Policing What Counts As ‘Queer Sex’ Limits Everyone

Photo by Karen Sofia Colon.
I used to worry that my love of giving blow jobs somehow made me less queer. Me — a trans guy — on my knees, naked, with a cis man’s penis in my mouth definitely doesn’t look very queer — from the outside, at least. When I was moving through the world as a cis woman, I felt imposter syndrome about my own bisexuality. I told myself that ‘queer’ oral sex looked like me going down on someone with a vulva, not giving head to someone with a penis. 
Except I’ve now come out as a transgender man. Does that mean that me giving a person with a penis a blow job now counts as queer sex? Does it mean it always has? 
What counts as queer sex is a question that allocishet people (people who are cisgender, heterosexual and allosexual, i.e. not asexual) ask – alongside wondering how lesbians lose their virginity and who is ‘the woman’ when two gay men have sex. We’re told that sex means penis-in-vagina (PIV) penetration but much of what society dismisses as ‘foreplay’ is sex for queer and trans people. 
I have vaginismus, so a vaginal swab for an STI test is the biggest thing I’ve ever had in my vagina. Defining sex solely as PIV would mean that I would never have had sex, so like many other queer people I have expanded my definition of sex to include almost everything. 
27-old Ryley, who is non-binary and bisexual, defines any intimate moment with another person as sex, including hand and oral sex. Lizzy, who is 32 years old and a gay woman, differentiates the queer sex she’s had from the straight sex by its playfulness and feeling of equality: "It's been about mutual pleasure, not me fulfilling a role."  
Similarly, Lucie, who is 22 years old and pansexual, uses the definition that if it feels like sex to her, it is sex. For her, dry humping doesn’t count as sex but mutual masturbation does: "What feels like sex to me is anything that involves active genital stimulation with someone else involved. No matter if they do it or I do it."

I've now come out as a transgender man. Does that mean that me giving a person with a penis a blow job now counts as queer sex? Does it mean it always has? 

Dr Liz Powell, a psychologist specialising in non-traditional relationships, says that in their experience, queer sex is far more about challenging cisheteronormative scripts about what sex ‘should’ look like: "Queerness is this internal experience of exploring and expanding and exploring societal norms more than it’s about specific activities." 
With Dr Powell’s definition, no sex act is inherently ‘queer’ or ‘straight’. Whether or not the sex you’re having is queer is far less about the genitals and gender of the people involved and far more about how you’re approaching sex. "People who don’t talk a lot and just pretend that they’re just going to be able to figure everything out? That can be very straight sex. Or people who think that sex ends when a penis ejaculates? That can be very straight sex."
So what counts as queer sex? It’s also a question that queer people ask each other as we try to work out if we’re queer ‘enough’ to take up space in the LGBTQIA+ community. Many people feel like they need to have had a same-sex experience before they can call themselves queer. In a heteronormative society, we’re expected to prove our queerness by having sex with another person of the same gender. If we haven’t, it’s questioned whether we can really know that we’re not straight.
31-old Kara, who is aromantic and asexual, has been asked how she knows she’s ace (asexual) if she hasn’t had sex. As someone who doesn’t have sex, it took a long time for her to feel comfortable calling herself queer: "It’s a combination of two misconceptions — that I was basically straight by default, and that queerness is tied to sexual behaviour — [that] made me stop short of claiming space under that LGBTQ+ acronym."
Coming out as trans didn’t make my attraction to men more valid than it was before — but for a moment it felt like it did. There’s a false idea, perpetuated by pop culture and social media, that if you’re a bisexual woman and you’re dating a man then you’re not really queer, that ‘real’ bisexuals only date people of a similar gender to their own. I can understand intellectually how nonsensical that is but part of me still believed it. I was still unlearning that internalised biphobia months after I stepped into my gender — even though I’d been dating (and giving head to) my non-binary partner for almost a year. 
If the penis in your mouth belongs to a non-binary person, it definitely counts as queer sex, right?
For Lucie, having sex with a woman was less about her thinking it would make her a more 'valid' queer person and more because she was scared she might be wrong about it: "I was worried I might just like the idea of queer sex and not actually having it." Whenever she goes through a phase of being more into men than women, she goes back to worrying that she’s not queer ‘enough’ — even though she recognises that this is internalised biphobia and she’d never define someone else’s identity by who they’re having sex with. 
Dr Powell confirms that this is a common experience for non-monosexual people: "Especially for bisexual folks who have had either exclusively or predominantly different gender experiences, it feels like we’re never queer ‘enough’ for the queer communities." They explain that this gatekeeping comes from both inside and outside the LGBTQIA+ community, and it harms everybody. "It reduces the ability for fluidity; it reduces the permission for people to explore and expand their experiences of sexuality."

There's a false idea that if you're a bisexual woman and you're dating a man then you're not really queer, that 'real' bisexuals only date people of a similar gender to their own.

Once you include trans and non-binary people, the idea of needing to have had a ‘same sex’ experience to ‘prove’ that you’re queer falls apart further. If I were having sex with a cis woman, I would absolutely describe it as queer sex — but not every trans person would. Two people with penises having sex is a ‘same sex’ experience but then a straight cis man having sex with a straight trans woman would also technically be a ‘same sex’ experience. 
Similarly, me giving a cis man a blow job is an ‘opposite sex’ experience but it is definitely very gay. For me, it’s important that my partner knows it’s a queer experience and they’re not ‘rounding me down’ to a woman because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that they might be queer. I don’t want to define anyone else’s sexuality but internalised homophobia — and years of society telling us that queerness is wrong — stops people from even considering the possibility that they might be queer.  
What counts as queer sex is a question that we ask ourselves because we worry that we’re not queer ‘enough’ –— or that we’re more queer than we’re comfortable with. We use sex to validate our identities but we don’t need to. Queer sex has so long been demonised – criminalised, punished, deliberately compared to paedophilia — that in proudly reclaiming it we can fall into the trap of centring it. And in doing that, we erase queer people who are sex-repulsed, asexual, disabled or just not interested in sex right now.
Sex is important to many of us; it’s definitely important to me. On more than one first date, I’ve surprised the person sitting opposite me in a coffee shop by bringing up sex, because sexual compatibility is a dealbreaker for me. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has that experience. If you can’t have sex, or if you don’t want to have sex, you are still queer.
Since coming out as trans, Kara has embraced her queer identity as a political identity rather than a sexual one. "I'm getting way more involved in my queer community — more so now that I am out as trans — than I ever considered doing as an ace person, mostly because my identity is very much political now in a way that asexuality is not."
Dr Powell agrees that for them, queerness is a political identity – inside and outside of sex. It’s about the ‘whys’ of what they’re doing, not the actions themselves. They add that queer labels, in particular, are meant to be used in a descriptive, not prescriptive, fashion: "They’re not meant to tell you what you get to do or what you have to do, they’re meant to help you describe your internal experience so you can talk about it with others."
Did coming out as trans make my love of giving blow jobs more queer? Of course it didn’t, but it did make me realise how queer my sex has always been. My sex is queer because of the way I approach it: with lots of talking before, during and after, and doing it on my terms rather than those dictated by society. And it’s not just sex I approach that way but my relationships, my gender and every other aspect of my life. 

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