Frequently Asked Questions about Gender and Sexuality in Doppland

Hey Everyone,

So here’s the situation. I’m the founder of Genderfork.com, a community expression site about gender variance, and I’m out as “queer.”  I also live in the gayest neighborhood in San Francisco and I host two events: Queer Open Mic and Deviants Online, both of which serve sexual minorities and other beautiful creative weirdos.  I also sometimes speak about gender and sexuality.  It’s kind of a thing in my life.

But then again, in a lot of contexts, I talk about Non-Queer Stuff: I build websites, manage online communities, and try to be a good cell in the living, breathing organism that is Silicon Valley.  This whole Gender and Sexuality association seems to be prompting a lot of questions that I need to catch up on, though, so let’s dig in…

Q: OMG, I’m so sorry, I just referred to you as “female,” and you run that website, so that was probably a really stupid insensitive thing to say. Sorry. Sorry. What do you prefer?

A: I appreciate you trying to be sensitive, but female, woman, and she are fine for me, thanks. If you ever call me a lady or a chick, I’ll probably look at you like you’re smoking something, but that’ll be the end of it. I do identify as genderqueer, but as long as you don’t expect me to fit a stereotypically feminine mold, we can stick to what’s familiar. It’s cool.

Q: Okay, so is that probably true for everyone I meet who seems like you?

A: Nope. People can look similar from the outside but feel differently on the inside, so it’s bad form to assume these things.

Q: Got it. So when I don’t know how a person identifies, I should always ask?

A: The Easy Answer is “yes,” but I’m not going to give you that one right now, because I think you can handle the Real Answer. The Real Answer is that in a lot of situations, the most respectful thing you can do is not need to ask.

Outside of Queer World, we know a lot about people just because they fit the same story that we’re telling. If Jane gets pregnant, we can assume it was from her husband, and if it wasn’t there’s probably a scandal to gossip about. If we meet a man named John in a suit at a party, we can usually assume that John has a penis and that he likes girls with vaginas. There’s nothing wrong with these assumptions when everyone fits the story. They stop being okay, though, when some people don’t.

Inside Queer World, we try to stop assuming. We still do it (a lot — call it human nature), but we try to remember that the stories we’re making up about people are just stories, and we try very hard not to say them out loud until they’re confirmed. The most respectful way to get someone’s real story is to listen, not to ask. If you meet someone new, and you can’t tell what their gender, sexuality, or relationship story is is right away, ask yourself how much it really matters right that moment to know the truth. Find a way to sit with the idea that maybe, this identity is a personal matter that they don’t want to talk about right then. Find a way to be okay with that. We don’t get all of these answers from each other, either, and we’re okay with that.

Then again, if it’s genuinely relevant, or if the person in question is ready and willing to field questions, go ahead and ask. Just be prepared to accept whatever they tell you, even if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, and be very respectful about it all.

Q: Sorry. I shouldn’t be asking you these questions, I guess. Do you want me to stop?

A: Naw, you’re fine. I called this blog post “Frequently Asked Questions,” remember? Keep going. This is helpful to people.

Q: Oh good. Can you tell me what you mean when you say “genderqueer”?

A: If we’re only talking about me for a second… One way of putting it is that “I’m kind of bad at being a girl, and I like it that way.”

Sometimes it seems like, for any situation, there are two ways of approaching it: the “guy way” and the “girl way.” I like to think of this as having two buckets of possible answers to draw from, and that I can pick out of whichever one I want, whenever I want. I personally feel most comfortable when I’ve got one hand in each bucket, and am pulling out a fairly equal mix.

Another way to think of “genderqueer” is as the conscious and intentional sculpting and performance of gender. People who identify as “genderqueer” come in a LOT of different flavors, and what they have in common is that they do it their own way.

Q: Okay, so, do you have a girlfriend?

A: I’m in a serious relationship, and it’s with a man (whom I refer to as “The Squeeze”). We’re also in an open relationship, and that fits us both very well. Sometimes I date girls, too.

Q: Your serious relationship is with… a man? Wait. I thought you were queer. Oh, I know — he’s probably transgender, right? With a vagina?

A: When this one was born, the doctors said, “It’s a boy.”

Q: Doesn’t that make you straight, though? Or mostly-straight? Or, okay, I guess you’re bi, right?

A: I like the word “queer” because it gives me permission to explore and be myself rather than fit a particular role. “Bisexual” is a hard word for me to embrace because it seems to suggest that there are two stories for gender attraction. The gender stuff I grapple with around attraction is much more complex.

Oh, and no, it doesn’t make me straight. And if I were in a serious relationship a woman, that wouldn’t make me a lesbian, either. Who we’re with only represents one story about our needs, identities, and attractions. There’s so much more to us than that.

Q: I thought “queer” was an offensive term for “gay.” Why are you using it?

A: To some people, it’s derogatory. To me, and in many of my circles, it’s a very positive and embracing term that means “transcends the boxes.” If it has offensive meanings to you, you don’t need to call me queer. And if “bisexual” is easier, that word’s fine with me. Just don’t call me any words that mean “heterosexual” or “homosexual,” because those tend to be wrong.

Q: Okay, so tell me about your man…

A: Hmm… sorry… I have to say no on this one. It’s my choice to be pretty public about my life, but he prefers to keep his life off the Internet. Out of respect for this preference, you won’t see me publishing his name, photo, or any other identifying information about him here. If you ever meet him, I’ll ask that you show him the same respect. (And no, sorry, his identity isn’t a super juicy secret that I’m trying to hide from you. This request is way more boring than that.)

Q: Hmm, well, okay, so you’re in an open relationship? Does that mean… I mean… Um… So… what are you doing on Saturday?

A: Probably building a website, but thanks.

You’re still giving me that look.

Oh boy.

Okay, here’s the deal. I’m a work-obsessed introvert, I’m incredibly selective with my attractions, and my relationship needs are already being met.

Let’s be friends and colleagues, okay?

Q: Sure. Okay. So then why are you in an open relationship?

A: For where I’m at in my life, it fits me well. It’s teaching me to examine my assumptions about relationships and to negotiate agreements based on what I really care about, rather than what I think I’m supposed to do. I also have a lot of learning and exploring and growing still to do, and not having hard walls up around our agreements helps me trust that my relationship can survive that growth. Fortunately, these are my partner’s preferences, too, and it’s working for us.

Q: Got it. Thanks. So… that’s all I have for now, but what should I do if more questions come up?

A: Good question. How about you ask them in the comments below? Most of the time, I’m cool with being asked in other situations, but sometimes people just have bad timing. So yeah… let’s leave the comments below open for you to ask more whenever “more” comes up. That way you can be kind of anonymous about it if you really want to, and you won’t accidentally catch me in a setting when I’m really not comfortable getting into it.

I greatly appreciate all the many varied people in my life, and I’m glad we can talk about this stuff together.

Thanks and love,
Sarah

p.s. Queers: if you’d like, please also add comments below that answer other questions you wish more people had the answers to.

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21 Responses to “Frequently Asked Questions about Gender and Sexuality in Doppland”

  1. Kate Sloan Says:

    Your definition of “queer” pretty much says it all for me. (It’s something I struggle with explaining properly when people ask me why I prefer that term.) Also, you just get awesomer & awesomer.

  2. julian Says:

    Well put Sarah! As always you are eloquent and darn handsome to boot.

  3. sarah Says:

    awwwr. you guys. *blush*

  4. Spacecadet31 Says:

    beautiful, thoughtful. you may think you are just “being you” but actually you are busy being my hero.

  5. sarah Says:

    Thanks, Spacecadet. I’m really glad you’re here.

  6. Gina Says:

    Sarah, I really appreciate the work you do in the world — especially with regards to Genderfork. I especially like this part of this post:

    Q: Got it. So when I don’t know how a person identifies, I should always ask?

    A: The Easy Answer is “yes,” but I’m not going to give you that one right now, because I think you can handle the Real Answer. The Real Answer is that in a lot of situations, the most respectful thing you can do is not need to ask.

    Outside of Queer World, we know a lot about people just because they fit the same story that we’re telling. If Jane gets pregnant, we can assume it was from her husband, and if it wasn’t there’s probably a scandal to gossip about. If we meet a man named John in a suit at a party, we can usually assume that John has a penis and that he likes girls with vaginas. There’s nothing wrong with these assumptions when everyone fits the story. They stop being okay, though, when some people don’t.

    Inside Queer World, we try to stop assuming. We still do it (a lot — call it human nature), but we try to remember that the stories we’re making up about people are just stories, and we try very hard not to say them out loud until they’re confirmed. The most respectful way to get someone’s real story is to listen, not to ask. If you meet someone new, and you can’t tell what their gender, sexuality, or relationship story is is right away, ask yourself how much it really matters right that moment to know the truth. Find a way to sit with the idea that maybe, this identity is a personal matter that they don’t want to talk about right then. Find a way to be okay with that. We don’t get all of these answers from each other, either, and we’re okay with that.

    Then again, if it’s genuinely relevant, or if the person in question is ready and willing to field questions, go ahead and ask. Just be prepared to accept whatever they tell you, even if it doesn’t quite make sense to you, and be very respectful about it all.

    I think that this is mostly really well-said, and most of it strikes a chord with me.

    I also want to gently challenge you on something I see here:
    You’re focusing on people’s genitalia in this post (“transgender man with a vagina, John likes women with vaginas, etc”).

    It reads as reductionist in a way that surprises me, especially because of all the work you do around gender and sex. And especially because I know that you know that plenty of trans women have vaginas, and plenty of trans men have penises, and plenty of trans men don’t have vaginas, and plenty of trans women don’t have penises. People call their parts all kinds of different things. The lines around making assumptions around identity and bodies also include making assumptions around what people call their bits, you know?

    I think you could probably make the same points you are trying to make her by using phrases like “cis,” or “male-assigned at birth,” or “female-assigned at birth.”

    I say this because the “focusing on genitalia” mistake is one that I see a lot of folks make… And if we’re modelling good gender etiquette, *not* putting the focus on people’s junk — no matter how they identify! — is also really important.

    With love,
    Gina

  7. sarah Says:

    Thanks, Gina — I appreciate your comments and I totally agree with you on the reasons behind your points.

    Pushing back a little on the suggested solutions, though… “cis,” “male-assigned at birth,” “female-assigned at birth” are all phrases that take some getting used to. What do you use when you’re talking to someone who’s never had any of these conversations before?

  8. M Says:

    With regard to the not asking…what’s your thought on asking people about what pronouns they prefer? I’ve been operating on the assumption that asking is good, there. That *seems* different from asking about how someone identifies, but I dunno.

    Sometimes I tell people who ask that I identify as a piece of neon green string, because no one has a mold for what a neon green piece of string should be, in a gender and sexuality context. That, plus I like being a little silly/lighthearted about it.

  9. sarah Says:

    Gina, my response was too brief just now. I want to add that you’re absolutely right that my use of “penis” and “vagina” was excessive here… and usually when I’m trying to be non-offensive and accessible I use things like “innie” and “outie” (which is still imperfect, but less so).

    The scope of this post was to address the blunt, uneducated questions I sometimes get in language that makes sense to the asker. Modeling good language is really important, but it also needs to strike the balance of being accessible and welcoming. “Cis,” unfortunately, is severely lacking on that front. “Male-assigned at birth is closer, but still too awkward to expect someone to be able to start using right away. Do we have better ones?

    eta: and you are right. i did overemphasize the junk.

  10. sarah Says:

    M —

    If you can tell it’s the kind of situation where they’d probably appreciate being asked, then asking’s definitely the best idea.

    Everyone’s different, though. Sometimes asking embarrasses people. Sometimes they don’t have a preference and they don’t like feeling pressured to pick one. Sometimes asking is the most refreshing and affirming thing in the world.

    If it’s hard to judge, I err on the side of listening for cues. But that’s just me.

    I like that you’re a neon green piece of string. What pronouns go best with that?

  11. Gina Says:

    You know, what I tend to do in those situations is actually use words like “cis,” “male-assigned,” or “female-assigned,” and just explain what I mean.

    It does often mean giving a little vocabulary lesson, but vocabulary lessons aren’t bad things, and they don’t have to be overwhelming or overly-academic.

    I think it’s very important to not underestimate our audiences. Ignorance around language is not the same thing as inability to grasp a concept. Ignorance just means that someone doesn’t know something, and that is generally fixable.

    Every time I’ve explained what “cis” means (generally here I say “‘Cis’ is just a way to say ‘not trans’ — it’s another word for a non-trans person”), or “female/male-assigned at birth” (generally here I say something along the lines of “That means the sex that a person is assigned when they are born — whether doctors or family say ‘it’s a girl’ or ‘it’s a boy.’ What sex someone is assigned at birth may reflect how they feel about themselves — I was assigned female and I identify as female — or it may not. Some people are assigned female and don’t identify with it, etc, etc…”)

    Is that helpful?

  12. M Says:

    For me, asking has mostly come up in the context of knowing someone is genderqueer or something similar, but never hearing them or someone who’d know use a pronoun. Pronouns don’t seem to get used very often when the person in question is around, genderqueer or not.

    This length of neon green string is solidly in the female pronouns camp. I’ve never met another, though, so who knows?

  13. Vanessa Says:

    Q: Your serious relationship is with… a man? Wait. I thought you were queer. Oh, I know — he’s probably transgender, right? With a vagina?

    A: When this one was born, the doctors said, “It’s a boy.”

    wow there is a great deal of fail in that exchange. Because gender is clearly based on what the doctor said when a person is born. not to mention letting the assumption stay that a trans man is just a guy with a vagina. Because guys never have meta or phallios and because your man is a “true” dude. nice cissexualism there Sarah.

    How about my dude is has always identified with the same gender as he was assigned at birth but I know the transphobic reply was so much funnier. What is that saying about the help of allies.

    Other questions: how do you as a person with straight relationship privilege acknowledge that when representing a far more diverse group dealing with lose of actual legal rights.

  14. sarah Says:

    Vanessa — hi. I’m very sorry for how my words came across to you there.

    The question was intentionally ignorant. I hear questions like that a lot, and I recapped it in the clumsy words that dig into what they were actually asking about, rather than the much more offensive language i often hear: “is he a normal man?”

    The answer was my attempt at making “male-assigned at birth” sound less clinical. I thought, by the flow of the questions, that by providing the gender assigned at birth I was effectively saying, “he has always identified with the same gender as he was assigned at birth.” But it sounds like there was something about the way i put that together that really shrieked of insensitivity. I’m sorry for that.

    Are you objecting more to my language or to the fact that I included the question at all? It *is* a very cissexist exchange by the nature of the question, and I *hate* that people want to ask it. If there are other suggestions you’d like to make for how I can redirect it, please do. It’s a very awkward situation.

    Regarding my “straight relationship privilege,” I’m still learning what my responsibilities are for being an appropriate ally and member of the queer community. It sounds like you have strong opinions about this, and I’d be interested to hear them.

    Thank you, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies for the clumsiness of that exchange.

    Sarah

  15. Vanessa Says:

    I have no problem with question other than the fact that it is stupid Lol but including it in a FAQ about common stupid questions makes perfect sense.

    You say it was making it less clinical but you have no problem going into detail and explaining genderqueer yet you don’t do the same for explaining the utter wrongness of equating being queer with being a trans man or with saying a trans man is just dude with vagina. As you know just like the rest of the population trans men are all over the sexual orientation spectrum.

    I think the bigger problem is instead of saying whether my fella is trans or not does not make me queer or not and that someone’s gender isn’t someone orientation you disclose his assigned at birth gender and status which is kind of the opposite of all the stuff earlier of “why do you need to know someone’s gender”.

    As for redirction, why do you need to let people know whether your partner is trans or no? you write that people shouldn’t make assumptions but then by answering the question the way you do, you are giving validity to the idea that what is between someone’s legs is a concern for anyone but a person’s sexual partners.

    frankly for me when someone asks me what anyone’s gender or orientation that is not mine, I have the same response, If’s it so important to you ask them directly or as I’ve already said “whether my partner is trans or not, male, female, some, all, none or whatever has nothing to do with my identity or sexual orientation.

    I accept that you feel it’s just clumsiness but compared to your lengthy explanations of genderqueer and making assumptions about pronouns and gender, you then do just that with your reply.

    As for the privilege issue I don’t have clear opinions on it but it is something I as a queer women who has access to all the legal and social privileges of being in a relationship that is considered straight have come up in my life and I wondered if being an organizer how do you deal with that? Is it relevant, how does one’s identity as queer interact with the real privileges we get for being in relationships that are perceived and given advantage based on being considered “straight”. Does that awareness of privilege make you feel you need to disclose your partners gender or the fact he is not trans?

  16. Vanessa Says:

    Also you might want to check that first line of apologizing but actually saying it’s just me overeacting. I wasn’t looking for an apology just an awareness of your own interalized stuff.

    Saying I’m sorry if you feel hurt but that’s not what I mean is pretty classic derailing and denial http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

  17. sarah Says:

    Vanessa,

    Your main points and response are fair and valid. Ending them with a link to derailingfordummies felt unfair. My initial apology was sincere because I gathered from your initial post that you were upset, and I wanted to acknowledge my part in that. It sounds like I misunderstood what you were asking for.

    You are absolutely right that brushing on the subject of trans people without giving it any exposition was wrong when contrasted with the time I spent on genderqueerness. In the moment, I skipped past it because I was focused on my own story, but for the scope of this post, it would have been appropriate. I should have done that, and I see that now.

    The question of whether to disclose if a partner is cis or trans as it relates to privilege is an interesting one, and I want to think more about it. I forget sometimes that my relationship has many contexts. In San Francisco, I travel primarily in queer communities and abhor the idea of ever getting married. Outside of my immediate experience, there are many more contrasts that put me in a place of significant privilege. I need to think more about my place in this as an organizer on the internet.

    You’ve given me some useful things to think about.

    Thanks,
    Sarah

  18. schmutzie Says:

    What a great thing to stumble into during my morning coffee!

    I identify as queer, as well, but I also happen to be married to a man, and it is easy to feel disappeared. What I mean to say is that reading this makes me feel at home again. Thank you.

  19. Britni TheVadgeWig Says:

    Great, great post, Sarah. I identify as queer for the same reason you do: bisexual implies that there’s a gender binary, and I don’t buy into that. I’m attracted to people all over the spectrum of gender, and those that aren’t even *on* the spectrum, too!

    And I’m a queer female who is in a serious relationship with a man. A cismale. People seem to be REALLY confused by that, too. I’ll introduce someone to my boyfriend, and casually drop “my ex-girlfriend…” into a story and people cannot wrap their minds around it.

    Thanks for opening people’s minds and being you. It’s pretty cool that someone on this thread called you their hero. Rock on.

  20. sarah Says:

    Schmutz & Brit,

    Thank you — I love having you both around in my twitterbloggouniverse. Your queernesses do not go undetected.

    xox,
    S

  21. Spacecadet31 Says:

    i want to add something – it is a very hard thing that for all of us folks our personal idenities are intertwined with our politics and ethics – so that presenting a personal story can still have political impacts. It is also a brave thing. For myself the day that I stop talking about my story, and trying to tell the truth about my world is the day I will feel silenced. Even though I don’t really have language or words to say what I need to say. I just keep trying.

    What I like Sarah is that you put your story out there – vulnerable, honest and true to yourself – and then you have the generosity to keep thinking about how that affects others and brings to light other issues.

    I think bravery is about allowing yourself to be vulnerable over and over again – digging deeper each time. And it’s also what makes for good leadership. Thankyou for continuing to engage.