Saturday, December 8, 2012

Layers of Sexual Identity - A Meditation

[The picture is of the gender-pop band, Girlyman.]

For many years there has been an interesting phenomenon in my life wherein my "straight" identified friends believe without hesitation that I am, like them, a straight male, and likewise, my gay friends believe that I am a gay man who simply has not decided yet to fully embrace my true nature. I've always found this amusing.

Generally, I do not much think about it until someone asks me if I am straight or gay. Someone asked me that the other day, someone who does not yet know me very well, and I actually had to think about the answer. Often, if asked if I am gay or straight, I answer, "Yes." This time, however, I answered, "No."

For most of the rest of the day, I thought about the various layers of sexual identity in my life. It seems that interpersonal context, social environment, and a host of other factors all play a role in how I perceive my sexual identity and how others perceive it. The reality is that the two seldom are in sync, except among close friends. What follows are a few reasons why that may be so.

(1) Culturally Straight: As far as the mainstream culture is concerned, I am a straight white male who loves sports, who is in a committed relationship with a woman, and who has none of the style skills often associated with gay men (I like athletic shorts or cargo shorts and a plain solid color tee-shirt, and getting me to dress up is on par with getting the GOP to increase taxes on the wealthy). I like to lift heavy weights, break stuff up with a sledge hammer, and watch Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. Sounds pretty straight.

(2) Culturally Gay: Maybe this is less true now that metrosexuality has been invented, but there was a time when a male who keeps his hair pretty short, stays very physically fit, uses hair care products, uses moisturizer, and prefers to smell like something other than body odor was, by default, gay. Then there is the enjoyment of museums, cooking, poetry, and art films - none of which says straight American male. Oh yeah, AND I am a psychotherapist - a field that is 80% women and involves talking about feelings and holding space for people who are often in severe emotional pain. Sounds pretty gay (and not "gay" in the way kids use the word today).

(3) Not Bisexual: I used to identify as bisexual when I first accepted that I am attracted to men as well as to women. Over the years, however, that label has been inaccurate in a couple of ways.
(A) It feels limiting and it accepts that there are only two sexualities, gay or straight. I reject the notion of binaries in the realm of gender and sexuality (and other areas as well). It's not an either/or choice and it should never be presented as though it is. Sexuality is fluid, as is gender identity (if we allow it to be).
(B) Most of my significant relationships (with a couple of exceptions) have been with women. For a variety of reasons, I find, in general, that I am more compatible with women, probably because I am comfortable with emotions while men (even gay men) often struggle in this realm. I also tend find many more women to be attractive than I do men.
For other men, coming to the point of being able to affirm their bisexuality is a monumental moment in their lives - see this Single Dad Laughing blog post for how difficult this can be. In whatever form people "come out," and in whatever label they choose in the process, revealing a whole other part of ourselves to others is often frightening. When that part of us is still subject to shaming and inequality before the law, it is that much more challenging. Deep bow of respect to Single Dad (Dan) for the courage it took to make his coming out part of his blog.

(4) Gender Fluid: I am clearly and unambiguously a man, biologically. However, I manifest feminine energy as much as masculine energy in my daily life, both of which are context specific. I also experience myself as more gender fluid in my interpersonal relationships, as well as at work (when I am at my psychotherapy job, I sometimes forget I am male unless it becomes part of the conversation [which it does from time to time]).

I am beginning to believe that the masculine/feminine binary is more damaging than helpful. These are poor descriptors of behaviors or traits (all of the psychological or emotional traits assigned to either M or F are essentially human qualities that are available to both sexes).

[By the way: sex is the biological makeup of an individual's reproductive anatomy; gender is an individual's lifestyle, often culturally learned - just so we are clear.]

So What's My Point?

I'm not sure that I have one - but I do think that it's useful to cogitate or meditate on these ideas from time to time. It's also useful to see ourselves and our various identities as objects of awareness rather than being so embedded in them that we are unaware.

My guess is that more and more people have experiences similar to my own these days. Although the mainstream culture is only now warming up to the idea that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and the transgendered (LGBT) are all real people who deserve equal rights, there are a lot of people on the leading edge of cultural transformation who are beginning to grasp the fluidity of gender and even of sexual identity.

[Another by the way: transgender is not simply transsexual, it's a much broader tent that includes anyone who feels left out by the traditional gender binary (including intersex, the third recognized sex type beside male and female): "The category transgender has no singular, fixed meaning. Rather, it is inclusive of identities and experiences of sex and gender variance, changing, and blending. Although no consensus exists about exactly whom this category includes, nearly all definitions share the use of a metaphorical umbrella, which activists agree is a useful tool for political organizing outside current understandings of binary sex and gender divisions."]

 All of this makes me wonder . . .

I do not believe in the soul or any on-going personal essence that survives death (although I will not go as far as to say there is no such thing - I'm agnostic, so sue me), but I tend to think we all have some form of intangible awareness that is available to us if we seek ways to experience it. Maybe it is a soul, or buddhanature, or higher self, or Atman, or Christ Consciousness - different worldviews have different names for it - but my sense is that it is not gendered.

Okay, this is sounding like dualism, and I reject dualism (I once proposed Singularism back in grad school in the 1990s, before I knew anything about the Singularity hype proposed by Ray Kurzweil and others). So please allow me to clarify: I think we are evolving toward a time when our bodies will be male, female, or intersex, but our identities will not be defined exclusively by our biology (which is largely the case these days for a majority of people). Identity (awareness?) will be influenced or even shaped by our biology, but it will not be defined by it. We will become gender fluid, and with that, sexual identity will be seen as a continuum, not a binary.

I hope . . . . 


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Mary Gottschalk said...

Interesting article .. thanks for pointing it out. I was particularly intrigued by the parallel of gender fluidity as well as sexual fluidity.