Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sex, Gender, Orientation

I have spent all morning thinking about sex, gender, and orientation (and now all afternoon writing about it :p). It started with catching up on episode 3 of the web documentary SSEX BBOX [sexuality out of the box], which is a fascinatingly progressive look at the issues involved with sexuality in modern culture. I am really excited about this project, and the three episodes they've released so far have all impressed me. I can't wait for the whole thing to be finished and released, hopefully together in a single full-length format. That'll be something to bookmark and show off to your friends, family and colleagues.

So I was on SSEX BBOX's website, and I saw an ad for their magazine, and I followed a link to a page with a little treatise on gender (scroll down to where it says "Gender is a Text Field"), that got me thinking about the very same issue that came up when I was presented with an option to select my gender on facebook, a long time ago. I felt that the options - either M or F - were wildly limiting, and I didn't feel comfortable picking each one (because society views me as an M, but I identify more with F, and the reality is that I'm probably something that can't even be conceptualized within the narrow-minded box of the M/F gender binary).

And that treatise led me to a little thing called Yay genderform! which allows you to select, via literally hundreds of check boxes, any and all (or none) labels that you feel you identify with (you can even make up your own!), and then creates a neat little name label for you to copy and paste on your blog or wherever. It's not perfect, but it's surely a huge step above "M or F". And the best thing is, it gets you thinking about sex and gender and orientation, and asking questions. I spent most of the morning researching labels I wasn't familiar with, to learn what they mean, and it was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about all the little subcultures in the field of human sexuality that often go overlooked.

I also came, via the hosting website, to an introduction to SGO (the very first part, with the three separate lines of continuum, is the most interesting), which emphasizes a point that I've long been aware of, but frequently goes overlooked in mainstream, noncritical discussions of sexuality. Specifically, that sex (your biological/physical body), gender (your mental/psychological identity), and orientation (what sex/gender/anything else you're sexually attracted to) are independent components. The heteronormative standard presumes that everyone is cisgendered (that is, men are men and women are women, or sex always equals gender), and that men are attracted to women and vice versa. Even when you throw homosexuality into the mix, you're talking about a person's sexuality (gay vs. straight) as a property that identifies both your sex/gender and the sex/gender of the people you're attracted to. It tries to say too much at once!

In my mind, this begs the question of whether a straight man and a straight woman have more in common because they're both heterosexual (that is, opposite sex oriented), or if a straight man and a gay woman have more in common because they're both attracted to women. It's a subject/object duality. Is there something fundamentally different between the functions of hetero and homosexuality, or is it just people (of various sexes and genders) being attracted to other people (of various sexes and genders)? Obviously, a straight man is not going to be the same as a lesbian, but can they not share notes about what they like about women?

But then, when you throw in the concept of transgenderism, especially as a notion of gender identities above and beyond the limiting male/female binary, and not just as a term for men trapped in women's bodies and women trapped in men's bodies, the whole gay/straight dynamic begins to get a little fuzzy. If you have a man's body, but you identify as female, and you're attracted to females, does that make you straight, because your body is male, or does it make you gay because you identify as a woman? If you're a man, and you're attracted to women, are you more attracted to their sex (do masculine women still turn you on?) or their gender (do feminine men also tickle your fancy?), or both (only feminine women interest you)? I don't think there's a clear cut answer, and I think the solution is to move away from terms like gay and straight which presuppose, as I said above, both your sex/gender and the sex/gender of the persons you're attracted to. Instead, we ought to separate the concepts of sex and gender, both from your orientation, and from each other.

That way, you'll have three independent components that can be defined separately. One is your sex, another is your gender, and the third is your orientation, which could be towards a sex or gender or any combination of things. And neither one will imply something about any of the others. Perhaps the majority of people will end up with a certain pattern (like having a matching sex and gender, and a clear cut orientation either for the opposite, same, or both sexes), but for the rest of us minorities, we'll have a clearer opportunity to describe our difference from the assumed norm, which is literally impossible when you're presented with a box asking for your sex AND gender (naively assuming they're the same), giving you an opportunity to choose only ONE answer, and only between two possibilities that may or may not describe you to some or any extent. And that's not even going into the issue of your orientation, which may be far more complicated (or specific) than simply "attracted to men", "attracted to women", or "attracted to men and women".

Without further ado, here is my personal genderlabel, as produced by the site linked above. As I said, it's not perfect, but it's very enlightening, and gives you a whole lot more information about the kind of person I am than any silly little M or F.

Click the image to get to the form. I enthusiastically encourage you to try filling it out for yourself! And don't be afraid to research some of the terms you're not familiar with, you never know what you'll learn! By the way, these terms are not strictly limited to sex, gender, and orientation, but also apply to qualities such as presentation, appearance, societal roles, personality, etc., so bear that in mind. If you're curious about any of the terms on my list, or why I put them there, feel free to ask me! And have fun with it!

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