I am something that does not exist (Ili)

Originally published in Queerulant_in (Jahrgang 2, Ausgabe 3 (6) – Dez 2013/Jan 2014).

Note: I will use the German word “schwul” for “gay male” in this article because English has no single word for the concept, and because “schwul” has a subtly different meaning from “gay male”. A great many Englishspeakers are offended by the English term “girlfag,” given that both”girl” and “fag” are at least potentially pejorative – a linguistic battle to which nobody has yet figured out a workable solution. Perhaps the German “schwule mädchen” will eventually be adopted into English.

I am something that many people will tell you does not exist. Schwul women (“girlfags”) and lesbian men (“guydykes”) cannot, by current gender-bound linguistic standards, be real. While the advent of trans identities in the last few decades has wrought significant changes in the meanings of “man” and “woman,” the words “schwul” and “lesbian” still have rigid definitions, even within the LGBTQ communities: only men can be schwul, only women can be lesbians. Anything else isn’t possible, per definitionem. And yet I, as well as an uncountable but significant number of men and women like me, feel strongly that we are these impossible identities, the schwul female, the male lesbian. To say that these identities are problematic is to understate the case dramatically.

Thinking the impossible

To begin with, it often takes years, perhaps even decades, for a nascent girlfag or guydyke to realize her or his tendencies. A woman may identify with schwul culture since puberty – but until she accepts the “impossible,” she may think she’s crazy, or the only one of her kind. She may try for years to reconcile herself to normative heterosexuality – after all, she likes guys, she must be straight, right?

Then one day she sees a TV show with a gay male character, or reads a bit of slash fiction, or simply looks around her circle of friends. She realizes that she’s schwul – and suddenly so many things become clear… at least for herself. Those around her, though, will probably not understand. She can’t explain how it’s possible that a woman can be schwul. How do you explain something when the language you speak lacks the words for it, when the culture you live in doesn’t see it as possible? (She may notice that she’s in a similarposition to a trans person a century ago, unable to explain how someone who looks unambiguously male could in fact be female, because the word and the concept of transgender have not yet been created.) Unless she is superhumanly self-confident, she will almost certainly falter, overwhelmed by the task of explaining an identity for which the words do not yet exist in common parlance. Doubts will arise: Can a woman really be schwul? A man lesbian? Or am I crazy?

Trans people in training?

In the modern world the general public has at least some awareness, however fallacious, about transgender identities – so girlfags and guydykes who are also gender-dysphoric may have an easier time explaining themselves. If you’re not just doubting your sexual orientation, but also your gender, the concept suddenly is easier to understand for many people. Of course, transsexuality isn’t accepted in all parts of society – but it’s possible, it’s thinkable!

Saying “I’m a woman who feels male and I am attracted to men as a man” or one of the famous sentences „I’m a gay man in a woman’s body“ or „I want tob e a lesbian woman“ is at least conceivable, even if many people are uncomfortablewith the idea. The connection between gender and sexual orientation is still very firm, both within and outside the LGBTQ community.

However, a schwul woman who is comfortable in her female identity seems to have no chance of acceptance: if she insists on her female gender, she’ll be – in the worst cases – seen as a desperate heterosexual “fag hag,” or pathologized as someone with severe genderconfusion. Guydykes have it even worse, encountering open hostility in lesbian culture, where they are seen as perverts. Some gender-dysphoric guydykes are treated more gently, as pre-op pre-hormone trans women, but even this is far from certain.

This is where the girlfag and guydyke concept becomes controversial even within our own small community. Are girlfags and guydykes simply “gay trans people in training”? If so, why aren’t they all working toward transitioning, instead of fighting for recognition of a still rare and poorly understood identity? (1)

Being in between cis and trans, gay and straight

In reality, I think, girlfags and guydykes are somewhere in between, occupying a huge grey area between cis and trans, between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Girlfags, as an example, can be plotted on an axis, with heterosexual fag hags on the one side, gay transmen on the other, and girlfags somewhere in between. (The side toward which they lean is different from individual to individual.) Thus, some girlfags prefer male pronouns for themselves, some female pronouns. Some identify as female and prefer traditionally feminine clothing and makeup, whereas others say that “they always wanted to be a boy” and appear more like butch lesbians. What they have in common is that they are sufficiently between categories to feel uncomfortable calling themselves either “heterosexual females” or “gay trans men.”

For some gay trans men and lesbian trans women, the identity as girlfag or guydyke was a kind of interstage along the path to transition. But it would be wrong to assume that all girlfags or guydykes will eventually become transsexuals.