a gentleman and a scholar

The ‘cotton ceiling’ and gender variance


Roz Kaveney wrote a fantastic blog on the ‘cotton ceiling’ this morning – to wit: “…the Cotton Ceiling – with reference to knickers – is the term parts of the trans community have inventively adopted for the way that, however theoretically accepting of trans people a lot of progressives may be, when it comes to actually having sex with us, they vote with their …um…feet.” “An example of a wider cissexist trend that not only affects trans women” (thank you, @cayleehogg!), I thought I’d chime in from a genderqueer/androgynous perspective.


I can’t speak for every person who moves through life in a way not traditionally encompassed by the words ‘man’ or ‘woman’ but, for me, this post, this phrase, hit home in a way that brought tears to my eyes.


A popular phrase used to describe the difference between sexuality and gender/sex is “your sexuality is who you want to go to bed with, and your gender/sex is who you want to go to bed as”. If someone knows themselves, is comfortable with themselves, then this is often an accurate assessment. And, broadly, I would agree with Roz when she says: “…one of the major manifestations of the ceiling in our culture is the assumption that to be attracted to someone trans throws your own sexual identity into question…” But not totally. I think there’s something else that happens in regards to the cotton ceiling and divergent/variant gender identities.


The vast majority of Western society is wedded to the idea of the traditional gender binary. Much of the traditional gender binary is constructed based upon notions of which side of that binary the person in question is attracted to. In popular understanding, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ depend upon ‘men’ and ‘women’ to make sense. So, when a person who has previously inhabited that strict binary finds themselves attracted to someone neither/either ‘man’ nor ‘woman’ it does, indeed, necessitate a reappraisal of orientation/description. And with ‘man’ or ‘woman’ frequently relying, to a greater or lesser extent, upon the further categorisation of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’, there’s a chance that who you go to bed with might alter who you go to bed as. Being attracted to someone who lives contrary to the gender binary can indeed throw a person’s sexual identity into question. Not only in a personal dimension, but in a wider sense. Sexual orientations are social categories as much as anything else – and what happens to a person’s place in their society when they have to explain a new partner who challenges their place in that category?


The number of times I’ve heard “if only you were a cis man”, “if only you were a woman” – from people who’ve desired me as I am, but have been alarmed by the ramifications of that desire. People who have gone to bed with me have had their “friends” mock them for the ambiguity of their orientation, have been questioned as to what you can do in bed with someone who isn’t a man and isn’t a woman – and have had their public status as a man or woman thrown into question by their relationship with me. Too many ‘straight’ men who didn’t want to be ‘gay’, ‘gay’ men who didn’t want to be ‘straight’ and likewise with women. Too many men and women who lacked the proof provided by a sexual partner. Too many people too concerned with the description they’ve given themselves to respect the fact that their self no longer fits the description. Compatibility ignored, chemistry ignored, sexual heat, intellectual flirtation, emotional empathy – pushed aside because the destabilising nature of love and desire outside of the traditional binary is too frightening to explore.


Again, I return to Roz’s words: “This is not – to jump straight in and answer a crude debating point that has been made by the usual ‘radfem’ suspects – a matter of the trans community demanding access to cis people’s vulnerable and reluctant bodies.” Nor is it an argument which claims that we could all be attracted to anyone at all, and that we should ignore the peculiarities and eccentricities of attraction which make us unique. What it is is a statement of fact: the cotton ceiling exists, and it affects trans people of all descriptions. Cis allies would do well to ask themselves how open minded they really are – it’s one thing to support our rights, but do you see us as equals enough to desire, to love? Even if that requires a leap of faith, a change of perspective?


As you all probably know by now, I’m a terrible old romantic. Life is fleeting and love is rare. I hope I’d never find myself in the position of refusing something so precious, simply because I was frightened of change.