How do you identify yourself? There’s a lot of ways to approach that question. I could approach it in terms of my name, Jason Cantrell. Or by considering nicknames, like Jay to some friends, JDizzle to others, Hey You to strangers in the Walmart parking lot, or Baby to my ex. I could consider my race, which is white, or my national background, a third generation Irish/Lithuanian immigrant descendant. I could call myself a writer, a poet, a publisher, a procrastinator, a space cowboy, or Maurice. Then there’s things I, personally, consider more complicated, like gender, sexuality, and orientation. For some people, myself included, those things are harder to put a name to.
I read a lot about gender-related subjects. I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve taken classes on it, I follow a number of gender- and sexuality-related news accounts such as the No Shame Movement, various feminist and transgender or queer bloggers, and anyone else who talks about open, progressive, and inclusive ideas and philosophies. I try to read up as much as I can because I like to learn and I want to improve myself. But I rarely write about these subjects because I don’t feel like what I have to say adds something valuable that can’t be expressed better by someone else. In other words, I leave it to the experts, and just read and learn from them.
So why am I writing about it today? Well, several things popped up on my social media feeds that related to my personal experiences, and they got my mind going. First there was an article posted on Fox News about parents protesting the type of sex education being taught in certain schools, which led to me reading an infographic titled “The Genderbread person” (as well as a related analysis of it). Then, I stumbled across a separate subject on Twitter, asking people about their thoughts on cisgender authors writing transgender characters in their novels.
That led to me asking a lot of questions of my own, because I have a transgender character in my novels, but I don’t identify as a cisgender author. But I don’t know how to express what that means.
Gender, sexuality, and so forth can’t be expressed in terms of certain key points. Instead, there’s a spectrum. For example, many times I see people writing or tweeting about orientation using only gay, straight, or bisexual. But when you consider the number of possible genders someone could be, and the number someone could be attracted to, the definitions quickly spiral out of control. Just to name a few, you could be male and be attracted to cisgender women, cisgender men, transgender women, transgender men, or combinations of the above (cisgender women and cisgender men, cisgender women and transgender women, cisgender women and transgender men, etc). Even without expanding this to include androgynous, asexual, or any other options, there’s easily dozens of possible orientations that can be created on that list, and that’s before considering what gender you personally identify as.
One article I found listed 63 different identity/orientation combinations, and I don’t even think that’s inclusive. I don’t think any list can be completely inclusive, because you can always break categories down into deeper subcategories. For example, some people just think bisexual means “attracted to both men and women.” But I’ve seen lots of people discuss how it’s not simply a 50/50 ratio. You might be more attracted to men, more attracted to women, or anywhere in between, but the various possibilities all get caught under the umbrella term “bisexual.”
Here’s another way of looking at it. I read a study once on perception and categorization that asked people to divide colored tiles (like the paint swatches you get at Sherwin Williams) and sort them according to color. But what groupings people use depend on their culture and their perceptions. For example, depending on the common words in your native language, you might create a different number of categories. The Russian language includes the words sinij for “dark blue” and goluboj for “light blue.” English doesn’t have individual “common” words for these variations (words like “cyan” or “navy” not being the first words people think of for a color, but rather being words people think of for various “shades” of blue). This could lead to a difference where the English speaker would put all the “blue” tiles in one pile together while the Russian speaker would divide them up into one sinij pile and one goluboj pile. Other languages might blur the distinction even more by counting blue and green as different shades of the same color.
By comparison, the “common” terms we have for gender and sexuality might lead to people sorting each other into certain “categories,” but those categories aren’t nearly as well-defined as people might think. Most people I know don’t use a common word for something like “a cisgender man who is attracted to both cisgender and transgender women” or “a transgender woman who is attracted to cisgender men and cisgender women” or “a cisgender woman who is attracted to cisgender men and transgender women.” If you were “sorting” people according to those definitions, would you put the above examples under the category “gay,” “straight,” or “bisexual”? Or would you use a broader selection of terms that don’t fit neatly into those three common categories? Do you consider “straight” to only include cismale/cisfemale, “gay” to only include cismale/cismale or cisfemale/cisfemale, and “bisexual” to include everything in between? Or do you consider “straight” to mean any trans or straight male attracted to any trans or straight female (and vice versa)? And this is before adding more definitions to include gender expressions of masculinity vs femininity, or any of the other areas of the different spectrums.
In the long run, the only respectful thing to do is accept whatever terms or definitions people use to identify their own selves. But even defining your own self can be more complicated than picking a label from the list and slapping it on.
So how do I identify myself? I really don’t know. I could only describe it by going into a detailed explanation of where I fall on every one of the different spectrums: identity, expression, sex, and attraction. And that personal of an explanation is something I’m not comfortable sharing, but I can tell you I don’t fall into any easy categories. Though if anyone ever asks me why I decided to write a transgender character in my novels, the answer is simple. Because it’s something I can relate to.