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Gender Identity and Sexuality in “Smoking” by David Levithan Essay

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Updated: Mar 7th, 2022


An analysis of the poem “Smoking” by David Levithan reveals that one’s sexual orientation is distinct from one’s gender identity, yet society tends to mix these two concepts together. Cultures define gender identities, and this means that people who choose to interpret their gender unconventionally may be treated differently. It is essential to understand why this occurs.

How gender and sexual orientation differ in society

Traditionally, society has been particularly strict about gender roles assigned to men and women. Many assumed that attractions occurred between males and females respectively (Diamond, 48). However, according to the poem, being a man does not necessarily determine whether one is gay or straight.

The two boys in the poem love each other, but still regard themselves as males. They smoke ‘Marlboro’, which Americans regard as a classic male cigarette. They also dress and behave in a typical masculine way. Since society has classically assumed that one can link sexual orientation and gender, then many have assumed that individuals with gay preferences tend to have a mixed up gender identity.

In fact, some gay couples have conformed to these expectations by assigning typical feminine roles to one partner and typical masculine roles to the other partner. In this scenario, David falls in the former category while his lover Jed falls in the latter category. He explains that he preferred the vanilla scented smoke to other brands.

Jed was also the one who asked David out, and not the other way around. The author clearly identified with the less assertive role than the dominant one. It may be said that David took on this pseudo-female role as an attempt to reconcile tensions; they arose out of society’s definition of gender identity and sexual orientation.

The latter assumption comes from the notion that heterosexual relationships are normal while same sex relationships are not. However, some feminists and gay proponents believe that this assumption is wrong. They argue that one constructs gender, and this does not follow from one’s anatomy. Therefore, assuming that one’s biology determines one’s sexual preferences is erroneous. It is inaccurate to say that male and female biological traits will determine one’s behavior patterns.

This is because some individuals identify more with members of another gender, and thus adopt the role of the other gender. In the end, this may cause their sexual orientation to differ from the typical heterosexual one. For example, transsexuals tend to think of themselves as members of a gender that contrasts with their biological predisposition (Diamond 53).

A male transsexual will talk, dress, look and express himself as a woman because that is the gender role that he identifies with. As a result, such a person may find that he finds males attractive, and his sexual orientation may be homosexual. Transsexuals, therefore, illustrate that one’s physical traits do not determine one’s physical traits.

Such individuals are constantly trying to match their psychological gender with their sex. Unlike traditional approaches, this group of people illustrates that sex is secondary to gender. Initially people assumed that one’s sex determines one’s gender. However, in the case of transsexuals and homosexuals, gender is what matters the most. The gender that they identify with is not dependent on sex or biological traits.

In the poem, David explains that as he grew up, he never liked the things that typical boys liked. For instance, he never wanted to be a cowboy or do other things that they did. Consequently, his sex did not determine the gender roles that he chose. In fact, this is the reason why David seemed to be quite emotional (Levithan 12).

He explains how dreamy he felt when Jed asked him out for the first time; David even felt like crying. Many assume that women are emotional; in this instance, David did not fit into that mould. He is male, but expresses himself in a manner that people would translate as feminine. However, the poet does not take on all other feminine roles.

This teenage gay relationship challenges assumptions about gender and sexual orientation because neither of the two boys fits clearly into a definite understanding of gender. Feminist scholars assert that effeminate behavior among gay males is not as dominant as it is in transsexuals. In other instances, it may not even be possible to determine the differences between the two gay partners. The popular assumption of homosexual men as effeminate is unwise because some homosexuals may exhibit machismo-like traits (Diamond 50).

Gay men and women may choose to identify with any gender role. Lesbians can demonstrate masculine behavior or may opt to act feminine. Since individuals can fall into any of these categories without reference to their biological predispositions, then society needs to refrain from judging them.

Some relationships lack a dominant, masculine partner and a passive, feminine one. Such couples treat one another in more or less equal terms. Although this may not have been the case in David and Jed’s case, it is clear that their gender identities were not radically different from one another. David was not a dominant individual, but he still possessed other masculine behaviors.

Some individuals take on personas that are appropriate for heterosexual relationships. This may occur because of a hostile environment in school or at work. Such was the case for David and Jed. The two would not dare hold hands in public because this would offend other people’s sensibilities. However, they would assume a different identity in private circumstances. In many western societies, gay relationships are gaining a lot of acceptance.

Nonetheless, for adolescents who develop gender identities that differ from the norm, acceptance may be the last thing that happens to them. Such individuals may be ridiculed, bullied or mocked by others, and this could create psychological challenges. In the poem, David and Jed were distinctly aware of their different sexual orientation. They knew that this would not match their peer’s expectation of the male gender and how they relate sexually to others.

Consequently, they needed to disguise their differences from the rest of their schoolmates in order to gain acceptance. Sociologists note that people assign negative connotations to males who adopt female gender roles. For instance, some may call them ‘sissies’, ‘mammas boy’, ‘girlie-boy’, and many others.

This discrimination may result from the failure to understand the nature of sexual orientation. One must also understand its separateness from gender roles. Furthermore, some individuals think of gay relationships as a threat to their understanding of traditional gender roles. Looking at gender roles as socially constructed can lead to alterations in their perceptions. This can liberate people like David who must hide their true identities.


The poem “Smoking” provides powerful insights on gender identity and sexual orientations. David and Jed cannot express their love to one another because their society is yet to separate sex and gender roles. Since many individuals associate certain behaviors to certain sexes, people regard gay relationships as inappropriate because they defy these standards.

However, existence of transsexuals is proof of the fact that gender identity exists outside of one’s sex. Therefore, one’s sexual orientation should not be translated as a defiance of set sexual identities.

Works Cited

Diamond, Milton. “Sex and gender: same or different?” Feminism and psychology 10.1(2000): 46-54. Print.

Levithan, David. The Realm of Possibility. NY: Knop Books for Young Readers, 2006. Print.

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