Let's Talk About Gender

by Liz Highleyman

This article appeared in Bi Women, the newsletter of the Boston Bisexual Women's Network, August/September 1997.

Although the two words are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, "sex" and "gender" have distinct meanings. "Sex" is typically used to refer to a person's genetic and anatomical characteristics -- female or male. "Gender" is commonly used both to describe a person's social role and internal identification -- woman or man -- and their presentation -- feminine or masculine.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that sex and gender (and sexual behavior and sexual identity) go together in simple and obvious ways. Women are assumed to be female and feminine (and traditionally, attracted to men), while men are assumed to be male and masculine (and traditionally, attracted to women). But the traditional assumptions are inadequate to describe many of the real people in the real world.

Although "woman" and "man" are the two genders traditionally accepted by contemporary Western culture, it can be interesting to consider other gender possibilities. Many lesbians and some bi women identify as butches or femmes. A stone butch and a high femme may well have less in common with each other than do an androgynous man and an androgynous woman, even though the former are of the "same" sex and the latter are of the so-called "opposite" sex.

When we talk about bisexuality, it is usually assumed that we're talking about biological sex, not gender. A lesbian who is attracted to both butch and femme women is considered homosexual, although I would also call her "bigenderal." A person may be attracted to only femme/feminine people or to only butch/masculine people. Because femme/feminine and butch/masculine appearance, characteristics, and mannerisms may be found in both women and men, such a person is likely to be thought of using the traditional scheme as "bisexual," although it may actually be gender, not sex, that is the important factor in their attraction -- such a person may be bisexual, but also "monogenderal."

Bisexuality can be seen as a component of (at least) two different sexuality classification schemes. The traditional classification scheme of heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual refers to, respectively, attraction to the "opposite" sex, the "same" sex, and both sexes. However, wouldn't it be just as reasonable to think of people as gynosexual/androsexual/bisexual, that is, attracted to women, men, or both?

Some transgendered people, when they transition, may shift from gynosexual to androsexual, yet remain homosexual or heterosexual (for example, a female-to-male transman that identified as a butch lesbian and now identifies as a gay man). Or, they may remain gynosexual or androsexual, and shift from heterosexual to homosexual or vice versa (for example, a male-to-female transsexual who previously identified as a heterosexual man and now identifies as a lesbian). The partners of transgendered people also must undergo a shift in identity (androsexual to gynosexual or vice versa, or homosexual to heterosexual or vice versa) -- unless, that is, they are bisexual.

While there is a long tradition of butch/femme sexuality within lesbian culture (although, interestingly enough, not among gay men, where like tend to pair with like), we lack a more generalized conceptualization of attraction to feminine or masculine energy. How many people are attracted to both butch women and macho men, or to both femme women and effeminate men? While thinking about my panel presentation for the first femme conference, held recently in San Francisco, I came to coin a new identity for myself -- "femmesexual" -- although probably "femmegenderal" would be a more accurate term. I am attracted to femme/feminine women and men. It's the femme part that matters to me -- not whether their bodies are female or male.

Many bi women I know are "androgynogenderal" -- that is, they are attracted to androgynous (that is, more feminine than average) men and androgynous (that is, more butch than average) women. Saying that they are bisexual -- attracted to both women and men -- is strictly true, but doesn't seem to capture the essence of their sexuality, since it is gender identity and presentation -- not whether someone has a male or female body -- that is the basis of their attraction.

Perhaps the reason there sometimes appears to be so much friction within "the bi community" is because we are using one label -- "bisexual" -- to describe a wide variety of more subtle sexual orientations based on gender (and no doubt many other factors as well). Let's expand our sexual orientation vocabulary --femmesexual, butchgenderal, androsexual, gynosexual, androgynogenderal, homogenderal, bigenderal -- so that we can name the whole universe of human sexual possibilities!

© 1997 Liz Highleyman

Liz Highleyman -- liz@black-rose.com