I guess I have questions… or maybe thoughts? It’s complicated.
I’m a cis gay man. I think? I think that’s a part of it.
I wish I was more masculine. I feel like my life would have been a lot easier if I had been… that it would be easier in the future if I were… I kind of hate that it never came naturally to me. Never has. Probably never will. And, it gets hard. I feel like I’m not allowed certain sports or hobbies or… just things in general, because I’m not “masculine” enough for them. Honestly, same thing when it comes to “feminine” things to. I feel like I’m not allowed to want them because I won’t fit in… should I just give up on them, or try to force it? I’m too fem to be masc and too masc to be fem… but like… I kind of want to be both?
So it makes me wonder… am I a man? I mean. It fits… sort of? I often feel like I’m not the right kind of man or am sort of a “failure” as a man. That’s probably just a lot of internalized bullshit that is really toxic. Doesn’t help that I have certain people in my life who will tell me they accept me, then police my gender in the next breath.
But does all of this make me nonbinary? I’m not sure.
And sex… oh sex… Never done it before. Sex is a complicated thing for me. Given the fact that gay men can be so fixated on masculinity, I feel like a somewhat fem (and fat) guy like me will never be found attractive. Kind of sucks, to be honest. It’s to the point where I can’t imagine myself having sex with someone. I can’t imagine myself being seen as a sexual being or seen as sexy… or even sexual. I can’t really connect with my own sexuality, to the point where I wonder if I’m damaged or have too little self-esteem or if I’m just… not into it.
Funny enough, I jokingly call myself “the pervert friend”, because I’m comfortable talking about sexuality. I’m very open. I just haven’t done anything. I’m pretty sure I want it. I want to be loved. I want to want someone and be wanted by someone. I want intimacy. I’m pretty sure I want sex… ?
So… I guess I just don’t know if the labels I’ve used for myself for the past several years fit anymore. I mean, I clearly have a lot of unpacking to do, a lot of unhealthy relationships to manage, and a lot of thinking to do. But, I don’t know where to start. I don’t know if this is just the thoughts of someone who feels that he doesn’t fit the mold and, therefore, must clearly be something else. I don’t know what to think.
I guess I’m asking for even some reassurance.
I don’t know the answers. I don’t expect you to know all the answers either.
But what would you say to someone like me?
Dazed and Confused
Alright D&C, before we get to your question, I want to lead with my standard caveat: I’m a straight, cis guy. This means my advice comes from that perspective, and there’re things that I may miss that would be glaringly obvious to someone with different experiences. So take anything I have to say with appropriate levels of salt and skepticism. I also encourage my LGBTQ, genderfluid and non-binary readers to share their thoughts and experiences; they will have insights I don’t have.
Now with that in mind:
My first question for you D&C is, do you wish you were more masculine because you want to be more masculine? Or because it feels like you’re supposed to be?
My second question would be what, exactly, does being “more masculine” mean to you? Do you mean more traditionally masculine? Having more stereotypical masculine interests? Being taller, more muscular and more male-presenting? Being more aggressive and assertive? Would these be because this is what you want, or because it would be more in keeping of what others expect from you?
One of the things that I always try to tell people is that the restrictive, limited ideas of masculinity are just that: ideas. They’re ideas that’re encouraged by the culture at large… but they’re not inherently definitive, and many of them are toxic to the people who try to live up to them and to society in general. Part of what’s astounding is how many things are considered to be “unmanly” or “off limits” to men and male-presenting folks because… well, because fuck you, that’s why. This includes anything from wearing certain colors, to what hobbies they can pursue, to wearing more floral scents, to taking baths or practicing basic skin care. Meanwhile, “manly” virtues include doing things that will get you hurt or killed and prioritizing those above things like “not needing to send people into danger in the first place”. Wearing a dress or makeup is seen as being worse or more damaging than, say, drinking to excess, getting into fights or strutting about like a would-be vigilante to “protect” your family from danger (rather than, say, wearing a mask or getting vaccinated). To many, it’s better to be treated as a disposable resource than to — let me check my notes here — wear a dress or use singular “they/them” pronouns.
The truth is that gender is as much of a social construct as it is biological determinism. You’re fully capable of engaging in those hobbies regardless of whether you have a Y chromosome or not. You aren’t a more or less effective knitter, for example, based on your relative estrogen or testosterone levels. Being a caregiver isn’t affected by chromosomal pairings. People can be shitty about these things… but then again, people can be shitty about anything. As I write this, E3 has started and people are getting into arguments about goddamn video game trailers. People gatekeep over the stupidest goddamn things, whether it’s your gender identity (or lack thereof) or which version of D&D you enjoy.
(No, seriously. There are people who are pissed off at Critical Role and The Adventure Zone for making D&D popular and more accessible.)
Now the question of whether you’re non-binary or genderfluid or not isn’t something I can tell you. It’s certainly a possibility. I know plenty of folks who have more masc days and more femme days and roll with that. I know people who are non-binary and don’t really identify with any particular gender, some who are more agender and some who are one gender but embrace their interests and aspects of their personality that fall on the other side of the gender spectrum. So it could well be that you’re a bit more on the fluid side of things and hey, that’s absolutely valid and real.
It could also be that you’re a man who just has non-traditionally masculine interests and non-typical gender expression. And that’s valid too. Li’l Nas X and Billy Porter aren’t any less male for looking fabulous in a dress. By that same token, Jonathan Van Ness isn’t any less nonbinary (who uses he/him pronouns) for all that he wears facial hair and an enviable mustache.
And it could well be that you aren’t sure yet and you’re still figuring things out. That’s just as real, just as legitimate and just as valid. Gender can be a complicated thing and processing what you’ve been told you’re supposed to be vs. what you are can take time and exploration. You may need time to find an answer for yourself and, during that time, you may be trying out aspects or identities to find the one that’s the right fit for you.
What I can say is that there are many, many ways to be a man. Being fat or having a more femme presentation doesn’t make someone less of a man; it just makes them a fat man or a femme-presenting man. David Bowie was no less of a man for all of the ways he fucked around with gender and gender presentation. Men — cis or trans — can present in any number of ways, from softbois to thick, muscled fireplugs; they’re still men. Who wants you and who doesn’t has no bearing on your gender, for that matter. Being fat may mean that you’re not some people’s particular flavor of yum, but there’re also dudes who want a guy or nonbinary special someone who looks the way hugs feel.
You’re right in that you have some shitty relationships to manage and some stuff to unpack, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to talk to a therapist who understands queer identities and gender issues. But it also wouldn’t hurt to talk to other folks who fall on different parts of the gender spectrum as well and get their perspectives. There’re also a number of resources out there that can be helpful for unpacking your gender and your feelings around masculinity and femininity.
Pride.com has a list of resources, including Life Outside the Binary and Let’s Queer Things Up. Genderspectrum.org also has a list of online resources, including various online support and discussion groups for folks of various ages. Genderqueer.me likewise has a list of available online resources for folks wanting to know more about non-binary and genderfluid identities as well as LGBT issues. These can give you a starting place for unpacking some of your feelings and questions, as well as connect you with a number of different communities where you can ask questions and get support.
But regardless, there’s one thing to consider: fitting the mold or not isn’t a sign of succeeding or failing at being a particular gender. The “mold” is about commonality and expectations, not rigid definitions. Not fitting perfectly into one particular version of gender doesn’t mean that you have failed or that you’re “something else”. It may mean that yes, that your gender is different or more fluid than your biological sex. Or it may just mean that you’re wonderfully and uniquely you and your not fitting into a particular mold just means that its a bad fit. Better to find what fits you than to try to cram yourself into something too small, too restrictive and unable to handle your awesomeness.
When it comes to the topic of consent, that is definitely better than just thinking you can read someone’s mind. However, one thing I’ve noticed where these discussions fall short and I’ve never been able to see an answer to, is that asking for consent to something is potentially a transgressive act, and someone could feel creeped out or violated merely by being asked for consent to something.
Examples of this could be things like approaching someone or hitting on them. Asking for consent to approach is a contradiction in itself, as you cannot ask without approaching in the first place, as well as consent to hit on someone, because as soon as you ask, that person knew you wanted to do that and can feel violated because of it. This can also be further on in the relationship, even after they’ve already had sex a few times. If one person has a fetish that’s outside of social norms and wants to use it within the bedroom, asking for consent is definitely important there. But it could also be transgressive, since the person could be offended that their partner could even think of seeing them like that, or that they might be one of THOSE people and feel violated for that.
And obviously, asking for consent to ask for consent is a ludicrous idea, it might as well just be asking for consent. So how does someone ask for consent in situations like these?
Looking For Lines
This is going to seem like a digression, but there’s a point to it; stick with me for a second.
So for the last few years, there’s been a concerted effort by folks to try to undermine Pride in various ways. Sometimes it’s involved arguing about respectability politics and who does or doesn’t “belong” at Pride. Other times it’s been about trying to create divisions within the LGBTQ community. This year, the discourse has centered around whether kink has any place at Pride and how people who’ve come to Pride “may not have consented” to, say, seeing someone wearing a leather harness or wearing a puppy play mask. Many people have pointed out that much of this discussion around whether someone wearing clothes that signal an interest in BDSM or other kinks is somehow a consent violation runs the risk of defining down consent to the point of meaninglessness or trying to apply it to things that it doesn’t actually apply to.
(Doctor’s Note: I have no interest in having discussions about whether kink does or doesn’t have a place at Pride in the comments.)
I couldn’t help but think about that when I read your letter, LFL. I don’t think that you’re trying to dilute what consent means or how it’s used, but I think you’re overthinking to a point that you’re defining it almost to the point of meaninglessness and trying to apply it to areas where it doesn’t actually fit. If I’m being honest, it sounds like a lot of this is an attempt to work out your own approach anxiety or worries about your own sense of self-worth rather than actual questions about consent.
Part of the problem is that you’re conflating the idea of consent — particularly as applied to sexual situations — with the idea that there’s a right to not be offended or upset by something, which is an entirely different issue. It’s quite literally impossible to exist in the world and never come across something you disagree with, are bothered by or don’t like, and attempting to apply the idea of consent to that just dilutes the entire issue. And quite honestly, there’ve been folks who’ve attempted to weaponize that very concept; consider the number of folks who insist that seeing LGBTQ people being demonstrably affectionate with their partner(s) is somehow a violation of their rights. Or the argument from TERFs and anti-trans organizations that being trans — particularly being a trans woman — is somehow a sexual fetish and thus their mere existence in public is somehow dragging bystanders into their sex life.
But let’s look at some of what you’ve brought up.
The idea of “I feel violated by knowing that you were interested in me”, for example, is almost comically over the top. It’s the sort of thing that gets trotted out either as a worst-case fear or somebody’s straw-feminist argument about how asking somebody on a date will get you fired. While somebody’s anxieties can certainly make it feel like this is a possibility, this is more high-school clique shit AT BEST than reality. The idea of knowing that somebody finds you attractive or desirable is somehow a violation borders on incel logic.
Similarly, consent can’t really be applied to what goes on in somebody else’s head — such as in your example of “being offended that their partner could think of seeing them like that.” Even taking the logistics of it out of the equation — does someone need to ask for permission to fantasize over, say, an Instagram model’s thirst traps? — this goes well into people not having body or mental autonomy. Folks don’t get to control what you think or what you feel, even under the idea of “consent”.
This also gets very rapidly into mistaken ideas of just what consent is or what it’s asking for… or, for that matter, the ludicrously over-the-top scenarios that people throw out to insist that enthusiastic consent is somehow bad or intrusive. Approaching someone and starting a conversation — particularly in places where this is expected behavior — isn’t a transgressive act. Nor is starting to flirt with someone when you’ve caught a vibe. But much of what you’re asking about is covered by basic manners and understanding the social context. Asking if you can sit down or if this seat is taken, for example, is a form of asking for consent. You’re asking for permission to join that person or persons at their table. Similarly, not trying to talk to folks who, say, have headphones on or are absorbed in their book or their phone is simple polineness; they’re not interested in talking to someone at that moment.
There’s also recognizing the social context and what behaviors are acceptable at specific times and aren’t acceptable at others. Somebody having a Tinder account, for example doesn’t mean that they’re also open to being approached by people on Facebook. They’re on Tinder specifically to meet people to date or have sex with; that same token doesn’t apply to Facebook or Instagram. The behavior that’s accepted and expected at a singles bar or a nightclub is going to be unusual (at best) or unwelcome (at worst) at Whole Foods.
Asking your partner about trying your particular kink or fetish isn’t transgressive; it’s advocating for your needs and interests within the scope of your relationship. The idea that merely asking is somehow a violation because your partner might be squicked out by it isn’t an issue of consent, it’s just the codification of the idea that kinks or fetishes are inherently negative and that having an interest in them is somehow violating the integrity of others. Under the scenario you’ve proposed, it’s literally impossible to actually ask somebody… damn near anything, really.
And all of this is without getting into more complex topics like implied consent — knowing, for example, that I can come up and kiss my wife without asking every time — or continual consent. That just ends up taking us further and further afield from a question that’s already pretty out there as is.
Much of what you talk about comes down to basic social calibration and understanding social rules — what is or isn’t acceptable, what is or isn’t rude and so on. You can even maximize your odds of not bothering someone by trying to ensure that you prioritize approaching people who are showing interest in being approached or in talking to you and paying attention to signs of discomfort or disinterest and not staying where you aren’t wanted. You keep things with the bounds of expected social norms, take “no” with good grace and do your best not to step on people’s toes — literally and metaphorically.
Wanting to be sure you go where you’re wanted and cause as little distress as possible is admirable. However, you’re going about it the wrong way, trying to apply concepts in ways that were never intended and that aren’t actually germaine to what you’re talking about. That just ends up rendering the concept of consent meaningless and losing its purpose (addressing and challenging sexual violence) entirety.