Monday, June 16, 2008

Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Body Presentation and Sexual Attraction

Over the last ten years, I have been privileged to be invited to speak in front of psychology classes, sociology classes, human sexuality classes and social work classes at various universities and junior colleges, both in Arizona and Georgia. It seems that when they reach the subject of transsexuality, it helps the students to better understand if they have a live subject to grill. One of the first things I tell them when I start my presentation is, “I’m not afraid of the questions you ask me, as long as you aren’t afraid of the answers I give you.” It let’s the students know that every question is fair game.

Over the course of the years, I have developed visual aids to help in explaining various aspects of the human condition related to the subject matter. One of the things I would tell them is that Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Sexual Orientation and Physical Sex are four completely individual and separate aspects to a person’s life. Each is represented by a line and a person can fall any place on those lines.

As time went on, I made some adjustments to the categories so they would better reflect the lives that transsexuals lead and the changes they face along the way. I changed “Physical Sex” to “Body Presentation,” to reflect how the transsexual appears without clothes on, as opposed to “Gender Expression,” which reflects how a person presents themselves to the world with clothes on.

I also changed “Sexual Orientation” to “Sexual Attraction,” because in the case of many transsexuals, they don’t stop finding the same sex attractive, even though they have changed their body and documents to live in the gender opposite of their birth. In my case, I never stopped finding women attractive, so I went from a heterosexual man to a lesbian. Only society’s labels for me changed. Here is the basic chart:

The next two charts show where the “average” straight men and women fall on these lines. Notice that women are allowed to express themselves with styles of dress that give them more flexibility on how they want to look, whereas men are confined to a much stricter selection. (I placed the word “average” in quotations, because I don’t really like using that word, but I have to here for a clearer explanation.)
The next two charts show that gay men and lesbian women appear to have a broader range in expressing themselves when it comes to an outward appearance. This also covers body language. The charts don’t reflect the “average” gay man or lesbian women, but are designed show that within the gay and lesbian population, there can be a larger variety of how the men and women identify or express themselves then in the straight population. As an exercise, people reading this may wish to figure out where they fall on each line.

The next eight charts are more complicated, because they reflect the experiences of some transsexual people. On the next two charts, they reflect children who have a Gender Identity different from their biological sex. As you can see, many of the parents force the child to present as their biological sex, which can cause problems in later years. However, there have been a growing number of parents who understand when their child says they are not a girl or a boy. This can be attributed to the increase of exposure on television and in the news about transsexuality.
With the next two charts, we see how a transsexual falls on the lines just before starting their transition. For sake of clarification, I’m going to say that when a transsexual “starts transition,” it means when they start living full time, but many will use other points in their life for when they start. Like everything else, it is up to the individual. For some people, these charts can represent a period of years, while for others, it could mean weeks or just days. There is a lot of variation in this.

Notice that on these charts, the Body Presentation is slightly off from the end. This reflects the changes transsexuals start making to their body that may not be evident to others. The men may start taking testosterone grow body hair and start bulking up. The women may start electrolysis, shave their body hair and develop breasts if they started on hormones. How far off the end their body becomes depends on how long they stretch out the pre-transition process. For transsexuals, sexual attraction can fall anywhere on that line.

I would also like to note that for most MtF crossdressers, their chart would look similar to the MtF transsexual chart shown here, with the exception that their identity will be at the other end of the scale, or slightly off that end, and they would more then likely be attracted to women.

Just after starting transition, in the next charts, we see that the body changes of transsexuals make them much further away from the end on the Body Presentation line, but their Gender Expression has very little variation. In the early stages, many wish to present closer to the gender stereotypes to reflect the new direction in their life. Again, I have to keep emphasizing that this does NOT reflect all transsexuals. How individuals fall on these lines vary drastically.

The last set of charts show trans men and women once they have settled into their lives. The reason why the men’s Body Presentation is further from the end then with the women is that a large majority opt not to have any form of bottom surgery. There are many reasons why the women are not right at the end. This can be things like lack of hips and waist, larger hands, height, Adam’s apple, plus not all of them get bottom surgery. Yet, there are so many who look nearly perfect that the “average” MtFs overall fall closer to the end.

These charts can be useful if ever any of you stand in front of college students, giving them an overview of transsexuality. The great thing about the human race is that people can fall anywhere on those lines. I recall one time where a college student challenged my linier thinking for gender and suggested that these categories should be placed on a sphere. I think he is absolutely right, but I’ll let him create the next generation presentation for this subject.


caprice said...

I think your statement about MtF crossdressers is a bit off the mark, even with the qualification that it applies to "most." In my experience, CD's (which I will define as people who sometimes express the gender opposite to their body presentation) can be anywhere on the sexual attraction scale. While a majority of MtF CD's certainly are attracted to women, a significant minority are also attracted to men. Stating that they are "more then (sic) likely be attracted to women" is misleading I think.

S.L. Bond said...

Just curious -- why is the "body presentation" section so much larger for lesbians than gay men? That doesn't make any sense to me. Why would lesbians appear significantly more androgynous when naked? In clothing, hairstyles, etc., perhaps -- but in physical sex characteristics?