I’m in a gay relationship, and in a somewhat public one at that. Not only do all of my friends and family know about my boyfriend, but he and I also document our relationship online across multiple platforms. Thus, it’s only natural that I get asked questions on a pretty regular basis. It’s simply part of being out in a conservative state and across the Internet.
When it comes to these questions, they tend to follow a pretty regular pattern, and that’s fine. However, there’s one conversation I’m forced to have constantly, and it usually starts like this:
“So when did you first realize that you were gay?”
“Well, if you want to get technical, I’m bi … ”
“Yeah. I mean, I’m in a committed gay relationship, but I’m technically bisexual.”
The conversation can take off in a number of different directions from there. At worst, I’ll be forced to justify and explain why bisexuality even exists (and living in the South, that’s all too common). At best, I’ll launch into a more philosophical discussion about how we even define bisexuality in the first place. Is it marked by desire or action? Does it include just cisgender people, or is there some wiggle room? What’s to say that you’re not pansexual or omnisexual or… some other classification I have yet to come across? More often than not, the conversation will end the same way: “Call it what you want, but I’m currently in a committed, loving, happy relationship with another man. If anything, I’m Will-sexual” (Will is my boyfriend’s name, if you couldn’t already tell).
This is my experience. I’m bi — someone who is at least included in the most basic of LGBT acronyms. I can only imagine how exhausting it might be for someone who actually does identify as pansexual or polysexual or omnisexual or two-spirit… or anyone else who doesn’t fit perfectly into the gay/straight binary. Too often do I find myself resigning and simply identifying as gay, since it tends to be much easier than constantly having to explain myself. As an LGBT vlogger/blogger, I pretty regularly stumble across categories that I have to Google. I even sometimes jokingly refer to myself as part of the LGBT-EFGHIJKLMNOP movement.
It’s not that I mind including people in the group. Hell, I love the fact that the LGBT etc. community is one that literally anyone can join if they so desire. But too often do I get detailed emails from kids asking me how they should identify. Too often do I find myself scratching my head at what proper classification to use in a given situation. Too often do I hear self-identified gays whine about how “we’d already have our rights by now if we didn’t have to drag so many other people along with us.”
Let me pose this question: Exactly how does this adherence to labels benefit anyone? I realize that we sometimes have boxes that need to be checked and signs that need to be lettered, but at what point does the urge to delineate and classify do more harm than good? It’s bad enough having to discuss and debate precisely where to draw the lines for each category. After all, pretty much every self-identified gay man I’ve met has at least one woman whom they would theoretically sleep with.
So, do I have to actually sleep with someone who is trans or intersex to be considered “pansexual” (or “omnisexual” — I’m not sure if there’s a difference)? Or can I just be attracted to them in theory? Is recognizing their attractiveness enough? Or do I actually have to pop a boner? Do we draw the line just at physical attraction, or does romantic interest also enter into the equation? It’s exhausting, and this is coming from me, someone who considers himself a part of the “group.” Imagine how intimidating it must be for someone sitting on the outside. Or what about the young high schooler who is just discovering their sexuality but has yet to actually explore it physically?
We all know that human sexuality does not fit neatly into two categories, or three, or even five, apparently. Alfred Kinsey gave at least seven, and those categories were still based on the concept that gender is an established and defined binary (which we know it’s not). Again, even if we were to somehow manage to create a classification system that accurately spans the breadth of human sexuality, that still doesn’t solve the problem of how one determines their proper “label.”
I have a friend who identified as bisexual while in high school, since they experimented a tad with both genders. Then, later on, my friend determined that they were straight, and haven’t done any sort of same-sex experimentation since. Does the term “straight” still apply? Or is the same-sex threshold something you can never uncross?
Don’t get me wrong, wearing an LGBT label does have its benefits. It helps establish the collective identity and culture, and helps us be more organized and visible. Hell, the whole “coming out” process, one that’s seen as a crucial rite of passage among our ranks, is pretty much about picking the label that best suits you as a person and then putting it on display for all to see. But with that comes the flip side: One person’s badge of pride is another person’s target. Despite our best intentions, terms like “gay” and “lesbian” and so on can also become insults if slung with enough hatred behind them, thus adding more pressure and anxiety to those looking for a label to wear. How many times have we seen or heard about, for instance, a guy who regularly hooks up with other men but has trouble being labeled as “gay”?
Perhaps we should all borrow from our friends in the trans community. Specifically, how they represent the concept of gender. They teach us that “male” and “female” are not as much labels as they are polarities. Sure, most of the population tends to gravitate toward one direction or another (be it the same as your biological sex or not), but gender is still a spectrum. There’s male identity on one side, female on the other, and an infinite number of possibilities in between. Furthermore, every person, whether intending to or not, opts into this spectrum whether intentionally or not. And even if a person gravitates to one end of the spectrum, it doesn’t mean there aren’t aspects to their personality that are both masculine and feminine. I argue that we need to take a similar approach to sexuality. On the one side, we have “straight.” On the other, we have “gay.” In between are an infinite number of possibilities, and every person opts into this spectrum whether intentionally or not (even asexual people can still get attached). I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the show 30 Rock. An older former broadcaster is walking through the halls at NBC, reminiscing about the old days when “if you wanted to do something private with another man, it wasn’t ‘gay.’ It was just two men who were just celebrating each other’s strength.”
Like I said, signs still need to be lettered, and rallies/parades/festivals still need to take place. That said, why not, instead of perpetually adding letters to our acronym, just get behind a single term that we can all wear proudly? “Queer” perhaps? I’ll leave it up to the powers-that-be to choose a term that satisfies everyone. This not only alleviates the headache of trying to classify something that, by nature, defies classification, but also creates the possibility of including even more people. If sexuality is something that we all participate in, then we can all embrace it and be proud of it. Hetero, homo, bi, tri, omni, pan, poly … we’re all sexual. We’re all human beings looking to connect with others on a physical and emotional level.
I realize that I sound like a hippie, but humor me nonetheless. I still go back to the same question: Exactly how does adherence to labels benefit anyone?
Sure, classifying things makes them easier to understand, and it’s a natural human tendency to want to simplify things to make them easier to comprehend. But is that a behavior that we want to encourage? We already place people into plenty of other boxes based on race, ethnicity, education, income, political affiliation (another example of a less than stable binary). We even create boxes based on our tastes in music and movies and so on (Team Edward or Team Jacob? Are you a Belieber? A Directioner? A Little Monster?). Do we really need to add another? As it stands, none of these labels, including those of sexuality and gender, come close to reflecting the deep complexity that is a human being.
Instead, I say we encourage people to just do as they please, and leave labels for the fashion designers and the spice rack.