Around eight months ago, I got into a loving, romantic relationship. It was, and still is, exciting in all the usual ways, and has changed the way I feel about many different aspects of my life. But ask me to name one thing that caught me by surprise? The intense feelings of wanting to be more feminine and desiring to be seen in a feminine way that came with it. And this wasn’t the first time in my life that I’d felt an urgent need to question my gender, or intensely experienced dysphoria (if you don’t know what that is by now, Google it). But the previous time had also occurred while I was – you guessed it – in a relationship. My statistics lecturers would probably tell me my sample size isn’t large enough to draw meaningful conclusions, but, for me, the correlation between being in a relationship and seriously questioning my gender seems pretty strong. And it’s also something I intuitively feel is true.
A better understanding of the nuance in the links between gender, intimacy, and sexuality would be a lot of help to many trans people, their partners, or anyone trying to understand their own feelings around those three things.
So as a good statistics student, I started researching it to see if other people had similar experiences. Now, none of this is to say that it’s a universal truth that if you have the potential to question your gender, getting into a relationship will trigger that. What is true is that intimacy (both emotional and sexual) can be important in framing many people’s views on their own gender. Experiences of being in an emotional, romantic, and sexual relationship with another person is often an important part of a trans person’s journey through questioning, accepting, and actualising their gender identity. I believe this is a conversation which we need to have – this is something many trans people, including myself, feel very acutely, and there’s a budding corpus of academic research on it, too. However, I think it’s a conversation we don’t have enough, and a better understanding of the nuance in the links between gender, intimacy, and sexuality would be a lot of help to many trans people, their partners, or anyone trying to understand their own feelings around those three things.
Many queer people experience sexuality and gender as being woven together. While this is far from true for all queer people, gay/bisexual people tend to be more likely to question their gender than straight people, and a lot of gay or bisexual people present in ways that subvert gender norms even if they never question their gender. But even where this isn’t true, and even for straight, cisgender people, the relevance of gender and sexuality to each other is unavoidable. To quote anthropologist SPF Dale: “Each is implicit in the construction of the other”.
“A huge part of how we act in romantic or sexual relationships is mediated by our gender. In turn, sexuality is implicit in gender because these attractive characteristics and sexual/romantic roles become a huge part of how we talk and think about gender.”
Gender is implicit in sexuality because people are usually attracted to gendered characteristics of each other (and many of these characteristics are physical). People usually talk about sexual orientation in terms of which gender(s) they are attracted to. On top of that, sexuality (meaning our sexual and romantic preferences and desires) isn’t limited to sexual orientation. It also involves what roles appeal to you in a romantic or sexual context, and how you desire to be seen in a relationship. When thinking about gendered roles, think about anything that people do in a relationship or in sex that is usually seen as a masculine thing to do or that would be expected of a man (and the same for feminine roles). A huge part of how we act in romantic or sexual relationships is mediated by our gender. If you’re straight and cisgender, you have quite possibly never thought about it in this way, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t apply to you too. In turn, sexuality is implicit in gender because these attractive characteristics and sexual/romantic roles become a huge part of how we talk and think about gender.
So, gender and sexuality are closely related, and because sexuality represents the terms on which intimacy takes place, there’s already a pretty obvious link between intimacy and gender with sexuality as the stepping-stone.
“When you are in a close, emotionally intimate relationship, you allow very personal and closely guarded parts of your identity to be perceived.”
But why did being in a relationship change the way I feel about gender? Apart from the stepping-stone of sexuality between them, how is gender linked to and influenced by the experience of intimacy? When you are in a close, emotionally intimate relationship, you allow very personal and closely guarded parts of your identity to be perceived. In doing so, it is quite natural to start reconsidering them yourself, and thinking about how you want to be perceived and loved. And when you are sexually intimate with someone else, you allow your body to be perceived in a way that it usually isn’t. You also end up exploring how you feel about different parts of sex, and different sexual roles and behaviours. Again, it’s no wonder that this can inspire you to start reconsidering how you want your body to be perceived and loved, too.
In the words of American cultural theorist, Lauren Berlant: “Intimacy involves an aspiration for a narrative about something shared, a story about both oneself and others that will turn out a particular way”. Most of our lives are not lived directly through our experiences, they are lived through the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences. Some are self-created, some we get from others. Our urge to use these stories as a touchstone to process the many confusing, unrelated, and otherwise meaningless things that happen to us every day is overpowering. Narratives and retellings are the hands that shape our identities and ideas of ourselves, and sharing them, as well as seeing them be validated by others, affirms the very deepest part of ourselves. Intimacy of all kinds creates particularly powerful narratives, partly because it involves making yourself vulnerable and exposing yourself, and, also, because being the subject of attraction and love is such a fundamental need for most of us. Little wonder then that intimacy is such an important part of our identities and self-images.
“As soon as I realised that feminine parts of myself were accepted and, even better, were lovable, I felt a rush. A rush of acceptance of those parts of myself, of freedom to express them, and of desire to explore them further.”
Once that seed has sprouted and taken root, the feeling of mutual acceptance and validation that comes with good emotional intimacy can help that part of your identity grow and blossom too. For me, being intimate with someone was part of what inspired me to question my gender at all. But not only that, I became emotionally vulnerable with someone I could trust and someone who I knew accepted me. As soon as I realised that feminine parts of myself were accepted and, even better, were lovable, I felt a rush. A rush of acceptance of those parts of myself, of freedom to express them, and of desire to explore them further. That is not all I needed – trans people, like anyone else, need the validation of people close to them, as well as a safe and welcoming public environment, if they are going to be happy with how they identify and find self-acceptance. But I think it’s time to recognise that intimacy also has an important role to play.