Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Gender Question

In my discussion of "overcoming asexualization," I suggested an order in which we asses and value a person in our physical presence, often without knowing who they are. It often starts by recognizing the humanity of other people, followed by their gender; then we notice physical characteristics, then other characteristics (such as personality, manner of speech, etc.). Such assessments, or judgments, are nearly instantaneous and often autonomic; we rely on them to maintain a sense of security in our surroundings. Furthermore, it is clear that each level of judgment strongly informs the stages that follow.

In my previous discussion I addressed the first and third judgments (humanity and physical appearance), advocating recognition of the former over relying too heavily on the latter. However, I breezed over the question of our secondary judgments--gender, which is equally convoluted. One might wonder why I didn't use 'sex' in place of gender. I feel gender is the more appropriate term, as it is through the lens of gender, a social construction, that we can come to understand and identify another's sex. It begs the question: what is more important to us, our sex (which may or may not be physically obvious) or our gender, within the framework of satisfying a sexual orientation?

It seems like the LGBT community is one of the better places to test these questions, as it is in this world that gender expression is more tolerantly varied. Unfortunately, I don't have any of the answers nor any particularly profound observations in this context. From my own experience, I can resolutely say that I am not attracted to cross dressers of the male-to-female variety. These individuals may be male, but because they essentially de-emphasize or hide their secondary sex characteristics and take on the material props of the female gender, my instincts seem to be simply turned off. While my attraction toward men is a distinctly sexual attraction, i.e., to the male body (to the male sex) in its mature form, the range of what I am attracted to is clearly limited by my perception of the male body, i.e., within the context of gender. Men having what my culture would identify as 'female' characteristics I might easily find myself less physically attracted to. As a result, I probably could not rule out the possibility that I would be attracted to a female-to-male cross dresser, provided that I not know that she is a cross dresser and that she has all the features characteristic of a male gender (including the appearance of a male body and face). It is not simply a question of gender, however, because if someone possesses all the props of the male gender, but visible beneath are the physical traits of the opposite sex, my sexual instincts would again seem to be turned off.

It appears in my case, then, that gender is as much if not more important than sex in terms of my gut physical reactions to other people. Within any given sex, there is a broad distribution of possible body types and physical characteristics, and the male and female standard distributions in most physical traits overlap. Whenever the characteristics of one's own sex are emphasized by a person (for men, this might entail deciding to grow a beard), this choice seems to be at its heart an expression of gender (it makes the recognition of sex in our culture very easy). In this example, it is through gender, then, where we can identify what it more 'masculine', and thus, in my case, more appealing or attractive.

But gender itself is a highly complicated construct, and using it as our primary lens with respect to our sexual orientation can be limiting. Because gender is a culturally-defined concept and varies widely around the world, being attracted to a particular gender greatly limits the pool of potential mates. For example, certain tribal cultures in sub-Saharan Africa emphasize a type of body decoration and dress that Western culture may perceive as particularly feminine. As a gay man with an attraction to what my culture defines as masculine, I would not be 'sexually oriented' toward these men. In my case, the whole concept of a strict 'sexual' orientation is thrown into doubt, and perhaps "gender preference" would even be the better term to use. I am deeply, fundamentally attracted to the male sex, probably on some biological level, but only when it is perceptibly 'masculine.'

However, the concept of sexual orientation is also quite multidimensional, sometimes dynamic, and varies from person to person. For example, while I may be more oriented toward both the male sex and the male gender, there are other men who are attracted more to the gender but not the sex (ex., a woman with masculine characteristics), or the sex and not the gender (ex., male sex and female gender/characteristics), or some combination and/or range of these preferences. In this complex framework, the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality are even confusing at times.

While this discussion is hardly a comprehensive perspective of the gender issue, one conclusion that can probably be made from these observations, however, is that we have to give a point to the social constructivists. Gender, which is socially constructed, appears to play an important, and for some even a predominant, role in the development of a 'sexual' orientation, and it can also blur the lines between straight and gay. There are undoubtedly other biological factors at work, which are fed back into our social development and help define who we are and what we are attracted to. And because these various factors and preferences are so intermingled, fortunately we will never truly, completely understand why LGBT persons are the way they are. All that's really important is that we sit back, relax, and enjoy being such wonderful, interesting, and diverse beings.

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