[Note: Following Jane Austen, this article uses the singular they as a gender-neutral pronoun.]
Many who tuned in to the Diane Sawyer interview with Bruce Jenner were left feeling a little puzzled and uneasy, including Sawyer and Jenner, it seemed. What is Jenner’s new name? Should we use female pronouns? When will the transition take place? Perhaps the biggest source of puzzlement for many viewers was watching Sawyer’s failed attempts to attach easy labels to Jenner’s sexuality. If Jenner identifies as a woman, does that automatically mean the thrice-married Olympic star also identifies as a lesbian? Sawyer kept respectfully insisting on clear and unambiguous definitions, and Jenner kept resisting.
Well-intentioned strangers who struggle to understand can be a common source of frustration for trans people, especially those trans people who are not “gender schematic” and resist the simplistic binaries of gender identity and sexual orientation. From the point of view of the questioner, it can be equally frustrating. Plenty of gay and lesbian people found themselves feeling puzzled and uneasy, even if they are supportive of trans people. Are trans people like Jenner implying that we’re all just queer now, and that distinctions like gay or lesbian don’t matter any more?
Sexologist Milton Diamond famously quipped, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.” People often want everything to fit into nice, neat, easy-to-understand binaries: gay/straight, male/female, trans/non-trans, and so on. But these are each better understood as falling along a spectrum. Someone can be a masculine woman or a feminine man, anywhere along that axis. Someone can be a gay-acting straight person or straight-acting gay person, anywhere along that axis. Many people divide the world into four simple quadrants based on those two axes: gay man, straight man, gay woman, straight woman. But bisexual and trans people blur and complicate those brightly-drawn lines, and we’re not the only ones. Last time I checked, our humble acronym had expanded to LGBTQQIAAP2S. Looks like cat-like typing detected!
Definitions by nature are both inclusive and exclusionary, which is why semantic battles about identity are often so acrimonious. Minority groups are continuously reshaping and refining the terms of identity used inside and outside their communities. For instance, some trans elitists are currently trying to create a new binary: cisgender/transgender. They’re mainly rich white academics and their former students who now spend their days on Tumblr, and they want to replace the spectrum of trans identities that have existed in every culture and time with an either/or binary that excludes drag queens, crossdressers, and other sex and gender minorities. Anthropologists would say this kind of boundary work is important when a community is carving out an identity and culture. But it’s always a stop-gap measure, undertaken for political expediency. Making a clear us-versus-them distinction strengthens the sense of community and identity, but it also oversimplifies and erases more nuanced forms of identity and expression. It also shuts people out of the movement, usually the people who need it the most.
Gay men and lesbians had to carve out their own communities in an intolerant world in order to make the political gains we all enjoy today. Those subcultures have since blossomed into full-fledged cultures, and now subcultures are blossoming from gay and lesbian culture. The B and the T in LGBT are unsettling to many gay and lesbian people, particularly those who made enormous personal sacrifices to build distinct gay and lesbian communities. The bisexual rights movement and the trans rights movement both owe a debt to the gay and lesbian movements, and vice versa. We have all fought side by side on issues where our interests overlap, but where our cultures diverge from each other, conflicts can arise, especially around definitions.
What’s on the semantic horizon
The end of homosexual and heterosexual:
While gay and lesbian won’t go away any time soon, the terms homosexual and heterosexual continue to fall out of use because they are clinical-sounding holdovers from when we were pathologized by sexologists. Furthermore, they are not value-neutral in their conceptualizations. Homosexual assigns sexes to two people: the subject and the object of their desire. Same-sex, opposite sex, and similar conceptualizations are also on their way out. It’s one reason the fight is for marriage equality made the semantic shift from same-sex marriage.
The emerging value-neutral terms for sexual orientation are androphilic (attracted to males or masculinity) and gynephilic (attracted to females or femininity). These terms make no assumptions about a person’s sex or gender identity. In this conceptualization, gay men and straight women are both androphilic, and lesbians and straight men are both gynephilic.
Here’s a chart I made a few years ago to explain how androphilic and gynephilic operate independently from someone’s assigned sex. It operates outside the simplistic homosexual/heterosexual matrix.
These semantic battles have enormous political import. For instance, I am not a fan of the institution of marriage, but I fight for marriage equality. It not only gives us equal rights under the law, but it also averts the potential threat of a federal definition of man and woman that would necessarily come from Defense of Marriage Act language defining a marriage between “one man and one woman.” Trans marriage rights are already a confusing patchwork that varies by state. In some states, a trans woman can only legally marry a man, and in other states she can only legally marry a woman. Marriage equality makes those definitions and laws moot for trans people.
Men who have sex with men (MSM):
The ongoing stigma of being labeled gay or bi among men, especially men in communities where homophobia is more pronounced, has posed a semantic challenge for public health experts. Some men who seek out sex with other men self-identify as straight, and some men who self-identify as gay or bi are not sexually active with partners. For researchers who study sexually transmitted infections, this semantic distinction allows them to group people by behavior rather than identity. However, many trans women object to the common practice of classifying trans women as men in this behavioral model. Men sexually interested in trans women has been proposed as a subset.
Challenging monosexism and biphobia:
We are going to see an emergence of a viable bisexual community with attendant definitional shifts. Straight and gay people are often united in prejudice against bi people, called monosexism when it’s unintentional, and biphobia when it’s intentional prejudice. Monosexual people are exclusively attracted to one sex
We’re also going to see a push to end the concept of “paraphilia,” a stigmatizing holdover from the fine folks who considered any non-heterosexual orientation to be sexual deviance or perversion. The kink community is going to come into its own as part of this movement, and their colorful vocabulary will add some flavor to the vanilla lexicon of sexual semantics.
The rise of autosexualism:
The internet and easier access to a wider variety of pornography has led to a sharp increase in what might be called “masturbation culture.” What was once considered so shameful that few discussed it publicly is now openly discussed. Real Dolls, Fleshlights, cocks and butts molded from porn stars, and other masturbation toys are discussed in mainstream media. A massive data dump of celebrity nudes last year was dubbed The Fappening, and straight people are becoming almost as comfortable as gay people in discussing masturbation. Personally, masturbating to porn of someone masturbating is about as interesting as watching a Let’s Play video, but I’m not here to judge…
The resurgence of asexuality, abstinence and celibacy:
Getting back to the original question: what is Jenner now — straight or lesbian? Is a label immediately necessary? Here’s someone who spent their whole life suppressing an important part of who they are. Let’s not force restrictive labels when someone resists. When watching Sawyer’s line of questioning, I was reminded of Stone Butch Blues by the visionary Leslie Feinberg:
“Who was I now — woman or man? That question could never be answered as long as those were the only choices; it could never be answered if it had to be asked.”
Andrea James is a writer, director, producer and activist based in Los Angeles.