Lesbian identified radical feminists often verbally attack transgender women who identify as lesbian, even claiming that the female partners of trans women aren’t really lesbian either. Men who are primarily attracted to pre-op or non-op trans women because they have a preference for penis but also a preference for feminine appearance are often criticised and labelled “tranny chasers”, with even the trans women they are attracted to worrying that such men are “creepy fetishists”.
The intersection between gender identity and sexual orientation seems to be a minefield of controversy and confusion and with the growing numbers of people identifying as having a non-binary gender identity there is also another problem with the terms we use to identify sexual orientation. If the matter being communicated is whether I am attracted to men, women, both or neither then what exactly does my own gender have to do with anything?
I know that the lesbian, gay and bisexual communities are very important resources of support and community for people. I certainly don’t wish to undermine or invalidate anyone’s struggle or need for a community. But I do think that maybe it’s time we looked at the way that we talk about and think about sexual orientation and try to invent some new terms to describe it.
The point of identity labels, or any words for that matter, is to communicate information in as concise and clear a way as possible. It is becoming painfully obvious that the old labels of gay and straight, and maybe even bisexual, are woefully inadequate in doing so. They over simplify a complicated matter because if gender is complicated then so is sexual orientation.
The root problem underlying much of the controversy about sexual attraction with regards to transgender individuals is that gender identity and sexual attraction aren’t really on the same page. This isn’t a result of society but actually just a particularly tricky result of biology.
Gender identity can conflict with biological sex in some individuals, and it’s not really anything to do with outward appearance or social stereotypes. Biology is not just about anatomy, it also includes instinctive behaviours. And guess where those behaviours are contained? That’s right – in the brain. Plus brains also have a way of telling us what our bodies should be like. This is why you know where your arm is, even when you’re not looking at it, and also why amputees get phantom limb syndrome. Transgender individuals have a brain that is telling them they should be physiologically the opposite sex to what their bodies really are. It’s a kind of glitch of nature.
That gender identity can be completely within the person’s own mind though. A trans woman does not have to be feminine or behave according to female stereotypes, and pre-transition she will not even be physiologically female either. Ok, so her instinctive behaviours will leak through, making her seem to be a little unusual for a man and causing her much grief and personal distress living as a man. But nevertheless gender identity is a different thing to gender expression or to biological sex, so her identity might be somewhat invisible to those potentially attracted to her.
But do you see where I’m going with this? People are not sexually attracted to gender identity as such, they are sexually attracted to gender expression (outward appearance), sexual anatomy or a mixture of both. Some people prefer penises, some people prefer vaginas and some people don’t mind what someone has between their legs. Some people can only ever be attracted to feminine presenting people, some people can only ever be attracted to masculine presenting people, while other people don’t much mind either way.
All of this means that the language we currently use to describe sexual orientation is actually overly simplistic and not sufficient for capturing the true complexity of the situation.
For example I am what I might be tempted to call femsexual or femmesexual. Despite some very rare exceptions I am generally only sexually aroused by feminine looking people or at least androgynous looking people. Meanwhile I don’t really care whether they have a penis or a vagina. I can have fun with both. This might seem simple. When I was a guy I was straight. Now that I’m transgender I should identify as a lesbian. But that apparent simplicity is deceiving. I can be sexually aroused by a crossdressing man for example and almost never attracted to the most butch looking women. It’s not gender identity that affects my sexual arousal, it’s gender expression.
Other people have a preference for sexual anatomy and can be totally flexible about outward appearance. And although I don’t in any way condone the anti-trans rantings of certain radical feminists I do understand some of the frustration they express that their sexual preferences are being silenced in the midst of the admirable and well-meaning attempts to validate transgender identities.
Maybe it’s time to rethink how we refer to sexual orientation then. Unfortunately I fail to come up with attractive sounding and easy to use language however. Femmesexual (or femsexual) sounds reasonably nice. But Mascusexual just sounds weird and awkward. Phallosexual might sound kind of cool, if a little vulgar, but Vulvasexual doesn’t really sound very nice for some reason. Stringing them together also sounds clunky and awkward. There was a time in my life where I was one of those people primarily attracted to pre-op or non-op trans women and I could’ve described my sexuality as Femphallosexual. But it’s awkward and long winded to describe things that way and those compound words sound kind of ugly.
Perhaps there’s no need for referring to every aspect of sexuality in a single phrase. You could refer to each matter individually. No one feels the need to add whether they are submissive, dominant, vanilla or switch to their sexual orientation labels after all. You could say “I’m submissive and I’m gay” for example. So why not say something like “I’m submissive, femsexual and also phallosexual”?
Perhaps someone with more expertise about language could come up with better sounding terms than the ones I have suggested above. But I really do think we need to think about this. Words are supposed to aid communication. It doesn’t help if the terms we use tend to confuse more often than clarify.
Or of course we could do what people are already doing and use the old language while also understanding that people can mean different things by the words gay, lesbian or straight depending on whether it is physical anatomy or gender expression that is the defining factor for desire and arousal. I really wish the trans-hating radfems would at least take that on board and that my girlfriend has as much right to call herself a lesbian as they do. And for that matter, so do I.