Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Follies of Binary Identities

I’ll be perfectly honest: gender identity confuses the fuck out of me. I’m a cisgendered, homosexual male, so virtually everything about my sexuality is centered around male energy and, of course, male genitalia. While understanding the nuances and struggles that come from being transgendered are well beyond my grasp, there are certain aspects I feel I can relate to. As a homosexual, I can relate to negative responses when an individual becomes aware of my sexual orientation. These reactions, in my personal experience, have ranged from immediately expressing disapproval to explosive anger which can potentially escalate to violence. If you take one thing away from this post remember that, specifically for transwomen, this reveal can not only jeopardize their safety but directly endanger their lives. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned? Try an ignorant, heterosexual male feeling like someone just deliberately "tricked him into bein a fuckin faggot." However wrong the sentiment may be, the resulting rage can literally be deadly.

So far as I can tell, it seems like where most confusion about gender starts is that sexual attraction tends to be more resultant of physical gender expression as opposed to a person’s sex, despite the composition of the term. For most people attraction can start with someone’s face, their physique, or even their style. Additionally, in most situations where we experience attraction to new people, genitals tend to be an assumption rather than a direct part of the attraction. For a staggeringly large percentage of the population this can be confusing, as the physical manifestation of their attraction (i.e.: sex) necessitates having the appropriate genitals. If all you want is to get fucked, it’s somewhat natural to have trouble being attracted to someone who does not have the biological means to do so.

What’s misunderstood about attraction is that, when it’s allowed to be, it’s absolutely raw; it doesn’t have caveats or qualifiers, it just is. We try to affix reason or draw logical conclusions about it, but if attraction wasn’t raw and unadulterated a heterosexual male could never unknowingly find himself attracted to a convincing drag queen, nor would we have any Kinsey 1’s or 5’s. For most people sexuality is a fairly large part of their identity, and when you feel something directly contrary to how you perceive yourself it can be incredibly unsettling. Homosexuals who didn’t have the good fortune to recognize their orientation very early in life are likely all too familiar with this: that feeling when a guy got your gears turning for the first time. It didn’t fit what we were supposed to do or feel, but it felt good and we wanted to go on the adventure that attraction promised.

The interesting thing that happens with homosexuals is that we find a way to essentially mimic a biological impulse despite our physicality. I don’t particularly lust for penetrative sex but as a whole our brains are still largely programmed for it (give it a few more centuries); in gay dynamics we end up having anal sex to create a receptive partner or lesbians often use implements to allow for a similar means of penetration. What's important to understand here is that, where homosexuality is concerned, we find ways to express attraction despite our bodies sometimes lacking the means to do so in the most conventional way. We have acknowledged that our attraction is not only real and legitimate but acceptable, and we will find ways to express and explore it.

Understanding gender as anything but a binary can be difficult, given that for many people a fluid model does not fit their experience. People are very quick to be impatient with those who can’t grasp the concept but the fact is that, statistically, sex is largely binary and this will instinctively shape one's perception of gender. It is unfair to expect someone to change their view of gender when they may not have met anyone who is intersex or might not even know that such a thing exists. Bear in mind this is by no means condoning mistreatment of trans persons or an unwillingness to learn, simply a call to understand how incredibly counterintuitive nonbinary gender identity is to a large swath of the population. A perceived binary system can only be broken by calling attention to outliers: when you’re talking about a small percentage of the general population, it can take quite some time for someone to experience enough outliers to see a spectrum instead of a dichotomy.

If you find yourself having trouble comprehending how someone can be an outlier to a certain (supposed) binary, substitute one you’re more familiar with. The logistics of how outliers will interact within the system will always be different, but if you can find commonalities it will help unearth some of those nuances. For me, looking at gender through the lens of the ever-so-prevalent Dom vs. sub binary was hugely helpful. By and large there is considerable pressure to align oneself with either identity, to the extent that someone who identifies as primarily Dom may be chastised for submitting to someone who brings out that side in them - this bears similarities to males being taunted for expressing feminine qualities. Within D/s dynamics, I have seen and felt these attractions myself and have witnessed both “100%” Doms and subs switch roles as a result. As a Kinsey 6, it is virtually impossible for me to imagine wanting to have sex with a woman, the same way someone who is exclusively Dom may not be able to imagine what subbing would entail for them. The logistics of how that interaction could play out is simply not something I can even process due to my limited sexual experience with women, which makes it difficult to consider. Despite this, as I think about those 100% Doms/subs I’ve seen switch, I see that they had the strength to pursue their desires despite the confines of others defining their identity. They also likely didn’t understand the logistics involved with the situations they were putting themselves in, and still elected to allow attraction to steer. Finding a connection with someone is beautiful, and when we concern ourselves with what these chance occurrences mean about us we reduce the chances of even being able to feel them in the first place.

Gender is easily the most prevalent, steadfast binary that is present in our culture. Homosexuality vs. heterosexuality is still significant one, but we’ve at least made some progress in carving out space for bisexuals to exist and drive it towards becoming a proper spectrum. Additionally, the stigmatized link between sexuality and behavior has been greatly weakened in recent years; most people are now substantially less shocked when they find someone who presents as masculine while identifying as a homosexual. Unlike sexuality, gender-based assumptions are present in nearly every action we take: from how we walk, to how we sit, to how we eat, to how we express ideas, people have implicit expectations that stem from a person’s perceived gender. It’s reasonable that some might have a difficult time changing how they think about something so immersive, and it begs a modicum of patience as someone unlearns stereotypes that have been imposed upon them as well since before they were born.

As we continue to move forward with gender transitioning from a binary system to something more fluid, there are going to be logistical complications. Some of them will be frustrating, and some will require a great deal of conscious effort but there is no way around this with any form of social change. Currently many people are having issues properly using pronouns because they don’t understand their importance; it’s hard to understand what it’s like to have your identity called into question around every corner when your identity fits within a binary. A tweet recently showed up in my feed that said “Reminder that cis people will apologize for misgendering a dog but not a trans person.” This is indicative of an overwhelming attitude that says “Ugh .. why should I have to work on changing this when it’s your problem?” Essentially, cisgendered persons are less likely to be or be impacted by misgendering, making it incredibly selfish to tell someone that they aren’t worth the energy it takes to be more considerate simply because direct benefit is not seen.

It’s worth noting that gender isn’t the only binary that can be harmful to an individual’s mental health. We, as humans, want to see patterns and make sense of things; there’s a reason some of us see Jesus in slices of toast. When we instinctively create binaries to suit this need they tend to be imbalanced which can lead to a number of faulty assumptions. Even without one half being elevated, a binary system tells people that picking a side and towing that line is more important than doing what they feel is right for themselves. This doesn't just apply to sex, it can apply to politics, economics, platonic relationships, etc: binaries directly oppose autonomy, and this limits our ability to have unique ideas or expressions. If you are cisgendered and want to look at this a completely selfish way, breaking the gender binary can have long-term benefits for you. Our culture is presently weighted to see things in binaries, and as any individual continues to see more and more how flawed these systems of classification are, it becomes more natural and intuitive to avoid them in the future. To put it more succinctly: this isn’t just about gender, it’s about empowering individuals to be themselves which benefits everyone.

We’ve got a lot of work to do, and these narrow-minded systems are causing harm. Even with sexuality shifting towards more of a spectrum than a binary, homosexuals are still between 2-4 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. For transpersons this rate is closer to 15 times, which amounts to a 41% attempted suicide rate. It’s easy to simplify this and look at the worst-case scenario, but for every person attempting suicide there are several others just struggling with something as simple as trying to be happy. Whether it’s bottom-shaming, using the wrong pronoun, or judging a friend for switching roles, these actions cause very real harm. With a little bit of conscious effort, you can stop yourself before trying to box someone into a binary. This isn’t some pie in the sky perfect world ideology, it’s something you can do in your daily life that will make a significant difference to those you surround yourself with. When it comes to respecting others’ willingness to be outliers in a binary system, a little respect can go a very long way.

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