Alex Blaze

Those hard lines we draw between "sexual orientation," "gender identity," and "gender expression"

Filed By Alex Blaze | December 24, 2008 4:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: Alice in Wonderland, britain, butch, cisgender people, ENDA, England, gender expression, gender identity, language, lewis carrol, LGBT, queer, sexual expression, sexual orientation, stephen english, trans, transgender

This man in England just won his appeal to have his anti-gay discrimination case heard. It was originally rejected because he was straight and married to a woman.

Stephen English says he was forced to quit his job at an awning manufacturer because the company refused to stop workers from calling him a faggot and other gay slurs.

English filed a complaint with the Employment Appeal Tribunal alleging the harassment began when fellow workers discovered he had been educated at a boarding school and that he lived in largely gay Brighton.

The complaint said that final straw came when the company's in-house employee magazine said he had attended Brighton's Gay Pride parade wearing "skin-tight Lycra cycling shorts".

The Tribunal refused to hear the case because English is not gay and is married.

English appealed to the Court of Appeal.

In a 2-1 landmark ruling the court said that a person can be "harassed" by homophobic remarks even though he is not gay, is not thought to be gay by his fellow workers and he accepts they do not believe him to be gay.

More after.

The Times adds:

Mr English joined the blinds and awnings manufacturer in 1996 and rose to lead a team of sales representatives. But he says had to resign after he felt he could no longer face the daily teasing by colleagues.

His barrister, Frederick Reynolds, told the court that despite his status as a married heterosexual, he had been "tormented" because of his "perceived possession of stereotypical characteristics associated with homosexuals."

In other words, it was his gender expression, not his sexual orientation, that led to harassment.

Last year during the ENDA debate, there were all sorts of lines drawn around the three terms, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, arguing that discrimination on the basis of one has nothing to do with the other two.

That's a crackpot theory to explain how homophobia or transphobia act. The two are interrelated through gender expression - often, the problem isn't the person a gay man or a lesbian is fucking, it's the way she or he acts. And I know far too many femme gay boys and butch lesbians and androgynous queer folks to believe that there isn't something that intrinsically links sexual orientation and gender expression.

Which is different from saying that gender identity and sexual orientation are intrinsically linked. A woman who is attracted to women isn't suddenly a man or male, on the inside or the outside. And just because someone is transgender doesn't mean that person is necessarily attracted to someone of the same natal sex or opposite their gender identity. These are two different concepts that explain two different pieces of what makes every person unique.

But one of the main things that links them both is the way gender expression lines up with expectations of gender expression based on birth genitalia. And it also goes out to include straight, cis people who are either too butch or too femme for societal expectations, like Stephen English. These terms melt into each other and create interesting pockets of tension between how we speak and who we are.

While there are many areas of the country and even solid arguments to be made to include gender identity and gender expression under the term "sexual orientation" when writing legislation (sometimes, for political expedience, "sexual orientation" will be written into a law that will cover both transgender people and LGB people), that won't happen with the ENDA if passed with only sexual orientation. There's enough legislative battling about the meaning of those terms, and there'll be even more, that a court wouldn't interpret ENDA as having meant to include transgender people if "gender identity" isn't included.

The issue isn't the fact that the hard and fast distinctions between those three terms have legislative impact, since all three could be included and then we'd be fine. The issue is that we've somehow come to internalize the distinction between the concepts, and used that internalization to discipline behavior and desire. Because we've made a distinction between those terms, it's been easier to separate people who feel discrimination more based on one term than the others. It's also easier to ignore the parts of us that are described by one term but don't make up a fundamental part of our public identities.

Statements like "Being gay doesn't make someone prissy, and I'm a butch, straight-acting gay man" or, to a lesser degree, "Don't trust those homosexual transsexuals," and "Just because I'm a gay man doesn't mean I understand people who want to chop off their willies" are what I'm talking about. Fine, have the distinction in law, but understand that it doesn't fully describe reality nor should it be used to affect human conduct.

Consider this conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice in Through the Looking Glass:

"There's glory for you!"

"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't--till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "

"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument,' " Alice objected.

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

"The question is, " said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty. "which is to be master--that's all."


To extend Humpty Dumpty's question, which is to be master: the distinctions we make between terms and groups of people for political expedience, coalition-building, and giving meaning to our desires, identities, and emotions, or the realities of discrimination, harassment, gender and sexual policing, and desires, identities, and emotions those words are supposed to represent?

There are great reasons to have these different terms, but let's use to help people, not separate them.

Like the Court of Appeals in Stephen English's case found, these terms aren't hard and fast because reality itself is messy.

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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | December 24, 2008 5:42 PM

Excellent post, Alex!!! One of your best yet.

Language should be used to increase understanding among individuals, not to create confusion and divisions. Of course, "Divide and conquer," has been with us as long as there has been a concept of a "master."

It is not the words, but the ideas behind the words, that give them meaning. That is a part of what Humpty was getting at, and it is part of the problems people have in understanding each other, especially when there is little commonality between the ideas that each hold.

Such as the ideas that the right hold, and the ideas we try and convey to them.

Wonderful entry, Alex -- I have long thought the same thing about the complex relationship between these terms, and it occurs to me that the reason gender expression may be the most commonality is that it's observable by others. I realize there's a lot of cultural, historical, and geographical variation in gender expression, but if you're inside a culture, you notice variations in people, regardless of who they get turned on by or what they have between their legs.

The proof for sexual orientation is almost entirely internal -- if a person says they're attracted to same-sex love/sex, then there's nothing more to be said.

However, the proof for gender expression depends on one's dress and habits AND the degree to which others perceive these things as being congruent with what's expected of you. In other words, nothing you say can change gender expression "problems" with others.

Melanie Davis | December 28, 2008 2:22 AM

great Post, but in light of all the contortions, I think I went from being an intersex transwoman through homosexual male, and I believe I have to come out now as a cute pink aardvark. I might like that one best, actually, except that termites give me gas.

Thanks for the analysis, Alex. Very well stated.

Sorry, but I'm one of those people who's experienced self-acceptance by recognizing that "Being gay doesn't make someone prissy... and just because I'm a gay man doesn't mean I understand people who want to chop off their willies." More to the point, central to my entire notion of self-acceptance as a gay male is obliterating the entire notion of "expectations of gender expression based on birth genitalia" -- and respecting and accepting my body (including those much-maligned "genitalia") as an aspect of a holistically-understood self -- an aspect of my integrity that far outstrips anyone's gender definitions or expectations, even my own.

(Such a sense of self obviously also includes a refusal to let adversaries -- or, ironically, "LGBT" political expediency or realpolitik -- define how I perceive who I am. But these days, that's a bigger revolution than many people are apparently willing to fight.)

Come to think of it, I'm not sorry at all...