People...I’m a changed woman. My transformation comes in the shape of a new name (and hopefully a watertight alibi for tomorrow night). This might not seem like a big deal to you, or it might seem like a huge freaking deal...frankly I have no concept of how easily impressed any of you are. The point is, I made a decision about who I am and how I see myself and the result of that was $100 in bureaucratic bribery and a new birth certificate. Which leads me to my actual, if belaboured, point. An identity is something that we all have, but what changes is how much of it we allow to be dictated by other people and how much of it we decide for ourselves*. I grew tired of being told how other people would address me so I changed it to suit the way I saw myself. And of course, a name isn’t the only thing that we use to identify ourselves…
Medically speaking, sex is something that most of us can't really change. But did you know that there’s more than just two sexes? The term Intersex refers to people who are born with atypical physical sex characteristics, which is to say they can’t be clearly defined as male or female. Intersex is a medically definable identifier and also hosts a community of amazing people who don’t fit a socially defined idea of sex. The downside of this is that many of them are subjected to non-consensual hormonal treatments and even surgery to make them more clearly definable as one sex or the other. Not cool society. Really fucking not cool.
So while sex is not really something we can control, gender is something that we can mould throughout our lives. While I identify as a woman every day of the year and am comfortable being addressed as such, genderqueer people can identify anywhere on the gender spectrum or they might refrain from recognising gender at all and prefer pronouns of “they” and “them”. To recognise this, some (read: not enough) governments and organisations have introduced a new mailing title, so instead of having to select from Mr. or Ms. you can chose Mx. I am personally a huge fan of this as it’s much easier to write on government forms than “None Of Your Damned Business. S. Buttons.”
A person's genitals might indicate sex but they do not indicate gender. It is for this reason that you will notice articles on this site referring to penis owners and vagina owners as opposed to men and women. There’s a good chance that you will have seen many prominent trans people in the media recently, which I personally hope brings more awareness to a group that deserves all the love and support we can provide. A transgender person identifies as the opposite sex mentally, whereas a transsexual identifies as the opposite sex physically. Transgender is also used as a blanket term to refer to people who don’t identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Trans people are possibly one of the most marginalised groups in society, resulting in a suicide rate of close to 50%.
If, like me, you identify with the sex you were assigned at birth, then you are a cis person, e.g. a cis woman or a cis man. It’s crucial to acknowledge the importance of the cis label and try to embrace it where you can. Without the term cis we rely on incredibly problematic language like “biological woman” or “normal woman” which implies a hierarchy of gender identity. A transwoman is a woman as much as I am. A transman is a man as much as the next guy. To think otherwise simply because one small aspect of them doesn’t match up with what we’re taught to expect from a gender is not only incredibly hateful, it’s also just damned stupid. That would be like referring to “Annie Hall” as a bromance , because Diane Keaton spends the entire film in “men’s clothing”.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of sexuality. We know that who we’re attracted to isn’t something that we can decide, it just is. If you’re a straight person, you can’t help but be attracted to the opposite sex. The idea of being with someone the same sex as you might seem weird, unusual or even impossible, but hopefully you understand that homosexual people feel the same way about being straight. Sexual preference is something that we inherently feel and is not something that we can change and even though to varying degrees we can change the way we act on it, most of the time we shouldn’t have to.
Personally, I can’t understand how something as insignificant as sex or gender could decide whether or not you’re attracted to someone. The idea of arousal, attraction, desire, etc being limited to the junk in someone’s trunk seems like such a strange concept to me. But I know that none of you weirdos has any more say in who you’re into than I do.
What many of us can forget is that sexuality and even romance are not binary issues. It’s not just gay or straight. Bisexuality is the attraction to both sexes, although most bisexual alliances will acknowledge that there is more than one gender and now define bisexuality as an attraction to more than one gender over the course of a person’s lifetime. Pansexuality is an easier way of describing the same concept (and is etymologically less exclusionary), but is also a much less common term and thus requires its own explanation whenever it comes up at dinner parties.
There are asexual people, who do not experience sexual attraction at all. Do not confuse asexuals with people who have made the choice to be celibate, asexuals have as little choice in their sexual attraction as you and I, whereas celibates might still feel sexual attraction but elect not to act on it. And trust me, given the treatment a lot of asexuals receive at the hands of both the straight and LGBTIQ community, asexuality is not something most people would actively chose to put themselves through, if it were a matter of choice.
Then there’s our romantic identity. Just because you’re sexually attracted to one or all genders, does not mean that you are romantically attracted to them as well. For instance, you might be bisexual, but heteroromantic. This would mean that you are sexually attracted to multiple genders, but you’re only romantically attracted to people of the opposite sex. A romantic attraction is the difference between having a sexual partner and a life partner. Or you might be aromantic, which is surprisingly common, and refers to people who do not feel romantic attraction towards anyone. And then there's relationship identity, such as monogamy, polyamory, open relationships and being monogamish (thank you Dan Savage).
The important thing to remember with gender, sexuality and identity is that it is constantly evolving. At various points in history and in various parts of the world it has been unacceptable just to be gay. We’re still living in an age when bisexuals are harassed by both straight people and gay people during the goddamn pride parades, because a lot of people still feel that we’re not picking a side or we’re not “gay enough” to call ourselves queer. If you ever want to make yourself cry, do a google image search for “acephobia” (the bigotry directed towards asexuals) and read the resounding stupidity of thousands of people who believe that not experiencing sexual attraction isn’t possibly something that can happen. If your soul isn’t completely battered after that, why not destroy it utterly by reading Section 88 of the Australian Senate Inquiry into the forced sterilisation of people with disabilities, including intersex people. Or perhaps the UN report into the torture and non-consensual surgery performed on intersex people. And I'm not even going to dive into the black hole that is societies pervasive transphobia, since to be honest I don't want to direct any traffic towards anything that might even vaguely be supporting it. My point is that while many people today might look at our incredibly diverse gender and sexual rainbow and say “All you’re really waiting on is the right to get married”, I would argue that there’s still a fucking long way to go before we’re even close to equality.
So have a think about the way you identify yourself. Think about the way you want people to see you and the kinds of people you're attracted to. You might be gay or straight, you might be cis or trans, you might be a man, a woman, both or neither. You might be asexual or aromantic, you might be monogamous or polyamorous. You can call yourself whatever you want and identify in whatever way makes you the happiest. But ultimately, the only label you really don't want to be attached to is 'bigot'. So if you meet someone and they identify with a sexuality you're not familiar with, or as a gender you didn't immediately associate them with, the correct response is to just smile and be nice, the same as you would with anyone else. Because the one thing most great thinkers have in common is a desire that we be kind and good to one another to help create a better world.
That is all.
You may go now.
* In this article I am discussing many issues and identities that don’t necessarily apply to myself. I am not in any way speaking for, or on behalf of the people who identify in any of these ways. If you are curious about anything mentioned in this article I encourage you to reach out to the various support organisations linked throughout this article.