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Would That Make Me Queer?

June 10, 2010

I’ll skip to the end, and the answer is I’m het in just about any meaningful sense, but the latest column from Asher Bauer at Carnal Nation should make pretty much all of us think about the utility and meaning of the labels that get applied to sexual orientations.

I’ve become a fan of Asher’s since he’s been writing at Carnal Nation. In his latest, he’s come out as queer. That might seem like a foregone conclusion for a man who was assigned female at birth and has since transitioning identified as a gay man. Actually, it’s anything but. Asher explains:

I believed that “gay” was a word that had meaning for me. I believed I knew what it meant, and, furthermore, that it was something I could be proud to stand for.

And now… I’m not so sure.

* * * *

What’s a fag to do when he finds himself attracted to somebody who is neither male nor female—socially, emotionally, mentally, or in any other of the ways that really count? I was having a hard enough time coming to terms with thinking girls are pretty (but rarely wanting to do more than look) while falling madly in lust and love with other men. Now I am turned on primarily by men and by those whose genders defy categorization. What does that make someone like me?

I have too much respect for the identities of my partners to cling to a label like “gay.” Even as a trans guy with a relatively simple gender, I have watched gay men panic at the threat which I supposedly present to their homosexuality. It’s irritating and a bit pathetic, like watching a straight closet case try to defend his heterosexuality and his desire to receive blow-jobs from men in the same breath. I have no desire to turn around and do the same thing to my more queerly-gendered partner, ignoring their identity by treating them as a gay man or a gay male relationship.

I’m sure as hell not bisexual. Bi is a word which implies the existence of only two genders. As such, it does not apply to me and is arguably dated. And declaring myself “pansexual” seems a trifle ambitious, as well as untrue, since I am hardly attracted to all genders. There are some people whose identity and presentation I simply do not find attractive or compatible with my own. I am the last person in the world who would claim to be gender-blind.

Asher’s not looking for a new term that means “I like genderqueer folks,” because people who reject the binary vary too widely to make that mean anything; they do and don’t perform certain gender cues in highly intentional ways such that it’s impossible (Asher says and I agree) to be attracted the whole category except by fetishizing gender nonconformity. And fetishization is the soulless consumerism of sexuality.

Some terms are very amorphous, and sometimes that is exactly what’s needed. Asher adopts “queer” publicly, for these reasons:

My final refuge to describe my orientation is the word “queer,” a word as non-gendered as it is emphatically non-heterosexual. It is a word that implies being unconventional, unconstrained, and bent in some unspecified way. It’s a word that gay boys, lesbian women, and pretty much anyone else who is not straight can share comfortably. It is also a term I resisted for a time. It seemed too politicized and maybe even a bit trendy. And it was far too vague. But, in time, I came to see that its lack of definition is part of its beauty. Like the identity “gender queer,” it is a term that can mean billions of different things, depending on the individual. Like “gender queer,” it challenges: ask me if you really want to know more.

[Emphasis in original.]

There’s a lot of weight on terms of sexual orientation. They bundle together at least four somewhat different aspects of a person: (1) sexual; (2) affectional or romantic; (3) cultural; and (4) political. (There may be other ways to typologizes this; I’d be interested to see if others break it down differently.)

The first two are often assumed to map each other, and they generally do, but not always exactly. For example, I know women who only feel romantic love for other women, but play with guys a fair amount. The sexual behavior is bi- or pan-sexual, but their hearts are lesbian. Conflating sexual and affectional orientation also erases some asexual folks, who have the ability and desire to love romantically, and often with a gender preference, but whose preferred mode of sexual interaction is none.

And that leaves out the BDSM-that-isn’t-sex stuff; lesbian women who will top men but not fuck them, gay men who occasionally bottom to women but not if the scene is sexual, etc. There’s a whole range from “it’s sex” to “it’s sexual but not sex” to “it’s sensual but not sexual” to “it has nothing to do with sex” within the BDSM community, and this is one of those areas where I just take people at their word about their experiences.

Obviously, too, there’s a whole set of expectations about gay culture, lesbian culture, etc., a narrative that’s in part imposed from the outside and in part generated by the communities themselves, but in either event does not even close to map only the sexual and/or affectional orientation of real people. Not every man who loves fashion has sex with men. Not every man who has sex with men can tell Manolos from Choos or even match a shirt to a pair of pants. Which doesn’t mean that the whole idea of “gay culture” is false; as one anthro prof said to me years ago, “they say, ‘ethnic groups have their own foods’, I say, ‘quiche lorraine.'”

Finally, sexual orientation words are political identities. When I say I’m het, I mean I have het privilege in every aspect of my life. “Gay,” “Lesbian”, “Bisexual,” “Pansexual” and lots of other terms bring with them a history of carving out a social space, describe a set of oppressions, define a group of people who are similarly situated in the political scrum, etc. But none of those things are completely congruent with any of the other stuff. Folks partnered with binary-identified, opposite sex partners — a bisexual woman and a het man, for example — may get het privilege some or most of the time, but being opposite sex partnered does not a het person make.

Most of us are not very good at accepting that sexual orientation is a matter of self-definition; we may be even less good at that than at accepting that gender identity is a matter of self-definition. I’ll cop to this completely — in fact, I’m far more accepting of people’s own stated gender than their stated orientation, in some circumstances. A guy tells me he’s a guy, that’s all I need to know. I don’t need to know his height, shoe size, genital anatomy, or medical history. But when Larry Craig or Ted Haggard tell me they’re straight, I don’t accept their self-definition. I think they’re full of shit. And I’m not the only one. Asher used the term “closet case,” a term the very existence of which presumes that there is a fact of the matter that can be different from what people say about themselves.

But, if we try to go whole hog with that, and come up with “objective” criteria for pigeonholing people by orientation, the enterprise is doomed from the start. I had a mutual JO with another guy; am I queer? I know some cis het guys would say that makes me gay, no matter how many female partners I’ve had. But then, I’m partnered with a cis woman and receive in every respect het privilege, so in the political reckoning, that’s just nonsense. (I bet in some quarters I could find people who would seriously argue that the definition turned on whether someone came, which I suppose makes sense in a culture that had an actual conversation about whether or not a President smoked but didn’t inhale.) All that that proves is that heterosexuality is modeled by a lot of folks as a club of the pure, and any deviation gets people kicked out — those folks would never argue that if Elton John got a handjob from a woman it would make him straight, and women’s sexual experiences with other women are not infrequently dismissed either as experimentation or exhibitionism.

I don’t have any easy policy prescription for where we ought to be headed in the way we talk about sexual orientation, except that what we all need is to understand how many different things we’re stuffing into all of these labels. Since our language lumps so many things under sexual orientation, we should accept that they are all a very approximate fit. The thing about “queer” is, it doesn’t purport to be anything but a loose fit, an umbrella term of dissent from the hegemonic mainstream in matters of sexual orientation.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 2:30 pm

    This is an interesting area to think about, I often find it hard to define my own sexuality. Nothing seems to quite fit. I suppose I am far from alone on that.

  2. cmb permalink
    June 10, 2010 3:57 pm

    my best friend and i are girls who are in many ways very masculine and are only interested in guys who are in many ways very feminine. that’s complicated and confusing and although we are, strictly speaking, heterosexual, we’re doin it wrong. i’ve taken to calling people like us who edge towards androgyny “inbetweeners” because while we may be homosexual or heterosexual in the literal sense, our ideas of our own gender identities don’t really match that kind of labeling system. although i am female i am a little bit like a gay man. although my boyfriend is male, he is definitely a finer woman than I. (looks way better in a skirt for instance, and has the near-magical ability to apply nail polish : ) anyway all this to say i think it’s a bit silly to define yourself by the genitalia of the people you’d like to have sex with.

    and as my friend said, “where’s our parade?”

    • June 15, 2010 10:21 am

      HIGH FIVE on lovin’ the girlyboys! 😀

      • Terry permalink
        June 30, 2010 4:00 pm

        Wow, first time I’ve ever heard of anyone else in my situation!

  3. Nathan Davies permalink
    June 12, 2010 1:03 am

    My first problem with “lesbian” – even back when I identified as female(ish) – was that it assumed a great deal about the genders of all of the people involved. I always prefered “gay” because as a female-bodied person, that word had much less meaning. It suggested that I was interested in other female-bodied people, but most of the heavy connotations are on men/male-bodied people who use the word, so I felt it encouraged many fewer assumptions.

  4. hangslikeheaven permalink
    June 12, 2010 9:01 pm

    This is excellent. I myself have identified as queer for over a year now- partially because I disliked the idea of indentifying as bisexual with its conotations of promiscuity and maintenance of the gender bianary. But also because queer is a fluid term. At the moment I am primarily sexually atttracted to androgynous women, but this wasn’t always the case and I would hardly expect it to remain so. Identifying as queer allows me fluidity in my sexuality (and in my opinion also my gender identity) without a constant update and crisis.

    Occasionally it can be frustrating because people dont understand the term, but I am fairly open to explaining it so no prob. Rather, I should say that I am more comfortable explaining it than allowing people to make incorrect assumptions when I use a less ambiguous term. If people need to know, they will figure out what it really means as they get to know me better- anyone else just needs the basic- I wouldn’t reject someone outright because of their gender expression/sexual orientation.

    • suzbomb permalink
      July 11, 2010 3:26 pm

      This. Definitely in the same queer boat. 🙂

  5. June 13, 2010 10:30 pm

    wow, this is fascinating. completely foreign to my own vanilla, straight and relatively gender-conforming little universe, but it just drives home the point of humanity as almost endless variation instead of binaries.

  6. Anon permalink
    June 14, 2010 10:29 am

    The political piece is definitely key. I continue to identify as “dyke”, despite everything else going on with my identity and my partner’s identity and with his support, because I believe that proclaiming that I value women as partners and in the absence of men is still revolutionary and political, even if I personally ended up with a femme-boy at this moment. In our misogynistic culture, “lesbian” or “dyke”, in the sense of “I think women are important and central and valuable”, is still incredibly subversive.

    Of course, if I go into transition that isn’t going to be accurate. I fought hard to keep the label when I got into the relationship with my boyfriend (5 years ago), because I felt I still had a claim to it. With the new direction, though? Not so much.

    I wish there was and equivalent term for straight men, that prioritized women’s desires and value (as more than just objects of straight male desire), because I would start using that instead. Especially something that expressed an attraction to femmes, regardless of gender. I’ll probably end up at “queer”, but I will be sad to erase the anti-misogynistic connotations of “dyke”.

  7. June 15, 2010 12:14 pm

    I’m heterosexual but I’m not female, which is an interesting little trip. Language is complicated.

    I don’t find identity complicated, but there aren’t words for it easily. I mean, if I want to go into it I can say pretty precisely what I mean but most people don’t understand why I would feel that way or what I am expressing anyway, so I don’t bother….

  8. June 19, 2010 2:54 pm

    Most of the people I know with any level of intimacy have some qualm with labeling their gender / gender orientation. Much as the writer points out in “Schrödinger’s Rapist,” there can be a sense of entitlement to someone’s space, attention, and trust, and I would say there can also be a sense of entitlement to knowledge of another person’s identity, especially when it comes to gender and gender orientation. It has taken a remarkable effort of self-chosen reconditioning for most of us (myself included) to become comfortable not knowing someone’s binary gender label, much less branching out from there.
    I once had a group of very progressive folk turn suddenly to me during a planning retreat late at night expecting an explanation of my sexuality after someone offhandedly referred to me a lesbian, and I said, honestly surprised, “Who said I was a lesbian?” The questions continued until I was asked why I am private about my sexuality unless it’s relevant and “how that works.” Finally one person said, “This is getting inquisitory,” and everyone sort of backed off, feeling a bit ashamed it seemed.
    In a far less jarring instance, one of my roommates suddenly asked me how I “as lesbian” liked living in JP (which, as a side note, I will say was even more interesting considering I had only had sexual relationships with men since moving into the house).
    Oddly, my severe discomfort and annoyance in both situations made me feel like I was out of line. Maybe I’m ashamed or homophobic or sexist or sex-negative? When I brought this up with my very-most-feminist friend, she said, “Making assumptions about someone else’s sex life – NEVER a good idea!” My friend continued to point out that while she is careful to guard against presumption when someone has not revealed a self-defined sexuality, she also doesn’t feel like she can bring it up out of sheer curiosity. It takes some other more relevant incentive to get her to breech the subject.
    In short, to her, a person’s sexuality (including their gender and gender orientation labels) are not public property, but belong to the individual who chooses when, how, and if to define state them. In both instances, I felt uncomfortable because in our society, even among very considerate and progressive people, it is not acceptable to be private about your gender or gender-orientation. It is the possession of the public, of others. It does not inherently and exclusively belong to you.
    The most awkward and often threatening moments in life are those when someone approaches you from a standpoint that you owe them something. At least, they have been for me. In the same way that feminism challenges us to dismantle our entitlement to another person’s body, it challenges us to dismantle or entitlement to defining ourselves or even being privy to their self-definition regarding gender and sexuality. As the author of Schrödinger’s rapist breaks it down with physical space in public, for some people the boundaries of handing out identity labels you may or not define the same as they do may be lax and for others, no risk is acceptable.
    “But how does that work?” people will ask. It’s pretty simple: you respect consent, so when both of you want to talk about it, you do; when one of you doesn’t, you don’t, and there are no punishments (physical, psychological, or social) levied as a result.

    See “Schrödinger’s Rapist” here:’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/

    See my full response here:


  1. Mostly Straight « Cynolatry
  2. quick hit: reasons to choose "queer" | the feminist librarian

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