Trans Ed 101: sex and gender

In the news: Kim Kardashian accidently revealed the gender of her baby on Ellen. My reaction: Um, nope; she didn’t.

Speaking of a Kardashian, I am reminded of Caitlyn Jenner, of whom it’s often been questioned whether she’s had gender reassignment surgery. The answer is “no,” even without asking her. The reason? No one has ever had gender reassignment surgery, because it doesn’t exist.

On my driver’s license, I had my gender marker changed from male to female. Or, wait—I had my sex marker changed. Ugh. Which is it?

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Sex and gender are not the same thing. To help keep it straight, it is bluntly said that sex is what is between your legs and gender is what’s between your ears. More scientifically speaking, sex is biological and gender is experienced. Or, to put it yet another way, sex is objective—I can identify my sex organs with my eyes—and gender is subjective—by simply looking at another person, I can’t tell whether this one or that identifies as female or male or questioning/queer.

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In this age of our finally, openly talking about transgender issues, it is bewildering so often to hear sex and gender being used interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing. Turning my bewilderment to downright consternation is that even transgender folks are heard confusing the two.

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I begin with this thing which, along with baby bump selfies, has become popular: the gender reveal.

The doctor moves the sonogram wand over the pregnant woman’s belly, gets a good view of the fetus, and then asks, “Do you want to know the baby’s sex?”

Catch that: the baby’s sex. The doctor sees the genitals of the fetus and feels confident making a pronouncement. Assuming the genitals do not appear ambiguous, one of two determinations is made: boy or girl—the baby’s sex.

Sex, not gender. The sonogram wand cannot read the baby’s mind, to determine her or his or their gender.

Somehow, identifying the baby’s sex has gotten translated to revealing the baby’s gender. Despite our new awareness of all things sex and gender, I should not be surprise; almost everyone uses “jealous” when they mean “envious.” We simply don’t pay enough attention to words.

[In case you’re curious, and I hope you are, think of jealousy and envy this way: when you are jealous of someone, you don’t want her to have what she has, and when you are envious you want what she has. Jealousy: “I wish that guy were my boyfriend, not Monica’s.” Envy: “I wish I had as nice a boyfriend as Monica’s.”]

Trans folks have preferred to get away from the use of the word “sex,” because it can cause hearers to think that this is about sex, or the act of having sex, and having sex is not what we want heard. So, the original word, “transsexual,” has largely fallen out of favor and replaced with “transgender.”

This takes me to the term “gender reassignment surgery.” The original term for the surgical alteration of one’s genitals was “sex reassignment surgery.” With the new preference for using “transgender” over “transsexual,” it seems that folks simply replaced “sex” with “gender” for the term for this surgery. Not so fast.

The gender of a person is not being changed. To alter one’s gender would mean to do brain surgery, to perform a self-identity-altering procedure. Such an operation does not exist. If it had, I might have opted for it, so that I could have successfully lived as a cisgender male, “cisgender” referring to one whose sex and gender identity match.

Since “sex” is no longer preferred for this surgery, how might we replace it with “gender”? It’s easy enough and is done by those who are paying attention. Many now call it “gender confirmation (or confirming) surgery,” while others, such as the University of Michigan’s hospital, use “gender affirmation (or affirming) surgery.”

I like the sound of “affirming,” but I refrain from typing the term as an acronym, as U of M does: GAS. Believe you me, having this surgery was not a gas! [Note to those of a younger generation regarding having a gas: https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/having+a+gas ]

Onto the driver’s license, and the question on so many forms. Are we being asked our sex or gender? Historically, the request was: “Sex: Male___ Female___.” Nowadays, forms might ask your sex, and they might ask your gender. There seems to be no rhyme or reason.

Maybe, they should ask both.

When I was in the early stages of transitioning, months before I had my name and, ahem, gender marker legally changed, and well over a year before my GAS (see? It looks weird), I was filling out a form at my dentist. Asked for my sex, I indecisively circled “male” and moved on. I returned to it and circled “female.” I then made a line joining the two and wrote “transgender.”

Some places are getting away from asking one to indicate sex/gender, while other places are offering a number of options, and still others simply present a __________ and let the person decide how to indicate this personal designation. Facebook tries to offer every imaginable option, now with up to seventy-one gender—um, sex—well, which is it?—opportunities for a person’s self-identity, including “asexual,” “intersex man,” “gender neutral,” “male to female transsexual woman” and—catch the difference!—“male to female transgender woman.”

While folks are busy making their “gender” reveals, others are saying that babies are assigned a sex at birth. No longer do we say of a trans woman, “She was born a male,” but, “She was assigned male at birth.” It makes sense. Naturally, I was assigned male; I had a penis. No one could know that I would have a gender identity issue and one day be transgender.

The following cartoon humorously takes this entire issue to its ludicrous conclusion. Well, wait; for we who experience the tremendously challenging and difficult disassociation of sex and gender, it’s not funny at all.

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No, I’m not jealous of you cisgender folks but, I gotta be honest, I am envious.

All of this talk has not touched on sexual orientation.  Instead of making this a long and ponderous post, the following diagram nicely and succinctly encompasses the entire conversation.  Memorize this, and you will have it!

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Sex and sexuality questions

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My physical, sexual anatomy transition has prompted new questions about sex and my sexuality, questions which had not arisen since August of 2015 when I changed my profile from Greg to Gina. At that time, I was asked if I now considered myself a lesbian, since I was married to a woman. It was a question worthy of putting before me. Because I had not asked myself about my orientation since I began the process, I then had to once again examine myself.

Did transitioning to female make me a lesbian, since I remained attracted to women? Crazy as it seems, I came up with a no. Here’s how.

I am a genetic male. That I fathered five children proves it. And, because I understand the reason for my gender identity issue to have its origins in my endocrine system’s being disrupted when I was forming in the womb, I consider my desire to be a female to be out of order for the person my genetics say I would otherwise be.

So, no matter how I live or what surgeries I have, my starting point is male. Because I am male and am attracted to females, I consider myself a heterosexual male. Yet, I have an intersex condition, which prompted my gender dysphoria, which then led me to transition.  Now, I identify as a heterosexual male who is a transgender woman.

For some reason, Sesame Street, Electric Company, and Blues Clues never taught me about this!

Now, having actually had my male genitals reformed to female, new questions have surfaced. I am pleased to answer them because this is an excellent, teachable moment, because folks simply don’t know anything about what we trans folks experience, and when they ask logical questions, and do so in a respectful way, I am happy about it and eager to answer.

One friend had trouble grasping how I could now have sex reassignment but remain married to Julie. After we explored this a bit, I came to recognize something which had not occurred to me, that folks naturally equate my having had this surgery with my desire to have sexual relations.

Did I have the surgery because I desire relations with a male? Do I want to experience being a female in this way?

It makes total sense that folks would think that I would want to change my sex organ so as to enjoy sex in the manner in which I identify myself now, as a female. But, for whatever reason, that thought never dawned on me. Why didn’t it occur to me? I suspect it is because it was never the issue.

I have joked that I have no business daydreaming about having sex with a man (or another woman) because I am married! Actually, that is a true statement. I am married to Julie. My heart and desire belongs to her. I long to be faithful to my vows. My first desire is to be an upstanding, highly ethical Christian and spouse.

Now, let’s ask: Does transitioning ever alter one’s sexual orientation? Some folks who transition do experience a change in attraction, but from my reading it is a smaller percentage. Changed desires, along with the inability for one in the couple to cope with transitioning, and much more have split up many couples. Easily, Julie could have said, “I didn’t sign up for this. I am not a lesbian. I married a man and I want a man for a husband.” Thankfully, she has lived our marriage vow, “For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. Till death parts us.”

When my hormones changed after I had been on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for awhile—meaning that my estrogen was higher and testosterone lower to match that of a genetic female in my age bracket—my sexual appetite was all but extinguished, leaving me with little to no sex drive. I was thankful for that, because I could no longer emotionally practice sex as a male. Yet, my attraction to Julie never wavered (nor hers for me), even though I could do nothing more with it than to be affectionate.

This is hardly the case for all. Indeed, I might be in the minority. I know of plenty of trans folks—male, female, pansexual, gender fluid, queer—who continue to enjoy sex with their natal anatomy. As with all of life’s experiences, there is no one-size-fits-all to this.

Am I curious as to how my body will react after I heal from surgery? Will my sex drive reignite? Will I have any change in desire? What things might happen which I cannot predict or know to look for?

How about after I go back on HRT this week, which I have been off for six weeks for the sake of undergoing surgery? When my hormones return to female-oriented levels—hopefully in about a month—and I now have female anatomy, will this new situation give me such a feeling of wholeness and rightness that I experience new feelings, and cause my sex drive to return?

As for Julie and me, we believe that our attraction remained, though neither of us have changed our sexual orientation, because our attraction is built upon our love for each other. Remember, we fell in love through our writing, before we ever saw each other’s picture.

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I personally know a few couples—in each case, heterosexual couples in which the genetic male transitioned to female—who have not skipped a beat in their love and commitment to each other.

This all has been a grand lesson in sex and attraction and love. Sex is neither reduced to nor confined to one’s genitals. Yes, mine are now different, but I remain the same person. To me, that is the key. The essence of the human does not change even as some significant aspects of that person are altered. The sex act is a performance of the whole person—body, mind, and spirit.

Sex never was my reason for the surgery. Possessing body parts which are correct to my identity was my reason for sex reassignment surgery. Male genitals simply were wrong on me. I neither wanted to see nor touch myself.

If I were not married, other things could come into play for me. Since I am a turning-sixty-years-old-this-month married person, they are out of bounds. I don’t even ponder them. Ultimately, I much prefer my situation in life, because I have Julie and, well, you know how I feel about Julie. I am as blessed a human being as there is.

To me, my marriage lacks nothing. Julie so fills me in every wonderful way that I do not find myself wanting for a thing. I always live in her love. And she in mine. I would not trade our marriage—as much as we have been through, as challenging as it has been, and even as unusual as it became and the spotlight under which we found ourselves—for anything in the whole world.

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Next time, I will address the asking of questions, and how one might know what is okay to ask a trans person and what is not, and what situations can inform a person when a question will be fair play and when it will not.