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Saturday, November 21, 2009

"I don't want to sound like a queer or nothing..."

Kiran has written a Facebook piece about the pitfalls of identification with sexual labels. Since she refuses to have a blog of her own, I'll just have to post it here. :)

"I'm Not a Queer Or Nothing, But..."

Have you ever said, "I'm not gay, but..." or "I'm not bisexual, but..." as a disclaimer before expressing how much you are attracted to someone of the same gender as you?

If you are progressive, liberal, and you stand for LGBT rights, have you ever wondered why you need to give a disclaimer like that before expressing feelings that might qualify you as being bisexual?

I have.

First of all, as a bisexual woman (I prefer the term queer) who has been in relationships with both men and women, and who is in a happy, long-term relationship with a woman, I find it hurtful when some of my friends still qualify their own sexual desires for people of the same gender by first separating themselves from people like me. There's nothing wrong with being heterosexual, but there is something very wrong with being heterosexist, which is the idea that heterosexuality is the default, natural, normal thing to be, and that it's a black or white area with no variations.

If you are telling someone how you support gay rights, you don't need to keep qualifying that with "I'm not gay or nothing, but...". Similarly, if you are telling people that you are bi-curious, or attracted to someone of the same gender, then those of us who have put our lives on the line to be honest about sexuality, would appreciate it if you could stop talking about this matter like it's a hot potato that you are willing to support in passing, but not willing to own, even when you yourself have feelings that would qualify you as bisexual.

Some might say that labels don't matter. While I agree with that, I have to wonder why the label "straight" matters, while "bisexual" or "homosexual" or "queer" don't. If none of them matter, why label yourself anything at all? Saying "I'm straight, but I'd totally do that guy/girl" is tantamount to saying "I'm not a transvestite - I just love wearing women's clothes." The first part of the sentence is only there as long as the speaker is assuming that something is wrong with the second part. No matter how progressive the speaker might be, the disclaimer unmasks the fact that heterosexuality is still the norm in the speaker's mind.

Labels define us only insofar as they stand for the feelings we experience. When people say "I'm not bi, but...", they are deciding that one set of their feelings (feelings of attraction to a person of the same gender) are less valid than others. The "gay" feelings they might be feeling are less important, less defining than the "straight" ones. What does that say about their attitude, invisible as it might be to them, towards those of us who own up to our "gay" feelings and act on them daily? This separation of feelings into more important and less important colors the progressivism of the speaker: instead of expressing true unity with the people he or she is claiming to support, the speaker is now simply expressing condescending concern towards lesser beings for whom he/she feels pity, but one of whom he/she can not imagine actually being.

Society has given "straight" a higher status than every variation of sexuality, and calling yourself "straight" gives you the social status of one who is privileged. So, by denying your own bisexual feelings, and by constantly stating that you are *not* bisexual (or gay, or trans), even though you have feelings that "those" people have, you may be perpetuating the same heterosexism that you as a progressive, liberal person claim to be against. Heterosexism, like racism and classism, is the idea that one group of people ought to be privileged above everyone else. And many people, while they may have good intentions, are afraid of letting go of that privileged status in society. But then, how progressive are we if we're not willing to live up to the principles we claim to uphold?

We need to start being honest with ourselves. And we need to think about the words we use to communicate, because that's how people know each other, especially online. When you claim that you are yourself, of course, obviously, "straight" but that you have these little feelings that come up towards a certain person you know, or someone famous, who is the same gender as you, then what you are saying is that the label "straight" is more important to you than your feelings. And that your heterosexual feelings are what define you and are what are *real* and *important* and that your bisexual/homosexual side can be dismissed as something fun, but meaningless. That does not help LGBT rights, and that's not what I would expect of someone who otherwise supports LGBT rights.

This is not to say that all progressives have a duty to identify themselves as bisexual. We can all recognize that sexuality is much more fluid than the narrow labels used to describe it. Identifying as straight in the context of admitting attraction to a member of the same gender tells us much more about the speaker's prejudices against certain sexualities than it does about the speaker's sexuality itself. The moment you have sex with, desire for, or fantasies about a person of the same gender as you, you are no longer fitting into the heterosexual definition, and by forcing that definition upon your multi-faceted and fluid sexuality and denying your sexuality and the sexual diversity of many others like you, you are actually helping the status quo, the privileged heterosexism that is the domain of religious fundamentalism.

So, the next time you want to express your bisexual tendencies while simultaneously denying that part of yourself, please try and think about who you are supporting and who you are dismissing.