“Why can’t you just be gay?” Why I, a trans lesbian, can’t just be a gay man

On an astonishingly frequent basis, trans people who come out are met with a peculiar reaction. Those who come out as trans women may be asked, even by well-meaning individuals, “Why can’t you just be a gay man?” And trans men, too, face the flip side of this: “Can’t you just be a lesbian?”

This misconception rather obviously stems from a failure to separate gender identity from sexual orientation: Trans women are not some extreme form of hyperfeminine gay men, nor are they necessarily attracted to men at all; trans men are not an extreme form of butch lesbians, and may not even be attracted to women.

Needless to say, one’s gender identity is not a choice, and neither is one’s sexual orientation. But the expectation that we could simply make such a choice – that we could perhaps just as easily go one way or the other – is also rooted in a lack of understanding of gender dysphoria and its impact on our sexual selves.

Before I came out and transitioned, I spent many years ensnared by exactly this fallacy: I assumed that because I was assigned male, and because I was overtly and undeniably feminine, this must have meant I was a gay man. That’s what it means when you’re a feminine AMAB, right? Wrong. This helped me understand precisely nothing, and I ended up spending far too long wondering why I couldn’t find men attractive or arousing (with the exception of some extremely femme “male” models who, years later, would come out as trans women). What kind of gay man was I?

During those years, the idea of actually coming into sexual contact with any other person – man, woman, or otherwise – was just unfathomable to me. I simply couldn’t imagine it or how I could possibly even do any of those things. After a while, I started to wonder if I may just be asexual. That might be the final answer for some people, but it wasn’t for me.

The first time I ever had sex, at the cusp of turning 22, was with a woman, as a woman. There was no expectation whatsoever that I would do any of the things men typically do during sex with women: we did it like lesbians. And it was profound and amazing. All of the issues I had with imagining myself as a man, having to do things with men or with women, were simply no longer in play.

Still, this was more than a year before I would start HRT, and over that time, I continued to struggle with intimacy: I had trouble being comfortable unclothed. For some reason, it felt strange to be touched. I still felt at a distance, somehow separated and removed from the experience, as if stuck in my own head. I wanted it, and I wanted to want it – there was no doubt there, but there were some parts of sex that I just couldn’t make work. And, worst of all, it just amplified the anxiety that maybe I was a gay guy after all.

But again, that wasn’t my final answer. Within a matter of months after beginning HRT, I felt I could fully occupy my own body. All the barriers fell – I could be truly enthusiastic about sex, totally immersed in the moment, for the first time in my life. Nothing about sex made me anxious now; it was just fun and felt incredible. I had never, ever been able to access that depth of experience before HRT, before I knew myself as a woman, before I knew myself as a woman who loves women.

Why can’t I just be a gay guy? Because I can’t. I actually could not. My answer, like that of many trans people, is that I tried that already – and it didn’t work. This does. My womanhood does. My lesbianism does. And, finally, my body does too.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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