It’s currently Vancouver Pride weekend here, and that’s as good a time as any for self-reflection, especially with regards to self-identity and orientation. This article is entirely about me and how I see myself with regards to the LGBTQ labels, and no opinion about how I do (or do not) see other people should be inferred.
Moreover, this article deals with my sex-life, so if that’s not something you’re interested in stop reading here.
I’ve never self-identified as ‘straight’, but I’ve never self-identified as anything. To be frank, the whole concept of self-identity confuses me. At the risk of sounding terribly post-modern (in the negative sense), I’ve a real difficulty understanding socially constructed concepts being superimposed upon physical phenomena.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about this. Back in Ireland, I knew several gay men. At least during my generation, it didn’t seem to be an issue, though that must also be seen in the context of ‘gay’ being used as a general pejorative: clearly being ‘gay’ was seen as a negative thing, and yet the people who I knew were gay didn’t seem to be mistreated because of it. But I’m not ignorant enough to presume that if I don’t see something that it doesn’t happen….
US TV, as always, drove a lot of my thoughts on this. US culture seemed to have a very firm view about being gay and how society should react to someone identifying as such (i.e. violently), and I’ve seen that culture generally shift, at a glacial pace, through the ’80s and onwards. As much as people in the US seem to deny it, being publicly LGBTQ in the US seems to be a very dangerous thing.
I’ve read a lot about being LGBTQ, and I largely don’t know what it means to identify as any of those labels. I’ve had conversations with people who identify as those labels, and generally walked away from them as confused as when I started.
If we think about straight or gay in terms of ‘love’, I don’t believe that I’m gay (or bi). If we were to say that these terms label you insofar as you primarily fall in love with one particular gender over another, then I’m far closer to straight than bi. But I’ve met some beautiful feminine men with whom I feel I could probably fall in love, given time and opportunity. And I don’t mean people who are trans, I mean cisgender men who perhaps cross-dress, and act ‘feminine’ when doing so. Does the existence of a small number of men who possess characteristics I find attractive mean that I’m bi as opposed to straight?
If we talk about these terms in terms of ‘sex’, I’m probably closer to bi than if we talk about love, as sharing a bed with someone certainly doesn’t require the same depth of passion as falling in love, and I’d certainly be a lot more flexible in that regard. But here I feel that I’d be ‘taking away’ from people who are “really bi”, as it seems to me that being flexible about whose genitals/hands are going where contrasts with the image I’ve been given about what it means to be bi. Perhaps ‘pansexual’ would be a better description of me, but it doesn’t feel like something I can ‘identify’ with.
If we were to talk about how people perceive me, then I think I’m very clearly ‘straight’. But that doesn’t seem to be appropriate to take as an identity, as it’s merely a perception. I largely keep my sex life private (I’m fairly certain that most people who know me, even well, are unaware of the men that I’ve been with), but a lack of knowledge about my sex life does not mean that my sex life does not exist. Moreover, behaviours are not ‘straight’ or ‘gay’, so how people perceive me doesn’t seem at all relevant to this discussion.
I’m certainly male-bodied, but I have very little idea of what it is to ‘be a man’, or to ‘be a male human’. I certainly see certain cultural definitions of what it is to be a man, but they seem so obviously contrived that I just don’t understand how anyone can enforce those norms with any seriousness (and yet, yes, they do). Gender is, like money and music, very obviously a social construct. This doesn’t mean that it’s ‘not real’ (money and music are both very real, I think we can all agree), but the definition of gender seems much less fixed, and far more ephemeral. I think that if I were to identify as ‘trans’, I would be stepping into a space in which I do not fit, and (again) I would be taking away from those who experience life in a way that I do not. Is one cisgender by default? Is one cisgender unless/until one feels that ones physical body contrasts with ones self-identity? If so, then that firmly makes me cisgender. While I certainly don’t understand what it means to ‘be a male/man’, I feel no discomfort ‘in my own skin’, so to speak, nor when people label me as such.
The term that confuses me the most, I must admit, is ‘queer’. Its use in academic communities runs quite at odds with how I see people around me using it (as is often the case with any word that is used both academically and in the vernacular). Because of my confusion regarding all of the other terms listed above, and not exactly sitting comfortably with ‘heterosexual’ or ‘straight’, I thought that ‘queer’ might fit my experience. But I’m not a radical (in any sense, really), nor do I feel any of the things that people who self-identify as queer express when they talk about ‘being queer’, so again it would seem to be inappropriate/inaccurate for me to claim that label.
I have had sex with women, and with men. I have had sex with feminine people, and with masculine people. I have had sex with trans men and trans women. Many of those have been good experiences, and fun for all (I hope). I have no general objections to engaging in any of those again in the future, and I certainly hope to be involved in an emotionally fulfilling relationship in the future, but I’m not committed to that relationship being with a specific gender: it’ll happen when it happens.
I think that a final way to define oneself is to ask: if I lived in a society where being anything but heterosexual is dangerous, would I be in danger? I think that the answer to that question is clearly ‘yes’, that in certain parts of the world (like many parts of the US) my life would be at risk, if my sex life were public knowledge. On that definition I’m not heterosexual, but again that definition seems to hinge on perception and social stigma, rather than on something about me. A counter to that would be that since gender and orientation are socially constructed, one cannot discuss either without the context of a surrounding culture. Ergo perception matters.
Ultimately, I think that all of the above ideas hinge on the notion of ‘essentialism’, that there is something at my core that defines me in these terms, and I simply can’t get my head around that idea (for reasons I’m not going into here). I also want to be careful of claiming the label of a minority group without some reasonable level of certain/justification that it applies to me.
Why write this? Why make it public?
I think all these ideas we have about straightness/LGBTQIA are confusing, and I think that it’s ok to be confused. I think that there’s far too much public certainty about these ideas, and that expressing confusion about these issues seems shameful because it’s assumed we should be certain about these things.
I think it should be clear from all of the above that I am quite profoundly confused by all of this, but not because I’ve never spent any time thinking about it. Moreover, that I think that these things are confusing does not mean that I think they are silly or unimportant. Quite the opposite: I think our social interactions are immensely complex, and fluid, and the confusion stems from all of that, that our labels are moving targets that are not clearly defined.
However, so long as cisgender straightness (heteronomativity) is mainstream in our various cultures, these other concepts must also be held up as also existing, such that people who aren’t naturally at ease with cisgender straightness aren’t left feeling that they and they alone exist in a world that doesn’t want to understand them.
So I guess I just wanted to add my voice to this conversation, on Vancouver Pride, 2016.