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Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity. Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity. But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.
Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye. Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.” He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender. Instead, she offered him this:
“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”
I see myself in Narkunski’s essay. And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story. In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.
My Gender Is A Journey
I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.
For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body
I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.
At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.
Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.
Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both). The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences
From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)
But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values
My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.
However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.
Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).
The Journey Continues
To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.
Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself. I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.
I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.
I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people. She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball. When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed. Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment. It just seemed unnecessary. And, really, unnecessarily vulgar. Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?
I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives. (I’m late, anyhow.) But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment. Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics. (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…) Good; let’s think sociologically!
But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers. Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist icon? Or, is she yet another pawn of the music industry? Apparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin. Fuck. That is a really disturbing revelation.
Queer Sexual Empowerment
In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment. It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex. Right? It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right? It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?
My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment. My mind drew a blank. What would queer sexual empowerment look like? In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act. Fuck you homophobia. We exist.
For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality. Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad. I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow. So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.
But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex. I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause. First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual. It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy. The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion. These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer. That’s not empowerment.
Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered? Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences? Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor? And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?
As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered. Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals. But, not everyone wants that. Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public. I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public. I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men. Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.
I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define. For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred. Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues. To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act. But, only to an extent, it seems. We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions. Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.In a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms. A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off. The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours. Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it. We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”
Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment. Ugh.
With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own. As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.
One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man. I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men. So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.
Feminism For Gay Men 101
Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:
- We are men. We hold male privilege. Period.
- Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer). Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
- Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism. As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
- While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors. And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist. Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it. Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
- Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women. The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction. I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay. Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong. But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
- Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories. Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong. Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
- Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity. We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women. Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
- Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment. To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women. Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t. Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
- Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism. We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
- Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
- The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism. The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women. Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
- We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face. Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care. Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.
We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.