Gender is a matrix of social codes related to the binary categories of masculinity and femininity. People express gender in ways that are chosen and unchosen, and often conform to certain norms of gender that legitimate their behaviors and certify their identities. But an important part of the LGBTQ ethos is recognition that each individual has the right to gender subjectivity, that is, gender determination is the province of the person, not the community or the law code.
Within LGBTQ communities, gender is experienced in a variety of ways, ranging from butch Lesbians and Circuit boys, androgynous genderqueers subverting the categories of female and male, drag queens performing hyper-femininity, and lipstick (feminine) Lesbians. Gender expression is a major source of aesthetic creativity in everyday and festive Gay culture.
Historical Conceptions of Gender
Gender is not the same as one’s anatomical sex, although the two are often linked by assigning characteristics of femininity and masculinity to clothing, makeup (including skin color), hairstyle, speech, and movement. Historically, gender was equated with anatomical characteristics such that masculinity was identical to maleness and femininity to femaleness. This relation has often been used to justify unequal power relations between the sexes that support dominance of men over women. Feminists and gender theorists have worked to separate sex and gender, thereby promoting the notion that masculinity (and the attributes of aggression, dominance, and strength) is not necessarily dependent upon male genitalia, and conversely that femininity (and the attributes of domesticity, sensitivity, and submissiveness) is not dependent upon female genitalia.
Gender and Sexuality
Within the LGBTQ community, gender takes on more than two categories, including what Judith Halberstam describes as female masculinity, a distinct gender “with its own cultural history rather than simply a derivative of male masculinity,” and male femininity, which constitutes a specific embodiment that is not simply a case of men taking on feminine characteristics. These and other LGBTQ identities subvert dichotomies between male/female, masculine/feminine, and even homosexual/heterosexual. In fact, LGBTQ people have constructed a wide range of terms to describe diverse gendered identities such as boi (often a Lesbian or young Gay man who identifies as androgynous), queer or genderqueer (terms which are gender non-specific), queen (the application of a drag queen identity to one’s everyday life and personality), and trans (a shortened version of transgender/transsexual that has evolved into Trans, its own category of gender identity).
Much like the normative connection between biology and gender, heterosexuality has been built upon the dichotomy between maleness and femaleness, or of masculinity desiring femininity and vice versa. LGBTQ persons complicate this framework by denying the exclusivity of the heteronormal. Partnerships between two feminine women or two masculine women, Lesbians conforming to the butch/femme paradigm, feminine Gay male lovers, the commitment of two Bears (typically masculine Gay men who appreciate body hair and a stout physique) to one another, a heterosexual relationship between a transman and a non-trans woman, or a heterosexual relationship between a transwoman and a non-trans man (or transwoman with a non-trans woman, transman with a non-trans man) – these examples illustrate the ways in which one’s gender and orientation can be experienced outside of the strict binary categories of heteronormal masculinity and femininity.
Drag and the Subversion of Gender
One way in which gender is understood is as a performance. Drag queens and drag kings perform exaggerations of gender when applying make-up, gluing on facial hair, wearing bras with carefully sculpted fake breasts, and packing or attaching prosthetic male genitalia. Through these performances, drag performers enact what Judith Butler describes as the “constructedness of gender.” By playing with gender in this way, drag reveals that one can put on gender at the same time that one can undo gender, indicating that people can create new and multiple manifestations of gendered identity such as genderqueer drag featuring a vast range of feminine and masculine blends.
Drag performances, however, are not the only site where gender norms are troubled and reconfigured, as they can also be challenged in private everyday practices.
Trans indicates the instances where individuals experience themselves as a different gender/sex than the one that is expected of them by way of societal norms. Some persons who feel this way choose to dress or act in ways that are incongruent with their anatomical sex, while others choose to embodied transition to the other sex by way of hormone therapies and sexual reassignment surgeries. For gender theorists, trans illustrates competing arguments about gender: both that one has an innate, biological gender, and that gender is constructed.
Girlfags and Guydykes
Within the gender/sexual physiology spectra are also those people who identify as Queer, even though they are heterosexual, because they are women attracted to Gay men, or they are men who are attracted to Lesbians. Called girlfags and guydykes, such individuals self-identify as Gay male (if they are women) or Lesbian (if they are men), and express strong loyalty to each respective group. Thus a girlfag may say that she is a Straight woman trapped in a Gay man’s body, and a guydyke would say something similar about being a man trapped in a Lesbian’s body.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Halberstam, Judith. Female Masculinity. Duke University, 1998.
Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University, 2005.
Nestle, Joan, Howell, Clare, Wilchins, Riki Anne. GenderQueer: Voices From Beyond the Sexual Binary. Alyson, 2002.