Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gender, Sexuality, and the Fluidity of Identity

Anyone who has an opinion about anything has an opinion about labels. Most people vehemently hate them, and will tell anyone who listens all about it. While I share a distrust of labels, I also understand why labels are important. Everyone needs labels, even when we claim that we dislike them. We cling to our own with a ridiculous obsession. I have fought very hard for my label as a transman, and I have struggled a long time to understand my whiteness. These labels mean a lot to me – they let me know where I have come from and where I hope to go. They remind me of privilege and oppression.

Despite my own belief that labels can and do serve a purpose, I do also believe in advocating for the eradication of the ridiculous amount of meaning we apply to them, and the lack of fluidity that exists between them. Considering how many people I have known who have changed from Hispanic to Latina to Chicana or from Catholic to atheist to Quaker, I find the inability of institutions and individuals to keep up with identity changes amusing at best. Most folks don’t easily allow for these changes, especially when it comes to sexuality – which might be why intentionally fluid labels such as queer, genderqueer, and bisexual can be perceived as frightening. Many of my friends have demonstrated to me the importance of a lack of labels, and recently one of my closest friends has illustrated her struggle with labels incredibly clearly. My friend is a cigender woman who has a history of being attracted to and dating cigender men. However, she refuses to allow that history to define her sexuality. Despite the fact that most would label her as straight she has always remained open to the possibility that a man she loves could transition to being a woman, or that she could fall in love with a woman or a transgender or gender variant man. The more we talk on these issues the more she has admitted that these possibilities seem slim to her, yet despite that she doesn’t want to slip into a straight label and suffer from the lack of breathing space.

Her refusal to conform her identity into a straight label shouldn't be taken as an example of a non-queer person attempting to appropriate a culture they don't identify with or refusing to acknowledge the heterosexual privilege she receives. There is always the possibility that anyone who wants to embrace an identity they don’t fully participate in could enjoy all the wonderful aspects of that culture without the difficulties of low self-esteem, discrimination and violence that many folks who are always read as being part of that culture may feel. But my friend manages her identity with a true consciousness, keeping an incredibly diverse circle of friends around her that are constantly reminding her of how her identity is perceived.

This is not to say, then, that she doesn’t face discrimination because of her identity. Her lack of identification frightens and confuses most people, especially potential partners. We have had numerous conversations about whether her continual lack of attraction to women or gender variant folks is a form of internalized homo/transphobia. I don’t think so, as I have faced a similar lack of fluidity in myself. When I first began to acknowledge a lack of female-identity in myself I tried to cultivate a completely fluid gender identity, where I could play up my femininity as much as my masculinity. Whenever I engaged in what is perceived in mainstream US culture as female practice (wearing makeup, skirts, halter or tube tops, dancing according to female codes, using the women’s restroom) I felt nervous and unattractive, I would constantly fidget and avoid eye contact. Playing up my femininity in a female-identified way made me miserable. To this day I still feel some deep shame about the fact that while I can and desire to participate as a feminine man I absolutely can not comfortably go out as a feminine woman. *

I have come to the conclusion that being open to sexual and gender fluidity is amazing, but we shouldn’t be upset when we can’t be completely and 100% fluid in our identity and desires. Neither should we prioritize fluidity above stability (this is particular to a current trend in transgender communities especially). This last sentence is particularly hard for me, as so much of my life has focused around bending and blurring identification lines. I am open to the idea that in my life my gender might change, flow, and become different from what it is today. However, like my friend, I don’t truly see that happening. I do, though, see myself advocating for all types of genders and sexualities and perhaps in that way I am participating in fluidity: by creating so many identities that there can no longer be a prioritization or hierarchy.

While bell hooks wrote this sentence on the prioritization of lesbian sexuality over heterosexual women’s sexuality in certain branches of feminist movement, I believe it is relevant to this discussion too. According to hooks, feminist movement “…should also create a climate in which heterosexual practice is freed from the constraints of heterosexism and can also be affirmed”**. It is possible to have a total identification as male or female, or to have a complete history of straight identity without engaging in heterosexism or transphobia which is, I feel, what my friend is accomplishing through her identity.

*Ironically, as this post was in my editing stage I attended the Femme Conference where Dorothy Allison spoke about her deep shame of never being able to “play boy” in the dyke scene of California, and how her inability to bend her gender was seen as a lack of queerness. In very different spaces and identities we have both struggled with the same lack of fluidity that is currently prized above so many things. It was cathartic to hear her speak.

**hooks, bell. "Ending Female Sexual Oppression". Feminist Theory: from margin to center. South End Press: Cambridge, 2000. p.155

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