This 1987 Book on Male Sexuality Explains "Male Lesbians"

In Depth

Do you think that the idea of the “male lesbian” was either a joke or the creation of the producers of The L Word? Apparently, if so, you’re wrong. At least if you believe the 1980s work of one psychologist.

“Love and Shyness” by Brian Gilmartin, professor of psychology at Montana State University (now retired), explores a specific type of male heterosexuality involving men who do not identify with typical male gender performance in regards to courtship (and many other activities). These men are apparently far more interested in being passively pursued than aggressively pursuing.

Gilmartin uses several approaches he calls “diagnostic tools” to evaluate what he terms as “love shyness” amongst heterosexual men. The “diagnostic tool” which immediately caught my attention (although there are plenty of other great ones, like “closeted heterosexuality”) is the “male lesbian.”

On the surface the whole idea appears ludicrous; everyone knows that lesbians are female homosexuals who want to “make it” vis-a-vis another woman. Yet in selecting the men to be interviewed for this research the seemingly incongruous notion of “male lesbian” kept staring me in the face again and again. For this reason, I don’t think that any book pretending to be complete on the subject of chronic love-shyness in men can afford to ignore the “male lesbian” idea.

Unfortunately, Gilmartin doesn’t explain where he found the research for this idea in the first place. And there is something disturbing about his use of “make it” in this context. Even Gilmartin notes that the idea of a “male lesbian” seems incongruous, but he goes on to use it as a diagnostic tool anyhow.

Specifically, a “male lesbian” is a heterosexual man who wishes that he had been born a woman, but who (even if he had been a woman) could only make love to another woman and never to a man. Unlike the transsexual, the “male lesbian” does not feel himself to be “a woman trapped inside the body of a man”.

Okay, so, I’m a bit confused here. First, how would this supposed “male lesbian” know he would only have sex with women if he had been female assigned at birth? Perhaps it would be better to say that he had a belief that he would, but we have no way to know if he actually would have.

Second, where do I even start with the idea of “a woman trapped inside the body of a man,” a seriously problematic phrase. It’s a phrase that is often used by transgender people to describe their experiences to cisgender people, especially those with little education on the subject of intersections of sexual non-dimorphism, gender identity, and sexual orientation. However, it isn’t accurate. There’s a lot about my body I like and liked, I don’t feel like a tiny woman sitting inside of a “male” body piloting like some kind of gender identity version of Neon Genesis Evangelion or Mobile Suit Gundam.

Moreover, male lesbians don’t have any wishes or fantasies of any kind pertinent to the idea of obtaining a sex change operation. All want to keep their male genitalia; all want to remain as males.

Not all trans women are interested in pursuing sex reassignment surgery, but I think the key take away here is not so much about SRS specifically, but rather about the lack gender, or perhaps more specifically, lack of sex dysphoria. This is a really, really important distinction to make, because this dysphoria and the pursuit of mitigation of it is key to the transgender experience. And if we’re talking about MAAB individuals, then it is most definitely key to separating cisgender men from trans women.

I think my narrative is fairly consistent with at least a major part of the trans experience. While I recognise my body as my own, I also recognise there are aspects of it which do not match my self-conceptualisation of my bodily integrity, nor does it appear to match my “mapping.” This isn’t entirely in my head, there is empirical evidence (at least in my case) recognised by medical professionals that such mapping is unusual. If I understand Gilmartin correctly, he is clearly stating that these “male lesbians” do not have any such physical dysphoria associated with sex.

Male lesbians differ from both transsexuals and homosexuals in that they cannot conceive of themselves making love to a man. For example, after sex change surgery the male transsexual almost always wants to begin making love to a man AS A WOMAN. The male homosexual wants to make love AS A MAN to a man.

I’ve scanned over the entire book, and it pretty much discounts the whole idea of a sexuality spectrum. It recognises 100% heterosexual 100% homosexual and 50/50 bisexual. Other sexualities are treated as if they do not exist. And that would be problematic enough if it weren’t for the strangeness of his classifications. Gilmartin completely fails to recognise that lesbian trans women exist. We do. The decision to separate the experiences of so called “male lesbians” from “male homosexuals” and “male transsexuals” based on if they want to have sex with men or women and if they wish to do so “as a woman” or “as a man” is just plain bizarre.

Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation. Let me repeat that, since in 2014, there still seems to be quite a bit of confusion about this: gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation.

However, male lesbians deeply envied the prerogatives of the female gender and truly believed that these prerogatives fitted their own inborn temperaments far more harmoniously than the pattern of behavioural expectations to which males are required to adhere.

And this is where I think we begin to come to the crux of what constitutes this as some kind of identity: the performative nature of gender. Gender is a social construct, and it is made up of at least three parts that are recognisable, gender identity (which for the “male lesbian” is man), gender expression (which for the “male lesbian” would be considered “feminine” by the standards of gender performance being considered), and gender presentation (which for the “male lesbian” would be “masculine” by the standards of gender performance).

Okay, I’m following. I am not sure I concur here with Gilmartin that this identity intersection of gender and sexuality can make it appropriate for these men to claim the label of lesbian, but I can certainly agree that the intersection is a recognisable and valid identity.

However, I find the quoted participants in Gilmartin’s research to sound suspiciously like a number of men’s rights activists I’ve known over the years, especially those in fandoms of media directed towards cisgender girls. Good examples would be the Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (or shoujo anime in general) and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fandoms:

“From the time I was very, very young, I had always wished that I had been born a girl. I know I would have been much happier as a girl because I have always been attracted to the kinds of things that girls do. But every time I think about how great it would have been if I had been born a girl, I immediately realize that if I had been born a girl I would be a lesbian. I have always strongly disliked the idea of doing anything with my own sex. I despise men. Just thinking about making love to a man, even as a woman, makes me want to throw up! But I would also never want to play football or baseball or any of the other games boys are supposed to like playing. I never wanted to have anything to do with the male sex, on any level. So, like if I had been born a girl as 1 would have wanted, I would definitely be a lesbian because I’d be falling in love with and having sex with girls instead of with men.” (40-year old heterosexual love- shy man.)
“To be perfectly frank, I don’t think I would be shy at all if it wasn’t for this goddam norm that says that only the man can make the first move with a woman in asking for dates. I mean if both sexes had equal responsibility for having to suffer the indignity of having to make the first move, I just know I would have been married fourteen or maybe fifteen years ago.” (35-year old love-shy man.)
“Well, I don’t know if I’d actually like to be a woman. All I know is that I’ve always envied women because they can play the passive role and still get married. I think our society is extremely cruel to men. It treats them like second class citizens all the time while women get treated like prima donnas. When you write your book I hope you emphasize the fact that men have feelings too. I mean, men are human beings too, and they have feelings just as much as any woman does. I think it’s rotten and stinking the way it’s always the man who is made to suffer—like in the military, for example. Just because a person happens to be a male he has to suffer all the horrors and indignities of the military establishment and the selective slavery system. If you’re a man you’re not supposed to feel any pain. You’re not supposed to have any feelings. You’re supposed to be just like a piece of steel and press forward no matter what harm or pain comes to you. Well, I was lucky in being able to avoid the military— thank God! But when it comes to getting a woman there doesn’t seem to be any way of getting around these extremely cruel social rules that insist that only the man can be allowed to make the first approach with a woman . . . . If I was writing a book on shyness I’d hollar and shout on every page that the only way to solve the problem is to change these cruel social rules. You tell your readers that we’ve got to change the rules. And we’ve got to keep telling our daughters from the time they are little that they have just as much responsibility as men for making the first move in starting romantic relationships.” (38-year old love-shy man.)


No, seriously. There are serious issues which the way that the research participants enforce the very gender norms by which they claim to be afflicted. There is a very binary gender essentialist argument at work here, when these men, who completely and totally identify as men (which is why they’re men), cannot seem to defend their boyhood and manhood as valid. Despite not identifying as girls or women, they viewed being girls as inherently easier based on the fact that their traits would have been considered congruent with their assignment at birth.

I think this is a major difference between many trans narratives, or at least trans narratives like mine, and these “male lesbian” narratives. Are there trans women who end up using the same arguments to suggest their lives would have been better overall if they were cisgender women? Sure, and they often have views I find deeply problematic. But I think this is an increasingly unpopular view, and I think my view is becoming more mainstream: would my life have been easier? Only in the sense of having cisgender privilege. Much of my privilege would be intact, regardless of my assignment at birth (race, class, nationality, language, etc), and that’s important to consider. Given the trade off of male privilege for cisgender privilege, I think I’m going to disagree with these “male lesbians” that oppressions can be so easily compared and ranked.

There is also one issue I often think “male lesbians” don’t take into account (or those men in the fandoms I mentioned who have expressed similar thoughts): gender dysphoria sucks. It is not an experience one would willingly choose. Saying “it would be easier on me if I was a girl” is not the same as knowing that one is a girl with all the assorted baggage that knowledge generates throughout one’s life. By their own identification, these men are men, they are not women, they were boys (variance of gender performance understood) and not girls.

It always seems to generate confusion when I ask such men, “fine, if you woke up tomorrow in a parallel universe where you have a strictly dimorphic female body, and the world recognises you as a woman, but you have your current experiences and identities intact, how would you feel?” The answers I receive are rarely ones which demonstrate any true understanding of women’s experiences. Although it is conjecture, I imagine many of these men would quickly find themselves suffering from gender dysphoria and completely at a loss to deal with no longer having the male privilege they have taken for granted.

The male lesbian, on the other hand, wishes that he had been born a woman. But he always makes it clear that if he indeed had been born a woman he would be a full-fledged lesbian. In other words, he would want to socialize exclusively with women and he would choose female partners exclusively for love-making and for sex-making activity. In short, a secret fantasy of many male lesbian is to be a beautiful woman who lives with and makes love with another beautiful woman.

And there you have it, really. This is not about the experience of girlhood, with its natural variance amongst all of the individuals who can claim access to it (including, of course, trans girls), but rather exoticisation of both girlhood and lesbianism. Many trans women, myself included, tend to shy away from declaring resolutely what we would have done if female assigned at birth. Frankly we don’t know. We can only offer vague ideas of “this and that and this and that being equal, I think x and y and z.” And the view of lesbianism from these men itself is deeply problematic as it assumes one kind of lesbianism and seems to completely discount the number of masculine of center, including very, very butch, lesbians. The idea has much more in common with male fantasies of lesbians (regardless of whether the men in question are “love shy” or not) than the actual reality of lesbian experiences.

The male lesbian reluctantly accepts the fact that he is male. Male Lesbians don’t have any transvestite tendencies or any urge to dress up as a woman or to put on lipstick or nail polish, etc. Since a male lesbian cannot be a woman, most male lesbians visualize themselves as a man romancing as a beautiful woman. And most of them had begun doing this from a much earlier age in life than had the large majority of heterosexual men.

And again, we have Gilmartin (or his research on “male lesbians”) shoving trans women into the same box as these men have shoved cisgender lesbian women. Not all trans women dress overtly femme, wear make up, etc. Just the same as cisgender women. Trans women come in all types. There’s an entire gender expression and gender presentation spectrum. What matters for our purposes here, and for Gilmartin’s (although he was apparently unaware of it) is gender identity. “Relunctantly” or not, “male lesbians” are men because they identify that way. This is what separates them from women, and not just trans women.

Many of the male lesbians studied never liked their own gender very much. As young children most of them had avoided playmates of their own sex. And most of them had envied the girls’ play groups and play activities. They had come to view conventional societal expectations as cruel and callously insensitive because they perceived the girls’ peer groups and play activities as being their “natural terrain”. Hence, they had often thought to themselves that if they could only find a way of gaining acceptance into the all-female peer group they would find happiness, inner peace and contentment.

Here, of course, is that confusion between gender and sex, but moving past that obvious issue, there are even issues here. It’s true that in my own experiences I found myself far more drawn to girls’ play groups, but I saw myself as a girl. Not just girl-like. Not a boy with preferences and interests supported by the gender binary as belonging to girls. No, as a girl. So, of course I saw the girls’ play groups and play activities as my “terrain.” Unlike the “male lesbian,” I was attempting to conform, and meeting resistance for that action. I never attempted to rebuff male peers, and was grateful for the boys who did befriend me (although that wouldn’t really matter until high school), and I never would have written off boys entirely as a group. It seems these “male lesbians” have serious issues with feelings of insecurity around their own masculinity (or even manhood), which they are expressing by demonising boys/men and exoticising girls/women.

The vast majority of the male lesbians confessed that if they ever did become fathers they would want to have girl children only—NO BOYS. In stark contrast, only one percent of the self-confident, males felt that way. In fact, the non-shy men preferred the idea of fathering male children to the idea of fathering female children by a ratio of almost three to two.

While I’m delighted that a portion of any group of men would actively value girls, I see this point as more evidence of exoticising girls, and one would hope it did not extend to actual neglect of boy children. And indeed, it seems likely that these “male lesbians” are looking at girl children not as tiny individuals with developing personalities and characters, but as vessels by which their fathers can live out a girlhood vicariously. That’s creepy.

Gilmartin sums up his research with four points about the “male lesbian:”

And so the male lesbian (1) does not want to play with males, (2) does not want to make love to or experience sex with males, (3) does not have male recreational interests, and (4) does not even want to procreate male children.

None of these four points changes the definition of “lesbian” put forward by Gilmartin in the beginning, although with his ignorance of gender identity vs sexual orientation and the existence of trans women, that definition itself is problematic.

Even taking that into account I would say the research he has uncovered does nothing to allow individuals who identify as men, and specifically cisgender men, to claim the label of lesbian. A more modern definition of lesbian might be “a woman identified person who is sexually and romantically interested in other women identified persons,” but perhaps someone else can come up with something even better. Yet, what I strongly feel is that because lesbian inherently includes only “women,” those who identify as men cannot be lesbians. There are no “male lesbians” if we take “male” to mean “man” as Gilmartin does here, as opposed to “male assigned at birth lesbian” which could apply to trans women. Of course, why bother mentioning MAAB at all? Trans women are women, and therefore fall into the category which is at the root of lesbian.

This group of gender variant men should probably be a recognisable group, but they need their own label. They can’t appropriate lesbian.

Image via “Shyness and Love” by Brian Gilmartin/University Press.

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