Sex and Gender: Education, not Simplification
(A glossary of terms used can be found at the bottom of the article.)
The other day, a friend and I were chatting to a guy at the bar whilst we waited for our drinks.
‘So, does that mean she’s into girls or boys?’
‘She’s into everybody. She’s pansexual.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means she’s attracted to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.’
‘But, doesn’t that just make her bisexual?’
‘No, because not everybody is a man or a woman. Some people are genderfluid, or intersex.’
‘What do you mean? How can your gender be fluid?’
This conversation went on for ten minutes, as my friend and I tried to summarise as much of the sexuality spectrum as we could remember off the cuff. It ended with the man giving a resigned shrug, and saying this:
‘I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be easier if they just said whether they liked girls or boys?’
This article is not about standing on a high horse and decrying the ill-informed. This is meant as a sort of catharsis, a way to say what I wanted to say after that conversation.
Firstly, it’s important to note the very sensible idea that simplifying makes things easier to understand. If gender was binary, then you could correctly assume everyone identified as either a girl or a boy. Because of this, logically you could only ever be heterosexual, or homosexual. This would be the same as asking whether someone was Theist or Atheist, and expecting to fit everybody into these two categories.
The universe is not a binary place. The moon is placed opposite the sun because it appears at night. But it’s always there, even during the day. There’s nothing inherently anti-sun that puts the moon in opposition. We just ascribe the moon to night, because the sun is absent at that time, and the day is associated with the sun. This is where you could also argue that true opposites deal with presence and absence - the true opposite of the sun would be non-sun, in that case - but then I’m not here to try and argue with Kant’s views on existence being a predicate (although the philosophy of religion is something I’d love to dive back into at some point).
The point is, our minds don’t have time to think about the actuality of day-to-day reality. You don’t look at the moon and deconstruct its relationship to the sun. You don’t look at a car and wonder at how many parts you could take away before it stops being a car, you just look at it as a car.
The same is generally true of people. We assume somebody’s character based on their appearance and mannerisms, because we are programmed to immediately form an opinion about other people. This natural habit is meant to protect us from possibly dangerous individuals; if I know that a man from this tribe has stolen food before, I know not to trust someone wearing this tribe’s colours. A simple concept for a simple purpose. Unfortunately, thanks to the agricultural revolutions of pre-history and the several thousand years of social evolution that came after it, we now live in a society where assumptions are generally more damaging than beneficial. Individualism is an omnipresent idea. We are all taught that we are special, that everybody is good at something. This is a hangover from the very real requirement of individual purpose during the Industrial Revolution, up until the end of the Second World War. Economic advantage and military might was entirely dependant on how many factory-workers you had on the production line, and how many boots you could put on the ground. Since then, mechanisation and intelligence warfare have largely replaced the individual’s mass involvement in these areas, leaving one to question the benefits of socialism in a world that doesn’t need every available hand on deck anymore. But I digress. The point is, we now live in a world where people are far more comfortable asking questions, and are able to do so privately, without someone over their shoulder telling them what they should believe.
The reason I bring these ideas up is that prejudice is the product of poor information, which necessitates the requirement for a reactionary opinion. People are generally unwilling to be proven wrong; we like to think that we are faultless in our opinions, because otherwise we can’t trust our opinions. ‘’If I’m wrong about this, why can’t I be wrong about that too?’’ someone might think. Sexuality and gender diversity, as far as I have observed, fall victim to this sort of attitude as well. Individualism encourages introspection and a desire to understand oneself. This extends to how one chooses to identify. It can take a lifetime before people may realise certain things about themselves, and this is in part due to a default binary view of gender and sexuality. This is why, at birth, intersex babies are determined to be male or female, and have their genitals assigned accordingly. This is also why on almost every survey or form, you are asked whether you are male or female only (with ‘other/prefer not to say’ becoming more widespread, if not universal).
Before I went to College, my views on sexuality and gender were entirely the product of PSHE lessons. I believed you could only be straight, gay, or bisexual. The only genders were male or female, not that I really understood the difference between sexuality and gender, and I would joke about transvestites and lady-boys because my friends and I didn’t know any better. People thought I was gay for a lot of my school years because I did musical theatre and sang my whole life. I once asked them why they thought I was gay, and they responded that they didn’t know, they just thought I was. As far as I know, nobody at my school was gay. We joked that the IT teacher could be, because he had a high voice and went to see Britney Spears live (which I also saw, and went on the better night, apparently. He was quite bitter about that). That was it though, and that’s all that mattered for those years.
Once I attended college however, the diversity exploded. Suddenly I was talking to people who were transgender, asexual, pansexual, genderfluid; it was pretty overwhelming. I had no idea there were so many different identities, let alone what any of the terminology meant. I fell into a friendship group that was incredibly diverse in comparison to my existing groups. I witnessed schizophrenia for the first time there. I talked to people dealing with depression, and found out about preferred pronouns. I discovered that people were quite comfortable not identifying as male or female, gay or straight, and that that was perfectly fine. You didn’t need to define yourself at all, if you didn’t feel comfortable with it. You could be you, whoever that ended up looking like. After this, I started noticing that some people would try to retrofit other people’s sexuality into categories they understood. Certain identities were invalid, as they were a product of an unnecessary splitting of hairs, according to some. In this case they preferred to simplify, and get on with their lives
The issue here is that I had to be taught about the spectrum by members of the community before I realised there was a spectrum at all. ‘I’m honestly not surprised,’ said one of these friends, ‘that it took me and so many others in the LGBTQ+ community to realise that the cisheteronormative ideal isn’t the only form of attraction that exists. Our lives are just as valid and maybe even more common than we’re made to believe.’
The simplification of sexuality and gender in my education meant that I had no reason to consider anything more nuanced than gay or straight as an identity. Admittedly, I have no idea what’s taught in schools now with regards to this subject, so hopefully kids leave a little bit more informed than I did. Still, heterosexual as I am, my life has only been affected by this so much, and my understanding of it is purely anecdotal. That’s why I asked some people to share their experiences of dealing with this issue, both personally, and publicly.
What was it Like Discovering your Identity?
I would purposefully pick a guy every school year to pretend to have a crush on, especially guys who were absolutely out of my range. It backfired once and I had to go out with someone for about a week before finding a really minor reason to break up, then I got to pretend I was just sad about that breakup for years. I didn't particularly think I was gay, I just knew I didn't like men in the way my friends did, and being anything else never occurred to me in a conservative town and schools that still tried to push abstinence. It took going to college to really think about it, where it wasn't just people and opinions from Swindon. It was a gradual shift after that, into barely remembering what I even thought about my identity back then.
I've spent years trying to dissect my own sexuality, as it's never been as straightforward as "heterosexual" or "homosexual". It was after a massive breakup with my long-term girlfriend at the time - I identified as lesbian then - I began to understand sexuality is more fluid than I initially thought. I was trying to "get over" my ex by "getting under someone else", and I wasn't getting very far. Every time I attempted to have casual sex with a stranger my body seemed to reject it. I would suddenly feel turned off or I wouldn't (pardon my language) get "wet". Eventually, I realized I felt so disconnected to the person I was trying to hook up with that I felt nothing. With no emotional connection, I simply couldn't have sex. It was baffling. A successful one-night-stand with a good friend of mine indicated this was probably the case. A couple others seemed to seal the deal. It was the first time casual sex was enjoyable to me, and it's the only time casual sex is satisfying for me. Without that bond, my body just doesn't follow through.
I started researching demisexuality then, wondering what was wrong with me, and thankfully realizing it's perfectly normal to need an emotional connection in order to have a physical one. As I came to accept being demisexual, I began to be attracted to people of all genders for their personalities, for their passions, for their warmth, for their kindness, and for their minds. I, in turn, began to question if I was even gay. "Am I gay, or am I bisexual? Do I like men? Do I want to have SEX with MEN??" These were the questions that kept running through my mind.
I read through article after article looking for more sexual orientations, more options, more definitions for what I feel and how I identify. I thought, "I suppose I do feel biromantic as I can have romantic feelings for anyone, and it doesn't say anything about sexual feelings." Then I wondered what I could even say about my physical attraction to cisgender heterosexual men, as it usually disappears the more I get to know them.
As of today, I accept my sexual fluidity, I understand my most fulfilling relationships will probably be with women, and I am open to love.
It took awhile, and it’s definitely something I’m still learning. Since I was 15, I felt I was attracted to people regardless of gender (i.e. pansexual). Whilst that may still apply to aesthetic attraction (everyone is very pretty to me), I find now I am attracted to women and/or people of the same gender as me (feminine genderqueer/non-binary) and only want to engage romantically, sensually, and sometimes sexually with those folks.
During the peak time of my sexuality discovery, it often hurt a lot to feel what I did - to love the way I did. I thought I was broken for the longest time because I didn’t seem to like boys the same way my straight friends did. To pile that on with how differently I experienced sexual attraction (note: rarely/not at all) to a lot of those around me , it was easy to feel like something was wrong with me.
I didn’t ‘officially’ come out until the last couple of years of secondary school, but way before that I was still victim to homophobia. Even a ‘small’ off-handed homophobic comment can stick with you for years afterwards because it’s linked to something you can’t change about yourself. It’s been about 6 years since I left secondary school but I’m still trying to learn that a simple label like ‘lesbian’ isn’t a bad word or a slur. It’s stuff like that that have just been drilled into my head thanks to peers I had at school and teachers not really doing anything to stop homophobia amongst students.
Once I went to college and then university, living my truth became a lot easier as I had people who shared my experiences and feelings in close proximity. I didn’t have to explain myself as much for people to understand me, because they related and/or lived it themselves. I’m incredibly grateful to know people like this.
The realisation of who I was was something that I think I knew, and others like me know, wasn’t going to be easy but it also wasn’t going to be quick. It started from a very young age, and due to heavily underfunded resources and help, there wasn’t really a positive word for it until I got to my 20s. I’m trans, that’s who I am and who I’m proud to be, as difficult as it might be sometimes. But from the age of 4, I always had this undertone of knowing I was different to the other kids around me. At the age of 16, I found a label for this difference, which was in regards to my sexuality; bisexual. I knew I was attracted to girls but that was about it. It took me years to finally realise I was trans, and I can say it was heavily due to me having virtually no knowledge of what being trans was or how to process my feelings towards my gender or my identity.
When I finally realised, my initial reaction was to allow a lot of toxic masculinity to take over my way of thinking about it; a ripped body, certain clothes and certain ways of talking. But with time, I realised that this was a very bad way of thinking about it and that I could identify as trans but that it could be by my own definition, which is how I got to where I am now. The label is my own definition, not someone else’s, despite what general society seems to think.
What is it Like Living with your Identity?
Publicly, I identify as gay, queer, and demisexual. It's more open-ended, true to the fluidity of sexuality, and doesn't box me in.
It’s never easy explaining how you feel to a family, especially one that isn’t very sentimental. However, I am lucky enough to still have parents and older sisters who are open minded and just generally want to support my way of life when it comes to who I’m attracted to, if it means I’m happy. Of course, there are still the gender exclusive comments regarding relationships that can occur but I’m still grateful that they try to understand my experiences. It can be hard to convince them that I’m now only attracted to women/feminine folks at times but I’ve been fighting that narrative forced upon me in everyday life outside of my family so I tend to just shrug it off now when it comes to them.
Since I graduated, I’ve started working part-time in retail to gain a bit of money. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was different to my most-likely-straight co-workers. I want to believe they would be comfortable if I said I was gay, and wouldn’t react maliciously. But when people don’t give a second thought about sexuality, that’s also where the issue comes in.
By this, I mean when people don’t actively think and consider that others aren’t straight by default - and thus have different experiences to them when it comes to love, relationships and sex - that obliviousness can produce exclusivity, erasure, and (as the only one you know to be gay in a workspace (or any heavily straight dominated environment)), can make you feel very alone.
I’ve had older female co-workers ask things like ‘are you two on a date?’ when I’m just sat next to (not even interacting with) a co-worker who happened to be a guy. Even when I was working with those same women co-workers, they’d play a game amongst themselves were they’d ask ‘out of all the guys here, which three would you hook up with?’.
At the time, I froze, stuttered. I knew I could just say I was gay, but if I did, when they were just trying to have ‘fun’, the mood could/would shift. How can I trust that they won’t recoil at my words, dismiss my experiences, or treat me differently afterwards? In the end, instead of coming out to them, I find myself shrugging that last question off with a flustered ‘I don’t think any of the guys here are my type’ as a reply. Despite being afraid of a potentially negative reaction, I still want to live my truth for my own happiness and comfort. With explaining my sexuality to new people, I’ll find myself being safe and careful at first, but not silent. I’ve lived that way enough in the past.
As for getting others to understand, I’m constantly having to come out as trans and the way I do it has definitely changed. I used to be very soft and gentle and explain everything that was needed, whereas now I tend to explain the very basic and simplified version, and if they have any questions they can ask. A big reason for the change is because I’m less patient due to people asking blatantly inappropriate questions, or just being down right rude about things. It changes how you come out and the patient or even kindness you have towards coming out to people you’d prefer not to have the conversation with.
Once I'd read these accounts, I thought about what I’d said at the start of the article. I still firmly believe that education is the key to normalising the concept of a gender/sexuality spectrum. But, I’m not sure if my explanation of the public perception of non-binary people was the best it could have been. However, I decided to leave it unedited as an example of how there is always room to change an opinion, and always room to learn.
I’d like to finish with a last thought from Ade, which I thought was pretty cool:
‘I’ve come to realise now that the complexity of the human experience is beautiful, and should be embraced rather than dismissed. There is no ‘’right or wrong, black or white’’ answer to sexuality. Just because one experience may not be as common as the other doesn’t mean it’s bad, especially if we’re talking about how people love one another. Of course, this experience is very rarely represented in media or even discussed in everyday conversation, in the same way relationships which involve a cisgender heterosexual man and cisgender heterosexual woman are. Yet, with around 8 billion people on the planet, the idea that a man and a woman being together is the only way to experience love, sex, and intimacy is just ridiculous.’
Glossary of Terms:
Gender - the state of being male or female, with reference to social and cultural differences.
Sex - the state of being male or female, with reference to physical biology.
Heterosexual - sexual attraction to people of the opposite sex.
Homosexual - sexual attraction to people of the same sex.
Bisexual - sexual attraction to more than one gender.
Pansexual - sexual attraction to a person of any sex or gender.
Asexual - a person who has no sexual feelings or desires.
Demisexual - a person who does not experience sexual attraction unless they form a emotional connection.
Genderfluid - a person who does not identify themselves as having a fixed gender.
Intersex - a person born with sexual characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.
Transgender - a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex.
Cisgender - a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
Cis-heteronormativity - the default view of people as cisgender and heterosexual.