A Matter of Gender

Sep 26, 2016 | 2016 Fall - Does Gender matter?, Articles

By Francesca Bongiorno Fortunato

It seems unlikely that there is anyone who truly “doesn’t see gender,” any more than there are people who “don’t see color,” though you’ll find plenty of folk who make both of those claims. Some of my sisters and brothers in the bisexual/ non-monosexual community will talk about “hearts, not parts.” To some extent, that resonates with me. I am attracted to people, first because of who they are, not because of what’s in their pants. As a bisexual woman married to a transgender woman, and with many trans and non-binary friends, I am constantly aware of the truth that gender is not defined by what’s in your pants. And for people who aren’t cisgender, gender (identity) can be very important, indeed. Because gender matters to them, it matters to me, too.

It seems that gender matters in an especially powerful way for transgender people whose identities do, in fact, express themselves on the binary. My wife would never use “they” pronouns. She is, most definitely, a “she,” as much so as any cisgender woman. Because that matters to her (as a core identity), it matters, very much, to me too.

So, gender identity (and the imperative to honor it) is one reason that gender matters to me. There are other reasons too, though…

When I love someone, and am attracted to that person, I am drawn not only to a beautiful soul, but also to a face and body that become more and more beautiful to me as intimacy with that person deepens. If that person is a man, I revel in everything about him (appearance, voice, manner) that strikes me as masculine. If that person is a woman, I delight in all of her outward signs of femininity, as well as her womanly ways of being in the world. I have never been in an intimate relationship with someone non-binary, but, if I were, I imagine that the ways that non-binary gender was expressed, in their appearance and personality, would be wonderful to me, too. In essence, what this means is that I can be attracted to people of more than one gender, and that the person’s gender expression will, in every case, be part of what attracts me. It will never be irrelevant.

Another way gender matters for me as a bisexual woman is the ways in which the gender of my partner impact the ways that I am seen by others in the world. I have always had to work much harder at staying out as bisexual when in a relationship with a man. The “straight appearing” relationship creates a default closet if you’re not constantly vigilant about outing yourself as bisexual. And, of course, when in a relationship with a woman (as I have been now with my wife, for seven years), there is the assumption that I identify as lesbian. That, too, is something that I have to be very intentional about correcting. It’s a bit easier, though, because at least people aren’t assuming that I’m straight.

Finally, gender matters for me as an individual. I am a cisgender woman who has a very strong feminine identity, and a presentation that’s usually somewhere on the medium-high femme spectrum. I feel most comfortable emotionally when my outward appearance corresponds to my inner sense of self. Sometimes this manifests in ways that make me laugh at myself just a bit, as happened a few days ago when I realized that I had forgotten to put on earrings. “Oh, no; not naked ears!” And so I went to a dollar store and bought a pair of earrings so I wouldn’t have to go a whole day without any.

It also manifests as discomfort when I am in circumstances that require me to dress and present in ways that I would not otherwise choose. I do occasional staged readings with the Instant Shakespeare Company. Earlier this summer, I was cast as Valentine, one of the two gentlemen in Two Gentlemen of Verona. With my hair scraped back in a ponytail, no makeup except foundation, and a pair of plain black pants with a black blazer, I looked as masculine as it’s possible for a curvy woman to look (without binding her chest; something I wouldn’t do even for art.) When I looked in the mirror, there were two voices in my head. One voice said, “Good. You look the part. Now go and act it well.” The other voice said, “Yuck. You look ugly!” It’s experiences like those described which have helped me to reflect on my own gender identity and to understand that gender identity is something that I, as a cisgender woman, actually have.

These are the ways in which gender matters, for this bisexual woman, in relationships with others, and with myself. Your mileage may vary.

Rev. Francesca Bongiorno Fortunato lives in New York City with her wife, Lynn, and their cats, Alice and Gracie. She is teaching dance classes twice a week and is otherwise unemployed, so her job is looking for work!


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