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Gay Not Queer

Gay identities are based on biological sex; gender identities erase biological sex and replace it with gender.

· 11 min read
Gay Not Queer
Queer Resistance banner at a trans pride parade 2014 / Wikimedia Commons

A few years after the publication of my first book, which was about my six years in a form of conversion therapy, another author invited me onto his podcast of “Queer Writers.” His show’s name should have warned me of what was to follow, but in the rush of scheduling, I entered the interview cold. At the top of the show the author introduced me as a “queer writer.” I clarified that I do not identify as “queer”; I am gay. None of that seemed to matter.

He asked at what age I first discovered that I was queer; what it was like growing up queer; about my favourite queer authors; for any advice that I could share with other struggling queer writers. I stumbled through my answers, each of which felt more disingenuous than the last. Whether he was aware of it or not, the author’s questions around my supposed queer identity had nothing to do with me or my unique journey; they were his projection of who or what he thought I was.

I am not queer. I am a gay man. And I do not buy the notion that “gay” must automatically be grouped into or conflated with the label of “queer.” The former is not the same as or even a subgroup of the latter. In fact, in many respects, the identities of gay and queer stand in direct opposition to each other. Like the host of the podcast, most people typically never bother to ask me how I identify. They learn that I am gay, and they simply assume that makes me queer. It does not.

Until recently, I never thought it necessary to define “gay” or “man,” but when I say that I am gay, I mean that I am same-sex attracted; when I say that I am a man, I mean that I am an adult male. In other words, I am an adult male who is attracted to other adult males. Males are one of the two sexes of a binary species Homo sapiens. Just as adult males are called men, adult females are called women; and just as same-sex attracted males are called gay men, same-sex attracted females are called lesbians. Gay men are attracted to other males; gay women, or lesbians, are attracted to other females. None of this implies that gay men or lesbians are queer, for the identity of queer is another matter entirely.

These definitions, it turns out, are important, because contemporary queer ideology does not necessarily accept them. In fact, it seeks to disrupt and deconstruct them. The word “queer” was long used as a pejorative against gay people. As a deeply sensitive nine-year-old in 1973, I still remember being called queer in my elementary school playground. I didn’t know what the word meant, except that it had something to do with the way I behaved, and maybe with the way I felt drawn, in very different ways, to other boys (as objects of attraction) and girls (as playmates). The kids who used the word probably didn’t understand it any better than I did. But the word was meant to harm, and it did.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I took “gender studies” in university. I say embarrassed because a lot of confusion today around issues of sex, gender, and sexuality stems from queer scholarship. Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she set out her theory of the performativity of gender, for example, is often cited as one of the early texts that contributed to gender postmodernism. The world has changed dramatically since my classes 15 years ago. Most of what I hear or read about sex and gender today were rarely entertained back then, at least not in any of my classes. Identifying as queer is now an affirmation, an inevitable embrace, of current gender ideology. I am not queer because I don’t agree with most of this ideology.

I don’t agree that someone can be born into the “wrong body.” Such a possibility implies that there is a “right body”—and all any of us ever know is the body we were born into. Bodies are not right or wrong; they just are. Experiencing distress with the body we were born into is something else entirely—but it still does not imply that it is a wrong body; it just means that the body is a source of distress.

I don’t agree that biological sex is “assigned at birth,” although the frequency with which this term is repeated now makes it sound as if a person’s sex is somehow discretionary at this point. It is not. Assigned sex is language originally used for intersex people—those born with a mix of male and female characteristics, most of whom go on to live as one or the other sex—later appropriated by gender ideologues and promoted to the broader public. Assigned sex helps to justify the idea that some people might be a sex other than their birth sex. To say that the sex of all people is assigned is simply a lie. Biological sex is almost always objectively perceivable as male or female at birth. Sex is discovered, not assigned.

I don’t agree that biological sex can be changed. As a noun, sex is rooted in biology; it is not subjective. All humans are born with gametes (reproductive cells)—males with small gametes (sperm) and females with large gametes (eggs). The most anyone can do if they feel distress with their biological sex, is cosmetically change their appearance through medication or surgery. None of this changes a person’s biological sex—it just changes their appearance.

I don’t agree that there are endless sexualities or that there are more than two genders. Since the human species is binary, all people experience some degree of same-sex or opposite-sex attraction. Even those claiming to be asexual do not disprove a binary, since these people are just not attracted to either of the two sexes.

The gay rights movement that sprang from the Stonewall riots of 1969 was focussed on the human rights of gays and lesbians. Gays came out to raise visibility, then they fought for equal protection under the law. The word “equal” is important because their opponents would routinely claim that gays wanted special rights. They did not. They wanted the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts (not to be discriminated against, not to be denied employment or housing, the right to marry, adopt children, etc.). The fact that gays needed to fight for these basic rights in the first place speaks to the degree to which they had been denied on the basis of sexual orientation in the years before Stonewall.

With the emergence of queer theory as a formal academic discipline in the 1980s, the word “queer” was flipped on its head. Instead of being used as a term of derision, it was reclaimed as a neutral—or even a positive—term encompassing a whole range of sexual minorities. To be queer was no longer simply about who a person was attracted to; it was far more radical.

Queer theory wanted to deconstruct much of what gays had fought to build—and more. In her 2017 lecture “Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Guide to Gender Variance,” queer theorist Judith “Jack” Halberstam described (at 36:20) the goals of queer activism as “the complete transformation of the society, and the rethinking of intimate relationships completely.” Queers, in this context, are not interested in advancing any of the rights for which gays tirelessly fought; queers want to radically transform the very structures of society of which gays themselves are now a part.

To say that I am gay and not queer is not to dismiss the entire history of queer politics. Queer activism from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly as it fought against stigmatization during the AIDS pandemic, remains admirable. Organizations such as Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the US helped to transform for the better the way AIDS was viewed and covered in the media, and the way its patients were treated. “Silence = Death” broke through ignorance and complacency. Radical groups like Act Up changed the world for the better.

More recently, though, queer identity has taken a more menacing turn. A plethora of new gender identities, all cobbled together under the broad label of “queer,” has supplanted the activism from a few short decades ago that was rich in meaning and replaced it with what seems now explicitly about transgression. Today, it is not simply that I don’t identify as queer; I find the whole idea of a queer identity to be incoherent and possibly even delusional.

“Gender” refers to a person’s inner sensibilities of masculinity or femininity (or neither) and the way they express them in the world. No single gender expression is exclusively attached to either sex—females can be both feminine and masculine; males can be both masculine and feminine. Gender is not a matter of random or fleeting feelings but is rooted in biology. In her book The End of Gender, Dr. Debra Soh explains that levels of testosterone in the developing embryo can contribute to how the two sexes enact their genders. Soh notes, for example, that higher levels of testosterone can mean a child displays more masculine behaviour, and that lower levels can result in more feminine behaviour (regardless of the child’s sex). None of this means that females can be men or that males can be women. Each sex shares all expressions of gender, although they are generally inclined one way or the other.

Trans identity today functions as an umbrella term and includes those who feel their inner sense of gender aligns more with the opposite sex than with their birth sex. Transvestites, once called “cross-dressers,” merely dress in the opposite sex’s clothing. Transexuals generally experience extreme gender dysphoria, or distress with their biological sex. Over generations, many transexuals went on to live as the opposite sex, whether socially or through some degree of hormonal and surgical intervention. Before transitioning, at least historically, transexuals underwent rigorous medical gatekeeping. Most transsexuals never claimed to have changed sex, but merely to have lived and presented as the opposite sex.

As theories around gender jumped from academia into the culture at large, particularly with the advent of social media in the 2010s, the focus shifted away from the idea of transsexualism, and toward the idea of transgenderism, and an inwardly felt gender identity. Transgender, another umbrella term, includes trans women (born male), trans men (born female), and numerous other so-called gender identities. Self-identifying as trans today doesn’t mean that the person has ever experienced gender dysphoria or that they’ll even transition (though many do). Simply stating that one feels like a gender queer, for instance, apparently makes it so.

I don’t agree with the idea that people have gender identities, and this is one of the main reasons I do not identify as queer, since gender identities are a central queer tenet. Expressions of masculinity and femininity may be fluid, but if anything sets up rigid barriers, it is endless identities, like borders separating Us from Them. For each created identity is also an exclusion, a negation of another identity.

Delineating an endless array of gender identities is ultimately self-defeating. They are largely the product of troubled minds and reflect the illness of our troubled culture; many of the people who identify as one gender today will identify as another one tomorrow. None of these identities proves that there are more than two genders, only that people have found more inventive ways of describing their struggles with sex, gender, their body, and their sexuality—or their insistence, out of exasperation, that they have opted out of all of it. Building an identity around something that changes with the caprices of a volatile culture is not a safe way to build a strong sense of self.

I also, therefore, don’t agree that gender identities can supplant biological sex. We are all male or female; the rest is some combination of biology, socialization, and magical thinking. I do, however, understand the complexities of feelings about sexual identity. I have always related to certain sensibilities likely experienced by more women than men. My feelings still do not make me a woman; feelings do not make anyone the opposite sex.

I don’t agree that a person’s pronouns should change depending on how they feel or self-identify (or later feel or self-identify differently). Pronouns like she/her or he/him are descriptors of nouns—a person’s biological sex. They are not descriptors of gender. Since biological sex does not change, pronouns generally do not change. Of course, this is complicated. When I encounter an adult who I suspect has transitioned, I always refer to them by their presenting sex (a trans woman as she, a trans man as he). But using a “correct” pronoun for someone who has obviously transitioned and appears as one or the other sex is not the same as indiscriminately changing identities and compelling others to use a preferred pronoun.

I don’t agree with “gender affirmative care”—the affirmation of anyone who self-identifies as transgender, and the provision, without prohibition or gatekeeping, of medical assistance to transition (administration of puberty blockers to halt puberty in children; cross-sex hormones; surgeries to remove healthy sex organs and construct artificial ones). In fact, I think that this “healthcare” model for trans-identified people could be used as a new conversion therapy. And considering the long-term consequences of transitioning, removing all gatekeeping for people who may or may not be transexual is frightening, misguided, and dangerous.

Instead of allowing girls to be masculine or boys to be effeminate, both of whom often later turn out to be gay, affirmative care maintains that these children are transgender and need to transition. Saying that someone has changed sex to align with their gender identity is like trying to change a body to align with a troubled culture, instead of changing the troubled culture to align with the reality that men and women (and boys and girls) have different ways of expressing gender.

Ironically, gender activists claim that opposition to affirmative care is “trans conversion therapy.” Bans on gay conversion therapy seek to end treatments of gays; bans on something called “trans conversion therapy” seek to dismantle barriers to affirmative care. The end result is that when gender identity and sexual orientation are combined in one legal ban on conversion therapy (as in Canada’s new law), minors who would otherwise likely grow up to be gay are now legally entitled to be affirmed as trans and are transitioned. In other words, the same law that criminalizes the conversion of gays also legalizes the transition of others who are potentially gay.

The level of gender entitlement has grown to the point that virtually anyone can self-identify as trans (and then later change their mind); therefore, definitions of what constitutes a “cis” person—the opposite of trans, or someone who is not trans—have become unclear. If current beliefs about trans identities had existed when I was a child, I would have been called trans. But I’m not trans. I’m also not “cis”—what I’m commonly called as a gay man—because I experienced extreme gender dysphoria as a child. Of course, as I moved through puberty and matured, accepted my homosexuality and embraced myself for who I am—a gay man—my dysphoria dissipated.

The word “transphobia” has become meaningless. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “phobia” as an “exaggerated fear of” or “intolerance or aversion for” something. So, when someone is charged with transphobia today, I wonder which meaning of trans identities that person is accused of having an exaggerated fear of or intolerance or aversion for—or if, in fact, the culprit is even fear, intolerance, or aversion at all, but simply incredulity.

Finally, I am not queer because, ultimately, its identity erases my gay male sexuality. Gay identities are based on biological sex; gender identities erase biological sex and replace it with gender. People who claim to be “same gender attracted” are no longer talking about homosexuality. Gender identities erase homosexuality. Conversion therapy tried to erase me years ago; I am not queer because if I said I was, I would erase myself.

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