February 5, 2019

New research shows that gender variance does not follow sexual orientation

New research indicates that as many as one third of non-transgender people may dream about being or presenting as the opposite gender. Crossdreaming is common among both cisgender, gender diverse and transgender people. But is there a connection between cross-gender dreams and sexual orientation?

In my blog post on crossdreaming among non-transgender (cis) people, I presented the research of Daphna Joel and Roi Jacobson on gender identity and sexuality of trans, queer and cis (nontransgender) people. Their study shows that there is only a very weak correlation between sex, gender identification and sexual orientation.

According to this research it makes little sense to  divide trans and queer people into distinct categories based on their sexual orientation (as researchers like Ray Blanchard and J. Michael Bailey do):
Sexual attraction was similarly characterized by a wide range of combinations of attraction to women and to men, from attraction to only one gender, to both genders, or to none. These findings replicate results from previous studies conducted on cisgender (Jacobson & Joel, 2018; Joel et al., 2013) and gender-diverse individuals (Joel et al., 2013) and extend them to transgender individuals.
Or let me phrase this differently: You can divide people into categories like "homosexual" versus "non-homosexual" if you want to, but those categories do not tell you much beyond the fact that some people are attracted to people of their own gender, while others are more flexible. These categories are too blurry and indistinct to be used to say anything about the their gender identity.

Changing sexual orientation

Note also that transgender individuals, like cisgender people, may identify with all possible categories on the spectrum of sexual orientation. As Joel and Jacobson point out, there is a lot of research that documents that transgender people may even change their experienced sexual orientation during or after transitioning.

Moreover, as soon as you allow for more than two options in questionnaires – as in male and female – and allows for degrees in gender identity and sexual orientation, that changes the way people respond and the way the data have to be interpreted.

If you ask someone if they are a man or a woman, gay or straight, the results will always be binary. Adding third options – like "nonbinary" or "bisexual" – helps, but even they do not give you a proper picture of all the variation out there. Using a five scale model, as Jacobson and Joel do, reveals more of the complexity and variation of gender and sexuality.

That being said: Those completely binary (i.e. those who say that they never feel like – or wish to be – the "other" gender) are more likely to be exclusively heterosexual or exclusively homosexual.
"The percent of binary individuals ranged between 8.8 and 40%, depending mostly on sexual orientation, with the highest percentage of binary individuals found in the exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual groups, which did not significantly differ (p = .80), and lower percentage in the mostly heterosexual, bisexual, and mostly homosexual groups..."
Note that these particular numbers refers to a study of gender variance in cisgender people (which is more than a little confusing, I know, but this is what happens when you stop trusting the binaries.) The same conclusions can be drawn as regards transgender people in the more narrow sense as well, however.

Gender variation

Jacobson and Joel underline that they are not the only ones who have presented such findings as regards gender feelings:
For example, a study of gender identity in a large Israeli sample of cisgender individuals found that around 35% of the participants felt to some extent also as the “other” gender (Joel et al., 2013). 
A recent study in 6–11-year-old children in the U.S. similarly found that around 30% felt highly similar to both girls and boys (Martin et al., 2017). 
A national survey in the U.S. has recently found that less than one-third of women and men had rated themselves as very feminine or very masculine, respectively, 7% rated themselves identically on the feminine and masculine items, and 4% reported a lower score on the sex-”typical” scale than on the sex-”atypical” scale (Magliozzi, Saperstein, & Westbrook, 2016).
These results do not necessarily mean that these people are transgender, in the sense of identifying with another gender than the one assigned, but the numbers do indicate that a lot of people feel that the traditional gender stereotypes are too narrow to explain their gender feelings.

Differences between cis men and women as regards gender feelings and sexual attraction

Note that when Joel and Jacobsen  use the words "man" and "woman", they normally refer to self-experienced, and not assigned gender: "Here we use sex to refer to the category assigned to an infant at birth, typically female or male, and gender to refer to the social category one identifies with, most often, woman or man."

Still, as far as the 2018 "Exploration" paper goes, they only included cisgender people, i.e. "participants from English-speaking countries, who identified with their birth-assigned gender in both childhood and adulthood." In this context you can refer to all of those assigned male at birth as men and those assigned female as women.

There is a difference between these male and female groups as regards "feeling as affirmed gender".

In the  paper Jacobson and Joel note that among men you will find a U-shaped curve, where the exclusively homosexual and exclusively heterosexual respondents are most likely to feel as their affirmed gender. Bisexuals are more likely to feel as the other gender.

As they point out:
In fact, the finding that the group of exclusively homosexual men was not significantly different from the group of exclusively heterosexual men on any of the measures of gender identity is particularly in conflict with views strongly linking sexual orientation and gender identity.
In other words: Men who identify as exclusively gay or exclusively straight are less likely to report cross-gender dreams.

The pattern found among women is somewhat different:
In women, these relations were a combination of linear and quadratic relations, such that there was a gradual change from exclusively heterosexual to bisexual with no further changes from bisexual to exclusively homosexual (a pattern we call here “mostly linear”).
In women, reporting "feeling-as-a-man"was lowest in the exclusively heterosexual group, somewhat higher in the mostly heterosexual group, and highest in the bisexual, mostly homosexual, and exclusively homosexual groups.

In other words: Female to male (FTM) crossdreamers are more likely to be bisexual or attracted to women.

The researchers make some suggestions as to why this is so:
The different relations between sexuality and gender identity in men and women may be related to the different attitudes toward same-sex sexual relations of women and men in western society. Specifically, same-sex relations are less acceptable for men compared to women and are often considered un-masculine (Herek, 1986, 2000; Pew Center, 2013). 
This cultural difference may explain, at least in part, why even low levels of same-sex sexuality were associated with less binary gender identity in men compared to women. Thus, mostly heterosexual and bisexual men were on average less binary than women in the respective sexuality groups.
One possible reason for why exclusively heterosexual and exclusively homosexual men are so similar when it comes to gender identity, may be that sexual interaction has a strong symbolic value in the social hierarchy of male and female. Being male and masculinity have a higher value than being female and femininity:
Research has consistently shown that many gay men tend to value masculinity and perceive negatively those who appear effeminate to them (Bergling, 2001; Sánchez, 2016). Being subjected to the same cultural messages regarding masculinity and effeminacy as heterosexual men (Wilson et al., 2010), many gay men come to define masculinity and femininity as heterosexual men do (Sánchez, Greenberg, Liu, & Vilain, 2009). 
In other words: Gay men and heterosexual men might be equally misogynistic, which stops them from exploring (or admitting to)  any kind of gender variance.
Feeling-as-a-man and feeling-as-a-woman as a function of sexuality. Five-point scales for gender identity and sexual orientation. The mean and standard deviation of feeling-as-affirmed-gender and feeling- as-the-“other”-gender. ExcHt exclusively heterosexual, MstHt mostly heterosexual, Bi bisexual, MstHm mostly homosexual, ExcHm exclu-sively homosexual. From the paper. Click on figure to make it bigger.

Crossdreaming and sexual orientation

The results of the analyses of the relations between the "cross-gender" questions and other factors are interesting. By  "cross-gender" items I mean:
  • sexuality and satisfaction with one’s affirmed gender, 
  • the wish to be the “other”-gender, 
  • dislike of one’s sexed body, 
  • the wish to have the body of the “other”  sex , 
  • wearing the clothes of the “other” sex , 
  • and shopping in a department labeled for your sex 
The responses of women and men were highly variable and overlapping, and they were related mostly to affirmed gender, and only weakly to sexual orientation.

This figure shows the distribution of those who report that they sometimes or in some degree wish to have the body of the other sex (using five point scales for both gender identification and sexual orientation). ExcHt exclusively heterosexual, MstHt mostly heterosexual, Bi bisexual, MstHm mostly homosexual, ExcHm exclusively homosexual. From the 2018 paper. 

They found a weak association between gender and sexuality along the following dimensions:
There were no consistent differences between correlations with same- sex attraction versus “other”-sex attraction, except that, in both women and men, but only in the more heterosexual half of the sexual orientation continuum, same-sex attraction was more related than “other”-sex attraction to the wish-to-have-the- body-of-the-”other”-sex, wearing-the-clothes-of-the-”other”- sex, and shopping-in-a-department-labeled-for-your-sex (the latter was significant only in the women’s group).
It takes some time to parse the meaning of the long paragraphs in this densly written paper, but  what this means is that statistically speaking, on an aggregate level, gay cis men and lesbian cis women are somewhat more likely have these particular crossdreams than the straight respondents. This does not mean that there are not a lot of straight cisgender people who share similar dreams.

What can we learn from this?

The researcher draws two main lessons from all of this:
  • Queer and transgender identities belong on the same gender grid as cisgender identities rather than being distinct phenomena.
  • Identifying with the “other” gender or wish to be the “other” gender or to have the body of the “other” sex are not necessarily a sign of gender dysphoria.
So they basically confirm what I have been arguing for a long time now: It makes much more sense to think of both gender identity and sexual orientation as continuums or scales rather than binaries. And no, I did not come up with this idea. Alfred Kinsey argued along these lines back in the 1940s.

However, this does not mean that the binary narrative is dead. It is is so deeply ingrained in Western culture (and through its influence, most of the rest of the world), that it is hard even for researchers who know better to liberate themselves from it.

Some researchers, like Ray Blanchard and his followers, have invested their whole prestige and legitimacy in the strict binaries, and the pseudo-Darwinian models of aggressive men and demure women, which includes the classic inversion-model of transexuality. That is: Trans women are effeminate gay men, and if they are not, they must be sexually perverted straight men. Secondly: Trans men are masculine, "butch", lesbian women. (Trans men who love men do not exist in Blanchard's world!)  In other words: Sexual orientation and gender identity are still connected in healthy people, according to these researchers. All  others are suffering from some sort of "paraphilia"

This theory, however, requires that there is a water tight boundary between heterosexuals and homosexuals, between the feminine and the masculine, and between men and women. The new research shows that there are no such strict divides  out there in the real world.


Daphna Joel, Ricardo Tarrasch, Zohar Berman, Maya Mukamel & Effi Ziv (2014) "Queering gender: studying gender identity in ‘normative’ individuals," Psychology & Sexuality, 5:4, 291-321, DOI: 10.1080/19419899.2013.830640

Roi Jacobson and Daphna Joel: "An Exploration of the Relations Between Self‐Reported Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation in an Online Sample of Cisgender Individuals," Archives of Sexual Behavior 2018, Vol. 47, Issue 8, 2407–2426 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-018-1239-y

Roi Jacobson & Daphna Joel: "Self-Reported Gender Identity and Sexuality in an Online Sample of Cisgender, Transgender, and Gender-Diverse Individuals: An Exploratory Study," The Journal of Sex Research, 2018, DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2018.1523998

Photo: loveischiangrai

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