The Gay (A)gender: On Labelling Sexuality

“Are you a Lesbian?”

It is close to midnight at the height of summer and the air is still heavy with the day’s heat. I am waiting for a train home when he approaches me, all dark eyes and full lips. For about sixty seconds I think I am about to have a conversation with an attractive stranger. Then he asks me if I am a Lesbian.  Why do you want to know? Why should I have to tell you? What makes you think I am gay? At least you don’t think I’m straight. Fuck your assumptions, you aren’t entitled to box up and label my sexuality! Why is that the first thing you want to know anyway? Responses simmer away in my mind. Yet the thought that bubbles to the surface is the truth universally acknowledged that a lone woman can never provoke or challenge a man in public for fear of violent retribution. So I ask nicely.

“Why do you ask?”

His answer is all the kinds of unsatisfying you’d expect. He’s not homophobic, he didn’t mean any offence, it’s ok if I am, I shouldn’t look at him like that because he’s a good guy. Soon my partner – coincidentally the female one – arrives, granting me an excuse to extricate myself from this increasingly uncomfortable conversation.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised that this stranger was so eager to box me up and label me. After all, it seems that in our current cultural climate this is the way that we simplify the world for ourselves. His question to me is perhaps symptomatic of a wider desire to categorise everything around us, a desire that is most certainly motivated by our society’s obsession with defining who is the same and who is different to us. I once witnessed a man in the bank line ask the woman in front of him where she was from and when she replied “Ryde” asked, “But where are from, originally”. This elicited his apparently desired answer of “India”, satisfying him despite his conversation partners’ obvious discomfort. Surely this instance is not so different from my experience?

Unless someone is wearing an ‘I AM A LESBIAN’ T-shirt it is impossible to tell someone’s self-identified sexuality or the gender(s) of their sexual and or romantic partners

However, when it comes to labelling someone else’s sexuality, there are different layers of complexity. Unlike skin colour or religious dress, which can sometimes indicate ethnicity, faith and even nationality, sexuality has no outward markers. Unless someone is wearing an ‘I AM A LESBIAN’ T-shirt it is impossible to tell someone’s self-identified sexuality or the gender(s) of their sexual and or romantic partners.

Gender, on the other hand, can have an outward expression. And it is gender expression which is often used as the basis of labelling sexuality. I use the phrase ‘gender expression’ to refer to the way that I outwardly perform my femininity (femininity or femaleness being the gender identity that I feel most accords with how I understand myself) through my choice of clothing, the way I speak and the way that I move my body, among other things. Of course, many of these actions are habitual and automatic, inherited from being raised as a girl in a society where the media, capitalist institutions, education system and laws have a very narrow idea of what it is to be an acceptable female. Conversely, because I am very conscious of the socially created nature of gender, I enjoy deliberately re-working the meanings of things like red lipstick, floral dresses and hairy armpits to express my queer femininity.

Gender expression can convey many aspects of ourselves; our religion, ethnicity, politics, taste in music, profession, and sometimes even our sexuality. Given this, as well as the inherent role that heterosexuality plays in social understandings of ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ masculinity and femininity, it stands to reason that gender and sexuality are so often confused and conflated. After all, for many people – especially those who only experience attraction to one gender – their sexual identity is predicated on the gender of their object choice. This often then feeds back into their understanding of their own gender, as the same or the opposite of that which they desire. It could be argued that this is why feminine boys and masculine girls are so often labelled ‘gay’ (or more accurately called f*g and dyke, usually with the intent of invoking shame and embarrassment).

The increasing oversimplification of the difference between gender and sexuality has serious limitations

Many gay and lesbian advocacy groups have spent the last few decades working to show that being gay is very different from gender nonconformity, arguing that it is problematic to label someone’s sexuality based on their gender expression. The claim that same-sex attracted people can be gender normative is produced by, and is productive of, the idea that sexuality and gender are separate things, with the former relating to the gender that a person is attracted to and the latter being a social expression of genital sex. This is a very basic distinction that lacks many perspectives, including those of trans and non-western folks. However, it is a useful way to introduce people to ideas beyond those inherited from our heteronormative social and government institutions. However, the increasing oversimplification of the difference between gender and sexuality has serious limitations.

I am by far not the first to suggest that homophobia is rooted in misogyny. In the schoolyard, boys use the word f*g, not to bully someone that is same-sex attracted, but to police femininity in other boys. Indeed, even within non-heterosexual social and community groups, women and men who express femininity are often maligned and marginalised. Amongst gay men, this can be seen in the phenomena of tinder and grinder profiles seeking ‘straight acting’ men and clearly specifying ‘no fems’. Similarly, masculinity seems to be privileged as a site of resistance and lesbian identity. When we label these as issues related to sexuality, we miss the important role that gender plays. 

Gender is often central to issues around sexuality and to sexual identity. To oversimplify the separation between gender and sexuality is equally as problematic as conflating the two. I suspect that the stranger at the train station saw my shaved head and unshaved legs, not as expressions of gender nonconformity, but of sexual non-conformity. Maybe he sought to categorise me as ‘other’ in order to make sense of or become comfortable with my lack of normativity? But when we are overeager to label those around us, based on oversimplified ideas of gender and sexuality, we miss things. Be it the role of misogyny in homophobia, or perhaps even more devastatingly, the opportunity to get to know someone as a person.

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Que(e)rying Power: Safe Schools and the Comforts of Conservatism

It is rare, these days, for me to expend energy getting passionate about the regular injustices that politicians perpetrate against non-heterosexual, non-cisgender folks. Impotent rage is neither effective nor satisfying. However the government’s decision yesterday to launch an inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition was, shall we say, the straw that broke this queer’s back. There have been many excellent pieces written by LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual Plus) folk about the importance of the work that Safe Schools does.

This is not one of those pieces.

This is a piece fuelled by anger, by exasperation and exhaustion at the way that those with power keep their power through maintaining the status quo.

“It’s not about gender, it’s not about sexuality…It makes everyone fall into line with a political agenda…Our schools should be places of learning, not indoctrination.

Cory Bernardi’s words are always easy to critique. At times his remarks are so inflammatory that one wonders if the LNP press machine isn’t directing him in order to make Turnbull look moderate by comparison. The hypocrisy of his comments almost makes them seem like parody. As if our society’s ingrained homophobia, transphobia, our rigid and binary gender roles are natural. As if the attempted suicide rate for young LGBTQIA+ folks being 14 times higher than their peers , is in some way normal and apolitical. Bernardi and so many like him seem to be saying that this state of death and discrimination is not the product of an agenda. In doing so he downplays the role of religion, media and capitalism – all of whom profit monetarily and socially from a heterosexual, gender binary status quo – in the production of this ‘normal’.

Ideas about heterosexuality and binary gender are constantly and subtly forced on us day in and day out. These ideas are together often referred to as heteronormativity and they are EVERYWHERE. Movies and TV shows overwhelmingly show cis, gender binary characters in monogamous, heterosexual relationships. Young girls’ clothes are delicate and easy to get dirty while young boys are dark coloured and more practical. Advertisers so rarely feature same-sex couples that when they do it is news. Movies about trans people use cis actors, because Hollywood can’t seem to find a trans person that looks like what their idea of a trans person should look like. If this total saturation of heteronormativity isn’t indoctrination, I don’t know what is.

But of course Bernardi’s concerns reflect typical liberal conservative ideology: conserve the way that things are now because they are right and good, normal and natural. We know this because the way things are benefits ‘us’ – and who gives a fuck if it doesn’t benefit ‘them’? After all, ‘they’ have the same life chances as ‘us’, any little boy or girl can grow up to be Prime Minister, just work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, we have so much formal equality! Look at the Anti Discrimination Act! Sure you are only given legal protections from transphobia if you’ve had genital surgery, but who wouldn’t want that? Never mind that it is prohibitively expensive, anyone can make money and have job security if they just work hard enough – pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

“(homophobia) should be no more tolerated than racism, especially in the school environment…However, it is essential that all material is age appropriate and that parents have confidence in any resources used in a school to support the right of all students, staff and families to feel safe at school

The Education Minister Simon Birmingham takes a slightly less sensationalist approach than Bernardi and should be congratulated on his dressed up “I’m not homophobic, BUT”. The idea that discussions of sexuality and gender outside of the norm is somehow inappropriate for young people is both laughable and damaging. Why is it that we deem some subjects taboo? Why are we uncomfortable with discussing these things when every other aspect of young people’s lives, from the pictures in their science text books to the billboards they pass on the way to school are saturated with heterosexuality and binary gender roles?

While Birmingham certainly can not be faulted in supporting all students’ and staffs’ right to feel safe at school, what he actually infers is that the majority of families, students and staff should feel comfortable at school. Which is an entirely different thing.

When we get too comfortable it is, in my opinion, a symptom of lapsed empathy. The majority of students, staff and families should not always be in their comfort zone at school. Because if this is the case, LGBTQIA+ members of the school community, any community really, are never comfortable. By gently challenging assumptions about what is a ‘normal’ gender identity or expression, about what is ‘natural’ sexuality, we cause discomfort. And that is good. Because from that discomfort, non-LGBTQIA+ folks can see what it is like for their queer peers. They can critically examine their assumptions and develop an outlook that doesn’t settle for blind acceptance of the norm.

The thing is, this would be disastrous for any political party, indeed any straight white cis man whose social power is dependant on the disempowerment of those who are different. Because when we begin questioning the status quo, suddenly the comfort of those in power, both politically and socially, comes under threat.

So who benefits from an inquiry into a program designed to make school safer and more comfortable for queer students? It is not only people like Cory Bernardi who would, it seems, like for their hatred of difference to be indulged. It is everyone who has naturalised privilege that many of us, queer and not, take for granted.

In order to achieve equality, those with the power that privilege grants them must give up some of these comforts. Which is perhaps why they would prefer to funnel money and time into an inquiry into Safe Schools rather than actually back up their claims that homophobia is unacceptable with action. In which case perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is to keep asking questions. To keep querying the status quo, asking why something seems normal, why we view some things as natural, and perhaps most importantly: who benefits from this?

Doing what you are, and being what you do? Sex and the Medical Ga(y)ze

‘Are you just having heterosexual sex?’

‘I…uh…’

‘Because if you are just having heterosexual sex you only need to pee into the cup. If you’re gay – gay men – or bisexual or one of you is an IV drug user, well then we’ll have to take bloods as well.’

I have been rushed into a small office by a harried doctor who now looks at me imploringly. I doubt that she is curious about my answer so much as she hopes that I will give it soon, that she can send me away and see to the next poor soul stuck in waiting room purgatory. I’m here for an STI check and the thing is, I actually don’t know how to answer her.

For some years now, I have understood and presented myself as queer. For me, that means that I am outside of whatever is considered “normal” in terms of gender and sexuality. I am unconcerned with my sexual and/or romantic partners’ pronouns and plumbing, I am polyamorous, shave my head to a number three and wear almost exclusively floral dresses. Existing in this way in this world means that I often need to do a lot of explaining. Explaining my haircut to hairdressers (yes, I’m sure I want it that short), explaining one of my partners’ non-binary pronouns to my family, explaining to colleagues why my ex was a boy and my newest partner is a girl… and, so it would seem, explaining my sex life to medical professionals.

This doctor was not the first health practitioner with whom I’ve had to talk through my sexuality in the past few months. Late last year I was filling out a form before my monthly plasma donation. The Red Cross Blood Service asks donors: ‘Within the last 12 months have you: Had sex (with or without a condom) with a male who you think may have had oral or anal sex (with or without a condom) with another man?’. Usually I fly through this page of the questionnaire ticking no, no, no, no, no. However, I came to this question and had to pause.

We know that social mores around sex are useful ways of controlling people who are not cis, straight, white men.

I am definitely not having any sort of sex with anyone who is a man, nor was I at the time. But I had a hunch that the Red Cross didn’t mean ‘man’ as in someone’s self-identified gender. I think that what they meant, was ‘have you had penetrative sex with someone who was born with a penis, who you think may have had penetrative sex with someone who was also born with a penis.’  To that question, my answer was yes. One of my partners is a woman who was assigned male at birth, who I trust enough not to subject to an intense quiz about her sexual history and who therefore could have had partners with all sorts of genitals.

After telling the nurse who interviewed me this, he proceeded to misgender my partner and ask if she was a sex worker, “promiscuous” or “untrustworthy”. The nurse proceeded to tell me that I was unable to donate for twelve months based on ‘bisexual contact’, as a HIV risk.

Which brings me back to the doctor’s office. I never for a moment believed that I might have an STI – as I understand it, the science behind rejecting my plasma as a HIV risk is tenuous at best – but I was due for a check-up, what with having a new sexual partner and all. I explained to the doctor that while I most certainly was not having ‘heterosexual sex’ – even when I am fucking a man I do it as a queer woman – I am a person with a vagina having sex with a person who has a penis. When I told her that my sexual partner is a trans woman (for want of a better way of communicating it), the doctor immediately decided that I would need bloods taken too.

It is almost certain that there was an element of trans* discrimination behind my rejection from the blood bank and the doctor’s decision to test me for all  STIs. I think that there are underlying assumptions about the type of people trans* people, and trans women particularly, are – and that these assumptions are based on old fashioned ‘science’ that locates any disagreement with one’s gender as assigned at birth with a mental illness. Transphobia in the medical profession continues to be well written about by trans writers who are both more experienced and articulate than I (here and here are some good starting points).

However there was something else that troubled me about these adventures as a queer woman in the medical gaze. What underscored the Red Cross’s rejection on the basis of ‘bisexual contact’ and the doctor’s use of the term ‘heterosexual sex’ was that both parties were talking about sexual acts, with the language of sexual identities. I identify as neither heterosexual, nor as bisexual – although Julia Serano makes some good points as to why I maybe should – yet my sexual acts involve my vagina, other people’s penises and their vaginas (not to mention teeth, fingers, eyes, nipples, arms, legs, tongues…). However, there is a difference between sexual acts and sexual identities, just as there is a difference between genitals and genders.

We are not what we do. In any other area of life, this is pretty easily accepted. People who stargaze are not automatically classified as astronomers, weekend gardeners are not classified as botanists and if I ride a bike it is something that I have done, being a cyclist is not who I am.

Why is it any different when it comes to sex?

What is it about sex, sexual acts and sexual identities that render them outside of the ordinary? What is so special about sex?

These are important questions to pose and ponder, even if we already know the answers. And we do. Know the answers, that is. We know that sex sells, that sex is the most private and the most public part of our lives. We know that social mores around sex are useful ways of controlling people who are not cis, straight, white men. We know this because we live it everyday. Everyday we are queer in a world that finds it easier to conflate acts and identities than to think critically about what ‘good’, ‘normal’, ‘natural’ sex and sexuality actually means and how it came to be like this. 

After all, how hard is it for medical practitioners to say what they mean? And why don’t they?

Ease, tradition, colloquialism, these are not good enough answers. When health professionals, or anyone really, continues to use language that conflates sexual acts and sexual identities or perpetuates old fashioned ideas about genital/gender correlation, they condone, indeed they perpetuate, the erasure of queer folk within both the medical practice and broader society. And when we are invisible, so too are our rights, our needs, our desires and our stories.

Which is why I have told this story. It is neither a new nor a unique one, but I tell it as a refusal to be erased, to defy my invisibility as a queer woman in the medical gaze.