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Saturday, December 16, 2017

On "Lesbian" Identity and the Cultural Construction of Sexual Orientation

I follow a page called Social Justice Ninja that posts comics.  There was one I screencapped a couple days ago that I've been cringing about ever since:

Frame 1: "You're not REALLY a lesbian! You date trans men, and that makes you BISEXUAL!"
Frame 2: "You're not REALLY a lesbian! You date trans women, and that makes you BISEXUAL!"
Frame 3: "There is NO SUCH THING as a lesbian! God created Adam and EVE!"
Frame 4: Can people please stop telling us how to define our sexual orientation?"  "Right?"
This comic is making a lot of trans men (including myself) really uncomfortable, and I wanted to talk about that... with my article on newbish queer tendencies as a suggested prerequisite text.

When I wrote that essay, one of the takeaways is that the language our community has historically used is extremely messy.  It was not long ago that most trans men started out in the butch lesbian community and were there for a very long time, and similarly, trans women regularly traveled through crossdressing and drag performance communities before transitioning.  While that by no means indicates that these identities should be conflated, we need to understand that finding resources for such things has historically been really damn difficult, and trans people do not spring from the womb understanding how we, as we get older, will be expected to describe ourselves.

Nowadays it's very common to find trans guys like myself who were never lesbian-identified, not just trans guys like me who have always been into men, but hetero trans guys who were able to see trans men outside of queer communities in a way they may not have been able to fifteen or twenty years ago.  And in some respects we kind of forgot that this was how our community originally developed, and we grow these really hard-line "if you call yourself a lesbian when you're dating a trans man you're transphobic bullshit" stances.

I used to have a hard-line stance like that.  I mostly dropped it because I eventually met a lot of lesbian-identified partners of trans men and realized that the issue is way, way more nuanced.

On a pedantic note, not everybody defines "lesbian" as exclusively attracted to women.  There are people who concurrently consider themselves lesbians in addition to "bisexual" or "pansexual" or some other mode of attraction that isn't monosexual (I don't have an opinion on it, as I am not a member of that community, but I do occasionally own "gay," and it is definitely a thing that happens).

We also ignore the many people who transition while in an already-existing relationship whose partners stay despite already-existing identities.  Is somebody who has called herself a lesbian for ten years, who has only been interested in women that whole time, somehow fundamentally changed if her partner transitions and she chooses not to leave him?  Women who have maintained lesbian identities also have occasionally fallen for cis men, and plenty of them are reluctant to stop using that terminology for themselves... but nobody looks at this and thinks she's misgendering her partner for it.  They might think other things, but not that she's misgendering him.

Finally, sexual orientation itself is something I think we get way too worked up about.  The idea that our attractions can be expressed in "I'm straight," "I'm gay," "I'm bi," "I'm a lesbian," "I'm pan," etc. is ludicrous... every single one of us is attracted to people based on hundreds of factors that are not gender and yet we have singled out this one that's supposed to define us and constructed the concept of "sexual orientation" around that.  Not only have we constructed this whole concept, when we deviate from whatever we've labeled ourselves as (whether by picking a different label or sticking with one that you've been attached to for ages that other people don't think applies) we're socially punished over it.

Because of all this, when it comes to lesbians dating trans men?  My opinion is pretty much "meh."  I choose not to expend that much energy on that sort of thing, because there's more to it than just "cis people being garbage."

So what about this makes me uncomfortable?  The framing of this is just terrible, as you have three scenarios that aren't even close to each other in terms of offensiveness being presented as if they're the same thing.  I think there are solid arguments both for and against allowing people to identify as lesbians while dating trans men... there are zero for saying women (cis or trans) cannot call themselves lesbians if they date trans women, and zero for saying homosexuality is wrong.  It's an apples and orange comparison that means absolutely nothing.

Anyway, that's enough soapboxing for the day.

Happy trails,
-- Jackson