Q & A: Sexual Orientation & Gender/Sex Identity

Hi all.  I just got an interesting question in an e-mail from someone who probably represents about 1/5 of my current readership.  😉  As I said back in my nude squirrel post, I try my best to satisfy my readers’ needs.  So, here goes.

The person asked me to explain this item in The Non-Trans Privilege Checklist:

16) I am not told that my sexual orientation and gender identity are mutually exclusive.

I can think of two phenomena that are referenced by this item that I have experienced as a transsexual woman.  Since transsexuals are a subgroup of the umbrella term transgender, there are no doubt other explanations available within the experiences of other subgroups.  Unfortunately, I am unaware of what those might be.  If someone reading this from one of those other groups wants to chime in, please do.  OK, now that the necessary disclaimers have been made, let’s proceed.

First, many cissexual (non-transsexual) people assume that trans women are sexually attracted to men and that trans men are sexually attracted to women.  That is, people often believe that a transsexual will assume a heterosexual orientation relative to the sex they identify as.  Some people will take it a step further and assume that transsexuals transition solely or mostly so that they can leave a homosexual orientation behind and assume a sexual orientation that is defined as “normal” by heteronormative/heterosexist culture.

This is quite untrue.  There is a much higher incidence of homosexuality (relative to the trans person’s sex identity) and bisexuality among the transsexual populace than among cissexual people.  The sex that one identifies as is independent from the sex one is attracted to.  Generally, transsexuals seek to bring an alignment between the sex they identify as and their physical bodies.  That is, there is a strong internal drive to shift one’s physical form to be in accordance with one’s sense of sex identity.  This drive functions as a separate entity from the drives that shape a person’s sexual attraction toward another person.

Since many people assume that transsexuals should only experience opposite sex attraction, there is the unfortunate perception that homosexuality is incompatible with transsexuality.  That is, trans women who are attracted to women are not legitimately female and trans men who are attracted to men are not legitimately male.  When you consider that much of the cissexual populace is predisposed toward seeing transsexual identities as unstable/artificial/illegitimate in the first place, it doesn’t take much to tip those perceptions even further into the negative.  Unfortunately, some therapists are guided by these prejudices as well and will refuse to grant permission for necessary medical procedures to trans people who experience same sex attraction (referrals for sexual reassignment surgery, prescriptions for sex hormones, etc.).  This essentially forces some LGB (lesbian, gay, and bisexual) trans people to feign heterosexuality in the presence of their therapists.

The second phenomena that is addressed by item 16 on The Non-Trans Privilege Checklist is the refusal by some cissexual people to use a label consistent with a transsexual’s sex identity when describing the individual’s sexual orientation.  For example, a cissexual person who is guided by this prejudice would label a trans woman who is attracted to men as homosexual and a trans man who is attracted to men as heterosexual.  This is essentially a form of degendering: the tendency of some people to refuse to acknowledge a trans person’s sex as anything other than the sex they were assigned at birth.

A real-life manifestation of this prejudice is seen in some parts of the lesbian community.  Lesbian trans women are sometimes seen as deranged straight men who think they are homosexual women.  Even though a trans woman identifies as a lesbian and experiences her sexuality as a lesbian, some cis lesbians will see the trans woman’s sexual orientation as being a manifestation of delusion and hence, an impossibility.  In this context, a trans person who identifies as a woman and is attracted to women will be told that she could never be a lesbian.

So, there you have it.  Got any other questions?  Send ’em to me.


~ by timberwraith on April 28, 2010.

5 Responses to “Q & A: Sexual Orientation & Gender/Sex Identity”

  1. While not denying that this is an issue transgender people face, is this a valid “privilege” that non-trans people have? Isn’t pretty much everyone told that their sexual orientation and gender identity are not mutually exclusive? Isn’t that the biggest complaint about heteronormism, that it is assumed that if you are a boy you like girls?

  2. Heteronormative standards code attraction to men as inherently feminine and attraction to women as inherently masculine. Consequently, heteronormative standards code gay men as feminine (not quite men), but gay men are still, ultimately, understood to be men. Lesbians are coded as masculine (not quite women) but are still, ultimately, understood to be women. In each case, one’s sexual orientation is seen as evidence of a mode of gender expression that is at odds with one’s sex, but one’s sex is still seen as a valid classification.

    When it comes to trans people, not obeying heteronormative standards can lead to situations where perceptions of the person’s sex and gender are distorted even further. Trans women can literally be seen as men and trans men can literally be seen as women if they push the envelope of heteronormativity. Not being seen as your sex has repercussions that extend far beyond a man being seen as feminine or a woman being seen as masculine.

    As I stated in the original post:

    When you consider that much of the cissexual populace is predisposed toward seeing transsexual identities as unstable/artificial/illegitimate in the first place, it doesn’t take much to tip those perceptions even further into the negative.

    “Tipping those perceptions even further into the negative” entails denying that the person’s gender expression is fitting for their claimed sex and as a consequence, the validity of the trans person’s claim to their sex identity is considered to be false. Hence, the trans person is considered to be the sex opposite their claimed sex identity. For a cis person, the response is limited to denying that the person’s perceived gender expression is fitting for their sex. However, no one claims that the person is actually a member of the opposite sex.

    Hence, item 16 is indeed a valid privilege.

    Also, it might help to point out that “gender identity” is different from “gender expression.” When referencing transsexuals, the first term generally refers to the sex that a person identifies as and is compelled to physically shift toward (am I male? female? neither/both?). The second term refers to how the person behaves (am I masculine? feminine? androgynous? undefined?). Unfortunately, the term “gender identity” is a misnomer when used in the context of transsexuals since the term is used in reference to the sex that a person identifies as rather than the style of gender expression one tends to adopt/manifest. In my opinion, this term should be replaced with “sex identity.” The terminology that we use has essentially fallen prey to the fact that people (and society) constantly conflate gender (an assortment of behavior patterns) with sex (a physical state of being).

  3. FYI: I updated the above comment several times over the last 20 minutes or so. Sorry for the confusion.

  4. I get it now, thanks

  5. Cool! 🙂

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