Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sexual Identity

The discussion on the last post has been great (which is a relief - the forums over the past couple weeks have been overwhelmed by fighting queens). My favorite comes from eagledancer4444. I don't know who he is, but I love the way he writes and thinks. Brah, if you're ever in Hawai`i, dinner is on me.

I was involved pretty much from the start with HIV/AIDS…in fact two of my first patients were diagnosed with “GRID,” the term that was being used before AIDS was coined. I worked with a few national (and later international) prevention and treatment projects, and presented on multicultural aspects of sexuality as well as gender identity. To my surprise, after my first presentations, I would have a few participants who came up to me, who said, I never really felt I was gay, but I didn’t know of any other place to go than the gay community.

I remember very well some of the quite bitter “fights” that were going on at that time. M2M or MSM were suggested because one of the most difficult subgroups of the population to reach are men who are sexually active with men, but don’t identify as gay, since they won’t pick up gay newspapers (lol—they won’t pick up anything labeled as “gay” other than a gay man), or hit gay bars where condoms and prevention material would be available. This was one of the motivations for the creation of such terminology, along with “bisexual behavior,” even if there was no self-identification with bisexuality as an identity.

There is, for many, an “evolution” or developmental journey (i.e. the Cass Model) where one starts off knowing one is “different,” but not really knowing all that means, other than a general message “different is bad.” I suspect a lot of you didn’t shout out your sexual orientation while in high school but “tried it on for size” so to speak, until you were comfortable with it. That’s why at the University where I was teaching, there was a student support group entitled, I don’t think I’m gay, but I know I’m not straight… To walk into a support group labeled GBTLQ means you’ve already accepted a label. Not everyone is there yet. One of the real “sea changes,” we’re seeing is an increasingly younger average age for coming out, which according to a 2001 publication, is now 15. I feel there’s a “generational” issue here of people like Craig, who became sexually active pre-internet (and pre-feminist, for that matter), where sexual initiation involved very specific, male only situations, such as rest rooms.

As I mentioned, I was surprised at the hostility I (and others) faced when we tried to explain to other researchers and prevention specialists, “gay” was not sufficient as a category in working within the “real world.” Many of the most vocal opponents were white gay men who had become active in the 1970s, for whom gay was a strived for identity that wasn’t just about the gender of a sexual partner, but also included self-esteem, status, and a way of confronting earlier shame, both internal and societal. Any suggestion of expanding the categories of outreach were met with accusations of “denial,” and internalized homophobia about not being able to “accept” the “true” identity of being gay.

As someone who teaches cross-cultural sexuality, this response was frustrating (and very ethnocentric), but I also felt M2M or MSM was also too limiting. In a number of cultures, there’s a concept of more than 2 genders, so asking a man, Have you ever had sex with another man? (MSM)—will not work well if the man being asked has had sex with someone his community does not identify as a “man.” In one article on Latino sexuality, the author suggested the answer would differ if you asked, Have you ever had sex with a man who was not a man? A soft man? A man who was a woman?

The question determines the answer. In a study with African-American males in L.A., when asked if they had ever had sex with another man, the answer across the board was “No.” But when the same men were asked, When was the last time you popped a sissy?” the response was very different.

Which, of course, leads us back to the actual definition of “sex.” When President Clinton said, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, we had done a research project with mid-western adults before the Clinton incident. The majority of those interviewed would have agreed with Clinton. They did not identify oral sex as “real sex.” Only penile/vaginal penetration was understood as “real sex.” This is why a few years ago, about one fourth of 10,000 adolescent females responding to an interview had engaged in oral sex, but nearly 80 percent of them considered themselves to be virgins. One of the reasons it’s so hard to reach the married men at rest rooms and public parks doing the MSM thing, is the reality they don’t classify what they are doing is “cheating” because it would only be “cheating” if they were “doing it” with a woman, and the belief what they are doing isn’t “real sex,” because the only “real sex” involves a penis and a vagina.

Simply dismissing this as “denial” on the part of the individual doesn’t make effective impact on HIV (or other STDs) from a public health level. It also doesn’t recognize other cultures may use different categories. For example, in some non-Western cultures, the gender of your partner has no bearing on your sexual orientation. As long as you are in the “active” or “insertive” role, you (and your community) will still recognize you as heterosexual. This was the hardest thing to get across to people around a discussion table…if you’re not from that community, frankly “you don’t get to vote.” You can tell them they are “wrong, bad, stupid or crazy” to think the way they do, but frankly, they’re used to being told that from the American Dominant Culture. A direct attack tends to make them hold even more tightly to their established belief system.

By the way—this is the reason reporters hate interviewing a lot of researchers and scientists who don’t provide “neat” sound bites. Asking if Craig or the others are “really gay,” doesn’t encourage an easy answer, because there isn’t a consensus of what “gay” means. Even Freud referred to “homosexualities.” I think it’s obvious that Craig and his brethren are in some sort of different classification than people who’ve posted on this topic who themselves identify as gay or queer, if nothing other than a category of “gay-impaired.”


ty said...

Thanks--will be happy to take you up on the dinner offer next time I'm in the Islands, where people ask what year I graduated from Kamehameha. Locals mistake a lot of us American Indians for Chinese/Hawaiians, and because I have long hair, people also assume I'm a Native Rights Activist. Professionally, I'm a former Professor of Psychology, and Sex Researcher. One of the questions that fascinates me is not just the "special status" some non-Western groups have, such as the Mahu where you are, but the idea of who is it that "partners" the Mahu, or the biological male who is "gender variant?" This is what I love that blows the mind of a lot of folks where, if you're working with a culture with more than two genders, then the whole idea of "homosexuality" is a slippery slope--because you're not having sex with a person of the same gender--you're having sex with someone who isn't male and isn't female. In some Native communities there are as many as 8 different categories of gender. Senator Craig's head would explode...althought it might anyway...

Michael C said...

I worked down the hall once from a Women's Studies center, and in a bid to be inclusive they started adding M for Mahu and H for Hija & a few other letters from other cultures to LGBTQ ... I think they ended up with an eight-letter acronym.

I love slippery slopes.

I've also been wondering what "gender" men who like trans-women are. This was sparked recently by a visit to a drag club. One lady came in with her very macho looking, and very nervous, working-class boyfriend. He looked ready to jump out of his skin for being in a gay disco, and clung to her like an orphanned puppy. He was in no way, shape, or form "gay" - but his girlfriend had a dick.

You're the pro. What was he?

And, of course, looking forward to meeting one day.

ty said...

You're the pro. What was he?

Well, apparently, “happily partnered.”

I was doing a workshop for the Student Counseling Center staff at Ohio State University awhile back, and was delighted they were using Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Transgender, Intersex and Straight Allies, or GLBTISA which when they tried to pronounce it, sounded like a Sexually Transmitted Disease…

Let me tell you a story. I had just hired a personal trainer in Seattle, and when he saw my Gold’s Gym Honolulu sweat towel, he commented his girlfriend was from Honolulu, and that he met her at one of the nightclubs there. The next session, he brought in a flyer from Fusion. (For those of you reading this who don’t know Honolulu, Fusion has a long history of being a gay club, but because it features male strippers, there’s often a number of straight college age women there, along with “bachelorette” parties who delight in having a male stripper using their lips to remove dollar bills attached to various places on one’s body. In other words, someone associated with Fusion wasn’t automatically gay. Fusion also features female impersonators, many of whom are pre-op transsexuals. I still didn’t know how to classify Kathlene, the girlfriend at this point. Was she a performer, or someone he had just met there?) She was a performer. She was a pre-op. Frankie, the trainer, had shared with me he had been seeing an older woman since he had gotten back from his Hawaiian vacation. As he talked about her, I said, “I’m a Family Therapist specializing in Couples. When you describe this woman to me, you sound as if you’re trying to convenience yourself she’s a good match. But when you talk about Kathlene, your eyes light up. Follow your heart.”

And a few days later he flew to Honolulu and brought her back to the mainland, and they’ve been together ever since.

The way he conceptualized it—he identifies himself as straight. They both see her as a woman with what they call “a birth defect.” For a number of MTF Transsexuals, there may be a problem of “passing” as a biological woman. Like a number of individuals of Asian heritage, Kathlene had little problem “passing” as a bio-female. She had also worked professionally (her day job, as opposed to evenings at Fusion) as a make up artist for “Glamshots,” a photography studio.

At one point, Frankie told me during a training session, “I’m a good Italian-American Catholic boy from New Jersey, so of course I had to introduce Kathlene to my mom. We went back for Christmas (they had moved in together in September of that year), and she was a big hit with my mom and my family. No one suspected she had been born a man. But I had to be honest with my mom. So I took her aside and said there was something I had to tell her. When I explained what was going on, my mom said, “Oh—I know about that—I saw it on Oprah.”

God bless Oprah, making it easier for Italian-American mothers in New Jersey.

To come back to my original post and your question—when I was living in SF, my Tex-Mex room mate used to drag (sorry for the pun) me a lot to Este Noche, a Latino gay bar that featured female impersonators—and there’s a distinction here with “drag queens.” Many of the ones labeled as female impersonators use that term (or more accurately, the owners of the bars use it), but the actual individuals are often transgender, or transsexual, and “live” the life 24/7. Many drag queens are not taking hormones, and not “living the life,” but for a variety of reasons, perform in a female-associated role.

One of the things that seemed consistent is what you were describing. The partner of the performer (not the drag queens) did not see himself as being gay or bisexual, but as straight. But this was based on the reality he and his partner did not perceive the performer as being a male. She was a third gender, or a “different type of woman,” or in the category of Frankie and Kathlene, “a woman with a birth defect.” I should mention in this specific case, Kathlene and Frankie talked about her not using her penis, but saw it as an aspect of the birth defect that would eventually be removed. A Drag Queen usually enjoys using his penis and don’t want it removed. In fact, there’s an old saw that Drag Queens tend to be tops.

There’s a book written by an old friend of mine, The Spirit and The Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture. I think it’s true for a number of Native groups, what’s most important is one’s spirit—not the flesh the spirit is wrapped in. While many world cultures have a concept of more than two genders, or that if you are biologically male, you may not be spiritually/psychologically/socially “male,” many of them never turned to surgical or hormonal procedures to match the body to the spirit. They were granted what some researchers have called “social genitals.” If you presented yourself in a certain way, you were accepted as that, rather than being criticized that you weren’t “masculine” or “feminine” ENOUGH…and btw, that was true with the Mahu in Hawaiian culture. (If I have “picky/anal” readers on this blog, I want to differentiate between these groups and certain other realities, where, say, priests of a particular religion would castrate themselves as part of their status. There are some exceptions, such as the Hijiras in India, who are understood as an alternative gender, and often castrated, but this surgical intervention isn’t common among alternative gender groups on a global level. I would say the majority of cultures with alternative genders didn’t traditionally try to alter an individual on a surgical level, although contemporary western science is now offering that option as an additional choice.) I would suggest the person you mention may focus on the “female spirit” of his partner, rather than the “male” flesh. Just so, for a lot of worldviews, the spirit is eternal, but the flesh turns to dust after about 70 years or so.