In U.S. culture today there is a conflation between sex, gender, and sexual orientation. It is my argument that this conflation spans back into the 19th century and the beginnings of sexology. In this era there was little distinction made between sex, gender, and sexual orientation which helped to create a discourse around these identities that often muddied them together or failed to accurately describe the significance of behavior and expressions within cases of “deviant sexuality”. Beginning with Ulrich’s description of the Hermaphrodite and moving through the vague language of Krafft-Ebbing into Herschfield’s discussion of the transvestite, it is clear that this conflation was the norm in scientific works of the 19th century. With this foundation for modern discourses around sexuality in mind, I argue that trans* communities are intrinsically connected to gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities and therefore should be considered as part of GLBT movements.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs is often cited as the forbearer of the modern gay rights movement. His work which argued for the rights of Urnings particularly in marriage challenged the church’s laws against same sex unions in the 19th century. Urnings were understood men attracted to other men. Ulrichs took this definition a step further by saying that an Urning had a female soul. Though this philosophy breaks down when concepts around female passivity come into play, it is nonetheless notable that this definition is one of the earlier written examples of a conflation of sex, sexual orientation, and gender. Ulrichs continues to gender the souls of lesbians (Urningens) as in opposition with their assigned sex. When applying modern language to this categorization system, one might assume that Ulrich’s meant to imply that homosexuals could be understood as transsexual as well. However, with contemporary feminist views about the separation between sex, gender, and sexual orientation it seems heavy handed to make this assumption.
In fact, Ulrichs had another category for human sexual attraction that he termed the Hermaphrodite. In this category there is perhaps the deepest level of confusion around whether Ulrichs means to link the three categories of identity we are discussing together or if Ulrichs was speaking outside of binary notions of sex, gender, and sexual orientation altogether. It may be interpreted that by hermaphrodite, Ulrichs is referring to someone who is bisexual and or transsexual. Unfortunately, with the language he uses, it is unclear whether or not Ulrichs is explicitly labeling these individuals as both or one of these identities. What is clear is that Ulrichs claims the hermaphrodite has two souls; one male and one female. One could argue that in this definition Ulrichs means to refer to what in modern language we might call genderqueer, but the precise meaning is lost because of the conflation between sex, gender, and sexual orientation.
After Ulrichs had published his work on the subject, Richard Von Krafft-Ebing took to writing diagnostic manuals around sexual deviancy borrowing heavily from Ulrich’s work to diagnose and describe cases. Krafft-Ebing believed referred to homosexuality as inversion and bought into Ulrich’s concept of the male souled lesbian and the female souled gay man. Much of his discussions on these categories of people seek to explain their sexual orientation by stereotyping their genders as more congruent with the opposite sexes supposed natural gender inclinations. Already confusing at this level, Krafft-Ebing’s descriptions of cases continue to mix-up instances of biological sex variation, gender expression and identity incongruence, and “deviant” sexual orientation. Particularly in instances of cross-dressing, Krafft-Ebing has a tendency to assume that this violation of normative gender is indicative of the opposite sex’s soul residing within the patient and therefore homosexual orientation. Note that sexual orientation was not seen as a hard and fast identity in the same way that is can be discussed today, but rather as a collection of behaviors that indicated inclination and desire.
Perhaps the starkest case of this line of assumption from gender expression to biological sex to sexual orientation can be seen in his accounts of “The Woman-Hater’s Ball”. The scene is set by describing the event as a “Grand Vienna Fancy Dress Ball”, however, Krafft-Ebing notes early on that the dress is surprisingly casual for its advertising. From there, he voyeuristically and not without an exploitive tone, describes the partygoers in great detail. Largely, he comments on their femininity and grace, apparently in order to shock readers by disclosing in narrative style as he “discovers” that each of these women is “male”. It is unclear whether or not he intends to describe these partygoers as deviant in sexual orientation, gender, or sex specifically other than that he assumes that they must all be homosexual and as this description occurs beneath the heading “Cultivated Pederasty” it would seem that he is also assuming that these men are pederasts.
To deconstruct what is happening here, we will look at the chain of assumptions that lead Krafft-Ebing to label the partygoers as pederasts. First, he explains that these individuals are exhibiting feminine gender expressions. Then, he says that though they are expressing femininity that they are truly male because community members can identify them as such, largely because of their deep voices and vocations. He then links the cross-dressing behavior and assumed maleness to homosexuality by assuming that in order to express femininity one must have a female soul. He takes it one step further to say that these men must be tricksters because of the lengths he assumes they have gone to in order to disguise their maleness and that therefore they must also be pederasts and prostitutes. He claims that it is not uncommon for homosexuals to suffer from “genital neuroses” which one can interpret as being similar to body dysphoria so often attributed (perhaps over enthusiastically) to trans* people today. The problems with his logic are not difficult to point out especially from a modern perspective. However, is it important to recognize that his assumption that gender should equal sex should equal sexual orientation are not far off from a lot of today’s discussions around homophobia and Transphobia in that the identities facing the brunt of social angst challenge the linkage between these three concepts.
The last example I would like to submit regarding historical conflations of sex, gender, and sexual orientation comes from Magnus Hirschfield’s groundbreaking work entitled Transvestites: The Erotic Desire to Cross-dress. While it is tempting to spend the rest of this paper summarizing the numerous progressive ideas that Hirschfield’s book brought forth, instead the focus will be on the books title. Hirschfield uses the word Transvestite in a way that is nearly opposite of Krafft-Ebing’s ideas of the cross-dressing behavior at “The Woman-Hater’s Ball”. Instead of associating gender transgressions like cross-dressing with sexual orientation, Hirschfield seeks to separate the two and his definition of the transvestite seems more in line with present day understandings of transsexuals rather than cross-dressers.
Hirschfield routinely makes the argument that one’s sexual orientation should not be assumed based on gender-expression, but that instead the two should be seen as largely separate outside of mainstream stereotypes. In fact, where cross-dressing is seen by Hirschfield much as it is today as often based in fetishistic behavior, transvestism is described as something that is internal to the individual and has little to do with sexual arousal. Instead, transvestism is seen by Hirschfield like transsexuality is seen today, as a part of a person’s identity that means a person’s sex assigned at birth is incongruent with their expected gender identity. Hirschfield notes that there is something incongruent about the person’s sex assignment and their gender assignment that is helped by transitioning in various ways across genders. Clearly, this definition is more in line with modern definitions of a transsexual versus a cross-dresser. So, it is not as much Hirschfield who is making perpetuating this conflation of sex, gender, and sexual orientation, as it is the society he lives in. Hirschfield aims to debunk some of this mixing through his work.
Though examples like Hirschfield’s work exist, today’s U.S. society often falls into the trap of some of his predecessors of confusing sex, gender, and sexual orientation. All too often, stereotypes allow us to make conclusions about a person based on one facet of these three aspects of identity or our assumption of one of these aspects. Prior to the Stonewall Uprising and arguably the beginning of the GLBT movement, there was less labeling of individual identities under the queer umbrella and for the most part, the communities were relatively united. Post-Stonewall, understandings of distinctions between gender, sex, and gender orientation became more prevalent which partially contributed to the labeling system we have today. It is not the aim of this paper to devalue this system or to comment on the worth of identity labels. Rather, it is my goal to highlight the similarities between modern GLBTQ communities and to reaffirm the necessity of maintaining relationships between and within each community under the larger umbrella.
As can be seen from the limited historical accounts above, conflation of sex, gender, and sexual orientation has long contributed to discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans*, and queer individuals. Stereotypes that lead people to jump from an assumption or knowledge of someone’s “deviant” gender expression and assumed identity can lead to inaccurate conclusions about their sexual orientation or about their biological sex. The order of these indexes may change and interweave depending on the situation, but regardless, they can all lead to moral judgments placed on the individual under scrutiny which can in turn lead to acts of discrimination, hate speech, or other violence both mental and physical upon the person. Because being a gay man or an assumed gay man comes with stereotypes about gender and value judgments about whether or not you are properly enacting your gender, gay movements that seek to challenge discrimination are linked to movements of trans* individuals because each discrimination has foundations in gender expectations.
Today’s GLBTQ movements may have a tendency to dismiss one or more communities beneath that umbrella as being irrelevant to issues typically associated with one community over another. This practice is flawed for several reasons. Firstly, to fall under the trans* umbrella does not exclude a person from also being a member of gay, bisexual, lesbian, pansexual, queer, or heterosexual identities because trans* identities are related to gender and not sexual orientation. Secondly, all identities under the GLBTQ umbrella have faced discrimination related to gender, sexual orientation, and sex assigned at birth whether or not individuals transgress normative standards under each of these categories or not. Regardless of reality, because of historical conflations of these three facets of identity, the persecution of GLBTQ identities are inter-related and interwoven with stereotypes related to this conflation. Ultimately, the perception that to fall under this umbrella means that one must be deviant in sex, gender, and sexual orientation links these communities together and should be seen as a uniting factor between them as movements for equality progress.