So I haven't seen the Bruce Jenner interview yet, but trans folks are certainly talking plenty about it. Some opinionated overview, in case you haven't been following the case. Yes Jenner is trans and has been transitioning for about the last year and a half, (and thus is a little “ahead” of me). Bruce has not provided the world with a female name yet, and said to use male pronouns for the interview. Whether we are intended to use them after the interview is less clear, but I will try to continue using male pronouns until I'm convinced that that's not the most respectful way to talk about Jenner (and I sympathize a lot with the tensions here personally). Despite this Jenner says "for all intents and purposes I am a woman." The media as a whole has handled the whole damn thing pretty shamefully, and quite unlike the cases of Lana Wachowski, Laura Jane Grace, or Chaz Bono. In particular fuck TMZ, but ABC and Diane Sawyer handled things well if not quite pitch perfectly. Also, of course, it bares repeating that the experiences of white multi-millionaire transwomen have important dis-similarities from the experiences of the rest of us and can serve as a distraction if we aren't careful.
This morning's discussion (well last weeks, I'm behind on my posting) is that Jenner claims to be attracted to women and to be a woman, but not to be gay. I have trans friends who want to stake out this position as well, and defend Jenner for claiming it, but I also have trans friends who want to insist that if you are a woman who is attracted to other women, then you are a gay woman whether you admit it or not. And I definitely feel pulled both ways myself here, so I want to explore the question a little.
Most immediately there is a tension between gayness as a pattern of attraction and gayness as a matter of identity, culture and/or community. The American Psychological Association recently defined sexual orientation as “an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation also refers to a person’s sense of identity based on those attractions, related behaviors, and membership in a community of others who share those attractions.” Each side of this definition can be problematized (When do isolated incidents become a “pattern?” What if romantic and sexual attractions conflict? What if someone identifies one way but has community membership in another way? Etc.) But more saliently, the two halves of this definition can easily be in conflict, and in several ways. Consider the classic “closet case,” a man who has an enduring pattern of attraction to other men, but nonetheless self-identifies as straight and tries to have minimal or adversarial interactions with the broader community of gay males. Are we to say they are gay despite their opposition to gayness, because of the first part of the definition, or that they aren't gay because of the second part? Usually I think we lean to saying they are gay despite themselves in this case. But shift it just a little, imagine a black guy, who occasionally has sex with other men, but wants to keep it on the “down low” and doesn't feel comfortable using the terms and markers of white gay male culture, and uses terms like MSM instead of gay or bi. Do we still want to say that they are gay despite their own self-understanding? What if the person we are thinking about has a pattern of attraction to males, but only actually has sex with other men for money, or only while in prison, or other border cases?
Or to switch over to Jenner, and I and many other transwomen. I have an enduring pattern of attraction to mostly women, no doubt. But am I women enough myself to count as a lesbian or a gay woman? I'm women enough already to call myself trans, and to correct people when they use male pronouns for me, but I still accept neutral pronouns more often than I ask for female ones. And I certainly don't feel I can demand female pronouns yet. Maybe someday. There isn't really a good word for a gender-neutral person attracted primarily to women.* Gynophile is an old word, but has been used in a bunch of different ways by Freud, Chodorow, Money, and especially Blanchard, who I dislike intensely. Yuck, I'll pass. Jenner doesn't even ask for neutral pronouns yet. And lesbians are not just any old set of women, they are a community that has become tight-knit over the years, often in response to rejection from biological families and repression from the culture at large. Lesbian culture definitely has gateways for women who have recently come out to themselves to enter and learn the culture. Ciswomen undergo a process of shifting from a mere pattern of lesbian attractions, to identity and community membership as lesbians too. But these entryways function so-so or worse for transwomen in transition. Often we are simply not welcome in lesbian spaces and at lesbian events. And even when we are, the processes of learning the culture and coming to feel like a member of the community don't work the same for transwomen as they do for ciswomen. My case is even trickier, because the dating scene is one of the main gateways into community, and as a married person I've never been part of the lesbian dating scene.
This exchange was clearly intended as sarcasm, but this IS how it works in the case of trans folk. I have an actual letter from my therapist, and I celebrated when I got it. I haven't done the paperwork with the state yet, and it's expensive and I may not get around to it for a while (especially since all 50 states still only allow M or F as genders, rather than the broader palates allowed by Facebook, or countries like New Zealand, Australia and India.) Some transfolk never get the gender marker on their driver's licence changed, some never get a letter from their therapists (either because they find an informed consent clinic, or don't wind up getting HRT). But, yeah, I did some of the paperwork, and not other bits. Have I done enough paperwork to count as gay? I feel ambivalent about it myself, and whether I am accepted as a lesbian by other LGBT folks varies greatly. It is entirely possible to interpret the LGBT acronym as implying that I am not an L, because I am a T instead... sigh ... that's one of the many problems of mixing categories of different types in parallel.
My current running joke is that I am Chian. When I get the blank look, I explain that Chios is the island right next to Lesbos in the Aegean Sea. So I'm not exactly a lesbian yet, but I'm definitely in the vicinity. Even the term "lesbian" is an odd one. Its an old Victorian understanding of same sex attraction, parallel to terms like Sapphist, Uranian, or invert. It's a metaphorical reference to Sappho of Lesbos one of the great poets of antiquity, who wrote about attraction to women. Thus it was an oblique code phrase for the learned to pass information to each other without necessarily scandalizing others. My older very Christian friend Jim Stilwell read an anonymous Hoosier poem from the turn of the last century, about a guy getting up the courage to kiss a lady, at our open mike poetry in April. And he totally missed the ending where writer promises never to bother the lady again now that she has revealed to him that she is a follower of Sappho. That was how the term worked a century ago. (BTW, there is plenty of reason to suspect that the historical Sappho was what we would now call bisexual, despite how the Victorians and Edwardians used her partial memory.) So it always seems odd to me to claim that some is a lesbian without admitting it to themselves. The term has roots in metaphor, being metaphorically like Sappho of Lesbos, so taking it really literally seems counter-intuitive to me. Am I metaphorically like Sappho of Lesbos who lived over 2,500 years ago? Er ... kinda? Is Bruce Jenner? Sorta, I guess.
But is there space for a trans woman to be primarily attracted to other women without being a gay woman? It's surely normal for cis and trans folks to go through a questioning phase where they aren't certain yet. And it can take a while to get comfortable using terms and self-describing in ways that are unfamiliar, even if you agree they "technically" fit you. But those aren't the real problem. The real problem is that attraction, identity and community are all separate things, and we all sorta know it, but we lack good terms for distinguishing them. You can have the attractions, but not the identity or community membership. Jenner has sought out other high profile transwomen to ask advice and is trying to find ways to be a genuine part of the trans community and culture. Has Jenner worked to become part of the lesbian community yet? I have no idea. There is a person I talk to sometimes, who once identified as trans, but got sorta exiled from her local trans community, and is now leery about calling herself "trans." She experiences the same tension, admitting that she "technically" counts as trans, but feeling uncomfortable calling herself trans any more. The terms, taken as labels or definitions, seem broadly inclusive, the actual experience of using the terms rarely lives up to the inclusiveness of the definitions. Prescriptively we intend the labels to include folk who "count" whether they self-identify or not, descriptively we are often leery of applying the terms to border cases (except when we are accusing people of being in denial). Indeed, for gender terms, there is a pretty clear ethos in the trans community of take people's self-descriptions and designations seriously. But when it comes to orientation, we seem far more cavalier about applying our understanding of someone's patterns of behavior to them, regardless of their opinion in the matter. And this can lead to bi-erasure, false outing, and all kinds of other problems. Indeed, even if we are thinking of patterns of attraction, how we categorize the possible answers can be as tricky as which question we are trying to ask, when we ask about sexual orientation. Asexuals seem like a legitimate sexual orientation to me, but they tended to get erased in a lot of understandings of sexual orientation, probably because they are only beginning to organize as a community or culture. Or consider terms like "sapiosexual" or "submissive" those sure seem like they are describing enduring patterns of emotional, romantic, and sexual attraction, even if they aren't using gender as their main way of categorizing, (and both do have identities and communities that sometimes go with the terms). Is "submissive" a sexual orientation? Suppose we call someone a bisexual because they seem to date both men and women, and they reply no, I'm a submissive, I'm attracted to people who will dominate me, and whether they are male or female is less important to me. Do we claim that we were still technically correct, or admit that their self-understanding is probably more salient than our external view? If Jenner wants to insist that he is a woman, and attracted to other women, but is not a gay woman, well I might be curious as to why he thinks that, but I think it's possible for those three claims to be all true together, and I don't think it's my job to second guess other people's claims about their orientation.
On the flip side, I had a cis friend who identified as a lesbian for decades and was clearly in the community and fit the attraction pattern. Then she started dating a trans guy. And she had to admit that she no longer fit the strict definition, and started using words like bi and queer instead. But she still had deep roots in the lesbian community, and still had the identity in her own head and heart. It was HARD for her to accept that she no longer got to self-describe as lesbian. She did it out of respect for her boyfriend, and I'm proud she did, but no one should pretend it wasn't hard for her. My wife likes the term heteroflexible now that my transness calls her own heterosexuality into question, but the parallel homoflexible doesn't seem to get nearly as much use (and sounds clunky and often gets interpreted as betrayal ... sigh) ... An Indianapolis group I know uses the phrase "past, present, and future women" and unpack that by saying "In other words, if you were assigned female at birth, or currently identify as a woman, or are actively working toward that, you are welcome at xxxxx." Bruce and I can fit there. But we can't assume that everyone who uses the terms lesbian or gay women intend to include us in their communities, or identities, regardless of what formal definitions they would give if asked.
I think it's very disingenuous to imagine that sexual orientation is matter purely of attraction pattern, without any reference to self-identity, culture or community. Of course, one of the reasons we continue to talk this way is because of ongoing fights on politics and religion, especially on the topic of choice. You don't choose your pattern of attraction, you do choose some elements of your self-identity, behavior and community membership. The truth that sexual orientation is both not a choice, and also partially a choice, can look like it is unnecessarily giving ground to anti-LGBT ideologies that want to portray LGBT identities as pure choices (and morally wrong ones at that). But my gender is a complex mix of things I didn't get to choose (including my body, and my brain, and the dysphoria I experience, what it says on some documents about me), and things I DO get to choose (including how I present myself publicly and interact with others, and what it says on other documents about me.) I fear that sexual orientation is like that too, a complex mix of chosen and unchosen elements interlaced tightly together
I am slowly learning lesbian culture, and I do feel genuinely closer to being a lesbian than I was a year ago. I also pass as female better, and get more acceptance from other lesbians. But it's all a work in progress ...
P.S. Everyday Feminism just ran a little article about this comic by from the strip Robot Hugs. Notice that even though the artist K, is non-binary, genderqueer, and careful to only talk about their sexuality with the term "queer" the editors of Everyday Feminism describe it and title their version of it in terms of "lesbian" sexuality. I have many things I want to say about this comic, including how it is bittersweet for me, and I recognize myself in all 3 of the main characters, but they keep coming out wrong, so for today let me simply note that I guess the term for a non-binary person who is attracted to mostly women IS lesbian, according to the editors of Everyday Feminism. At least for some non-binary genderqueers. ... sigh