Understanding Sexual Identities Better to Find My Place
October 17, 2019 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Can someone help an inexperienced Generation X-er struggling (i) with differentiating biological sex, gender identity, and sexual attraction, and (ii) with where they self-identify on same? I am wondering if someone could explain how gender identity is distinct from sexual attraction; and also what one might find/look for, within themselves, that might suggest they are nonbinary.

I am a very late-in-life virgin (meaning I do not have physical acts to rely upon, just mind) and I grew up in a world/mindset where identities were mostly gay-straight and male-female. (My college was deeply conservative and even 'gay' was underground there. In the bloody mid-90s.)

Since then, I've realized that these qualities are not only on spectra but even multi-axis kind of spectra (wish I could re-find the link that explained this), and at times I get overwhelmed. I just know I don't fit. At all. And I think a big chunk of it is my somehow parochial self-limiting concepts of who I am and what I should be.

My best self-awareness is that I am maybe about 70-80% hetero and probably 40-50% cisgender. I would be a woman but can't envision surgery getting me where I want, and being in a male body doesn't seem horrific to me, although I hate my specific male body. Similarly, I can appreciate both male and female beauty, but think I lean towards the latter.

This may be inappropriately simplifying, but is "gender identity" the question of cisgender/transgender and "sexual attraction" the question of gay/straight? And if so, if you try to shed the binary "yes-no" "this-that" you grew up with, then what map or conceptualization does one use to visualize the whole universe of possibilities?

Doess being nonbinary mean being agender, sort of equivalent to being without sexual attraction (asexuality)? Or if there's more axis to gender identity than just the cisgender-transgender concept, then what are they?

If I misuse something above and by doing so unintentionally offend, please accept my apologies.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Maybe the Genderbread Person would help? The explanation is very comprehensive. I'm struggling to boil down your post to discrete answerable questions.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:34 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was just about to recommend the Genderbread person too! It is very helpful for starting to tease some of those things apart.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 12:37 PM on October 17, 2019

My friend Marilyn's website Genderqueer and Non-Binary Identities has an FAQ that I find to be a helpful starting place. It does come specifically from a genderqueer lens but starts to get at many of these questions.
posted by capricorn at 12:37 PM on October 17, 2019

I (cis, queer) thought about that, but the author appears to be very transparent about the versions and updates taking place:
I explain way down below a bit of my rationale on how I make changes to the cookie, but there’s one big thing I don’t say there that makes more sense here: this version of the Genderbread Person (like all my versions and subversions since 2.0) is workshopped/tested/tweaked for quite awhile (in this case, years) before I publish it here, almost entirely queer (and mostly trans*) educators/feedbackers.
posted by fiercecupcake at 12:43 PM on October 17, 2019

In terms of gender identity, one thing that's helped me get a better (though far, far from complete) understanding of my own is being around people of trans and nonbinary gender identities. It's opened the door to my mid-30s self realizing that maybe the box I had been put in, assigned male at birth, isn't the right box.

I don't know where I fall into this. I've only been exploring my gender identity actively for about a year, but having the flexibility and option to explore that space has been immensely satisfying and helpful to become comfortable in my own body and skin. I think it's important to explore the space of gender in as much as you feel able and comfortable—it doesn't require hormones or surgery to do it, either.
posted by SansPoint at 12:51 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

As someone who wrestled with my gender identity for a long time, the most helpful thing was hanging out with non-binary, trans, and questioning folks in a queer hobby group. So, not a Q&A where it was focused on identities, but just seeing how folks lived their lives and related to their genders on a daily basis. Also asking myself a lot what would make me more comfortable on a daily basis (thanks, My Gender Workbook, although the rest of the book wasn't very helpful to me). I'm bisexual, so my orientation wouldn't have necessarily changed with my gender.

My understanding is that non-binary folks have a gender that is meaningful to them and not male or female, and agender folks choose to opt out of the whole concept of gender. Some folks are genderfluid and have a gender that changes over time. There's lots more than a single cis---nb---trans axis. Seeing models of a bunch of different gender identities was helpful to me. FWIW, I decided I'm most comfotable being cis, but generally opt out of stating a gender when I can / gender is not a very important part of my identity.
posted by momus_window at 1:07 PM on October 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Skip Genderbread Person and read How To Understand Your Gender. It's a much better balanced, useful book accurately named for people of all genders.

The simplification you've given is not completely incorrect, but it's more complicated than that. Gender identity and sexual attraction are often related in idiosyncratic ways. For example, I am a cisgendered woman, but queer--and my attraction to women is substantially entwined with my own gender inasmuch as generally I desire women whose gender reflects my own desires for my own gender. That is, it's hard for me to say whether I want to be that woman, or I want to be with that woman--they are deeply connected.

My understanding is that non-binary folks have a gender that is meaningful to them and not male or female, and agender folks choose to opt out of the whole concept of gender. Some folks are genderfluid and have a gender that changes over time

I cannot speak to these identities but this seems pretty spot-on from the people I know. But everything is a la carte once you get out of the binary.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:12 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

One really basic easy way to dip a toe into thinking about gender ID is to think about what pronouns (or names) feel good to you. How do different pronouns feel if you refer to yourself by them? Or if you imagine, or even experience, others referring to you in different ways?

How would it feel being referred to as :
- He
- She
- They/them/theirs (Shea ate their food because they were hungry.) This is a pretty common gender-neutral pronoun and it can be used in the singular. In fact, “they” was voted as the Word of the Year in 2015.

- Ze/hir/hir (Tyler ate hir food because ze was hungry.) Ze is pronounced like “zee” can also be spelled zie or xe, and replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced like “here” and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.

Or- what if you weren't referred to by pronouns at all and just by your name? (Ash ate Ash’s food because Ash was hungry)

Or, what if your name was a traditionally "male"-coded name like Andrew, or a traditonally "female"-coded name like Aria, or a "gender neutral" name like Lee or River?

Gender and pronoun aren't a direct match for everyone so it's not a place to get super dogmatic, but it can be an interesting place to get used to thinking of yourself in terms of gender outside of a rigid he/she binary.

You can experiment with pronouns to feel them out in low-stakes ways online, obviously taking care to be ethical, consensual, and respectful with other people if you're going to interact in a way that involves their emotions or trust.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 1:18 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

general second to reading and experiencing real-life experiences of lgbt people. trans reddit is pretty good, actually, especially for questions about exploring your identity. i also like nouvelle-personne's positive framing, and it's what i do with my complicated identity - move in the direction of specific things that interest you or make you happy and see where it takes you rather than trying to nail down concrete boundaries right away. don't be afraid to try something out and decide that it's not for you, or not be sure how you feel about it and then after some time maybe it feels better or worse, or to change your mind about something multiple times. it's a learning process and it's all new and exploring it is good.

Doess being nonbinary mean being agender, sort of equivalent to being without sexual attraction (asexuality)? Or if there's more axis to gender identity than just the cisgender-transgender concept, then what are they?

definitions differ, but generally there's an infinite number of ways to be nonbinary, because it's just anything outside of the binary. zero gender, multiple genders, partial genders, static or dynamic, etc. some nb people include themselves as trans and some don't. and even for binary people, cis and trans, there's gender non-comformity and trans people who don't medically transition at all or only choose some parts of it or do it in a non-standard way and cis people who pursue medical transition, etc, plus there's all kinds of ways to do social transition and gender presentation. there are cultures that don't conceptualize gender in a man-woman way, which i don't know nearly enough about to say anything of.

so it can be difficult to impossible to distinguish being nonbinary from just being a man or woman with complicated feelings about or expressions of gender, and it really comes down to what works for you.

i also agree that gender identity struggles can complicate attraction - dysphoria about your body can make you feel weird things about other people's bodies, and it's easy to confuse attraction and someone who has a body type that you want to have. orientation shift is a pretty common thing people experience as they transition - people who thought they liked or did like one gender now realize they like the other once they're more firmly in their new identity, or bi people become gay or straight, or vice versa.

so. it's complicated and lots of people struggle with knowing where exactly they stand and you wouldn't be alone in needing time and experimenting to figure things out!
posted by gaybobbie at 2:02 PM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

OK, so yes, gender identity/presentation and sexual orientation are separate on a broad level. What this means is that your gender identity/presentation does not necessarily correlate to your sexual orientation. This is sort of a gender/sexuality 101 way of explain to cis hetero folks that, for instance, masculine women can be straight.

In reality, it's often pretty deeply intertwined for people, though not always! I'm non-binary leaning towards the masculine side (I'm AFAB) and this has had a huge influence on my sexuality. Including making it extremely difficult for me to understand who I was attracted to and to have sex until recently, and if you want to talk about that with someone who's been there, feel free to memail me.

Doess being nonbinary mean being agender, sort of equivalent to being without sexual attraction (asexuality)? Or if there's more axis to gender identity than just the cisgender-transgender concept, then what are they?

Oh this is such a good question! This whole world is so new that I don't know if there's really a consensus, but here's how I think about it: for me, being non-binary is more like being bisexual than asexual. I do feel gender very strongly, so I don't consider myself agender, but I consider myself "between" the binary genders. And yeah, I think there is sort of an axis separate from cis/trans, that has to do with how strongly people feel gender, but I have not heard this talked about very much outside trans circles and, for instance, I don't know if there's been much academic work on it.

if you try to shed the binary "yes-no" "this-that" you grew up with, then what map or conceptualization does one use to visualize the whole universe of possibilities?

Because this is really territory that is pretty new for most of society, you kind of have to make your own way. Though a gender therapist can be VERY helpful, and the book How To Understand Your Gender recommended above, is very good.

Here's what I did: I tried a LOT of shit. I had a feeling I wanted to present more masculinely, so I read a bunch of trans/non-binary stuff online and just tried most of what I came across, even if it didn't seem like something I'd like. There were some surprises! Turns out that even though I do consider myself non-binary, I actually love he/him pronouns for myself. And wearing a binder makes me feel like I can do anything. Other things, like packing or being seen as a cis man, I can take or leave. For now at least! I'm about to try a low dose of testosterone to see how I feel about that. And so on.

A trans friend calls this his "bespoke gender" and I kind of love that. Within the limits of safety, you get to do whatever you want, you don't have to follow a script. And that's scary but also potentially liberating!
posted by the sockening at 2:12 PM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Turns out that biological sex is not a thing that can really be pinned down at all. There's no way to rigorously define it scientifically, because there are so many variables: chromosomes and hormones and genitals, all pulling one way or another. Sex is not really biological, but a socially constructed definition that has traditionally been binary but has sometimes recently grudgingly acknowledged the existence of intersex people. Many people still consider it more of a real, physical thing than gender but the science doesn't really back that up, as far as I can tell.

Gender identity and gender expression are two different things, but they're pretty intertwined. Identity is who you are, and expression is how you show it. Both can't help but take into account the gender roles that society has constructed. Some things in your culture are coded masculine and some are coded feminine. You can totally reject those boxes, but you can't really pretend they don't exist (I mean, you can, but the people around you won't, so they will still affect you). For example, cis-female butch lesbians don't want to be men, but they express their gender in ways society sees as masculine.

Lots of folx also consider their romantic attractions separate from their sexual attractions. You can be asexual without being aromantic, for instance. There are lots and lots of labels and sublabels (each with their own flag!) and some people find them comforting and some people find them restricting. The answers that feel right today might feel hopelessly dated in five years. Don't feel like you have to know all the answers before you can start exploring what makes sense to you.
posted by rikschell at 2:39 PM on October 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

I’m agender and I also consider myself to be nonbinary. I don’t think of myself as not having a gender just more like that gender is sort of a fuzzy grey cloud and I don’t think about it much.
posted by azalea_chant at 3:12 PM on October 17, 2019 [2 favorites]

Turns out I'm genderfluid. For me, this means that most of the time I'm a woman but I have phases a few times a year that generally last a couple weeks where I'm nonbinary. I'm never a man. I'm that person who says "she/they pronouns please" because sometimes I'm a she and sometimes I'm a they. This has taken me my whole life to pin down and of course I expect it to evolve over time. It can be seen as outdated but I like the term "demigirl" for myself. My sexual orientation is similarly annoyingly nuanced. I like the word bisexual and use it broadly in daily life, but right now to find the same folks as me I'd look for grey-ace pans, which means people who are attracted to folks of every gender but rarely desiring sex.

I wanted to say all that because as commenters above are talking about, it's all a la carte once you break out of the binary. (I love this metaphor honestly and will be stealing it for my own thanksgiving-parental-explanation purposes.) But also it's the kind of thing where words change meaning all the time, because a language shift is happening and we're in the middle of it. As more people with minority identities speak up and set their own terminology, we're going to get more labels, and old ones are going to change to accommodate the viewpoints of newcomers. So please, don't feel bad for mixing up terms or using something outdated. It's awesome that you're diving into this for yourself now.

Most broadly speaking I absolutely love the word queer, and when I boil it down that's what I am. I'm queer in my gender, in my sexuality, in my relationships, and probably wherever else I want to use the word. It's how I'm most comfortable identifying because it indicates variability. I get to explain myself to other queer people and they respond in kind because we both know that everyone's different, that one set of indicators doesn't imply another. When you say that you know you "don't fit", well I'm willing to bet you fit into queer in some way or another.
posted by Mizu at 6:10 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

I was coming to recommend How To Understand Your Gender as well.* (I must disclaim by saying I used to be acquainted with one of the authors. I know people thanked in the acknowledgements. It's very much the product a trans culture with which I am familiar.) I personally anti-recommend r/asktransgender (especially if your are AFAB, but it sounds like you're not), but I've been actively avoiding it for like the last two years.

For context, I identify as transmasculine and have done so since age 18 or 19. I am now in my early 30s. The "active" phase of my transition ended the better part of a decade ago. I came of age in what feels like a queerer trans culture than exists now. At the same time, things that were cultural touchstones for me are now seen as horribly retrograde.

then what map or conceptualization does one use to visualize the whole universe of possibilities?

I conceive of people as having their own individual genders, many of which may be kind of similar, and to which labels may be assigned. But even if you've been handed or fought for a label that is satisfactory enough, you still have your own individual gender, doing its own thing. Now, I think this is something of a minority opinion at the moment, as there's a lot of focus on people having a specific, identifiable gender and that gender coming with pronouns. This is really just another take on what the sockening described as bespoke gender. Sure, society has genders and they interact with your own gender, but you are still in charge of your own gender.

Does being nonbinary mean being agender, sort of equivalent to being without sexual attraction (asexuality)?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the words both 'non-binary' and 'agender', probably because "transmasculine" is the only identity word I'm really comfortable with. I definitely have a gender that I experience in ways agender people do not, but I have a "leave my gender the hell alone" impulse that has some overlap with what I hear from agender friends. I was definitely not non-binary in 2006. I probably would call myself non-binary if I was coming out today. My gender is the same--'non-binary' has moved and/or become more expansive and that gives me all kinds of imposter syndrome. But no one seems to have a definition of non-binary that isn't in some way circular that also reflects how it is used.

And then the million dollar question: sexuality vs gender identity. At the 101-level they're distinct and unconnected. In reality, they're much more muddled, at least for some people, because the relation between your gender and the other person's gender can be a factor for attraction. Halberstam's Female Masculinity is an interesting read here (though the book's thesis basically rests on my nonexistence, which is also why the chapter on trans men doesn't work**). To be clear, it is not a book that gets recommened in trans or transmasculine circles today. But it speaks to me in a very profound way even as someone who never identified as butch or a lesbian and it's the one thing I can think of addressing this question head on, even if in a limited scope. (Maybe Halperin's How To Be Gay, but I haven't read it, so I don't know how much it goes into the gendered aspects of gayness.)

*A side note on "the genderbread person". Long before it was an infographic (made by a cis person!), it was a workshop exercise (called Gender Gumby on the west coast; I learned of it as attributed to SMYRC in Portland). Part of the point was that asking people to locate themselves on an axis doesn't work very well (and people will locate themselves away from the lines of their own accord). Part of the point is to make people confront the ways in which they resort to stereotypes to do so. How to Understand Your Gender actually walks you through it in a way that's akin to how I remember leading the exercise, so I find a certain irony in "The genderbread person is awful, read this [very good] book instead."
**I first vanish in the introduction where Halberstam basically says "admittedly, female masculinity isn't limited to butches, but that's hard and complicated, so I'll ignore it" and then later basically berates trans men for subscribing to gender norms, but has used "butch" to fill up the space he wants them to occupy. And then there's me, who doesn't actually even describe themselves as a trans man.

posted by hoyland at 6:28 PM on October 17, 2019 [8 favorites]

Just in case this is relevant to you, since some of your questions sounded like it might be: there are a lot of us for whom gender is not an important part of our personal identity, so it can be confusing for us to hear people talk about how important their gender identities are to them. I'm a cis woman out of convenience. Most of the ways I think and some of the ways I behave are sterotypically masculine and I was aggressively masculine growing up, but I wouldn't consider making physiological or social changes to my gender because I just don't grasp what the point would be.

I've learned that gender is SUPER important to a lot of people as part of their identity (in the same way it's super important to me to be intelligent, an environmentalist, a responsible parent, etc.), and they sometimes put a lot of thought and energy into it, and feel like they're not "seen" if people misgender them. Some of them would consider themselves nonbinary in my position. More power to 'em! But if deep exploration of your gender isn't your thing, there's nothing wrong with THAT either.
posted by metasarah at 8:51 AM on October 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

An introduction to nonbinary gender identities: this website has lots of definitions and may be of help. The text is a chapter from a book (which I found helpful as I began exploring my sense of self as nonbinary).
posted by wicked_sassy at 2:02 PM on October 18, 2019

« Older Athletic pubalgia or "sports hernia" for runner   |   What does "inf. aut." mean? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.