Playing with gender: Erotic expressions that break binaries

by Race Bannon

Julian A. Wolf, part of Max Woltman's portrait series on gender. photo: Max Woltman
Julian A. Wolf, part of Max Woltman's portrait series on gender. photo: Max Woltman  

Recently I received a random notification on my laptop to check out a new music video. It was the debut of the video for the song "I'm Ready" performed by Sam Smith and Demi Lovato.

Sam Smith, wearing a tank top, his skin glistening with sweat while sporting eyeliner, sung the opening lyrics entangled in the homoerotic grip of a fellow wrestler surrounded by other wrestlers. As Smith pinned his opponent, they came close to what was obviously a mutually desired kiss.

Cut to Smith crouched at the starting line of a racetrack wearing a large hat and flowing dress, accented with heavily made up eyes and red lipstick. Aside him, pushing off on to the track with him, are fellow runners, men dressed and made up somewhere along the range of genderfuck to drag, their dresses uplifted by the runner's wind in gay pride colors.


Sam Smith's music video for "I'm Ready."  

Now cut to two diving boards above a pool. On one stands a man in makeup and a corseted swimsuit. Demi Lovato stands on the other dressed in a tailored suit jacket and long skirt with a slicked down hairstyle.

Eventually more male swimmers wearing makeup and corsets appear. The more tailored, streamlined Lovato was an obvious counterpoint to the muscular, feminized swimmers.

Again, on screen appear the male wrestlers from the first scene but now wearing and dancing in platform high heels around Smith.

As the video ended, it struck me that all these gender cues had been mixed together in the course of a few erotically charged minutes in ways that would have shocked and dismayed many viewers not that long ago, but that now seem like simply part of the natural progression of our time.

This got me thinking about how the various permutations of LGBTQ sexual subcultures in which I navigate have begun to more openly embrace playing with gender. Whereas once upon a time seeing a man wearing heels while otherwise clad in full leather, or a woman presenting hyper-masculine in an erotic setting, would have been a jarring sight, now it's seen as yet one more way in which people express their erotic selves.

This past January, I was hanging out on a late Saturday night in the crowded lobby of the host hotel for Mid-Atlantic Leather in Washington, D.C. Nearby was a man in head-to-toe bright blue rubber wearing bright red high heels.

A buffed, bearded and hirsute man nearby was dressed in all the iconic garb you'd expect of a leatherman except he was tightly corseted with just a hint of lace showing. Another man's fetish attire would not have stood out except his eyes were painted with stark grey and black makeup.

These gender mavericks were not large in number. However, they were at a world-famous international leather event, an event founded entirely on men's sexualized fetish and kink. That they chose to use these gender non-conforming cues to present themselves amid such a gathering of their fellow kinksters —and that no one around them saw it as anything other than par for the kinky course— was notable.


Tober Brandt, a queer man, has no reservations about mixing the feminine and masculine to create a satisfying erotic look. photo: Gene Mar  

Shifting shapes
Bending and manipulating gender is not historically in my sexual wheelhouse. So, I put out a call to some friends and acquaintances asking if anyone would be willing to share their experiences playing with gender expression as part of their erotic lives. The response was overwhelming.

Immediately people came out of the woodwork to share with me and answer questions. I received so many volunteers that I told most of them I'd likely have to use their stories and feedback in the future because the volume was just too large to encapsulate in the confines of a single article.

One person who came forward was my friend Tober Brandt. In spite of a background in porn in which he was lusted after for his muscled and masculine appearance, Tober, who identifies as a queer man, is quite open about how he plays erotically with gender. He recounted a story about shopping at a fetish store with a lover.

"I had my shirt off, a black brassiere on, men's cargo army fatigues and was trying on a pair of black vinyl stiletto boots that went up to my knees over the fatigues. My lover as well as the saleswoman both looked at the finished look I had created and said, 'Damn. You not only look fucking amazing, but you look incredibly sexy.' That is how I use gender fluidity. I like showing that I can be masculine and erotic no matter what I am wearing."


KL Joy is a non-binary shape-shifter who enjoys erotically playing with gender. photo: HDGimage Photography  

KL Joy, who identifies as a non-binary shape shifter, commented on how they approach playing erotically with gender.

"I am queer and have always been open to all genders in personal relationships since I became sexually active. I've been with trans women and men, cis women and men as lovers — it's never been about the gender identity. It's always been about the connection for me. Sexual and erotic play was always something that started with negotiations and consent around what my lover's body liked and didn't like."

Julian A. Wolf identifies as genderqueer, resonating strongly with boy energy.

They have their own take on how they play erotically with gender.

"As a kinky switch, this comes up frequently. I enjoy wearing clothes that fit the role for the scene or play session. So, that can range from suits to leather or boy-shorts. As a masculine of center person, that's frequently where my default is — clothes that feel sexy and strong but let me move comfortably as I'm a fairly active top, or bottom for that matter.

"As a fetishist, sometimes things like fishnets, heels, or 'cross dressing' will come up with specific partners. As an example, wearing 'girl clothes,' and noting that clothing doesn't have a gender but I'm using these terms within the context of a play scene, is a 'naughty thing for a boy to do' and can be a very erotic role play with very few props or much acting. Outside of scenes, clothing selection and gender expression is neither naughty nor otherwise. It just is."

I find all of this monumentally fascinating. As our society shifts to better accept the equality of genders, or no gender, or fluid gender, our sexuality and erotic self-expression through gender understandably take the stage as part of the larger social discussion. If you fantasize about such play, you're clearly not alone.


Watch Sam Smith and Demi Lovato's "I'm Ready on YouTube

Race Bannon is a local author, blogger and activist. www.bannon.com

Resources Guide
The LGBTQ Leather, Kink and Sexuality Communities Resources Guide is a "living" document and will be updated ongoing as more information is made available. https://bit.ly/2Jpcxud


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