By Daniel Bartholomay
Last weekend, my partner and I (both cisgender gay men) took a friend of ours to a drag show at a local restaurant. After a fierce closing act featuring a Tina Turner impersonator, my partner, my friend, and I got into a heated discussion about the complicated relationship between gender, sex, and sexuality.
The debate started when I made a comment that I found one of the queens sexually attractive while she was in drag. My confessed drag queen crush threw my partner into a tizzy. Given our shared gay identity, my partner became defensive and questioned how I, as a gay man, could be attracted to an individual that was impersonating a woman. “So what, you’re bi now?” he half-jokingly asked.
This was an interesting response. My partner called into question my sexual identity based on a comment I made about an individual’s physical attractiveness. But is sexual identity defined by attraction to gender or by attraction to biological sex?
For both my partner and my friend, the answer to this question was a resounding “BOTH!”
The fact that both gender and genitalia are seemingly important in defining sexuality is interesting, given that our initial sexual attractions are predominantly based solely on gender presentations. Influential research in the sociology of gender describes how our gender presentations allow the public to make assumptions about our genitalia. In other words, if I convincingly dress like a man, talk like a man, and walk like a man, people who see me and interact with me will assume that I have a penis.
For most people (my partner and my friend, included) this assumption is a pretty big deal since both gender and genitalia are expected to “match up” in order for sexual attraction to be legitimized. However, people rarely (I presume, rarely) actually see a person’s genitalia – and therefore definitively know a person’s sex – before developing feelings of sexual attraction to the individual. So, while we make assumptions about genitalia that are important to how we personally define our sexual identities, our sexual attractions are really based on the gender presentations we see.
This line of reasoning gets messy when we apply it to my drag queen crush. Although the queen looked like a woman while she was performing, my partner and I knew that the performer was a man, and that he presumably had a penis. Since the gender presentation and the presumed sex of the drag queen did not match up, my attraction to him/her was illegitimate in my partner’s mind. This can best be explained by the inextricable connection our society emphasizes between gender and sexuality.
While my drag queen crush is hardly a serious issue, the potential problem my story represents is a real issue for many members of the transgender community whose gender presentations and genitalia do not always “match”. Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook found that transmen were socially accepted by their coworkers for the most part, except when the transmen entered into potential sexual interactions. For example, if a transman was seen talking to a woman he just met, his coworkers were likely to express that the transman was “tricking” the woman into homosexuality. These comments were made largely because the coworkers assumed that the transmen did not have penises, and were therefore not “really” men, despite their masculine gender presentations.
Schilt and Westbrook’s analysis continues to show that the consequences of not having the “appropriate genitalia” in sexual spaces can be deadly. The authors found that 95 percent of transgender murders reported in the media from 1990 to 2005 have been at the hands of cisgender men, many of whom allegedly felt sexually “tricked” or “misled” by transwomen.
While my partner did not get violent towards the drag queen when I confessed my crush, he did get upset. Similar to the individuals discussed in the study above, my partner’s negative reaction also suggests a sense of trickery or illegitimacy associated with individuals whose gender presentation does not necessarily coincide with their genitalia.
So where do we go from here? We are entering an era where the transgender community and the challenges they face regarding their gender and sexual identities are gaining awareness and in need of attention. I see a potential solution in the recommendations of queer theory, a framework that challenges the rigid boundaries our society ascribes to the categories of gender, sex, and sexuality. However, living in a world where man does not always equal penis and woman does not always equal vagina would seem illogical to most. Much research is needed to explore the ways in which blurring the boundaries of these categories can most effectively occur without resulting in societal chaos.
Until then, I guess I’ll keep my drag queen crush to myself.
Daniel Bartholomay is a Ph.D. student and lecturer in the sociology department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His teaching and research interests include the sociology of gender and sexuality; LGBT+ studies; sociology of the family; sociology of health and medicine; and research methods.