What's in a name?
In an era of transmen, hasbians and genderqueers, the idea of "gayness" is being stretched, splintered and debated-and it's not just about who's sleeping with who.
Thu Feb 3 2005
Photo: Phillip Graybill
Redefine your terms
Meet "Tatiana," a 28-year-old event planner who lived the full-on dyke life for ten years. A femme beauty, she dated cute butches, threw popular downtown girl bashes, penned pieces about lesbian life in culture magazines and became so popular in New York's gay nightlife scene that she was deemed a "celesbian." But a few months ago, Tatiana fell for a man; he is now her boyfriend.
Another New Yorker, 26-year-old administrative assistant Shana Scudder, dated boys as a teenager before coming out as a lesbian when she was 18. Today, she's in a relationship with a man—a "transman," or female-to-male transgender person. "I fell in love with him almost instantly, and his gender became irrelevant," Scudder says.
Photographer Evan Schwartz, 22, used to be a lesbian, but he recently transitioned and became a transman. He dates lesbians—but he's finding more and more that it's straight women who are attracted to him, and he's having trouble adjusting to that.
Or consider the young, streetwise dude who appears on the newest episode of the documentary series Taxicab Confessions: New York, New York (airing Saturday 5). Relaxing in the back of the cab with his sexy blond girlfriend, he reveals that she's actually a transgender female—and adds, with gusto, that he doesn't like men, only women.
So who's queer? They're all queer. Why? Because they say so.
In today's world, sexual identity is becoming more self-created and less fixed. You can have sex within your gender or out of it or both—or reject the concept of gender altogether—and still count yourself as part of the mosaic known as "the gay community." Gay culture is being shaped by a confluence of radical politics, the growing number of people electing to change gender, racial diversity and youthful open-mindedness. And it's only getting more fluid and eclectic. Today's "gay" is a lot more complicated than the televised images of simple man-man and woman-woman scenarios beamed into American living rooms in the period leading up to Election Day.
"There was a certain attraction at once, and I didn't fight it," recalls Tatiana (who didn't want her real name used, in the interest of protecting her boyfriend's privacy). She's still very involved in the lesbian community, adding, "I consider myself queer." Scudder basically does too, but explains, "If pushed to narrow that definition for myself, I would still say that I am a lesbian, because being a lesbian isn't about who I'm dating—it's who I am."
Schwartz, whose gender-transition photo show "Reclaiming Puberty" is currently on view at Williamsburg gallery Schroeder Romero, takes a similar stance. "I use queer for myself," he says. "Just because I transitioned and I date women doesn't mean I'm a straight man. It's important to feel like a part of 'the community.'" And then there's the guy in the taxi, whose transgender girlfriend says that she will "always be a man," despite her surgeries. "People wouldn't necessarily know that we're a gay couple," her boyfriend says. "But we are. We're a gay couple."
But how could this be if he only likes women? Paisley Currah, 41, executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York and a female-to-male trans person, attempts an explanation. "In my mind, it all breaks down to straight and queer now," he says. "Queer refers to ways of doing things, to shared values, to thinking about gender in more complicated ways. It's not so much about a male body being with a male body and a female body being with a female body. Trans culture has kind of pushed those boundaries."
Pop culture is starting to get hip to these new boundaries—or lack thereof. The FX show Nip/Tuck's first season, in 2003, included a whopper of a scenario: The night before her male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery, Sophia, already living as a woman, has a girls' night out with Liz, a lesbian who works in her plastic surgeon's office. They comfort each other about being lonely singles, fall into each other's arms, kiss passionately—and spend the night together.
Showtime's The L Word, by the end of its first season this past spring, had featured not only a male character who identifies as a lesbian, but a straight woman who was about to enter into a relationship with a drag king. Then comes the buzz about The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, C.A. Tripp's newly published tome that suggests Honest Abe may have been a bi guy. The film Kinsey explored the life of a definition-questioning man who was ahead of the curve. Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette's film-fest darling of a documentary, acknowledged his sexuality, but escaped the gay label by being more about relationships and mental illness. And the sexually polymorphous musicians in Scissor Sisters succeed in transcending their proud freak-flag origins through an adoring audience that couldn't care less about whom they sleep with.
Even straight folk are riding the queer wave. "I've tried to write about how some people just can't be defined," says the Brooklyn-based novelist Jonathan Ames. His characters are placed all over the sexual map, and a transgender-themed anthology that he edited, Sexual Metamorphosis, is due to be published this spring. Ames recalls a friend telling him, "You're not gay, you're not straight—you're straightish."