Originally published March 15, 2012 in PQ Monthly.
When a homo gets into a relationship with someone of the opposite sex (cisgender or trans), how does that affect their sexual identity?
In other words, is a lesbian who dates a man (trans or cisgender, gay or straight) still a lesbian? Or does her identity shift or expand to reflect her partner’s identity? And what if she were to date someone who was genderqueer/third gender/Two Spirit? Is there even a word for that?
It all boils down to one larger question: Is our sexual identity defined by the gender identities of the people we date or is it an intrinsic part of ourselves that determines who we date (or something else entirely)? For those who are exclusively gay, or historically bisexual, this may seem obvious. For those with more complex dating histories, sexual identity is not always so simply defined.
Some gay and lesbian folks who find themselves in hetero relationships hold on to their previous identities. (This is also often true of straight-identified folks whose previously opposite-sex partners transition.) For those who define sexual identity by the gender of one’s date, this can be disconcerting. Bisexual friends may express frustration that the individual does not claim a bisexual identity. Partners (especially those who have transitioned) may feel that their partner’s sexual identity invalidates their own gender identity.
This perspective is a common one, and one which the LGBTQ rights movement often perpetuates through its focus on queer folks being “born this way.” It is currently a popular stance to take, given the perception that LGBTQ people will be less prone to discrimination if lawmakers and the public see sexual orientation as innate and immutable.
But it doesn’t reflect everyone’s experiences. Sexual identity can and does shift and expand. Don’t misunderstand: socalled “reparative/ex-gay” therapy is still bad news, as are any efforts to force a change in someone’s natural, healthy patterns of attraction. But while some people’s orientations are constant, others’ are more flexible.
Have I lost you yet? Here’s a mostly-true anecdotal example. Suzie Queer has historically dated women. Eventually, however, she finds herself in a relationship with a trans man. After introducing the boyfriend to her mother, mom expresses her confusion to one of Suzie’s siblings.
“But I thought she was a lesbian? Doesn’t that mean she’s repulsed by all things male?”
Suzie stopped identifying as a lesbian some years earlier, preferring the flexibility of the word queer. She resisted identifying as bisexual or heterosexual because she’d never been attracted to a cisgender man. Suzie didn’t change her identity to please her partner, but simply to reflect the fact that she was clearly attracted to male-identified folks.
To complicate things further, Suzie begins to question her own gender identity, finding “genderqueer” a more accurate label. If Suzie were to transition to male, how would that affect Suzie’s sexual identity?
It is not unheard of for trans folks to experience a shift in their sexual orientation post-transition. That is to say, a trans woman who previously dated women might find herself attracted to men. A trans man might find himself in the same boat. While the object of affection might have changed, it could be argued that sexual identity has not. The trans woman is still heterosexual, the trans man still gay. On the flip side, other folks may find that they remain attracted to the same gender, but that the label changes along with their gender identity.
In other words, it’s complicated. Sexual identity is complex, and goes beyond the L, G, and B (and less often “queer” and “asexual”) we so often align ourselves with. In addition to the varying degrees of bisexuality (encompassing homo- and hetero-flexible), there are pansexuals (attracted to all genders), those who are attracted to trans or genderqueer folks (one article suggests calling them “skoliosexuals;” I’ve also heard “trans amorous”), and there are those who are attracted to both/but only cisgender women and men.
It seems to come to this: born that way or not, you are who you are. You should have the freedom to explore all the facets of your sexual self without worrying about betraying whatever “team” you’re supposed to be on.
-Erin Rook, PQ Monthly staff writer
Are you a lesbian puzzled by gay men? A transgender person pondering bisexuality? A straight person perplexed by queers of all stripes? PQ is here to help you through your “questioning” period. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and put Query a Queer in the subject line.