Yesterday, Vice posted a heartwarming story about Marco and Sadie, a Williamsburg pair whose sexual orientation identities are “in limbo.”
See, Sadie fell in love with Marco when he was Erica. And for two and a half years, the couple identified as a lesbian one.
Since Marco began transitioning — he has removed the top, and is scheduled for bottom surgery in 2013 — he now identifies as a man. More importantly, for the purposes of this post at least, he identifies as a heterosexual man. Vice’s Lilly O’Donnell writes:
“Suddenly, at age 25, when Sadie thought she had a pretty good idea of who she was and had become comfortable identifying as a lesbian, she has found herself in a committed, heterosexual relationship with a man. And not just with any man, but one who wants to distance himself from any queer identity he once had, taking Sadie with him.”
The article goes on to reveal Marco’s childhood diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, a term found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that describes the condition of a person who identifies as transgender or who fails to behave as the gender to which he or she was assigned at birth. The piece also articulates how the sex-reassignment of one person in a relationship can impact how both partners view their sexuality: Sadie looks for answers and advice on how to navigate her situation and emotions, and seeks out support groups (which ultimately don’t work) and friends (who do). She eventually enters therapy, and seems to have an enviably clear mind about her position, approaching it in a healthy, reasonable, and open way. That levelheadedness is important, because sexual attraction and sex (the erotic kind) are, well, a big fucking deal. As Jezebel’s Laura Beck points out, “to ignore the implications that it has on the other person seems like not attending to a potentially very problematic situation.”
In short, Sadie seems to be doing everything right. (Sure, calling herself a “failed lesbian” raises a few flags, but I’ll cut a sister some slack for trying to keep it light-hearted.) I don’t worry about their relationship one bit.
However, there are some complex questions — a lot of questions — the piece touches on that deserve further exploration. Sadie raises one of them when she talks about her and Marco’s relationship qualifier: “He wants to be in a heterosexual relationship, but I feel like presenting it that way is inauthentic. We’re not. We’re just not.”
She brings up kids, and the importance of being honest about their father’s history. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, she adds.
So we wonder: Can a formerly lesbian couple label themselves hetero? The most obvious, simple answer is yes, of course. After all, everyone is different and not all want to be recognized as trans. (It’s no wonder. As the Vice article points out “90 percent of transgender people report having been harassed and mistreated, according to a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality.”)
But it’s problematic. As a term, heterosexuality isn’t just a way to organize erotic encounters. It covers a wide swath of social life, bringing with it an ideology and practice that marginalizes and polices those who step outside its prescribed, limiting boundaries of gender and sexuality. By identifying themselves as a straight couple, Sadie and Marco align with and live within heteronormative notions of sex, gender, and sexuality — precarious constructs that are sustained only by defining “normality” and in turn inventing a marginalized other. Is that what they want? To assimilate to hetero and cis domination?
This institutionalized vision of the normal is demonstrated in the way the pair felt when they would go out during the earlier stages of Marco’s transition:
Sadie and Marco both recall occasions when they were out together and a stranger would wonder aloud whether Marco was a man or a woman. That kind of gawking could ruin an evening. “It was weird,” Sadie describes. “I had gotten comfortable being out in public as a lesbian couple, but I wasn’t comfortable being out in a visibly trans couple. People stared.”
To be clear, gender can be subjective, and a person should feel free to gel with whatever number of the gazillion cultural images that have been imprinted onto his or her unconscious. (Side note: Why non-trans people often display so much discomfort when they can’t decipher one’s sex and/or gender has to do with terms of social interaction set by heterosexuality. Every encounter in a compulsively hetero environment is gender-encoded. People are constantly proving their womaness or manness with small social cues. When people deviate from those terms, others often don’t know whether to treat them as a man or woman. Gasp!)
There are arguments positing that transitioning is a shame act and misogynistic. As one Vice commenter points out:
The whole “trans” thing is a myth and is perpetuated by a rigid gendered society … If this wasnt such a gendered society, people woudnt endure surgery and hormones to mutilate their healthy bodies.
But that is a whole other think piece, and not my point. (For the purposes of this piece, if there is a gulf between the way one feels on the inside and outside, that person should feel free to fix that. If they are doing it because of cultural expectations, we should change such impositions so those who are not good candidates for surgery don’t feel pressure to go under the knife.)
Instead, the problem is Marco distancing himself “from any queer identity he once had.” It’s a problem first because it’s impossible: having “the surgery” still defies gender norms imposed by the hetero industrial complex. But it’s also an issue because those who are subjugated have to take charge of how society views them. By heternormative standards, he’s trading up. So this complete disavowal of his former self perpetuates the problems associated with how heteronormativity limits people’s ability to realize their full selves. As an institution that reaches far beyond who’s got what under the sheets, it enforces things like what’s “natural” and what’s “deviant.” It is a political system, maintaining identities that reflect positions of power.
By crossing over, Marco questioned all of this. However, by identifying as heterosexual, Marco reinforces the same heterosexist social norms and oppressive structures that he subverted/violated in the first place.
Surely, part of the problem is language and its limitations — we like to neatly categorize gender, sex, and sexuality when there are many, many shades of gray and many, many contradictions. We’re compulsive labelers. For instance, bisexuals often claim a big umbrella for transpersons in relationships. But that’s problematic, too. Take a MTF who only has sex with men. Is she bisexual? And are we talking cis men, transmen, queer-identified, all of the above?
To be clear, Marco and Sadie obviously aren’t living in the shadows of hetero privilege. They’ve shared their story with the world. But labeling as heterosexual — probably labeling in general — does a disservice to those facing situations similar to their own. Furthermore, Marco was socialized as a woman. To ignore that insight is not helpful to the larger community. How the pair define their relationship may be up to them, but ultimately, it’s not about only them.