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.