Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity


by Kevin Smith

Touch Practice has been a fascinating exploration of Great Unknowns for me, and in the course of carrying this practice I have learned many things. There are two areas in particular, however, where what I have learned has completely changed the way I conceive my world.

The first, about which I have written extensively, is in the realm of attractiveness. I used to believe that our sense of others as attractive or unattractive was relatively fixed, and largely outside of our own control. After holding several hundred people, I now believe attractiveness is nearly infinitely malleable and almost completely of our own construction. I think we can make ourselves attracted to nearly everyone, or almost no one, and that, within some limits, we largely construct our own reality there.

The second world-view shift that has occurred for me in the course of this practice is in the way I conceive sexual orientation and gender identity. Like many people, I used to group the world of men into “gay” and “straight” men (with “bisexual” used as a word to describe gay men who were not yet ready to admit they were gay.)

With regard to gender identity, I am somewhat ashamed to admit this, but it is true that for much of my life I never really understood or accepted transgender people. This grieves me now that I have begun to understand it, but for much of my life I was quite clueless and ignorant, hard as I tried.

When I heard of someone who was a “man trapped in a woman’s body,” I would sometimes joke, “yeah, well there’s actually a six-foot-three, blond, blue-eyed surfer trapped inside of me, but I have the body I have, and I’m not going to have surgery to try to fix that.” I just didn’t get it.

The moment I “got it” came through Touch Practice. I was holding someone who was undeniably masculine, rugged, a “guy’s guy,” a bearded, woodsy, down-home direct and simple guy, strong and muscular. In the course of practice, we decided to go clothes-off, and it took me some time, but I eventually figured out that my partner’s penis wasn’t hiding: there was no penis. The person I was holding was undeniably male, clearly a “guy”, but with a set of genitalia different from my own.

That was the moment I understood. No amount of talking to me or reasoning with me would have gotten me there. I had to hold it in my arms to understand it. I had to feel it. In the course of having held many men and women in my life, I know what it feels like to hold a guy, and this guy was undeniably a guy. I understood with my body in one hour what I had wrestled with in my mind for years. As I’ve written here, there are some issues we can think our way through, but for others, we have to touch our way through.

I have similarly come to a deeper understanding of sexual orientation through what I have held, rather than what I have thought about. This world, as Kinsey suggested, is a spectrum of gradations, more like a rainbow, less like a set of boxes, and certainly not a set of TWO boxes. Seven, perhaps. Twenty, even better. But certainly not two.

The greatest anger I have ever felt in Touch Practice came several years ago. Before I had my own website, I used to promote Touch Practice using Craigslist ads, and I had a lengthy, descriptive and distinctive ad describing what the practice was about, and why I did it.

A friend of mine from Salt Lake City called one day and said “are you visiting? Your Craigslist ad is running here.” I checked it out, and sure enough, there was MOST of my ad–but with the ending re-written. It seems that a man who is part of what he calls an “ex-gay ministry” was promoting the practice as a way to help men “recover” from same-sex orientation through a process of being held without sex.

I was incensed. I don’t see same-sex orientation as a malady. The idea that Touch Practice could be used as a tool to manipulate someone’s orientation grieved me. I rankled at the thought that something I explore as a form of non-judgmental acceptance would be taken and warped as part of some “reparative therapy” process, a process that assumes judgment, even condemnation, about some of the wide variety of ways in which we are oriented.

But the truth is that I have held many people who get held because they are wrestling with issues of orientation. Sometimes younger (or sometimes older) men I hold are trying to figure out what their primary orientation is; because orientation is complex, and we grow up in a society that often offers only two check-boxes, men who feel both same- and opposite-sex attraction often have a bit of a struggle. Some men are working to understand their orientation; some men are working to run away from it. Some are open to discovering how they are oriented, and some are already at war with it, even before they fully understand it.

I also seem to have discovered something I want to call relational orientation as opposed to sexual orientation. That is, there are men who are relationally oriented to men (they find meaning and satisfaction in close, intimate bonds with men) while not necessarily being sexually oriented towards men in general. The sense of bonding and closeness comes from other-than-sex.

Similarly I have met men who identify as “gay” who seem relationally oriented towards women; their closest friends are women, many of their intense, emotionally bonded relationships are with women, but they are sexually oriented towards men. These variations further complicate an already complex picture.

Sometimes people want to be held who are secure and firm in their sense of sexual orientation about themselves, but they come to explore this other aspect, the relational aspect. What is my orientation towards someone of the same gender if I take sex out of the equation? How close would I allow myself to become to a person of any gender if sex were off the table, not a possibility?

Which raises a very interesting question for me, and especially for me personally. Is it our sexual orientation that drives who we ultimately form our most intimate relationships with, or is it this thing I call “relational orientation” that drives who we ultimately choose to have sex with?

I grew up oriented “open,” meaning that I had (and have) sexual attraction/arousal for both genders. In terms of relational orientation, however, I’m off the charts on one side. I love men. I love groups of men, teams of men, tribes of men. My best and closest friends have always been men. I played sports in high school because it was about men, not about sports. (I did not want to have sex with them; I wanted to play sports with them.) It’s not so much for me about where my penis wants to go; it’s more about where my heart is, so describing this as purely “sexual orientation” seems somehow less than clinically accurate.

I wasn’t conscious of it, but when I checked the “gay” box in my 30′s, I seemed to have written off what had become by then “fringe” feelings of sexual attraction for women. Interestingly in the course of this practice, which demands that I be awake, grounded, fully aware of my feelings and paying attention to everything–amazingly, I find those feelings of attraction are still in there. It’s been fascinating. The more I open myself up to attraction and to the full range of orientation, the more I discover that all the colors of the rainbow are in there, some brighter and stronger than others, but certainly not black and white.

I’ve gone back to happily identifying myself as bisexual (you remember that’s for gay men not yet ready to admit they’re gay.) I’m ok with that. I’m not yet ready to check only one box. I do it now out of mischief and curiosity, rather than shame, and to see if we can build a little breathing room into the old “check one box” system for the rest of us. And you know what? If nothing else, identifying yourself as “bisexual” is a great conversation starter.