Transmissions - “So, does that make you a lesbian?”
June 10, 2006
by Jamie Tyroler
This probably isn’t one of the more common questions you may hear, but I ’m occasionally asked which pronouns to use, are you more attracted to women or men, which restroom do you use, and other questions that most people would feel just a little too embarrassed to ask other people. Personally, I’m glad that people are willing to ask these and similar questions. Transgender people often turn many common beliefs inside out and upside down. Some answers are based on self-identity. Others are based on how you are perceived by others. And sometimes, the answers to those questions are in conflict with each other.
For example, let’s say a male-to-female transsexual is attracted to women. Does that make that person a lesbian? Is it only by self-identification that could make that person a lesbian, or do other lesbians have to also identify that person as a lesbian? Does it depend on that person having a penis or a vagina? Can a woman have a penis? Can a man have a vagina? Does it really matter?
These are probably not questions you often ponder, unless you’ve dealt with questions about your own gender identity or that of someone close to you.
Since the advent of routine sonograms during pregnancy, women are often told that their unborn child is either male or female based on the presence or absence of a penis. This small little blurry shape will start the process of many life options for this embryo. This child, months from being born, has already had decisions made about which restrooms to use in public, which locker room to use in gym class, which schools may be available in the future. Having a penis could make it difficult to attend an all-girl school in the future. Not having one could make it dangerous to attend an all-boy school.
So many things are decided for people based only on their genitals. However, gender isn’t always based on external genitalia. There are other factors, some easily tested, some very difficult to test, and probably some factors that no one knows about.
When a person who isn’t simply male or female, such as those who identify as bigendered, gender queer, intersexed, etc., identify as straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual? All our common terms for sexual orientation are based on people being either male or female with no exceptions. When other people are very attached to the labels of their sexual orientation, it can make life extremely difficult for those of us who do not really fit in the standard gender expectations.
Quite a few relationships involving a transgender person end when the transgender person starts transitioning. One of the most common reasons is that the partner does not want to change “sexual orientation.” For example, if the husband in a standard heterosexual marriage comes out as feeling that he needs to start living as a woman; it can force the wife to suddenly view herself as a “lesbian.” Most of us are very attached to concepts of being straight, gay, or bisexual. There aren’t a lot of people who are willing to “change” their sexual orientation because their partner is in the process of changing gender. Even though the “husband” is the same person, it can be extremely difficult for the “wife” to consider being in a same-sex relationship.
Should the gender of the partner be so important that people are willing to scrap long-term relationships if a partner is changing appearance and gender identity? Apparently this is most often the case. It doesn’t just happen in heterosexual relationships—I know of lesbian couples who have broken up because one of the partners begins to identify as male. The transgender partner could have been extremely masculine during the relationship, but some line gets crossed when that partner starts identifying as male.
The change in gender identity often destroys other relationships, too. One reason is the feeling that this person that you have known for a period of time is no longer the same person. Another reason is that people are worried that they might say the wrong name or pronoun. And some people feel betrayed when a friend changes gender identity or expression.
What many people fail to realize is that this person hasn’t had his or her memories erased. This person still has feelings and needs. One of the most basic human needs is to feel accepted by others. We are social animals. When people turn their backs on a transgender person, they make an already difficult period in that person’s life much worse.
I am a different person because of my transgender experience. A decade ago, I would have never thought about the possibility of not conforming to gender stereotypes. I wouldn’t have thought that it was possibly for someone to be both male and female or neither male nor female.
I’ve become more open minded now. I’ve come to the realization that each person has to live life in the way that seems best for them. But I’ve also realized that people should not make life choices based on genitalia. They shouldn’t limit themselves based on having a penis or a vagina (or both). But we do.
Although it may sound absurd, take some time and think about your relationships. Think about relationships that might have turned out differently because of your expectations on how someone may behave based on the gender stereotypes that you have. Think about the relationships that you may have avoided because the other person was male or female.