of the trans community for clarifying that gender and sex don’t need to match; that realization has made a tremendous difference to me. While I still don’t know my gender identity, I feel closer to it by understanding that it isn’t defined by my sex.
There were years when I couldn’t masturbate without essentially imagining that my penis was a dildo I was inserting in myself. My need to be sexual with myself needed a workaround for my sex. I have since become more comfortable matching my body to my sexuality, but that comfort hasn’t revealed the gender identity behind the sexuality.
Later I tried to inhabit my male body in a way that made sense to me by dressing how I thought a butch lesbian would. I wore hiking boots, levis, v-neck shirts, flannels and had my hair long in the bangs but buzzed down everywhere else. I’ve become more – though not entirely – comfortable wearing clothes considered appropriate to men in the kind of professional settings I inhabit.
My sex is male, and that doesn’t make me uncomfortable the way it did once. I’m uncomfortable in my body because its large frame hits its head on low doorways, falls over easily and doesn’t fit in the bus seat more than because it has a penis.
The word “man” applied to me has always made me uncomfortable.
There are social expectations placed on “men” that don’t make sense to me. Given the primacy placed on genitals by a language in which pronouns make sentience dependant on sex, this discomfort has made me feel at a loss for an identity.
I’m not gay. I thought I was for years because gay identity seemed to more closely match my gender than cis identity. The opening lines to Macklemore’s Same Love have been condemned by queer critics as something akin to swaggerjacking: using someone else’s oppression to make himself feel cool. But I identify with those lines. Where society doesn’t have space for gender nonconformity, whatever made Macklemore and I assume we must be gay hurts every gender, and is closely related to whatever kept people from marrying a same sex beloved.
Turns out I primarily want romantic connections to women. I think I use the word “women” consistently with my prior paragraphs, because even as I cannot describe myself as a “man” per social expectations, there’s at least something connected to social expectations of female-bodied people that appeals to me romantically. That’s not to say I’m not a feminist or that I wouldn’t necessarily have a romantic interest in a female-bodied person who didn’t identify as a woman. There may be hypocrisy there but I honestly don’t feel like I understand myself well enough to say clearly.
My point is that I know I am something other than a cisgendered man, but I’ve been passing for one with varying degrees of success most of my life.
I learned the term “hetero queer” a while ago and eagerly saved up for the slightly expensive book of essays Thinking Straight: The Power, Promise and Paradox of Heterosexuality (Chrys Ingraham, ed) to get a look at the essay Crossing the Borders of Gendered Sexuality: Queer Masculinities of Straight Men by Robert Heasley. The essay disappointed me somewhat; it didn’t quite make me feel included or understood. The primary impression Heasley’s essay left me with was that a Hetero Queer is a heterosexual who chooses to adopt superficial trappings of gayness in an attempt to challenge injustice directed at gays.
That feels offensive to me in several ways. First it strikes me as a pretty crass example of swaggerjacking – here adopting identifiers of gayness in order to gain some of the perceived cachet of being unusual without having to be personally interesting. In the same way those “solidarity singles” used the injustice of marriage inequality to make themselves feel special.
Second, the essay’s overwhelming treatment of hetero queer identity as intentional makes me feel excluded or ignored. His typology of queer heterosexuals includes only one category of people for whom the identity is anything but a conscious choice. Of this category he says
These boys, as Jim suggests, would not be likely to do the analysis to understand their experience; they would not add a “gender component” to thinking about their relatively low status, and the particular form of isolation they experienced from those with the highest status. And they certainly are unlikely to add a sexual component to any thinking about their status, seeing that their position is not only a result of failure to perform hegemonic masculinity but also hegemonic heterosexuality.
It’s not for lack of noticing or trying that this gender murkiness remains in my life. I feel like Heasley’s description falls somewhere on an asymptotic curve that will never quite touch my experience.
When I told one of my closest friends that I thought I had found in Hetero Queer a gender identity that might actually fit me, she said something to the effect of “maybe for Iowa but in DC, you’re pretty cis.” I felt further alienated and misunderstood. Notwithstanding a sexual identity that passes for cis in some environments, Hetero Queer is the closest anyone has come to connecting my gender identity to a shared experience.
Passing is different from gender identity – it’s falls somewhere between what I call “sexual identity” and the presumption cisgender privilege creates that makes cis identity the default.
At my age I suppose I feel too jaded to believe that I could be making these sorts of conclusions about myself out of a desire to be noticed or to draw attention to the inanity of prevailing gender roles and identities. I think I would stay fully closeted if I felt I could. But there’s either something unusual about me, something unnaturally proscriptive about prevailing notions of gender or both. As people who think and speak in a language that demands describing someone’s sex in order to imbue their pronouns with sentience, there really must be something unnatural about our notions of gender. In light of that, I’d welcome being described using the singular “they”. I won’t request those pronouns outright, and I don’t want anyone to use them if it makes them uncomfortable. Moreover, passing for cisgender remains too valuable for me to want always to be referred to as “they”. But familiarization with nongendered pronouns – ways to talk and think about people like me – might save others some of my pain and confusion.