We understand that sexual orientation and gender are separate concepts. This is something that is relatively easily understood within the contexts of cisgender identities. But how does sexual orientation “work” for genderqueer or trans-identified peeps?
Let’s talk about it.
Before I go any further, I want to address that “genderqueer” is a relatively new term that means different things for different people. I’m partial to using it as a catch-all for folks who don’t identify as cisgender (including, but not limited to, people who identify as transgender, bigender, third- fourth- and some-gender, two-spirit, and agender) instead of including an exhaustive list of identities every time I need to make a point.
Also, it’s worth noting that “sexual orientation” itself is a loaded – and in some ways limiting – term. I’m using it here to employ at least one term most people are familiar with, and to describe a combination of physical, emotional/romantic, and spiritual attraction.
Beginning to understand
Before we talk about how sexual orientation “works” for genderqueer folks, which is a question I am (and I’m sure, many who identify as genderqueer are) asked on a regular basis, it’s important that we understand how attraction works.
Attraction is in your head, like an imaginary friend
For a moment, stop thinking in terms of cisgender versus genderqueer, and instead think just think about attraction. Attraction is something that comes from within. There are a lot of theories on what drives attraction – or where it comes from. I buy into the theory that attraction is the result of your subconscious interpretation of hormonal influences, and your ability to make sense of attraction is a result of your socialization and self-awareness. That is, attraction is largely out of your control, but how you make sense of it and act upon it is up to you.
This understanding of attraction applies to cisgender folks and genderqueer folks.
It’s who you’re attracted to, not you
Still not thinking about cisgender attraction versus genderqueer attraction, and just thinking about attraction in general, which doyou think plays a larger role in the attraction dance: the other person’s identity(ies), or yours? A lot of cisgender straight people would say that if they became (through magic, perhaps) the opposite gender, they would still be straight. You’ve probably heard a straight cis- guy say something like “if I was a girl, I would totally be into Brad Pitt.”
Guess what, dude, you’re into Brad Pitt.
Sexual orientation does not depend on gender. If you suddenly became a different gender, you would still be attracted to the same people, or you would no longer be you. Now, this is smudgy, because one could argue that if you became a different gender you would likely have a different mix of hormones floating around inside your hat rack, but we’re not going to go there. Remember, there was magic involved.
What’s important is that I’m suggesting that attraction – truly, absolutely, distilled and rinsed – is about the other, and not about the you (or, for all the grammar nerds, it’s about the object, not the subject). Though that might be hard to imagine (“I’ve just always imagined my penis going into a vagina,” a guy told me once, to my mirth), it’s the case. Or it’s at least most of the case. Understanding identity is like utilizing the light side of the force: there are no absolutes (except for the one absolute absolving that there are none, of course).
Updating our terminology
In order to make this as clear as we can, we need to be speaking the same language. Conventional terms to describe sexual orientation (hetero-, homo-, and bisexual) don’t work well outside of the cisgender world. Many have argued that I shouldn’t use those terms at all in my gender article because they aren’t inclusive of genderqueer folks. While that’s true, the conventional (and non-genderqueer-inclusive) terms are more accessible to people who are new to these concepts, which is why I kept them in place.
New terms for expressing sexual orientation
Androsexual/Androphilic: attracted to males, men, and/or masculinity
Gynesexual/Gynephilic: attracted to females, women, and/or femininity
Skoliosexual: attracted to genderqueer and transsexual people and expressions (people who aren’t identified as cisgender)
Pansexual: attracted to all people, regardless of biological sex, gender identity, or expression
Asexual/Nonsexual: no sexual attraction, but often romantic or spiritual attractions exist
Limitations of these terms, and in general
The terms presented above are far better than the conventional terms for describing sexual orientation, but they are certainly not perfect. You have to remember: identities are far too numerous to create a list or a graph or an article that describes them all. Some would argue that the list above (and this article), for example, isn’t super inclusive of third-gender (or fourth-, or some-) folks, or two-spirit folks. But it’s another step toward understanding an incredibly complex concept. When in doubt, rely on the platinum rule.
So, how does genderqueer sexual orientation work?
Just from reading the terms above, you should start to have a basic understanding of how attraction works for our genderqueer friends. If you’re particularly quick, you’ll realize it’s not too different from how it works for our cisgender friends. Not quite there yet? It’ll be my pleasure to explain.
In short, genderqueer sexual orientation works just like cisgender sexual orientation works. In short, genderqueer sexual orientation works just like cisgender sexual orientation works. People are attracted to certain kinds of people; attracted to certain expressions of masculinity and femininity; attracted to certain physical manifestations of sex and gender (breasts, and/or hair, and/or penises, and/or etc.); and attracted to certain self-identities of gender as they pertain to relationship and societal roles.
If a genderqueer person is attracted to women, you would say that person is gynesexual. If a cisgender person (man or woman) is attracted to women, you would also say that person is gynesexual. If a genderqueer person is attracted to genderqueer people, you would say that person is skoliosexual. If a cisgender person (man or woman) is attracted to genderqueer people, you would say that person is skoliosexual (see how much more inclusive these terms are?!).
So let me say again: genderqueer sexual orientation works just like cisgender sexual orientation works. In fact, those “new terms for expressing sexual orientation” work just as well for cisgender people as they do for genderqueer people. Some (I) would argue we should do a better job adopting them into our vocabularies (and I will argue that, in another article).
It can’t be that simple.
No, of course not. Nothing in identity is actually simple. But it can be simplified to be this simple, and it just was. The sooner we stop thinking of genderqueer people as “the other” and finding more ways to differentiate between cisgender and genderqueer, the sooner we’ll begin to understand one another, accept one another, and legislate fairly for one as well as the other. Hopefully, mostly that last one.
What do you have to add?
There are a lot of books and articles and research papers you can read about this stuff if you’d like to learn more. Using the comments below is a great place to ask questions, add your own thoughts, or full-on refute mine. I welcome all three.