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Posts from the ‘sexual orientation’ Category

What is the Difference between Gay and Transgender?

This may be a very basic post for some and if so I invite you to skip it, but it is one of the most frequent search requests that land people on my blog, so I thought I should write a very clear answer to this query. (I wrote previously about the difference between some experiences of gay and transgender people here.)

OK, to begin with let’s define some terms.

‘Gay’, ’Lesbian’ and ‘Bisexual’ refer to sexual orientation, in other words – who you are attracted to.   A man who is attracted to other men could identify as ‘Gay’ or ‘Homosexual’.

‘Transgender’ is often used to mean ‘Transsexual’(Transgender refers to a larger group of people than that) has to do with one’s gender identity.  Gender Identity is how one identifies in terms of maleness or femaleness.  For a transgendered or transsexual person one’s gender identity is different from what one might expect given ones natal or biological sex (‘Sex’ here refers to one’s biological sex – how one was born.)  Gender is not always the same as one’s sex.  ‘Gender Identity’ is how one feels inside, and Sexual Orientation is who one is attracted to vis-à-vis your current gender presentation.

To get back to the question ‘What is the Difference between Gay and Transgender?’ – we see that the difference is one has to do with sexual orientation (who you are attracted to sexually) and the other has to do with gender identity (who you feel yourself to be).

Why then all the confusion?

I think it has to do with the fact that queer folk – (i.e. gay lesbian and bisexual) might have more overlap with gender queerness than other (heteronormative or ‘straight’) folk.  In other words – among gay men – there may be a larger percentage of gender fluidity – or those who identify as somewhat more feminine than among straight men and the same with gay women.  This is their natural ‘Gender Expression’.  Indeed Freud remarked on the biological characteristics of gay men back in the early 1900’s.  Therefore it is possible to confuse or conflate sexual orientation with gender identity.  In addition, much of the stigma and discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians over the years has more to do with their visible gender non-conformity than with their invisible sexual preference.  The world has very little tolerance for gender non-conformity, although the world is changing.

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.

Confusion around changing sexual orientation for trans people

I’ve been working on an article (hence the lack of posts lately) and midway through I went on a little tangent (OK, it was a rant) about this issue of confusion around changing sexual orientation for trans people, so I thought I would excerpt it here:

There is a commonly heard idea in the transgender literature and community asserting that the transgendered individual will sometimes change sexual orientation after transitioning.  I have found that many patients come in with this belief.  Arlene Istar Lev (2004), a family therapist, clinical social worker and gender expert notes that “gender transition can have a tremendous impact on sexual orientation, sometimes affecting one’s sexual interests…” and in the next paragraph “Sexual orientation is not malleable and cannot be changed through force or will” (p. 301).  There seems to be a good deal of confusion and disagreement on the topic in the transgender community.

Putting aside for a moment the fact that transitioning is a long process with no particular end point (where a change in sexual orientation could be assessed) and can often mean different things to different people and that most transsexuals do not have surgeries; perhaps what is really happening in these cases is that individuals are choosing partners more for the complex array of factors that help the individual feel confirmed in their authentically felt gender rather than for their desirability based on their maleness or femaleness.

Just thinking about this logically for a minute one sees that claims of so called “reparative therapies” on non-trans homosexuals have been thoroughly debunked over the past few decades (for summaries see Haldeman, 1994; Drescher, 1998  and Bright 2004).  What bit of alchemy would then achieve this momentous transformation on the transsexual?  Hormone replacement therapy?  By this same logic, scores of menopausal lesbians taking feminizing hormones would have suddenly switched to becoming attracted to men.

A 1998 research paper titled “Changes in the Sexual Orientation of Six Heterosexual Male-to-Female Transsexuals” by Christopher Daskalos of the Department of Sociology, Arizona State University asserts that

“These respondents stated that before transitioning they had been sexually orientated towards females. After transitioning, these same respondents reported that they were sexually orientated towards males. Five of the six respondents reported having various sexual encounters with males since transitioning. The respondents explained the changes in their sexual orientation as part of their emerging female gender identities. Three of the respondents claimed that the use of female hormones played a role in changing their sexual orientation” (from the abstract p. 605).”

The paper was challenged in the same journal in a letter to the editor by Anne A. Lawrence (an arguably controversial figure in her own right due to her advocating the concept of  ‘autogynephilia’) who noted that “Daskalos purports to document dramatic changes in the sexual orientation of six of his transsexual informants – changes that seem to have occurred almost effortlessly.  However, a careful reading of Daskalos’ paper reveals that he has demonstrated no such thing” (p. 581). Her reasons include that sexual behavior is not the same as sexual orientation, that (a somewhat dated idea) “Sometimes such self-reports may be conscious deceptions, designed to increase the likelihood that the transsexual will qualify for sex reassignment surgery” and that “In other cases, such self-reports by transsexuals may reflect the autogynephilic fantasy of sex with a male partner” (p. 581).

However none of these refutations shed light on the reasons behind changes in behavior.  I believe Dozier’s (2005) comments from her cohort of 18 trans men to be most in keeping with what I have seen with trans people in my practice:

Respondents also challenge traditional notions of sexual orientation by focusing less on the sex of the partner and more on the gender organization of the relationship. The relationship’s ability to validate the interviewee’s masculinity or maleness often takes precedence over the sex of the partner, helping to explain changing sexual orientation as female-to-male transsexual and transgendered people transition into men (2005, p. 297).”

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

References:

Bright, C. (2004). Deconstructing Reparative Therapy: An Examination of the Processes Invovled When Attempting to Change Sexual Orientation. In Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 2004 (_ 2004)

Daskalos, C. (1998).  Changes in the Sexual Orientation of Six Heterosexual Male-to-Female Transsexuals. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 27, No. 6, 1998

Dozier, R. (2005) Beards, Breasts, and Bodies: Doing Sex in a Gendered World. In Gender & Society, Vol. 19 No. 3, June 2005. 297-316

Drescher, J. (1998).  I’m Your Handyman: A History of Reparative Therapies in Journal of Homosexuality,Vol. 36(1) 1998

Haldeman, D.C.  (1994) The Practice and Ethics of Sexual Orientation Conversion Therapy. In Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 62, No. 2, 221-227

Lawrence, A. (1999) Letter to the Editor. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 28, No. 6, 1999

Lev, A. (2004). Transgender Emergence. Binghamton, NY: HaworthPress.


Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.


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