Opinions in Dialogue: The Ambiguity of Gender and Sexuality

Separate in concept, but not in practice — a closer look into the labels that are tied to our relationships

A hand is covered in all colours of paint imaginable. The paint is tightly layered, and looks complex.
The words we have traditionally used to define sexuality are contingent on a fixed gender. PHOTO: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash

By: Ciara Reid, SFU Student;  Maya Beninsteso, Peak Associate

Though gender is not inherently sexual, it does bear influence on the relationships we form — be they sexual or otherwise. 

SFU Student Ciara Reid and Peak Associate Maya Beninteso discuss.

CR: As a trans-person, I feel that my gender and sexuality, while separate parts of my identity, are deeply intertwined — and not always in a way that I fully understand. For a long time though, I didn’t think about how these two aspects of myself interacted. Especially as a teenager who wasn’t involved in any significant romantic relationships, I never felt these pieces collide. And why would I? I feel we often don’t engage in this type of self-analysis until we’re put in a situation where it becomes necessary. 

I do clearly remember what was maybe the first moment the interaction between gender and sexuality called my attention. I was about 19 years old and I had gone out to a queer event at The Cobalt (RIP). There, I bumped into someone who I had recently met, and who I had a serious interest in. 

As the evening drew to a close, this person quite bluntly asked me about my sexuality — specifically, if I was a lesbian. I was stumped, not only by his bluntness, but also by my inability to find a clear answer. No, I was not a lesbian (although, I was often mistaken for one) — but words also failed to provide a good replacement descriptor. I explained I was non-binary, and really didn’t know how to describe my sexuality because lesbian and gay held too many gendered assumptions which clashed with my self-understanding; and bi/pansexual didn’t feel like they could capture the specificity of the people I was interested in. 

I later found the word queer, and I still stick to that as my self-descriptor today; but, I continue to think about that moment, and the interactions between gender and sexuality that have become more present in my life as I have progressed through transition. 

MB: There is much I’m still working on regarding my sexuality and gender, and how they relate to one another. Getting to know myself as a sexual being has been proven to be quite complicated. In my youth, I was a “girly girl” and I had no doubt that I liked men. I later realized this identity was something that was reinforced, as opposed to an identity that was wholly my own. 

In high school, I slowly realized I was in love with a teammate. As someone who was always interested in men, I was confused and it took me two years to realize I had those feelings for her. Once I came to this realization, I questioned whether I truly liked men. When I eventually kissed a guy, it felt the way I thought it would — good. This only made me more confused as I didn’t know someone could love men and women. When I stumbled upon the term “bisexual,” I felt an immense amount of validation. I knew that was my label.

Although this revelation made me feel at ease, I struggled with my gender and gender expression. For a little while, I felt compelled to dress more masculinely. I had no idea I could just be me — I thought my gender expression and the way I carried out my interpersonal relationships had to change once I announced my sexuality. I thought everything would change — nothing did.

More recently, I have been questioning my gender and have pondered the use of (she/they) pronouns. I wouldn’t mind if people referred to me as such but — honestly — so long as people refer to me in a respectful manner, I don’t really care what pronouns are used. 

CR: Your point about gender expression really resonates with me. I think gender expression is a place in which the intersection of gender and sexuality can be particularly noticeable. People often signal their sexuality through their gender expression in various intricate ways such as a particular haircut, piercing, style of clothing, or mannerism. These associations between presentation and sexuality aren’t always helpful or clear though. Because of the ways in which gender and sexuality operate separately, a person could be drawn to a particular form of gender presentation that signals a sexuality that does not resonate for them. I personally find a lot of joy in signaling my queerness through my presentation, but I think its important to keep in mind how complex these things are — and how our limited ways of communicating about these things can sometimes fail us. 

MB: I love finding new ways to signal my queerness as well but, it can be problematic when we attribute certain styles to an identity — just because someone engages in a specific behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean they are queer. That could be someone’s way of expressing themselves without any underlying signal. 

That doesn’t mean there’s a lack of ways to communicate sexuality, though. Last semester, I asked a girl in one of my classes whether she listened to girl in red (asking if she was lesbian) and she said yes. I said I listen to “Sweater Weather” (signaling that I am bi). I find it so interesting that people can have a full blown, queer-coded, conversation. She and I are now best friends and we laugh about the bold inquiry. 

CR: It is pretty fantastic that we as queer people are able to communicate so much in such subtle ways. Beyond how fun it is, these signals are also rooted in our history as queer people, and our efforts to stay safe (while still visible to each other) in potentially hostile environments. Queer semiotics (how we use signs and signals to communicate meaning) can also still serve this function, and I think that is super important to keep in mind.

As I have started a physical transition, I’ve been increasingly experiencing the complex intersections between my gender and sexuality. Taking steps into a physical transition has enabled me to experience my gender and my body in ways that feel simultaneously more honest, and new. 

Part of this experience has been a shifting understanding of my sexuality. I have long had complex feelings about my past attractions to men (for many reasons, including a concern about being perceived as cis and straight). Yet now, as my body has come to align itself better with who I am, I am realizing that these complicated feelings might start slipping away. 

It is hard to pin the interface between our genders and sexualities — and the nature of this connection will appear differently for different people throughout their lives. But it is always something that I have found fascinating and beneficial to spend time thinking about. You gotta love some healthy introspection.