Letter from a GQ Activist
Dear Patrick: You promised several weeks ago to write a column about genderqueer people and sexuality. I was and am offended by fiction and non-fiction in which the author assumes that only men have penises and only women have vaginas. I would appreciate it if you would live up to this commitment and stop speaking from a heteronormative position. Even though I understand you are supposed to be transgender, there are many so-called trans individuals who do not understand the damage that has been done by polarized genders and by the patriarchal system of male privilege. People will not be free to find their own identities until this entire system is dismantled, and we come to understand that gender has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with social construction and conditioning.
Dear GQ Activist: I will be happy to write the column I promised you if you will stop swatting me over the head with your Gender Studies textbook. I agree with some of what you have to say, but not all of it. And this doesn’t mean I am a traitor to the cause of equal rights for trans people. Nor does it mean—and how dare you suggest this—that I am not trans myself.
People’s politics are usually based on life experience. Since none of us have identical lives, we are never going to have lockstep definitions of what is wrong with the world or the best way to fix it. There are many different kinds of gender discomfort (also called gender dysphoria)—some relatively minor, some so deep that they require radical action to alleviate. Some people can’t identify with any gender; others are strongly drawn to a gender other than the one that appears on their birth certificate. I have often defended genderqueer people to friends of mine who have transitioned from female to male or male to female. I have said that it is very important to make space for folks who want to eliminate gender from their lives as much as possible, or for people who embody the qualities of both men and women, or who slip from one gender to another, depending on their needs or feelings at any given time in their lives. I don’t care if it is harder for mainstream society to understand genderqueer people, or if it’s difficult to ask legislators to create identity papers and categories for folks who don’t want to specify that they are female or male. These are people who would suffer a great deal if they were not able to live their truth. This is what all of us need, to be able to understand and then live out what is most authentic in our hearts.
In my case, during this time in my history, I am happiest living as a man. I am a person with an extensive history in the leatherdyke community, and I am not ashamed of my life as a woman. During those decades, I did the best that I could to manage my gender dysphoria until I just could not bear living as a woman any longer. I believe there was a reason why I chose to be born at this particular time with these truths in my life. Maybe the only reason was to say out loud, “We cannot continue to attack and murder those who are different among us, and still call ourselves human beings.” You may think that because I use male pronouns, refer to my genitals as a cock, take testosterone, and cultivate a beard that I have nothing in common with people who are genderqueer. That simply isn’t true. If nothing else, we can have mutual respect in common, and be gentle with one another’s pain. We can be allies against the people who would like to remove us from the social landscape.
One of the things that can’t be predicted about trans people is how we will feel about or experience our sexuality. This has to do with the problem of living in a body that does not quite match the image we have of our deepest or most real self. For someone like me, that means that I wanted to take testosterone to give myself as many male secondary sexual characteristics as possible. I wanted muscles and a beard and a deep voice. I got surgery to shape my chest into a torso that looks male. I am happier now with all of these changes than I was before, even though a lot of people told me I was a beautiful woman. I didn’t transition because I was unsuccessful at being a woman or because I was an ugly woman. I transitioned because every time I moved or thought about myself, I saw a man walking, talking, holding someone’s hand, picking up groceries, driving a car, etc. That man was me, but nobody else could see him. If I had not taken steps to make him visible, and to become one with him, I don’t know what would have happened to me.
However, genital surgery is expensive. It has improved a great deal, but I can’t afford it, and I am not 100% happy with the results that I have seen. So I have chosen to keep the genitals that I have for now. My sex life requires a lot of compromises. I rely on partners who are clear about my male gender. In order to validate me, they need to be able to understand that some men have some or all of the female parts they were born possessing. To put it crudely, “Some men have vaginas.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that all trans men use those parts. Some FTMs like penetration, whether anal or vaginal, and others don’t. We can be tops, bottoms, or switches.
Similarly, for many male-to-female trans people, taking female hormones and getting surgery provides a body that looks very passable. They also often go through electrolysis to remove facial and body hair, a lengthy, expensive, and painful process. While female hormones cause some breast development, many trans women use implants for results that make them happier with their silhouettes. Some can’t afford or don’t want genital surgery. In their case, you could perhaps say that they are “women with penises,” although it’s important to note that very few trans people would use this sort of language for our bodies.
FTMs are likely to refer to the vagina as “the front hole,” and trans women will call their external genitals a clitoris or vulva; they may think of the back hole as a vagina and want to fantasize or talk about vaginal intercourse while having anal sex. Fantasy is key for many trans people’s sex lives. It gets us past the rough spots where our bodies don’t quite match up what we wish they could be.
For genderqueer people, the situation becomes rather more complicated. If you are not male or female, it isn’t exactly accurate to think of you as a “woman with a penis” or a “man with a vagina.” Genderqueer people come in all different types and have many different sexual orientations. Some have little desire to engage in sex; many others have active sex lives. In order to accurately describe a genderqueer person’s body, in terms they have agreed to and understand, you will often need to use a creative vocabulary that trans people have created to fill a gap in the English language. Saying “hir” instead of “his” or “shim” instead of “she” is one example. Genderqueer people usually do not mind answering respectful questions about what pronouns or gender labels they prefer. There is no substitute for talking, gently and respectfully, about how each trans person sees their body and what terms are hot to use instead of demeaning.
For me, this means I want my partner to talk about my cock. If they go down on me, I want them to act the same way they would act if they were performing fellatio. I have had trans women lovers who want me to refer to their clitoris and pussy or cunt even if these body parts are anatomically a penis and an anal opening. This turns us both on, and since it is what their mental body map says should be going on between their legs, why not accommodate their self-image to get us both off? Sex is no time to insist on medical accuracy, especially if doing so will hurt somebody’s feelings and ruin the encounter. If I was ever with a person who appeared to be female who wanted me to talk about her great big cock, I’d be happy to do so—as long as that turned her on and made her happy. I don’t really care whether the cock in question is made out of latex or flesh, or whether (just as an example), she is quadriplegic and unable to feel anything below the waist.
Terminology doesn’t just apply to what you call somebody’s body parts. It can also apply to the sex acts themselves. I have talked somebody through barebacking when we are really using a condom. I’ve deflowered a virgin who was 50 years old and quite experienced, thank you. My wet index finger has been everything from a human penis to … well, just think about it for a second. If somebody wants to be fucked, but they can’t tolerate penetration, we can always touch the parts that like to be touched and just talk about what they can only fantasize about.
Sex is all about imagination and the energetic connection between the people involved. One of the ways to create that connection is to use the right words, to say, “I get you, I see you the way you want to be seen, I understand who you really are inside. Do you want me inside? Should I stay outside? I will be gentle as long as you need me to be gentle, and if you need me to go fast and hard, I will go fast and hard. I am here to reflect what you want and need me to give you.”
Sex without gender is an interesting goal to pursue. I don’t know if I have personally ever experienced it, but I think it is a worthwhile idea to explore, if only because it tests our imaginations. Why is it that we are so dependent upon gender to tell us what to feel and how to behave? Is this healthy? Has it made us happy? Is there a better way to relate to one another? I am hoping that someday human beings will be free enough to answer these questions. If any of you, readers dear, decide to make this experiment, or have done so in the past, I would be happy to hear from you. Let me know how it all turned out. I am sure there are other readers who will benefit from your knowledge.