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The misconception that being trans is merely being gay, but turned Up to Eleven.
In Real Life, being gay and being transgender are entirely separate, as they relate to two different things. Being gay relates to sexual attraction, and means being attracted to others of the same gender. Being trans relates to gender identity, and means identifying as a different gender from one's assigned physical sex. This can be expressed (in a heavily oversimplified way) as being "a woman trapped in a man's body" or vice versa. However, this distinction is all too often overlooked by straight cisgender writers wanting to insert a little LGBT-ness into their stories.
The root of this confusion is probably the heteronormative cultural attitude that "boys like girls and girls like boys" as a rule, and anything else is an "unnatural" aberration. Faced with the existence of gay people, using this assumption some might think the two are linked: "Well, the only reason these boys like other boys is because they want to be girls". Similarly, in trying to understand transgender people, they might think "The only reason these boys want to be girls is because they like other boys."
Gay men and lesbian women still perceive themselves as being men and women respectively (and while a Camp Gay or Butch Lesbian may act according to the opposite gender’s stereotype, they don't identify as actually being the opposite gender). Not only that, but transgender people may have any sexual orientation. Because of this trope, transgender people who actually are gay often take perhaps a greater amount of flak from people ("Why can't you just be straight?") For example, a lesbian transwoman may be questioned why she can't simply live as a straight man.
Crossdressing raises similar issues. It occurs with members of all sexual orientations, and is actually statistically more common among straight people than gay people. When crossdressing occurs in fiction, however, it's frequently seen as a sign of homosexuality. The Drag Queen tradition probably contributes to this perception, as drag queens are typically gay men, but typically not transgender or crossdressers as such.
Trans Equals Gay is something of a cultural trope. In many cultures (e.g., South Africa, Phillipines), a feminine straight guy, or a masculine straight woman is perfectly acceptable.
- The husband and wife of Family Compo (with the wife being the husband and the man being the wife) are clearly pre-op (non-op?) transsexuals but are otherwise quite devoted to one another and very monogamous. Their daughter (or son.....even they don't seem to be sure) is still undecided in the transgender department (as ze likes to be one or other on a whim), but is apparently bisexual.
- All of the gay (Okama) characters in One Piece are drag queens. No exception. There are a few who are explicitly transgender like Iva, and one who seems to be gay but not transgender (Bon Clay who ends up being butch by the standards of Iva and the Okama Island characters) - but most of them seem to regard cross-dressing as something they have to do. They are also hideously and offensively bad at it, being ugly men who apparently have never heard of shaving regularly. This is especially odd as many of them are hanging out with Iva, who has the demonstrated ability to turn them into actual hot women with some kind of cloud of magic hormones. Ivankov has only used this once, as punishment on an annoying cisgender guy. Also on self. They inflicted serious trauma on Sanji by ceaselessly attempting to molest him in a hideous Thundering Herd.
- Bon Clay's crazy monologue in one of his early appearances invoked the idea that he was either bigendered or genderless. Given Oda's heavyhanded treatment of this trope, this received no real followup, but Iva sends mixed messages and Inazuma sends no clear gender messages. There are indications in Ivankov's dialogue that Oda considers 'okama' to be a third gender, a la premodern eunuchs. One whose primary purpose is Fan Disservice gags.
- Kamatari of Rurouni Kenshin is a (very convincing) crossdresser who is in love with his male boss, Shishio, but he's actually a fairly sympathetic character and undergoes a Heel Face Turn. Note that he is both gay and a Villainous Crossdresser, but not transgendered, and flashes Misao when misidentified as a woman; he seems to find her mistake and her reaction both hilarious, despite having the crossdressing skills of a kabuki onnagata (which it has been theorized he once was) and presumably convincing people on a regular basis.
- Appropriately, the one who came up with Kamatari was none other than Eiichiro Oda, of One Piece, who used to be Watsuki's assistant. Watsuki used him in a much more sensitive way than Oda probably intended.
- Nuriko of Fushigi Yuugi plays this straight at first, being infatuated with Emperor Hotohori, but later on admits he's attracted to Miaka as well. His crossdressing is also later explained as being a way for his dead sister to live through him, and he eventually stops doing it in order to better protect Miaka. It's not a good idea to bring this up with fans.
- Averted in Wandering Son, where the transgender characters are shown to be of various sexual orientations which don't relate to their identities; one of the crossdressers is gay, another (who is a female crossdresser) is apparently straight, the M-t-F protagonist is interested in girls (and has shown interest in boys at least once), and an older M-t-F has a boyfriend. Referred to in-story, where a few characters mock him and think he's a gay boy.
- But played straight by the Fan Dumb, some of whom are convinced that the two leads are gay, even though it's clear that they're trans.
- Averted again in Black Butler, Grell Sutcliff wishes she was born female and laments her inability to have a child, but may in fact be bisexual- while she makes frequent advances on male characters, she also declared once that she was in love with Madam Red.
- Fire Emblem in Tiger and Bunny shows some signs of this trope. He's very, very flamboyantly gay and likes referring to himself as a "girl." Subverted in that Word of God says he views himself as androgynous or more so both male and female.
- Averted in The Day of Revolution as the intersexed and transsexual protagonist proves to be just as confused about her sexuality as she is about her gender and it quickly becomes apparent that she decided to re-identify as female (to conform with her genetic sex) without even giving the matter any consideration. She may have been in denial or she may have just been a later bloomer.
- Parodied in Kinou Nani Tabeta?. Trying to be supportive of her gay son, Shirou's well-meaning but ignorant mother tries to educate herself on the subject of homosexuality. Unfortunately, she hasn't quite figured out the difference between transgender and gay, and thus spends an uncomfortable phone conversation with her son talking about how she just watched Transamerica and went to a meeting for parents with transgendered children.
- Averted in Ai no Shintairiku. Sara has a clear interest in boys, though the boys tend to question their sexuality when seeing her (her love interest eventually came to the conclusion she's a girl no matter what's under her clothes). Played straight by the Hatedom and Fan Dumb who label her a gay boy and the manga a Boys Love Genre manga.
- Averted in Claudine, where the titular character is interested in girls, but he also has huge issues in regards to his sexuality and it doesn't end well for him and everyone involved. But mind you, this manga was published in the 70s and it's one of the first manga (and Japanese media in general) to cover the issue of transgender. However this doesn't stop readers from seeing Claudine as a lesbian and calling this a Yuri Genre manga, despite him being a FtM transsexual.
- The opening scene of Boys Don't Cry, based on the life of Brandon Teena, is a gay male friend urging him to "just admit you're a dyke!"
- See Misaimed Fandom - Film, where some reviewers think Brandon Teena is a lesbian.
- Like the Law and Order example below, The X-Files: I Want to Believe had a gay doctor killing women to harvest parts to build a body for his husband's (still living) severed head. The fact that there weren't severe questions about this plan says something.
- There's a point in The World According To Garp where a Male-to-Female "Roberta" is criticized by feminist women for wanting to have a sex change operation. They insist she not have the surgery and just "be gay".
- In Eclipse, the Quilleute shapeshifters' discomfort with opposite genders sharing sexual attraction through their telepathy is characterized as gender confusion.
- In The Last Continent, the parody of Priscilla Queen of the Desert gets conflated with the Ecksian version of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
- Tobias in Arrested Development gets a few gags that play to this idea.
- Law and Order had an episode where some gay boy was killing women for their body parts so that he could build a female body for his boyfriend.
- Modern Family does this a lot when mentioning Mitchell's childhood.
- On Soap Jodie was one of the first (if not the first) explicitly gay characters on American TV. When we first saw him he was wearing a dress and wig, and talked with his mother about having used the toy shaving kit she gave him when he was little to shave his legs. Naturally he wanted to get a sex change so he could be with his boyfriend, a closeted pro football quarterback. When he was about to go under the knife his boyfriend broke up with him. After that his being gay was something of an Informed Attribute; he had more girlfriends during the show than a lot of straight guys do.
- In The Drew Carey Show this was averted with Drew's brother Steve, who was a heterosexual crossdresser. However, many people in the show assumed he was gay because of his cross-dressing.
- Kurt in Glee shows signs of this. He describes himself as an "honorary girl" and keeps trying to join the girls' group whenever there's a boys vs. girls competition, but gets frequently offended when other people draw attention to his feminine tendencies, and when they tried to case him as Frank in Rocky Horror.. This may have more to do with the fact that he was bullied by at least three of the guys on the show, but is friends with the girls; he also has similar taste in fashion and music, so it may be less about gender identity and more about comfort in their company.
- An Alternate Character Interpretation of Kurt is that he's actually F-t-M transgender. Seeing as he is more comfortable with the girls (female upbringing); bears a female second name (Elizabeth); and was shown as severely out of touch with his sexual side (which often happens with transgender individuals).
- In Friends, Chandler's father is referred to as gay, and is in drag every time he's on camera. Drag queens and transwomen aren't the same either, and it's made even more confusing by the casting, as Mr. Bing is played by a woman with a low voice.
- Degrassi explored this with the Fiona/Adam relationship. Fiona wasn't yet ready to admit her attraction to females to herself and saw Adam as a "best-of-both-worlds" boyfriend with a girl's body. Adam was unwilling to accept this.
- Molina in the (non-musical) stage version of Kiss of the Spider Woman constantly references being the wrong sex, but the distinction between homosexual and transgender is never addressed.
- Thomas in Deadly Premonition.
- The chef of Tres Bien in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is subject to this.
- El Goonish Shive: The author indicated in a non-canon piece that gay male character Justin would love being a girl so he could pick up guys. After receiving complaints, the author corrected this assumption in a follow-up piece and kept it from entering the comic's canon. Later on in the canon story Justin addresses the fact that he doesn't actually want to be a woman, even though it would make his life easier.
- Exploited Trope: Steve/Cherry from Footloose, a straight full-time (but male-identified) transvestite on the Magical Girl squad, is assumed to be gay by almost everyone from the start, and even plays along so he can watch the others dress.
- Played with in A Softer World, comic 389: No, I don't want to be a woman. What a stupid, misguided idea of homosexuality! I want you to be the woman. (I'll be the headmaster.)
- Trans Girl Diaries uses this in-universe as invoked by various transphobic characters.
- Skin Horse Tip is about as strong an aversion as you can get, being portrayed as a highly-successful lady's man despite never wearing men's clothes.
- Zigzagged when Quagmire reveals to Peter and Lois that his father is a transsexual, the two laugh hysterically that his father's gay even though the episode plays this trope both straight and inverted. (Quagmire argues that his new mother is actually a woman, therefore, she cannot be gay for being attracted to men.)
- Possible aversion: in Superjail, Alice is an MTF transsexual. In her Backstory, it's revealed that, at her old job, it was her love for the warden that led her to realize that she was transgender. However, the warden is revealed to be gay. Despite this, she doesn't regret becoming a woman, and her being a woman is treated as separate to her liking men.
- Played with in just about every possible way in South Park, with the character of Mr. Garrison, who ends up in every category of LGBT at some point, as well as opposition to it:
- Mr. Garrison (who is gay) gets a sex change. This upsets his partner Mr. Slave, who, also being gay, has no sexual interest in the now Mrs. Garrison.
- Later, Mrs. Garrison goes on a crusade against gays after being rejected by the still gay Mr. Slave because of being a woman.
- Still later, Mrs. Garrison determines that she is a lesbian after several unsuccessful dates/relationships with straight men.
- After all this, Mrs. Garrison gets another sex change after determining that looking like a woman didn't actually make him a woman.
- In an episode of The Venture Brothers, Hank believes Al to be transgender, who corrects him by telling him that although he is gay, he still has a normal "dingus."
- Picture above is from a photo project called "A Series of Questions" made to draw attention to questions that alienate transgender people.
- The general practice of referring to gay men as "her" along with other, less-savory names is most likely born of this trope.
- On the flipside, etiquette is to use the pronoun of the gender being presented, so any guy in drag is "she" and out of drag is "he", as seen on shows like Ru Paul's Drag Race, where competitors refer to themselves and each other as "she" while in drag and "he" out of it. This tends to add to the confusion, but it does prevent errors when an "obviously cross-dressing guy" turns out to be a transgender female.
- Transsexuals come from all walks of life, and some do dislike or hate gays, such as the real life inspiration for Brandon Teena above, and being called gay to them is a deep insult.
- The usage of "gay rights" to mean the same thing as "LGBT rights," automatically implies that bisexuality and the state of being transgender are both synonymous with being gay. There are some who do recognize that they aren't the same thing but do this for simplicity's sake, but unfortunately, some people who do this do indeed subscribe to this view.
- Also, other transsexuals are homosexual in their target gender, which tend to invoke confusion (and this trope!) in some people- usually in the form of a question such as " If you're "straight", why are you changing your sex? I know why gay people would do it, but you're supposed to be happy!"
- Eddie Izzard has sometimes dealt with the assumption that he's gay because of his cross-dressing stand up even though he identifies as heterosexual, and addresses this by saying that even though people tend to equate gay men and drag queens there's a bit of "a crowbar of separation."
- One result of this trope is that in Iran gay men are pressured to get sex change operations, since it's more acceptable in that culture to be transsexual than to be gay.
- Back in the 30s, Mae West protested cops assaulting gay protesters with "A homosexual is a woman in a man's body. You're hitting a woman!" Misinformed, yes, but her heart was in the right place.