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Why are gay women so butch?

December 16, 2013

There is currently plenty of confusion surrounding sexual orientation and gender expression. First of all, I should say that I have my qualms about assuming that sexuality comes as an “orientation”, or a fixed absolute that only changes following brain damage or a major trauma. I agree that people should be allowed to identify however they like if they feel it is helpful for their sense of identity or a way to overcome stigma, but personally I am reticent to use the words. I prefer to state my preference not as a one-word adjective so as not to head off certain people whom I have yet to meet on the basis of what I consider to be more of a detail than a fixed point on the map (biological sex).

Besides, I see more evidence that sexual preference is a least partially determined by environmental factors, since single sex environments tend to facilitate same-sex relationships. It sort of suggests we’re all just horny, and if we can’t find our number one favourite, we’ll take whatever’s going. Following that, we might change our preference in relation to what we’ve recently tried; like an acquired taste.

As some people insist, a person who goes through this change might merely have been “bi all along” but claiming this seems like an unnecessary addition to a theory that was incomplete in the first place. We’ve made things more difficult for ourselves by imagining that sexual preference is fixed. Ironically, by attempting to simplify it down into three basic sub categories, we have complicated the situation further, because we have had to introduce modifiers such as “usually”, “most of the time” or “used to be”.

Our neat little boxes have started to fray at the edges. These boxes existed because we allowed ourselves to be convinced that sexuality is biologically predetermined, on the basis that it is a strong part of our identity which for many of us cannot be easily changed. Nothing there indicates a definite biological pre-determination. Really, for those who genuinely don’t care about other people’s sexual orientation, it shouldn’t matter a hoot whether it is genetic, constructed or anywhere in between. It surely only matters to people who are already prejudiced, or perhaps to the insecure whose sense of identity is dependent on believing that it is absolute and constant.

In a world where homophobia still exists on a wide and terrifying scale, it makes sense to say that sexual orientation is something that can’t be changed, even if that is not the whole truth. The alternative is to encourage those individuals who are already prejudiced to hijack the more nuanced view of sexuality and turn it into justification to force change upon people whose sexual expression doesn’t match their ideal. In general, I’m a great believer in lying to idiots. Sometimes you have to tell them what they need to hear in order to get them to change their more repugnant viewpoints. You can deal with details and complications later down the line when you’ve established an absolute majority of non-prejudice.

If sexual orientation exists – if – then obviously it must be in relation to biological sex, since its definition is dependent on it. Sexual orientation is one’s preference for one sex in relation to one’s own sex. If you had no concept of biological sex, the concept of “homosexuality” could not exist. Here we see that problems are occurring already. People whose gender expression differs from their biological sex (transgendered people and gender queer or neutral people) will not say that they are are drawn to a particular sex based on their sex, but rather that they are drawn to a particular gender in relation to their gender.

This makes it tricky, because gender is not dependent on the nuts and bolts of of human anatomy, which means that attraction must not be either. It must be related to our perception of someone’s identified gender – their idea of themselves. The only way we as a third party can tap into that is to empirically identify gender expression. The problem with that is that gender expression may be nothing more than the result of external, social pressures.

I think that in order to tackle this, you have to say that attraction, as a complex physiological reaction, is dependent on a number of factors, some of which are physical – i.e., they do relate to biological sex and not gender. Even then, our definition of biological sex falls down, because certain people will overlook, shall we say, the absence of key body parts, in favour of an overall picture of a female or male person.

It makes sense to me – genital organs make up a very small part of one’s overall appearance and are really just functional things for reproduction. Our preoccupation with them is too overwhelming to be entirely natural; I tend to assume that when someone’s reaction is one of abject disgust to anything different to the norm, that is a socially conditioned response. We have certain expectations of what male and female bodies look like and are not given any flexibility. As a species, we react to the different (particularly when there is an apparent “opposite”; a misconception in itself in this instance) with suspicion and distrust. So, the absence of any education in regard to intersexed or transsexual people will foster and encourage the unhelpful human gut instinct.

Our tendency to work from a baseline of “normal” versus “other” has led us to associate potentially unrelated traits and spot patterns which are only there thanks to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider this; lurking at the back of our minds, there remains the stereotype that gay women cannot be (or typically are not) feminine. We tend to assume that sexual orientation and gender expression are related. There is no reason why they should be, if attraction is related to biological sex but not necessarily gender expression.

Even if we consider that gender identity plays a part in attraction, this is still different to gender expression. It is not uncommon that, say, transmen who were very masculine in their expression when they were female soften and become more feminine when they are male. Since their biological sex has fallen in line with their gender identity, they can feel free to express their gender however they like without fear that they will be mistaken for a member of their initial sex.

Incidentally, it’s worth being aware that trans sexuality is often extra complex. Some people talk about the existence of “the gay gene” that makes you gay from birth. Evidence for that could be found in the fact that the sexual preference of trans people can sometimes flip 180 post-transition. That is to say, they were attracted to women when they were female (thus, “gay”), then when they became male, their attraction shifted to men (still “gay”). In this case, sexual “orientation” is bound to at least some people’s biological sex; it is not attached to their gender or dependent on their gender expression, because often these do not change. That is to say, they are just as masculine in their outlook as they always were.

I can vouch for the fact that many trans people end up identifying as bisexual. Perhaps there are many more bisexuals than we think in general – perhaps it is actually the majority state and we are just currently unaware of it because we are not open minded about ourselves enough to explore the option. We are uncomfortable with the prospect of what we view as being a drastic personal change. I’d say that considering a shift in sexual preference a drastic change is a mistake – society’s mistake.

I would imagine that the reason that trans people feel free to come out it because they have already gone through a large identity change and are free to reinvent themselves without feeling that the judgement on them will be too harsh to bear. They have the freedom to express themselves the way they are, rather than the way they “ought” to be, because when you are as far out of the social norm as a trans person, there really is no “ought”.

I believe that this freedom of expression accounts more for the apparent masculinity of gay women or femininity of gay men. These a problematic terms, which I will discuss later. For now, let’s say that the reason that gay people will “gender bend” is not because they are more naturally inclined, but because they can. We expect it, because we link gender expression and sexuality in our minds. Our expectation facilitates an environment where people of variant sexualities feel free to have variant gender expression. What might be happening is simply that comfortably self-identified straight people of variant gender expression are not embracing it because they find that their sexual orientation is inconveniently misinterpreted.

Or, it would work the other way around. For some people, their sense of sexual orientation is strong enough at given moments in time that they have no choice but to express it. This puts them in an “out” group automatically and they are given no option to conform. Their inability to conform may extend also to their gender expression. Whereas other people, gay, straight or bi may find that conforming to set ideas of gender expression is easy, others may feel that it is not. So, the people who find that it is easy automatically do it, without questioning what they are doing. If you fit easily into society, typically you do not seek ways in which to be separate from it. That requires a particular mindset of disenchantment which is likely to come after having discovered, rather than created, one’s own isolation from the crowd.

At this stage, it could only be inconvenient for a gay woman to express her gender as feminine. People may not believe she is gay, people who she wants to pick up may not be aware of her attempts and may overlook them. She herself may be overlooked. In addition, if she has a preference for typically feminine looking or behaving women, as well as all the problems above, if she does find herself in a relationship, onlookers my be incredulous about the fact, believing that one of them must “be the man” in the relationship This shows the extent to which we’re still stuck on gender roles.

Here I’ll take a look at the words “feminine” and “masculine” which I have been using, none to happily, for the sake of convenience. Does anyone know what these are? Once upon a time a typically feminine (and thus attractive) woman would be “meek and mild”. These days, I and many of my peers scoff at that, not only because we meet few people who we’d consider to be meek and mild, but also because it’s not held as attractive. If it’s not held as attractive, then its unlikely to be held as traditionally feminine, since femininity is a stance still identified by society at large as being primarily for use as the object of attraction.

It’s difficult to pinpoint in time when and why particular attributes became associated with masculinity and femininity. Sometimes I think the problem is language; we say “strength” and we mean both emotional and physical strength. Physical strength is a more male thing, thanks to testosterone. But emotional strength can’t be quantified in this way, so to use the same term is misleading. Buried in the definition of emotional strength is implied stoicism, more typically associated with men (as I have mentioned, men have more trouble crying etc.), but stoicism is only one part of emotional strength. Resilience and an ability to get on with things are traits we are identifying as being more female – suicide rates are universally higher among males and I think it would be a mistake to suggest that they have a) more mental health issues or b) more problems.

It seems a nonsense idea to try to identify traits as being masculine or feminine when we are living in an age when “male” and “female” don’t dictate gender identity. What is “female” or “male” about gossiping or bottling up emotions? These have to be learned responses to some extent. There isn’t any reason that we have discovered suggesting that a Y chromosome or more oestrogen can cause those kinds of behaviours. The fact that we disagree more year by year about which traits are more masculine or feminine (I had trouble thinking up the two I gave) must show that they are constructed notions. Sexuality may be affected by social factors, but it won’t be affected by trivial shifts in our definitions of gender expression.

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