Bend and Snap: Sexuality and Gender Identity

It was during my mid-teenage years when I started to suspect that I wasn’t straight, but I
also knew that I wasn’t gay. I had a boyfriend and was very much in love. Our relationship was a punk-rock version of the idyllic teen romance of books and movies. I was not a lesbian, but I also knew with certainty that I was definitely not straight.

For many reasons, my sexual identity was not easy to “figure out.” It was the 1990s, for
one. The internet was the most rudimentary thing and only accessible during computer class. I wasn’t about to Ask Jeeves or Webcrawler “am I bisexual?” at school. I also lived
in a small town in rural Pennsylvania and, to my knowledge, knew zero gay or bisexual
people. Dating a boy was the only option available to me, and it mostly fit.
I graduated high school in 1997. Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom that year and it
meant a lot to me for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. I cried when I watched it. Critics
nicknamed her Ellen Degenerate.

The same year, a new club formed at Penn State University, where I would begin classes
that fall. The club was called STRAIGHT: Students Reinforcing Adherence in General
Heterosexual Tradition. Their mission was to “promote heterosexuality” (as if the rest of
the culture wasn’t doing that at all times, I guess).

The movie Chasing Amy also came out in 1997. Through a more modern lens, it is
incredibly problematic. But when I was 18, it helped me make sense of some things about
myself. It was the first movie I ever saw that actually explored the gray area between gay
and straight, and furthermore, told me that there was gray area. The main female
character, Alyssa, is certain she’s a lesbian, but then finds herself attracted to a man. The
movie centers on both of them navigating their feelings around Alyssa’s complicated
sexuality, a sexuality that was somewhere between gay and straight.

One quote from the movie that punched me right in the gut and still resonates is when
Alyssa says to her straight boyfriend “Maybe you knew early on that your track was from
point A to B, but unlike you I was not given a fucking map at birth, so I tried it all!”

When I heard that line, I felt seen.

Maybe I wasn’t given a map, either.

Were any of us?


Are We Really Born This Way?


Sexologists and other scientists have been studying sexual attraction, sexual identity
formation, and their relationship to biology for at least a hundred years. Are we born this
way? Maaaybe? Kind of? Does anyone know at this point?

The truth is that no singular determinant for sexual orientation has been conclusively
identified, and there is no consensus among scientists. Research has explored possible
social, cultural, genetic, hormonal, and developmental influences on sexual orientation,
and it points to different and even sometimes conflicting positions. Currently scientists’
best guess is that a combination of genetic, hormonal, and social factors determine our
sexual orientation, and that most people experience little or no sense of choice around it.
Sex researchers have also developed theories on how we form our sexual identities, or go
from experiencing attraction to giving it a definitive meaning. They used to think that only sexual minorities go through a process of developing a sexual identity, but newer models of identity formation acknowledge that everyone does — including straight people.

Researchers have developed classification systems, too, to help us understand the
possible variations of our sexual orientations. Chances are you’ve heard of the Kinsey
scale, arguably the most well known. According to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, we all
have a sexual orientation that exists somewhere on a continuum between 0 (exclusively
heterosexual) and 6 (exclusively homosexual). This was a very radical proposal in the late 1940s.

There’s another minority sexual orientation that has gotten considerably less attention
and research: asexuality. Sometimes referred to as “ace,” asexuality is an identity
describing someone who does not experience sexual attraction. As with all other sexual
identities, there’s significant diversity among asexuals, as every asexual person
experiences relationships, attraction, and arousal somewhat differently.
Kinsey’s model inspired other models that flesh out his original scale in much more
detail. And while his theory does acknowledge a vast gray area between heterosexual
and homosexual, it still reinforces the idea that all sexuality is divided between those two
extremes.

Are being gay and being straight really total opposites? Not according to Wendell
Ricketts, author of the 1984 study “Biological Research on Homosexuality.” “No one
knows exactly why heterosexuals and homosexuals ought to be different,” he writes.
“Heterosexuals and homosexuals are considered different because they can be divided
into two groups on the basis of the belief that they can be divided into two groups.”


What Even Is “Straight”?
If you’re straight, chances are you probably haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about
being straight. You see straight people and relationships all around you, and the world
affirms your identity. It might feel like your sexual orientation (whom you’re attracted to)
and your sexual identity (how you categorize yourself based on your attraction) just are.
We don’t tend to think too deeply about the origins of heterosexuality, if we think about
it at all. It probably seems like it’s something that’s always just been there, but that isn’t
true. Identifying as “straight” is a funny thing, actually. While heterosexual sex and
reproduction have been around forever (that is, perpetuating the species by the joining of
an egg and a sperm), straight as a sexual identity is a relatively new concept. People
haven’t always gone around forming clubs based on being straight. They never even
thought much about it until the last hundred years.

In her book Straight: A Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, author Hanne
Blank argues that the term heterosexuality was first used in the late 19th Century and has evolved considerably from its original meaning. A Hungarian journalist invented the term
and for a long time, it didn’t have the same meaning that we give it now.
A 1901 medical dictionary actually defined heterosexuality as an “abnormal or perverted
appetite toward the opposite sex,” and similarly, the 1923 Merriam Webster dictionary
called it “morbid sexual passion for one of the opposite sex.” Morbid sexual passion
doesn’t exactly sound chill, does it? In 1934, heterosexuality was designated the meaning
we’re used to today: “manifestation of sexual passion for one of the opposite sex; normal
sexuality.” From morbid to normal in a very short period of time, our modern conception
of heterosexuality was born.


Gender Reveal
No matter if our sexual orientation puts us in the majority or the minority, we all have a
sexual orientation and we all developed a sexual identity. Similarly, every one us of also
has a gender identity. Gender identity and sexual orientation are two different things,
though they’re related in most people’s minds. While our sexual orientation is about our
attraction to others, our gender identity is only about ourselves. It’s our internal sense of
being male, female, both of these, neither of these, something in between male and
female, or something else all together. (Folks who feel in between sometimes call
themselves nonbinary and may use gender-neutral pronouns).

Doctors assign all of us a sex at birth based mostly just on the appearance of our genitals.
They say “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl,” and from there, people treat us in particular ways
based on these assignments. Transgender people are those of us whose gender identity is
not in line with their assigned sex. Cisgender people are those of us whose gender
identity is in line with our assigned sex. There is no one size fits all model of being
transgender.
 

There are several theories about how gender identities develop, but it’s a difficult thing to
study. Young kids can’t exactly tell us how their gender identity is developing, so
researchers just have to guess based on observation and indirect evidence.
We actually don’t have any sense of our gender when we’re very small. Imagine that
we’re all blank slates. We learn we’re a girl or a boy from other people. Others constantly
give us signals about our gender through the clothes, colors, and toys they choose for us
and by how they speak to us. I mean, really, this happens to a lot of us before we’re even
born (gender reveal parties, anyone?)

By the time we’re two, we can probably identify ourselves as a boy or girl based on the
info we’re getting from others. Though we don’t know why we’re a girl or a boy, and we
don’t associate gender with our genitals at this age, we begin to internalize and identify
with our gender. We think we are a girl or a boy. This feeling is our gender identity. And
again, we all have one.

For a lot of people, that’s the end of the story. That’s where the exploration and
awareness of gender ends. Think about when you first knew your gender identity, when it
first developed. I don’t remember when I knew I was a girl. I’m cisgender, and to me, my
gender identity is a thing that’s always been, and I have never once felt moved to
question it (this is a privilege). If you’re transgender, chances are you’ve spent a lot of
time thinking about your gender, maybe from a very early age.

The world takes cisgender identities for granted and treats trans identities like they’re not
as valid. The hilarious part of that, to me, is that trans people have likely spent much
more time thinking about and exploring their gender identities than cis people have, yet
we sometimes ask trans people, “Are you sure? How do you know?”

An argument that people make against trans identities is that “biological sex” is the whole
story. It’s just male and female, right? Wrong, says Dr. Eric Vilain, director of the Center
for Gender-Based Biology at UCLA, in a 2015 article on the university’s website. He
studies the genetics of sexual development and sex differences, and he’s one in a growing
field of sex and gender biology researchers.

“People are often unaware of the biological complexity of sex and gender,” he says.
“People tend to define sex in a binary way — either wholly male or wholly female —
based on physical appearance or by...sex chromosomes... But while sex and gender may
seem dichotomous, there are in reality many intermediates.” He’s essentially telling us
that there’s a whole lot of biological variation in sex, more than we ever thought.
Biological variation in sex includes intersex people — those whose biological and
physical characteristics are not completely male or female, but somewhere in between.
Intersex people may have extra or missing chromosomes, variations in gonadal tissue and
development, or ambiguous genitalia. “Society has categorical views on what should
define sex and gender, but the biological reality is just not there to support that,” Dr.
Vilain adds.



Beyond the Binaries
Research and science are definitely interesting, but honestly: If we’re so hung up on why
people are gay, or straight, or trans, or cis, or somewhere in the gray of gender or
sexuality — if we need some kind of scientific “proof” to find our identities valid —
we’re missing the point.

There are an endless number of places you can be on the spectrums of gender and
sexuality, and right now we don’t know why that is or how we become the way we
become. And honestly, who cares why? I would rather honor that our identities are all
capable of being expansive and celebrate that. If you want to see a very clear and
wonderful example of how we all have a sexual orientation, gender identity, and assigned
sex, and how all of those things can vary wildly, try mapping your gender and sexuality on the Gender Unicorn teaching tool. 

We love to put things in boxes. We classify things because it’s easy for our brains and
our understanding. But what if we stopped seeing things as so black and white and
realized there’s so much to revere in the gray? Certain identities may be less common,
but that doesn’t make them less valid or much different from yours — even according to
science. There are so many diverse realities and experiences to consider, and there have
been people who exist in the gray areas of gender and sexuality since the beginning of
time, all over the world. We’re just now opening our eyes to it more, and naming it.



The Kids are Alright
If LGBTQ identities seemed like a hot topic in 1997, it was nothing compared to today.
Being a LGBTQ or questioning teen in 2018 is a wholly different experience. I’ve
worked closely with this population for more than 15 years now, and they have so much
to teach us. Thirteen to 20-year olds in general (often called “Generation Z”) are so much
more open minded about sexuality and gender than older generations (even millennials)
are.

This generation cares not for your gender binary. A 2016 report by trend forecasting
agency J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group shows that they’re more likely to know
someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns, be in favor of gender neutral bathrooms, and
say that gender “doesn’t define a person” as much as it used to.
Only 48 percent of Gen Z identifies as “exclusively heterosexual.” This doesn’t
necessarily mean that the rest identify as gay, but it definitely means that labeling
themselves “straight” isn’t that important to them anymore. This is fascinating, and this is
the future.

It’s been over 20 years since my high school confusion, and guess what? There’s still no
easy answer. There are times that I was “certain” that I was one sexual identity or
another, and then lol — I realized that wasn’t true after all. I’ve tried on and rejected
labels. I accept that at nearly 40, I’m still learning things about myself and my identity.
You can too, if you’re open to it.

For a long time now, the word “queer” has fit the best for me: a word reclaimed from its
original harmful meaning to indicate pride in not being straight, and a sexual attraction
that’s open to all genders. Sexual identity is fluid. It is expansive. It can change and shift
with age, time, and circumstance, and gender identity is capable of the same.
I didn’t get a map because there isn’t one.

And maybe having a “map” just means seeing your sexuality and gender identity
reflected and affirmed in the world around you. If that’s the case, we’re drawing new
maps all the time.

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Erica Smith

 

is a feminist sexuality educator, consultant, and writer who believes that comprehensive, compassionate, accessible, and trauma-informed sex ed is a key component of social justice. She has a M.Ed. in Human Sexuality Education and has been working as a sex educator for 18 years. Erica lives in Philadelphia and spends a lot of time with her pitbull, Ranger.

Find her work on instagram @ericasmith.sex.ed and twitter @lolfemme

JacquiBoyum-Headshot.jpg

Jacqui Boyum

is a queer illustrator and designer residing in Minneapolis, MN. Their portfolio includes work for local co-ops, breweries, queer dance parties and feminist sex toy shops. They are a Taurus sun with an Aries rising and a hard-core astrology nerd with a fondness for bagels, spring rolls and soft serve.


Find their work at: www.jacquiboyum.com and @jacquiboyum on Instagram.