Would That Make Me Queer?
I’ll skip to the end, and the answer is I’m het in just about any meaningful sense, but the latest column from Asher Bauer at Carnal Nation should make pretty much all of us think about the utility and meaning of the labels that get applied to sexual orientations.
I’ve become a fan of Asher’s since he’s been writing at Carnal Nation. In his latest, he’s come out as queer. That might seem like a foregone conclusion for a man who was assigned female at birth and has since transitioning identified as a gay man. Actually, it’s anything but. Asher explains:
I believed that “gay” was a word that had meaning for me. I believed I knew what it meant, and, furthermore, that it was something I could be proud to stand for.
And now… I’m not so sure.
* * * *
What’s a fag to do when he finds himself attracted to somebody who is neither male nor female—socially, emotionally, mentally, or in any other of the ways that really count? I was having a hard enough time coming to terms with thinking girls are pretty (but rarely wanting to do more than look) while falling madly in lust and love with other men. Now I am turned on primarily by men and by those whose genders defy categorization. What does that make someone like me?
I have too much respect for the identities of my partners to cling to a label like “gay.” Even as a trans guy with a relatively simple gender, I have watched gay men panic at the threat which I supposedly present to their homosexuality. It’s irritating and a bit pathetic, like watching a straight closet case try to defend his heterosexuality and his desire to receive blow-jobs from men in the same breath. I have no desire to turn around and do the same thing to my more queerly-gendered partner, ignoring their identity by treating them as a gay man or a gay male relationship.
I’m sure as hell not bisexual. Bi is a word which implies the existence of only two genders. As such, it does not apply to me and is arguably dated. And declaring myself “pansexual” seems a trifle ambitious, as well as untrue, since I am hardly attracted to all genders. There are some people whose identity and presentation I simply do not find attractive or compatible with my own. I am the last person in the world who would claim to be gender-blind.
Asher’s not looking for a new term that means “I like genderqueer folks,” because people who reject the binary vary too widely to make that mean anything; they do and don’t perform certain gender cues in highly intentional ways such that it’s impossible (Asher says and I agree) to be attracted the whole category except by fetishizing gender nonconformity. And fetishization is the soulless consumerism of sexuality.
Some terms are very amorphous, and sometimes that is exactly what’s needed. Asher adopts “queer” publicly, for these reasons:
My final refuge to describe my orientation is the word “queer,” a word as non-gendered as it is emphatically non-heterosexual. It is a word that implies being unconventional, unconstrained, and bent in some unspecified way. It’s a word that gay boys, lesbian women, and pretty much anyone else who is not straight can share comfortably. It is also a term I resisted for a time. It seemed too politicized and maybe even a bit trendy. And it was far too vague. But, in time, I came to see that its lack of definition is part of its beauty. Like the identity “gender queer,” it is a term that can mean billions of different things, depending on the individual. Like “gender queer,” it challenges: ask me if you really want to know more.
[Emphasis in original.]
There’s a lot of weight on terms of sexual orientation. They bundle together at least four somewhat different aspects of a person: (1) sexual; (2) affectional or romantic; (3) cultural; and (4) political. (There may be other ways to typologizes this; I’d be interested to see if others break it down differently.)
The first two are often assumed to map each other, and they generally do, but not always exactly. For example, I know women who only feel romantic love for other women, but play with guys a fair amount. The sexual behavior is bi- or pan-sexual, but their hearts are lesbian. Conflating sexual and affectional orientation also erases some asexual folks, who have the ability and desire to love romantically, and often with a gender preference, but whose preferred mode of sexual interaction is none.
And that leaves out the BDSM-that-isn’t-sex stuff; lesbian women who will top men but not fuck them, gay men who occasionally bottom to women but not if the scene is sexual, etc. There’s a whole range from “it’s sex” to “it’s sexual but not sex” to “it’s sensual but not sexual” to “it has nothing to do with sex” within the BDSM community, and this is one of those areas where I just take people at their word about their experiences.
Obviously, too, there’s a whole set of expectations about gay culture, lesbian culture, etc., a narrative that’s in part imposed from the outside and in part generated by the communities themselves, but in either event does not even close to map only the sexual and/or affectional orientation of real people. Not every man who loves fashion has sex with men. Not every man who has sex with men can tell Manolos from Choos or even match a shirt to a pair of pants. Which doesn’t mean that the whole idea of “gay culture” is false; as one anthro prof said to me years ago, “they say, ‘ethnic groups have their own foods’, I say, ‘quiche lorraine.'”
Finally, sexual orientation words are political identities. When I say I’m het, I mean I have het privilege in every aspect of my life. “Gay,” “Lesbian”, “Bisexual,” “Pansexual” and lots of other terms bring with them a history of carving out a social space, describe a set of oppressions, define a group of people who are similarly situated in the political scrum, etc. But none of those things are completely congruent with any of the other stuff. Folks partnered with binary-identified, opposite sex partners — a bisexual woman and a het man, for example — may get het privilege some or most of the time, but being opposite sex partnered does not a het person make.
Most of us are not very good at accepting that sexual orientation is a matter of self-definition; we may be even less good at that than at accepting that gender identity is a matter of self-definition. I’ll cop to this completely — in fact, I’m far more accepting of people’s own stated gender than their stated orientation, in some circumstances. A guy tells me he’s a guy, that’s all I need to know. I don’t need to know his height, shoe size, genital anatomy, or medical history. But when Larry Craig or Ted Haggard tell me they’re straight, I don’t accept their self-definition. I think they’re full of shit. And I’m not the only one. Asher used the term “closet case,” a term the very existence of which presumes that there is a fact of the matter that can be different from what people say about themselves.
But, if we try to go whole hog with that, and come up with “objective” criteria for pigeonholing people by orientation, the enterprise is doomed from the start. I had a mutual JO with another guy; am I queer? I know some cis het guys would say that makes me gay, no matter how many female partners I’ve had. But then, I’m partnered with a cis woman and receive in every respect het privilege, so in the political reckoning, that’s just nonsense. (I bet in some quarters I could find people who would seriously argue that the definition turned on whether someone came, which I suppose makes sense in a culture that had an actual conversation about whether or not a President smoked but didn’t inhale.) All that that proves is that heterosexuality is modeled by a lot of folks as a club of the pure, and any deviation gets people kicked out — those folks would never argue that if Elton John got a handjob from a woman it would make him straight, and women’s sexual experiences with other women are not infrequently dismissed either as experimentation or exhibitionism.
I don’t have any easy policy prescription for where we ought to be headed in the way we talk about sexual orientation, except that what we all need is to understand how many different things we’re stuffing into all of these labels. Since our language lumps so many things under sexual orientation, we should accept that they are all a very approximate fit. The thing about “queer” is, it doesn’t purport to be anything but a loose fit, an umbrella term of dissent from the hegemonic mainstream in matters of sexual orientation.