No replacements allowed! (on gender bans in polyamory)

I asked my dear friend (and frequent commenter here) TGStoneButch if he’d mind turning his brilliant comment on “What’s so great about cock, anyway?” into our first guest post, since I loved what he had to say and wanted to see discussion about it happening here on the front page where it belonged, instead of hidden away in the comments. I think this is important stuff, and that his analysis of it is probably dead-on, and it’s not something I have enough personal experience with in this sort of queer context to feel comfortable writing about myself. Here’s what he sent me:

(This is a patchwork of several comments I made in this blog recently, which I have lovingly stitched together into a fairly cohesive whole, for your reading pleasure.)

I’m poly, have been for quite some time. When I have spoken to My last few partners (as well as other folks) about poly agreements, one of the common things that has come up is a ban on dating someone else of a similar gender. In My case, it has often gotten really specific to type of femme, and not larger categories like “women” or “men”, but I have heard about (and been the other gendered secondary/date in question of) partners being totally ok with a masculinely gendered partner dating/having a boy, if ze is primary partnered with a girl, or vice versa, and it not feeling nearly as scary as potentially being “replaced” by someone of “the same” gender. Which is how many describe it. A very bisexual phenomenon within hierarchical polyamory. (For monosexual polyamorous folks, a gender ban of similarly gendered folks would result in nobody to play with. We get the lucky extra set of rules. For non-hierarchical polyamorous folks, the whole primary/secondary thing is unlikely to apply.)

There is something in it that’s about perception of threat, and who is competition. An ex of Mine who subscribed to the “play with whoever you want as long as that person is not a femme like me,” said to Me once that if I decided to leave her for a (insert specific gender that ain’t hers), then there was nothing she could offer Me to measure up to that, but that it wasn’t cool for Me to play with a femme with a similar gender. Another femme I know objected specifically to her partner playing with a femme with a very similar gender and style, saying something about “it’s like ze wants to replace me!”.

I want particularly to examine the gender ban/allowance dynamic where it occurs most frequently in my own life; in the context of queer women/trans relationships. In my experience of this dynamic, there is often an established cross gender pairing, butch/femme or transmasculine/femme. Within that pairing, the masculinely gendered partner is limited in hir potential secondaries and casual partners, sometimes not allowed to date femmes at all, sometimes not allowed to date a certain kind of femme (this is where the fear of being replaceable idea may come in to play).

So, let’s take the more common one I’ve found, where the masculinely gendered partner is only allowed to date/partner with other masculinely gendered people. (No other femmes allowed, only one femme rules this roost.) Somehow, femmes are out of the realm of possibility (potentially because femmes are a threat? a replacement? competition?)…but other butches/bois/transmasculine folks are not. Why is it that butch/butch or masculine/masculine pairing (which I’m going to call boy/boy from now on for ease of writing only) is not a threat to butch/femme or transmasculine/femme pairing (which I’m going to call cross-gender pairings for ease of writing only)?

In my mind, this is directly linked to heterosexism and sexism. There is a way that this dismisses boy/boy dynamics as being about nothing but work (in the case of a boy servant) or sex/physical (in the case of sex/SM), or just not as “real” or satisfying. There is no romantic threat here–because boys don’t experience intimacy or love with each other? There is no Ds threat–because a boy submissive is so different from a femme one, or boy servants do such different work? There is no threat of this lover becoming primary–because boys can’t be primary with other boys, the “natural” order is cross gender pairing? There is no sexual threat–because boy/boy fucking couldn’t possibly replace cross gender sex?

I have to say that in my heart, as someone who has seen this from all the boy angles possible (the boy who is only allowed to date other boys, the boy who is dating the masculine partner, the boy dating the femme who is allowed to date who she wants regardless of gender but limits the genders of the people her masculine partner dates), I do experience this as dismissive to boy/boy dynamics. One of the reasons I now loudly identify as a fag (which I know is often misread as gay man), is because I want to communicate to potential femme partners of mine and the masculine folks I date that I do see boy/boy relationships as potentially primary, just as important, absolutely a potential threat in the exact same ways (though I also am very ethical as a poly person and don’t actually want to threaten primary relationships, my own or other people’s), all that and a bag of chips. I do not see them as lesser, less important, less meaningful, less vital to my life.

I have talked to other secondary boys (who date masculine partners, either in a het context or a queer women/trans context where there are gender bans like I described above), and I must say that I am not alone in feeling like boy/boy is often being treated as lesser, in a way that encompasses a lot of how secondary partners are mistreated and neglected, but is also particularly unique to that gendered rule. The bulk of them have been transguys and butches; I wonder if cisgender boys experience a similar dynamic. I know that one of the transguys I talked to felt like he was being treated as lesser precisely because he was trans.

I definitely feel like there is some heterosexism involved in that dynamic, where cross gender pairings are held up as the ideal, and boy/boy is dismissed as not even a potential threat. (To be clear, I would love for no poly arrangement to include fear of replacement, and perception of secondary folks and dates as potential threats, but I find that an unrealistic hope. And I think it is vital to not leave our emotional and highly personal perceptions of what is threat and what is not out of our analysis. I know, for example, that when a femme partner said to me in poly negotiations that she perceived someone as a threat because she was thinner than her, that we had some societal stuff going on, for sure.)

It’s not a blatantly sexist dynamic in the same way as a het guy who “lets” his gf get with other girls because girl/girl couldn’t possibly threaten his dick, but it still feels like sexism at work. A dynamic where any femme partner is a potential threat/replacement is one where femmes are in competition with each other, where femmes are seen as wanting to “steal” other femme’s partners, where femmes are seen as interchangeable, and that smacks of sexism to me. Just the idea that your gender is the essence (not one aspect but the core) of your value, your attractiveness, your identity as a partner (I’m not talking gender play here, but real world dynamics) feels inherently sexist to me.

Perhaps it may already be obvious already that gender specific bans often put transfolks in challenging situations. I will give two specific examples from My own trans life. I once met up with and was negotiating with a married cisgendered guy who was only allowed by his wife to submit to men. He assured me that he saw me as a man. When I asked whether his wife would also, he said, “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” and was surprised when I said that answer didn’t satisfy me and my poly ethics. (Needless to say, I did not play with him, for many reasons, actually.)

Another experience I had is particular to genderfluid folks. I spent many years identifying as a gender switch. (I frequently morphed between various high femme and masculine genders.) I was a secondary boy in a situation where I was literally “not allowed” to show up as or morph to femme genders, because the ftm I was playing with only had permission from his wife to play with boys. A gender ban could not allow for my gender at all.

That’s my 50c on the subject (definitely more than 2c for sure), and I would love to hear other people’s opinions and ideas.

7 Responses to “No replacements allowed! (on gender bans in polyamory)”

  1. 8 September 2008 at 11:12 pm

    Very interesting take! I’m glad to see these ideas elaborated upon from your earlier comments, TGStoneButch.

  2. 9 September 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Very interesting, and something I had not thought about before. Curiously, there is an apparent contrast here with what Aviva was describing re: heterosexual women in relationships with bi (cisgender) men, where there is a prevailing assumption that the guy is “really” gay and will cheat or dump you “for men” at some point. I suspect this has to do with gendered assumptions in a queer women/trans context vs. a heterosexual context.

  3. 3 Aviva
    9 September 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Thanks for being our first guest poster! It makes me feel like I have a real blog or something. You know this already, but I love this post.

    I think you make a great point that this sort of assumed competition between femmes is its own sort of misogyny. It values the feminine partner as interchangeable, replaceable, necessary generally but not specifically. That’s an awfully disturbing way to regard feminine people.
    And I too find it very strange to have everything come down to gender that way – I think I’ve talked some about that in previous posts. There are a lot of qualities my partners’ other lovers could have that I would find threatening, and even if gender were on the list (and perhaps it would be, if my partner were dating someone I knew to identify as femme in a way similar to me, so I won’t rule it out), it would be far from the only thing on there. I don’t really understand considering it the be-all and end-all of competition; I’d be more likely to be jealous of a person whose play interests overlapped nearly completely with mine/whom I perceived as submitting very similarly to me, or someone who was in my partner’s field and could thus engage her more deeply about her work, etc. Even, possibly, someone who looked quite like me.

    And it certainly says something about perceptions of boy/boy play in queer women/trans spaces that it’s perceived as not at all a threat this way – that’s definitely something I’ve seen and wondered at in my time there. I see no reason boy/boy relationships shouldn’t be as deep, loving, and meaningful as any other, but lots of other people seem to, and that baffles me. I wonder if it’s partially because the transmasculine folk who are inclined toward boy/boy play/relationships/interactions tend to go for the gay male community over the queer women and trans community, and so we don’t see them around? I know that my own fag-identified trans friends sometimes do so. But I suppose that’s a self-fulfulling prophecy; if so-called women and trans spaces were open to the full range of trans genders and sexualities, perhaps transmasculine folks who valued boy/boy relationships wouldn’t feel alienated and leave seeking someplace that felt more like home.
    What about femme/femme relationships? Are those taken less seriously, as well? Or are they just a whole different corner of the queer community? I know that in my case no one bats an eye at a clearly serious relationship between two feminine women, but I don’t have a sense how they’re perceived as a whole. Other than by straight porn.

    I also love the way you talk about being attracted to both feminine genders and masculine genders as bisexuality, even in cases where, arguable, both are “women” (not trans men, obviously, but I’ve known butches who are woman-identified, and I’ve certainly known people to consider butches women, rightly or wrongly). I think we don’t see enough of that kind of take on gender, and it’s one of the things bisexuality is frequently criticized for.

  4. 10 September 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I also love the way you talk about being attracted to both feminine genders and masculine genders as bisexuality, even in cases where, arguable, both are “women” (not trans men, obviously, but I’ve known butches who are woman-identified, and I’ve certainly known people to consider butches women, rightly or wrongly). I think we don’t see enough of that kind of take on gender, and it’s one of the things bisexuality is frequently criticized for.

    This is a really interesting idea, I think. In my social circle, we’ve had more than one conversation recently about bisexual friends of ours for whom it is the opposite — a girl who’s attracted to boyish people, with very similar genders, whether they’re men or women, and my girlfriend, who’s attracted to sort of feminine-leaning androgynous people whether they’re men or women. And that’s something that happens amongst us monosexuals, too — some people are attracted to women or men across (that part of) the gender spectrum, while others really only go for a specific subset of women or men. Which reveals some interesting shades of gray in how people experience their mono- or bisexuality, from monosexuals who like a range of genders within one sex* to bisexuals who like one gender across sexes. And I’m sure there are many variations.

    * By “sex” I just mean the group of people who identify as either male or female, since monosexuals are usually attracted to one of those groups.

  5. 5 Aviva
    11 September 2008 at 1:20 am

    Daisy – I think that’s what’s so fascinating, that all of these things are possible. I also know bisexuals who are attracted to feminine men and masculine women, and vice versa. And people like me, who are really hot for gender but pretty much like them all. And all of that can fall under the rubric of “bisexual,” if that’s how the people involved identify. I love it.

  6. 11 September 2008 at 1:57 pm

    Yeah, exactly. I love it too.

  7. 11 September 2008 at 10:20 pm

    I think the devaluing boy/boy thing is partly just about straightforward heterosexism, and particularly the way that boy/boy relationships are devalued as not familial, romantic, or emotionally intimate (all the stereotypes about gay men seem to apply here, including the ones about promiscuity).

    I am reminded of the time when I was on a Triangle Speakers Bureau as the bisexual (we had a gay, a lesbian, and the parent of a glb on the panel), in the late nineties. [Yes, I am using objectifying terms on purpose…I was not supposed to be there as the complexities of Me, but as A Bisexual, that’s how that kind of gay for pay thing works.] I consistently pissed the gays off, who would often glare at Me for My wrong (too complex) answers to questions that they found simple.

    Example. I was commonly asked…which do you prefer, men or women. I would reply that I am most commonly attracted to queer genders, particularly ones that are transgressive of gender, and that are on either end of the spectrum, butches, femmes, ftms, mtfs, drag queens, drag kings, transfolks of many varieties. I would get pressed, but which do I like best, men or women, and reply that I saw gender as being much bigger than those categories, and I was particularly attracted to folks that messed with common ideas about gender, and were not in the middle, but on the far ends of gender, or switched between several.

    That remains to this day who I am attracted to. Queer genders, particularly end of the spectrum genders, trans genders, and folks that move between genders. I know bisexual has often been read as being into both men and women, but for Me, My bisexuality is about being into a multitude of queer genders. Bisexual is political identity for Me, one I embrace as I attempt to widen its meaning. (Much like the old bisexual magazine Anything that Moves used to talk about being a magazine for the FABGLITTER communities “Fetish, Allies, Bisexuals, Gay, Lesbians, Intersex, Transgender, Transsexual Engendering Revolution.”)

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