Is ‘cisgender gay man’ an oxymoron?

Is ‘cisgender gay man’ an oxymoron?
Liberace Photo: Wikimedia Commons
So I’ve been thinking about the most common way to categorize LGBTQ identities at the moment – the idea that sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression are three separate things – and about its limits. Specifically, can gay men really be described as cisgender, and, if so, what does that say about the usefulness of this system of thought?

Right now I just have a jumble of random thoughts on this topic and maybe I’ll develop it into something more coherent later. But for now:

While there are some gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender people who believe that we don’t have much in common, it’s safe to say in 2017 that there is a broad consensus among LGBTQ people involved in community life and activism that we’re all in this together.

Now think about how strange that is, if gender identity and sexual orientation are totally separate concepts, why would so many people come to the conclusion that we all share enough of an experience that we not only can but should work together? I’ve seen some lists online about why transgender and LGB people share a fight, usually with items like “we’re both fighting the religious right” and “oppression against one group is oppression against everyone,” but I don’t find these lists all that convincing. And I’m saying that even though there’s no question in my mind that L, G, B, T, and Q all belong together.

To say this another way: gay people and Muslims are both oppressed groups in the US, both are targets of the religious right, and both groups often use the same laws to advocate for equal treatment. But is anyone pushing for us to call it the LGBTQM community?

It’s as if politically aware queer people have accepted in their heads that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate, but they haven’t accepted it in their hearts.

The idea of gay men as a “third gender” is pretty old, and even the grandmother of the modern gay rights movement was partial to it. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a 19th century German gay rights advocate, coined the term “Uranian” before we even had the word “homosexual” to describe gay men. To Ulrichs, a Uranian was a third gender, “a female psyche in a male body.” Magnus Hircshfeld, a German physician and sexual freedom, also worked under this theory in the early 20th century, although it should be noted that there were people working with them at the time who disagreed with the idea that gay men were inherently feminine.

Which is to say that, along with narratives from non-Western cultures about sexuality and gender, the idea that sexual orientation and gender identity are separate is one that appeared in a very specific context. That doesn’t make the idea wrong; it just means that we should be cautious about its universality.

In the post war gay rights movement, the same idea comes up again. In the 1970’s, gay hippies would sometimes describe themselves as a third gender that could bridge the energetic gap between men and women.

Harry Hay famously wore pearls when she went out in traditionally male clothing because she “never again wanted to be mistaken for a hetero.” There’s some truth there – the average straight person several decades ago would assume that a stranger who appears male and is wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and pearls was gay. I think most straight people in 2017 would make the same assumption.

Writing at this site means that I have to read a lot of stories about hate crimes against LGBTQ people. A question that I’ve been asked before about attacks on gay men is “How did the attacker know that the victim was gay?”

Well… some of these stories have video that includes interviews with the victims, and watching enough of those and hearing the gay boys’ voices and seeing their hand movements made the answer really clear. But still, those people usually don’t identify as trans or genderqueer, just as gay men.

A recent study on housing discrimination two sent similar-looking people in pairs to ask for an apartment. The two people in the pairs said they had the same incomes and educations, etc.; the only difference between the two people was that one mentioned a stereotypically male name when talking about their partner, the other used a female name. The actors who played these “gay” and “straight” people were of any sexual orientation and were randomly assigned a role.

That’s all well and good for measuring discrimination based on sexual orientation itself, but my instinct tells me that the discrimination faced by gay men and lesbians on the housing market is also related to gender expression. The people making the study seemed aware of LGBTQ issues and would probably argue that masculine gay men and feminine lesbian women exist, that gender expression should be the subject of a separate study… but, really, the percentage of gay men and lesbians who express their gender differently from cultural stereotypes of men and women is large enough that it’s part of the gay experience with oppression.

A few years ago, a queer discussion group that involved mostly people who would be described as cisgender gay men – but also one trans woman – started with the facilitator asking for a round of preferred pronouns.

It was a hoot to hear boy after boy say some permutation of “He or she, I don’t care.” When it was the trans woman’s turn, she said that she does care, and everyone made supportive sounds when she expressed her preference for “she/her” pronouns.

My take on cisgender people is that they really care about what pronouns people use when referring to them. Calling a drunk frat guy “she” is an insult that can lead to violence or laughter, depending on how it’s executed, but it’s not considered an acceptable way to describe him.

This reflects the way I interact with gay men generally, who I often call “girl” or “ladies.” I’ve been referred to with “she” lots of times and I sometimes call my partner “she,” depending on who I’m talking to.

I once met up with my straight brother after hanging out with the gays and accidentally said “Heeeeeeeeey girl!” Fortunately he just thought it was a weird joke.

Getting personal, I’ve always been uneasy when people call me a “man.” When I was in my 20’s, I just thought that I was uncomfortable with the idea of being an adult. But it’s not going away.

I once did a workshop that was for gay men, and the facilitators’ language was very “man.” Like “Look at the men around you” and “Feel the presence of the men next to you” sort of thing. I freaked out and almost left. Fortunately I talked with one of the facilitators and he effectively gave me permission to mentally replace every instance of “man” with whatever term I wanted. It came up in the group because I was far from the only person weirded out by that.

And it was a great workshop and the facilitators are beautiful people, I don’t want to take away from that.

I’m really gung-ho about the term “cisgender,” but I’ll admit that I’ve been mentally defining it as “not transgender.” Having a word for not being transgender that isn’t stigmatizing to trans people is a great idea.

But now I see the definition changing – or maybe I just never really thought about it enough. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” What does “correspond” really mean? What level of comfort is required to say that my gender identity “corresponds” with the sex I was assigned at birth? Or maybe it’s the implication that everyone has a stable, definable gender identity that makes this definition seem off?

Another person (don’t know the original source) defines cisgender as people who have “a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one’s sex.” Well, that’s definitely not gay men, since a major part of the “gender role society considers appropriate” for men is loving and being attracted to women.

If you haven’t noticed at this point, I’m friends with a lot of old gay hippies, and I’ve had to explain the concept of being non-binary a few times. Two times a person who I had always thought of as gay men responded with something like “Oh, that sounds like me! I never felt like either a man or a woman.”

Who am I to tell them what they are? I asked one of them which pronouns she prefers, and he said they didn’t care.

Here’s a passage I found from a queer feminist writer in her definition of “cisgender“:

According to some people, however, cisgender is a problematic, perhaps even self-defeating, term because it can be interpreted as suggesting that those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, for example, but not as transgender, experience no mismatch between their own gender identity and gender expression and cultural expectations regarding gender identity and expression.

Unfortunately, that’s all she says about that.

Dividing sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression into three separate categories is a system of thought, theory applied to observed reality. There is no “truth” or “falsehood” to saying “sexual orientation and gender identity are separate” in the way that saying “the car is blue” would either be true or false. The former is a conclusion someone can come to based on lots of subjective factors; the latter is objective reality.

Noting that it’s theory and not a direct observation doesn’t deny that it can be useful (why would we think up theory if it wasn’t useful?). And having this theory handy gives some people the language necessary to express their desires, which makes them feel better.

But there are always downsides to applying a defined model to an amorphous and chaotic reality: 1) the model will always simplify a complicated situation, making some things stand out while hiding other things, and 2) the system of thought is a product of the culture that produced it and so not everyone is going to accept it.

Big Freedia, Liberace, David Bowie, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson could all have their gender identities described as “cisgender man.” I need more nuance in my life than that.

None of this is meant to imply that the term “cisgender” is useless. Since many people unfamiliar with this subject think that being transgender is a sexual orientation, then it’s a good thing that there’s a simple way to explain that no, it’s not.

What I’m getting at is that people had it backwards before: transgender isn’t a sexual orientation, but gay is a form of gender diversity.

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