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Un-Gendering Sexuality

Disclaimer: This was written very late at night, while very tired. Very sincere apologies if it’s a bit sub-par, or a bit weird.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little bit lonely.

Sorry, everyone. I know FTB isn’t livejournal, and there’s no “current music – Bright Eyes” or  “current mood- WHEN WILL SPRING AT LAST COME TO THE WINTER OF MY SOUL AND LET ITS SUNLIGHT DRY MY BITTER TEARS” buttons at the bottom of the WordPress Visual Editor (though maybe I could ask Jason to have them installed? I’m sure he’s considered doing it for his own blog). But still, it’s true. I have squishy emotion things. And lately they’ve been rather squishily unsatisfied with my dinners-for-one at the computer, watching the crumbs of my Oreo Cakesters flutter down to the keyboard’s crevices in the romantic light of the antiquated monitor.

And last night, while being lonely, I ended up ruefully thinking about all the various lovely, awesome, brilliant, wonderful lesbian or bi trans women I know in internet-land who have professed crushes on me over the last couple months. It can get a bit frustrating hearing internet people say they think you’re cute when you were just a moment ago reminiscing on the fact that you haven’t been on a date in over three months.

So I began joking that if that’s how it’s going to be, I might as well just throw in the towel on this whole pitifully doomed “heterosexuality” thing and begin accepting applications for a lovely, awesome, brilliant, wonderful trans lesbian girlfriend. Send cover letter with attached resume and cookies (I have a fondness for macadamia snickerdoodles) to sincerelynataliereed at gmail dot com. Please include three references.

But the interesting thing is after a few minutes, I began to start thinking seriously about it. Like let’s say these weren’t people in internet-land, but in real life, here in Vancouver (as though there’s any other city that counts as “real life”… bah!). And let’s say they’re just as brilliant, awesome, intelligent, kind-hearted, etc. Pretty much everything I’m interested in in a partner. And let’s say they actually were indeed interested in me. And let’s even throw in a bonus and say they’re non-op, which would help with all the sexual compatibility stuff. Maybe I really would be interested in experimenting, and exploring a relationship with another woman?

Just a little later that evening, I also caught myself absent-mindedly thinking about sub/dom sexuality, and wondering whether it actually would be fun to try out being a dom. My whole life I’ve only ever been very definitively and consistently submissive. But here I was thinking “hey, maybe that would be interesting and sexy, assuming that kind of position of power”. I started thinking it could be really interesting to have that level of control over your partner’s sensations. Their pain, but also and pleasure. I started thinking about this sort of paradoxically selfless aspect to it. How although you’re nominally the “sadist” in the scene, your job is to ensure they have a satisfying experience. Much like there’s something strangely empowering about being a sub, I started thinking about how there could be something strangely giving about being a dom.

Now… bear with me, because I do have a point. I’m not just rambling about sex here.

(I really hope my mom isn’t reading this one)

See, the thing is that a couple years ago, before beginning transition, none of this would be anything I’d have been able to open-mindedly think about, or feel open to experimenting with. The idea of a female partner, or of assuming a top or dom role, just did not work for me. Even as an absent-minded daydreamy “what if” like what I was thinking about last night, the answer would have been a definitive “No. Not for me. Nope. Never.”

A lot of people describe various changes in sexual orientation over the course of transition. I feel that as tempting as it might be to attribute this fluidity to hormones, the answer is much more likely to be psychological. In transitioning, you almost by definition begin exploring sides of yourself that had previously been suppressed. You become more attuned with your own inner self and your desires and needs. You become more open. Your disguises and conditioning and learned “coping mechanisms” for dealing with your gender assignment begin to slip away. You become more…well… you.

It seems to me that a significant aspect of why, when living as male, the idea of being with a female partner or assuming a sexually dominant role were so uncomfortable was how that kind of sexuality forced a sort of assumed male-ness onto me. In those roles, either as the male contingent in heterosexual intercourse or as the dominant sexual partner, I was taking on roles that were traditionally and culturally coded as “male” and “masculine”. That ended up being this incredibly uncomfortable reminder of my own maleness, and being so reminded meant I could not possibly enjoy myself or let myself go. I was being directly confronted with the most painful aspect of my life and identity.

When taking a passive or submissive role with a male partner, I was at least able to sort of forget my male-ness. I could forget my body. Or at least forget those aspects that were most significantly sexed. At least the focus wasn’t on my penis. But also I wasn’t doing things that were understood to be “masculine”. I wasn’t “being a man”, and therefore wasn’t forced to think about how I was a man, or “male-bodied”.

Yesterday, I talked a little bit about how gender expression can be used as a means of asserting or realizing or actualizing one’s gender identity. Such as that if you identity as female, but you’re stuck in a situation where the only means you have to express or assert that femaleness, and make it understandable to yourself, is by playing with dolls or wearing pink, then you’re going to play with dolls and wear pink, regardless of how much or how little you genuinely prefer them to trucks and blue.

Comparably, if you’re in a sexual context where the only means available of expressing one’s gender is through the role you play, you’ll assume the role that’s coded as “feminine” or “female-ish” (if you can get away with it) as a means of expressing or actualizing that female gender identity, whether or not you mean to do so consciously… or at least as a means of avoiding having the male gender-assignment realized more powerfully instead.

What this has made sort of clear to me is the degree to which we gender sexual roles and acts, even in ways that are removed from any direct biological implications. For instance, why is being on top gendered as masculine and being on bottom gendered as feminine? Physiologically speaking, either way works just fine for straight couples. Why is dom a “masculine” role and sub a “feminine” role? Why is it coded as “feminine” to perform oral sex and “masculine” to receive it? What does it imply about our conceptual understanding of sex, and our underlying cultural misogyny, that we have this strict delineation of how we gender sexual actions and roles- to such an extent that we could probably name any sexual role at random and intuitively respond with whether it’s “feminine” or “masculine”? And of course, the primary line along which this gendering is done is whether the role reads as “sexual agent” or “sexual object”.

The increased openness that has come with transition, and suddenly noticing this opening of possibilities- the possibility to try sex with another woman, or assuming a dom role- this emerges from now no longer needing to have some way of maintaining a sense of female identity in sex, or avoiding masculinity at all costs. Sort of like how in transitioning, a trans woman who had previously been a cross-dresser will toss out all of her more frilly and exaggeratedly feminine clothes due to no longer needing those totemic symbols of femaleness now that she feels secure in actually being a woman, my being a woman is now physically actualized in such a way that I no longer need to express it through symbolically “feminine” sexual roles. It’s no longer a tiny, fragile, precious secret of my identity that I could only preserve in my sexuality by avoiding anything coded “masculine”. It’s now a strong, unwavering fact of my being, and will remain as such regardless of who I sleep with, or how.

This leaves me free to explore the entirety of sexual possibility, should I choose to do so. Nothing I choose to do sexually can now diminish or threaten my sense of myself as female. Just like I’m just as much a woman in a t-shirt and jeans as I am in a dress and leggings.

Beyond that, though, this process of realizing how I had previously understood certain sexual acts, roles and pairings as being gendered “masculine” or “feminine”, and realizing how this was something I’d inherited from our collective cultural understanding of sexuality, led me into awareness of how that gendering was arbitrary. How there isn’t anything innately or essentially “male” about assuming a dominant role or “female” about assuming a submissive role. No more than trousers are essentially male or a skirt is essentially female. And in learning to understand that my femaleness or femininity isn’t compromised by assuming a “male” role (or being with a female partner), in allowing my sexuality to open up, I had begun to un-gender my sexuality. Instead of a minefield of little bathroom boy/girl symbols, that I needed to deftly navigate in order to preserve that intensely delicate glimmer of womanhood inside myself, there are, to paraphrase Foucault, only bodies and pleasure.

But if I had inherited from my culture this arbitrary gendering of sexuality, which could (through a bit of self-confidence) be conceptually un-gendered and broadened, and if I wasn’t the only person who had felt insecure in her gender, then I couldn’t be the only person whose sense of sexual possibility was limited by the cultural construct of certain sexual roles being “for men” and others “for women”, in the same ridiculous sense as are blue and pink. So how many other people out there are stuffing their actual sexual desires into little tiny boxes just to preserve their sense of gender?

And this is where things get excitedly weird, because if sexuality is culturally gendered like this, and used as a means through which people articulate, maintain or outwardly realize their gender, then it’s part of gender expression.

So how much that we take for sexual orientation,  seemingly innate or immutable, is in fact gender expression, and socio-culturally mediated and fluid? How does the relationship between the two work? How fuzzy is that boundary?  Are there straight people whose antipathy to same-sex intimacy is  primarily just a means of maintaining security in their gender identity? Are there men who sub only because they feel unable to express any femininity outside of the privacy of sexual intercourse? Sexual orientation as an extension of gender expression as a tool for actualizing gender identity which stands apart from physiological sex. Beautifully complex, isn’t it?

And how does one find the sense of confidence in gender identity as apart from gender expression? How can we teach ourselves to understand that our gender identity is as we define it for ourselves, and doesn’t necessarily depend on its expression through clothing, hobbies, body language, sexuality, etc? How can we teach ourselves to be able to ungender our sexualities?

I myself had the paradoxical benefit of finding security and confidence in my gender identity by having had to fight for it. It’s mine because it had to be. My transition involved a gradual, painful, difficult and, as the thought process behind this post suggests, ongoing process of eliminating what does not define my gender. Starting with being able to not only say but understand that my genitals and body and gender-assignment don’t define it, moving on to learn that my clothing and presentation doesn’t define it (though I choose to express myself as femme because I enjoy doing so), that my ability to “pass” as cis, or lack thereof, does not define it, that other people do not define it, and now that my sexuality does not define it. Only I do.

But it was such a difficult process, and took so much to move beyond the logical understanding of things like “sex with a woman does not make a woman any less a woman” to the actual reality of really believing it, being able to internalize it. It took needing to assert my gender identity as independent from everything but my self-definition in order to arrive at that level of confidence and empowerment- knowing that my womanhood is my own and cannot be taken away or compromised.

So how to teach that? How do we share it? How do we move past all this cultural gender baggage without having to force everyone through the kind of difficulties trans people deal with? How do we get to the point where nobody’s worried that exploring their desires will make them “less of a man” or “less of a woman”? How do we get to the point where those cultural messages aren’t being asserted in the first place?

What are the consequences of not moving past it?