Can we really rank our sexuality?

I was talking with some colleagues about the difference between the Kinsey test and the Klein grid this week, and looked online to research it a bit further. There are many tests we can take to help determine our sexuality and for people just coming out it may help remove some of the confusion. But I often find these tests even more confounding, because let’s face it, sexual orientation is just not as cut and dried as we want it to be. We are fluid beings, and perhaps that’s a beautiful thing. So even though I identify as a lesbian, I am not 100% off the chart as a lesbian. I have known some women who are, but I fall somewhere close to the coveted gold star but slightly tarnished. LOL.

I mentioned to some of the women in my coming out group this week that I thought pan-sexuality seemed like the most evolved choice that anyone could make. I worried later that saying this would confuse them, but they seemed undaunted. Getting philosophical here, this was just a half-formed opinion of mine, based on the idea that loving a human being for who they are at the level of personality and perhaps the soul seems to be more in line with our higher self. While I can hold pan-sexuality as an ideal, my reality is much different. Lust I realize is not based on ideals, but on raw human sexual energy.

While most people can recognize that bodies of all genders can all be attractive, it is our energies (butch/femme, top/bottom, lead/follow, giver/taker, sweet/salty, and on and on) that have so much to do with attraction. Energy can be both ephemeral and hard to define. It is that spark we feel, that electric heat that shoots down our body. So let’s face it, how we react to these energies just isn’t something we can control. For me, I find the energy of a man to be too in polarity with mine and I enjoy the subtle energy play between two females better. I have no better way to describe this as the reason why I am gay. (Not that I need to give a reason any more than a heterosexual does, damnit.)

So is our sexuality really a choice? I don’t have a clear answer to that, nor do scientists though they have tried to prove there is a gay gene. The only thing I know for sure is that we are at the mercy of energies that play upon us and lure us into our sweet attraction.

What are the various energies in which you show up in your life? We may be “butch on the streets, but femme in the sheets” as the saying goes. Comment below about what you have noticed about your own energy and others.

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With over 50 genders to choose from, why are you being so boring?

In the interest of raising our collective “gender awarenesses,” did you know there are over 50 genders to choose from? If you thought that gender was as cut and dried as checking off “male” or “female” on a form, read on.

Though I may want to rebel, I’m personally not confused what box to check off on a form that asks whether I am male or female. I assume the form is asking for my cis-gender (biological sex), and for me, that’s also how I happen to show up in the world (well, generally.) There are some people who are born intersex, or a combination of male and female, so their cis-gender might more accurately be reflected by checking off a third box that reads “both.” In the old days when forms were paper, one could simply confound the form-takers and check off both boxes, allaying the need for a third. In the digital age, it won’t allow both to be checked, so we need another option.

Cis-gender aside, there are many of us who challenge the idea of choosing between sexual binaries regardless if that is how our bodies read. Our gender may appear more as the opposite sex or something in between. It may even fluctuate over time. A box reading “androgynous” might work best for us.

Some folks may choose to permanently live as a gender/sex other than the one they were born with, so a fourth box called “transgender” might be most appropriate – that is, if they want a separate category than “male” and “female,” which might work just fine for many. Form-makers of the world could simply add a third box labeled “other” for those who don’t fit neatly into the male/female binary model. Or take a tip from Facebook regarding relationships and add a box that simply reads “It’s complicated.”

As we go through life, things may indeed get more complicated when it comes to choosing how to express our gender. When we are children, we naturally express our true nature, if our parents allow it. As we grow older things are often shunned that we could “get away with” as children. I was talking with a gay man the other day about transgender, as we made plans to create a new program for an organization in which we both belong. He mentioned not wanting to turn off the “vanilla gays and lesbians,” who might not relate to the concept of gender being fluid. It made me smile a little that we now live in a world where being gay can be called “vanilla.” He was not saying he didn’t want a program that worked great for the gender fluid and trans people in our community. He is very dedicated to that mission. He was merely saying he didn’t want to exclude those who are not fluid or trans. Being gay does not necessarily mean we are “gender-fluid” people, after all, and I almost heard a tinge of “am I boring?” when he used the term vanilla.

There are many of us (gay and straight, if the term “straight” even really applies here) who may find we feel more comfortable living with a gender that does not match our biological sex, because in reality gender and sex are too very different things. Sex is just our physical body and gender is more about how we show up in the world. As Judith Butler said “Gender is performative” and is based on many complex factors. While Facebook may have taken a somewhat “easy-way-out” approach on the relationship front with the “it’s complicated” label. It has not done so with gender, and I applaud their efforts on this front!

Facebook currently offer 56 variations of gender to choose from in your profile. In case you are having trouble deciding, they allow you to pick up to 10. With so many flavors to choose from, I asked the tongue-in-cheek question in the title of this piece of “Why are you being so boring?” In reality, “vanilla” is a perfectly valid flavor, as it pairs with so many delicious other flavors after all. And while gender expression is not a fad (or for that matter a flavor,) it can be fluid in my opinion, and we may try something on for size only to discard it later for something that is a better fit. Some people know from a very early age which gender they want to express and it may be more fixed for them. For more androgynous folks like myself, we may play among the margins for awhile before we find ourselves settling there, or somewhere on either side of the imaginary gender dotted line. If it hasn’t become clear yet, like the Kinsey scale of sexual attraction, gender performance runs along a continuum.

Fifty-six may sound like a lot of options, but many actually are variations on a theme such as “cisgender woman” and “cisgender female,” as well as “cis woman” and “cis female.” In terms of broad categories, according to Peter Weber, there just under 20. Here is his high level listing of what they mean:

1. Agender/Neutrois — These terms are used by people who don’t identify with any gender at all—they tend to either feel they have no gender or a neutral gender. Some use surgery and/or hormones to make their bodies conform to this gender neutrality.

2. Androgyne/Androgynous — Androgynes have both male and female gender characteristics and identify as a separate, third gender.

3. Bigender — Someone who is bigender identifies as male and female at different times. Whereas an androgyne has a single gender blending male and female, a bigender switches between the two.

4. Cis/Cisgender — Cisgender is essentially the opposite of transgender (cis- being Latin for “on this side of” versus trans-, “on the other side”). People who identify as cisgender are males or females whose gender aligns with their birth sex.

5. Female to Male/FTM — Someone who is transitioning from female to male, either physically (transsexual) or in terms of gender identity.

6. Gender Fluid — Like bigender people, the gender-fluid feel free to express both masculine and feminine characteristics at different times.

7. Gender Nonconforming/Variant — This is a broad category for people who don’t act or behave according to the societal expectation for their sex. It includes cross-dressers and tomboys as well as the transgender.

8. Gender Questioning — This category is for people who are still trying to figure out where they fit on the axes of sex and gender.

9. Genderqueer — This is an umbrella term for all nonconforming gender identities. Most of the other identities in this list fall into the genderqueer category.

10. Intersex — This term refers to a person who was born with sexual anatomy, organs, or chromosomes that aren’t entirely male or female. Intersex has largely replaced the term “hermaphrodite” for humans.

11. Male to Female/MTF — Someone who is transitioning from male to female, either physically (transsexual) or in terms of gender identity.

12. Neither — You understand this one: “I don’t feel like I’m fully male or fully female. ‘Nuff said.”

13. Non-binary — People who identify as non-binary disregard the idea of a male and female dichotomy, or even a male-to-female continuum with androgyny in the middle. For them, gender is a complex idea that might fit better on a three-dimensional chart, or a multidimensional web.

14. Other — Like “neither,” this is pretty self-explanatory. It can cover everything from “I’d prefer not to specify how I don’t fit in the gender dichotomy” to “My gender is none of your damn business, Facebook.”

15. Pangender — Pangender is similar to androgyny, in that the person identifies as a third gender with some combination of both male and female aspects, but it’s a little more fluid. It can also be used as an inclusive term to signify “all genders.”

16. Trans/Transgender — Transgender is a broad category that encompasses people who feel their gender is different than their birth sex—sometimes known as gender dysphoria. They may or may not choose to physically transition from their birth sex to their experienced gender.

17. Transsexual — Transsexual refers to transgender people who outwardly identify as their experienced gender rather than their birth sex. Many, but not all, transsexuals are transitioning (or have transitioned) from male to female or female to male through hormone therapy and/or gender reassignment surgery.

18. Two-spirit — This term refers to gender-variant Native Americans. In more than 150 Native American tribes, people with “two spirits”—a term coined in the 1990s to replace the term “berdache”—were part of a widely accepted, often respected, category of gender-ambiguous men and women.

The Five Stages of Coming Out

This is a summary by Paul Beeman of an article, “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process,” by Eli Coleman, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of Minnesota Medical School, from A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients, edited by John C. Gonsiorek, Harrington Park Press, New York, 1985.

I found it to be pretty accurate. He does not assume that all gays and lesbians go through these stages in order, nor that all complete all five stages. Some may get locked into one stage and never progress. Even at the identity integration stage, coming out is a continuing process.

But there are developmental tasks inherent in each stage which need to be completed some time, in order ultimately to become fully self-actualizing and integrated. Here are the stages.

I. Pre-Coming Out
Some studies have found that core gender and sex-role identities are formed by age 3, thus sexual object choice is part of gender identity. If that is true, then heterosexuality and homosexuality are determined primarily during late infancy and early childhood, and may be identified at a pre-conscious level, or even a conscious level.

A child may grow up learning the family’s and society’s prejudices against being gay, while the child feels different, alienated and alone. Since individuals at this stage are not consciously aware of same-sex feelings, they cannot describe what is wrong. They may hide their feelings from themselves and others, suffer low self-esteem and depression, and only communicate their conflict through behavioral problems.

II. Coming Out
Individuals move into this stage when they acknowledge their homosexual feeling, which is the first developmental task of this stage. That may mean simply acknowledging a confusing homosexual thought or fantasy, without fully understanding or labeling what that means. Some studies indicate the median age fr this experience is from 13 to 18.

Once the feelings have been identified, the next task is telling someone, a vital function in beginning one’s self-acceptance. The confidant’s reaction has a powerful impact. If negative, it can confirm old prejudices and lower self-esteem. If positive, it can counteract old prejudices and permit individuals to begin accepting their sexual feelings and increase self-esteem. “But no one can develop self-concepts such as accepted, valued or worthwhile all alone.” Acceptance by a parent is an extremely powerful force for self-acceptance.

III. Exploration
This stage of experimenting with a new sexual identity is akin to the heterosexual adolescent’s first major experience of sexual activity with others. However, most individuals with same-sex preference do not experience adolescence in their teenage years. There is a developmental lag in their sexual adolescence, which can be confusing or even frightening to persons who have otherwise matured intellectually, vocationally and financially.

The developmental tasks are: development of interpersonal skills to meet and socialize with others who have homosexual orientation; development of a sense of personal attractiveness and sexual competence, by becoming involved in sexual relationships; seeing themselves not only in a sexual way, but recognizing other needs, like affection and support.

A major stumbling block appears in the use of alcohol and drugs to ease the pain of rejection and the ever-present lack of self-esteem.

IV. First Relationships
After a period of sexual and social experimentation, exploration can lose its intrigue, and needs for intimacy and a stable, committed relationship then become important.

The developmental task is learning to function in a same-sex relationship in a predominately heterosexual society. First serious relationships can be characterized by intensity, possessiveness and lack of trust, and therefore they are often temporary, discouraging and can end as a way to relieve the pressure.

V. Integration
This is an open-ended, ongoing process that will last the rest of one’s life. Such an integrated identity usually takes from 10 to 14 years after the first awareness of same-sex feelings. New feelings will emerge; new relationships will be enjoyed. This stage is characterized by non-possessiveness, mutual trust, freedom, and greater success.

Some may choose not to enter long-term relationships, others make permanent commitments such as marriage.

The gay liberation movement has facilitated the process of acquiring a positive homosexual identity by providing more social support. Yet, Dr. Coleman concludes, positive reactions by family and influential individuals may have a greater impact than all the direct and indirect reactions of society.

As I always encourage, build a net of loving people around you. If your family does not accept it at first, be patient and try to get them to read some pro-gay coming out literature for family members, to talk to an accepting pastor or contact a group like PFLAG.

Resilience

Resilience can be learned.

Resilience is needed when we trade in an old identity for a new one. When some part of us dies and is replaced by some new facet, new face. Maybe it is a part we have harbored in secret for years. Maybe it’s a seed whose time has come and unexpectedly sprouts. Adolescence and coming out of the closet (any closet) require resilience.

Resilience is needed when we lose a part of our heart when a beloved is lost to us through death, or separation or divorce. Sometimes our loss may seem unbearable, and we may be tempted to run back into our closet and hide, cursing that the gods have unfairly punished us.  “Reverse this!” we shout.  It is not possible.

Resilience is needed whenever we start living outside our comfort zone and try something new. Anything new, even riding a bike.

Resilience is needed frequently on what seems like the battlefield of life. How hard it can be to simply lay down our arms and let someone hold us in theirs. We need to ask for support. Accept it when it comes.

Resilience comes when we learn to say “no” to some of the trappings of grief:

Say no to Personalization.  No, it’s not your fault. You will be tempted to blame yourself.  Immediately remove the word “sorry” from your vocabulary, at least as it pertains to this.
Say no to Permanence. No, this is not permanent. You will be tempted to forget you ever had a life where you could smile and laugh. But know that things will get better. Life will seem normal one day, or at least become the “new normal.”
Say no to Pervasiveness. No, this does not have to affect every area of your life.  You will be tempted to think that EVERYTHING has changed.  You may feel guilty if you allow yourself some small pleasure in another area of your life, because of the need to give this weight.  Yes, respect that this is HUGE, but it is not EVERYTHING. To compartmentalize is healthy, at least in this case.

Finally remember to be grateful. In the brutal moments when you are overtaken by the void of your loss, recall what is still there that you are grateful for: Those loved ones who remain in your life. That part of you that will always be there despite your metamorphosis.  Let not all be lost, and see with fresh eyes what you have previously taken for granted.

One door has closed, but so too has a window opened. Be bold and survey the new view. Catch the breeze when you can and remember to breathe.

10 Reasons to love Coming Out Support Groups

If you live in a large city that offers coming out support groups, I recommend taking advantage of them.  If you don’t have an in-person support group, the next best thing is a telephone support group (see resources.)  There are things a support group can offer you that a one-on-one session with a therapist cannot, though I recommend doing both if possible.

Peer support groups can be extremely powerful in the following ways:

  1. It’s important to know you’re not alone on your journey.
  2. There is enormous acknowledging and validating going on —  you’re all in the same boat with similar goals and you each have very similar struggles.  When you’re sharing your story, your other peer members are usually nodding their heads saying “That totally makes sense, that happens to me too!”  They may even chime in with “This is what worked for me when I was in that situation…”
  3. The facilitator or peer coach can help show you the “path beyond” when you are stuck.  It helps to have someone there that has been through it all before because they know there is an opening on the other side.  There is no way out, but through–and they will be the fearless leader walking by your side as you make your journey.
  4. There is great “peer wisdom” to be shared. Even in the midst of a struggle or emergence, there is a great wisdom that is generated within the group. Often the group will run itself without the need for the facilitator to interject.
  5. The peer group holds each other accountable to their greatness.  They call each other on “playing small” and encourage each other to create a life that will bring them joy.
  6. Your peers get to know you in many ways your family and friends may not because you’re talking in-depth about a subject that you typically aren’t sharing with many other people.  There is a bond or closeness that is created that can be like no other, particularly when in person, but phone is really good too.
  7. You laugh and you cry in group. It is a great release of all the pent up emotions you have been feeling.
  8. You can set goals if you want in group, but you will come out (or not) at your own pace with gentle encouragement.
  9. Homophobia tends to get nipped in the bud when the bond between you and your peers starts to form.  You respect and care so much for the other people in the group (who are also coming out) so how can you look down on gay people?  Some of the homophobia may have been engrained since childhood, so we work on that over time.  But a large part of the self loathing involved in coming out tends to melt away amidst the love of your peers.
  10. You may make friends for life.  Even if they turn out to be shorter term relationships, you are in the process of building a very important support network.

In our support groups we laugh and we cry.  But above all we are there for each other week after week, and we accept each other no matter the decision.

Welcome Intrepid Explorers!

Whether you are questioning your sexual identity or have already begun exploring it, you’ve come to the right place.  Feel free to write me about topics you’d like to see covered and post your comments or articles.  Ask me about the weekly support call and private Facebook group if you’re interested in joining a supportive group of “women-who-love-women” in the midst of coming out. Scroll down to read a plethora of articles on the topic.