Tuesday 27 September 2016

Gender and sexuality are a rainbow of complex colours

2015 was the Year of the Queer. Far from simple 'male' and 'female' boxes you tick on a form, sex is a complex spectrum

Ciara O'Connor

Published 10/01/2016 | 16:00

Caitlyn Jenner...FILE - In this July 15, 2015, file photo, Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe award for courage at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. Jenner, Reese Witherspoon, Misty Copeland and five women touched by the South Carolina church massacre and lauded in the aftermath as The Peacemakers of Charleston are among this year's honorees as Glamour magazine's Women of the Year. Victoria Beckham, billionaire entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards and the women's FIFA soccer Team USA round out the Class of 2015, announced Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. They will be honored at a gala Nov. 9 at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)...A
Caitlyn Jenner...FILE - In this July 15, 2015, file photo, Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe award for courage at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. Jenner, Reese Witherspoon, Misty Copeland and five women touched by the South Carolina church massacre and lauded in the aftermath as The Peacemakers of Charleston are among this year's honorees as Glamour magazine's Women of the Year. Victoria Beckham, billionaire entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes, Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards and the women's FIFA soccer Team USA round out the Class of 2015, announced Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. They will be honored at a gala Nov. 9 at Carnegie Hall. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)...A

Between Call Me Caitlyn and Jonathan Rachel Clynch, and the world creepily salivating over Johnny Depp's 16-year- old queer daughter and a young Pitt-Jolie twin moving from Shiloh to John and Channel 4 producing documentaries on trans kids ad nauseam, it's fair to say that 2015 was the year of queer.

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For god's sake, it even reached the Late Late, with Tubridy welcoming 'boys, girls and everyone in between' to the Toy Show this year. But that's not to say that all this breathless talk about sex, gender and orientations hasn't left a lot of us completely baffled.

With an ever-expanding list of definitions, and more acronyms than a corporate strategy meeting, it all seems a bit much - like you might need a PhD in sociology to get any handle on it. It's the subject of numerous very sincere blogs and online petitions, which is grand, but it gives the impression of it being for young groovy people with short haircuts and Tumblr accounts: it's not.

Like iPads and going gluten-free, it's easy when you know how. Also like iPads and going gluten-free, to not be some crusty relic, you should at least be able to bullshit your way through a conversation about it. So here your cheaters' guide to LGBPTTQQIIAA+.

First of all, no one actually calls it LGBPTTQQIIAA+; LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer plus) should cover anyone who's not hetero.

So there's your straights and gays who are blessedly straightforward, and of course the bisexuals who like boys and girls. Then we get into the pansexuals - they can potentially fancy anyone regardless of their object's gender, the asexuals who don't experience sexual attraction and the demisexuals who aren't sexually attracted to people until they have a strong emotional connection. There's the skoliosexuals who only fancy people who don't fit into traditional gender categories and of course the autosexuals who, let's say, prefer their own company.

If you're not sure, go for 'queer', which people all across the gender and orientation spectrums have reclaimed from the haters as a catch-all term for people who aren't straight.

In all the talk about orientations, the idea of gender comes up a lot, so it's probably worth pointing out what gender actually is, and why it has little to do with foofs and willies.

Generally, we think about 'sex' as what's in your knickers, and 'gender' as how you feel - or to use the correct parlance, how you identify. For many of us, we're born, the doctor has a look between our legs, pronounces us either a boy or a girl and then we grow up to agree, by and large, that yes we're a boy or we're a girl. Those people are 'cis gendered' or simply 'cis': their sex and gender match.

For a long time, sex and gender were interchangeable. Biology was destiny. But for many people, it's not so straightforward. It's generally accepted now that far from being a binary, gender is more like a spectrum with people falling somewhere in between a man's man and a girly girl.

Those whose gender is diametrically opposed to their biological sex - the Caitlyn Jenners - are known as transgendered, or simply trans. For the millions of people who are somewhere in between, 'gender fluid', 'gender queer' or just 'queer' works.

Gender used to be a useful way to decide who stayed at home and looked after the kids and who went out to work and came home to their slippers and newspaper.

Today, when young men who can't cook are viewed with some suspicion and where I can't quite admit that I wouldn't be able to change a tyre on my car, it all seems a bit redundant.

Major retailers are no longer labelling their toys for girls or for boys and the coolest parents are kitting their kids out in unisex Scandi gear.

There are girly boys and boyish girls and even the most traditional parents wouldn't dream of steering their daughter away from, say, the sciences.

For a long time, though, we'd felt secure in the fact that, even if we didn't totally fit gender stereotypes, at least we can know what we 'are' by having a quick peek in our pants.

However, increasingly there's an awareness that biological sex is not exactly clear-cut either; while your brain might agree with that doctor's opinion on your very first day on earth, your genetics might tell another story. In a simpler world, the presence or absence of a Y chromosome would be what counts; boys have it, girls don't. Except some of them do.

There are women who go through their whole lives totally secure in their bodies and identity, only to discover (usually while investigating an unrelated medical problem) that a large part of their genetic make up is actually male - and of course it works the other way around too.

The fact is, far from the 'male' and 'female' boxes you tick on forms suggest, sex is a spectrum too. There are thousands born every year with genitalia which is not obviously male or female - doctors pretty much flipped a coin to decide, but increasingly it is parents who are having to make the difficult decision on how to raise their child.

As many as one in 100 children born fit into this amorphous and diverse 'intersex' category. So even if science can't decide, how can us mere mortals be expected to figure out this whole sex and gender thing?

It was only a matter of time before fluidity and queerness burst into the mainstream. History is full of gays, cross-dressers, lesbians who were 'just good friends', people who managed to live their whole life as the opposite sex - it's not a new invention of bored millennials looking for new ways to shock.

The only difference is instead of locking them up for 'deviancy', now they're on the front of Vanity Fair.

At a lot of teenage-run events, people wear stickers with their name and preferred pronoun - the person in a dress called Becky might like to be referred to as a 'they' rather than a 'she'. Some people, presumably because of the grammatical quandary that 'they' poses, have adopted pronouns such as 'zir' or 'xe'.

There seems to be a widespread reluctance to engage with this stuff, as if even thinking about it might turn you into a vegan swinger.

It's always been happening, but by giving it names and talking about it, we get one step closer to a world where so many people don't feel like freaks: a world with a little more colour. The revolution is here and it's queer, so you'd better get used to it.

Sunday Independent

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