Friday, March 25, 2016

Labels: Soup cans and Sexuality

There has been so much written, tweeted, blogged and posted about romantic tropes and how they affect people of various sexualities and identities.  I have heard people vehemently defend the tropes they love and write, while others express their feelings of hurt and erasure by the lack of reflection of their own identities.

I've written about my feelings on GFY/OFY story tropes, but something that has come from this debate that still lingers with me is the way we talk about sexual labels.

When I pick up a can of Campbell's Tomato Soup, the label is pretty clear and straight forward.  I mix it with water (or milk, if I'm being indulgent- which I usually am) and it's the same every time I grab for a can.  Human sexuality and identities are not that simple.

One of the best posts I read about the discussion of GFY pointed out that we don't necessarily mean the same thing when we are using this term.   Jamie Fessenden wrote a very thoughtful post about the use of GFY in Slashfiction,  gay porn, and the romantic trope of a person discovering their sexuality.  (here)  In all three of these, people have very different interactions with their sexuality, and the one area I think we are still running into trouble is when we label someone else's sexuality based on what makes us comfortable.  Another area where we are using the same word but don't necessarily mean the same thing is when we use any sexual labels, but especially the term bisexuality.

In the midst of the many discussions one author posted a reply to a reader and asserted that anyone who ever has had sex with someone of the opposite sex, and now has sex with someone of the same sex is definitely bisexual, and to not admit this is a form of bisexual erasure.

I replied that I found that an absurd assertion to make, and reminded her that many, many queer people discover their sexuality after having opposite sex relationships, but they may not identify as bisexual.  (Consequently she refused to address this, and blocked me after calling me deliberately obtuse- which I find an ironic way of dealing with concerns over silencing queer voices, but I digress...)

Over and over again I kept returning to this idea of naming someone else's sexuality, and the complex and varied ways that we each approach our own sexuality.  Many young people experience homosexual attractions or explore same sex experimentation before deciding they are heterosexual.  Does that mean they are not correct in their identity?  A friend of mine was married to a man and had two children before she came out as a lesbian.  Does that mean she is not a lesbian?  I had a boyfriend in 8th grade, but I broke up with him when he asked to kiss me, and then came out as a lesbian in my late teen years.  Am I a lesbian?  I love to look at pretty boys, and even watch them do very naughty things, but I haven't engaged in relationships with any men.  I use the term lesbian or queer for myself, but sometimes I prefer one over the other, and sometimes I don't care which one I pick from the air. 

Sexuality, like gender for some, is fluid.  There are a myriad of sexual identities and gender identities, and I sometimes feel like Eddie Izzard when I learn a knew one (Do you have a flagggg?)  In the end, I think its only a movement in the right direction that people are more free to explore these identities and to find commonality with other people.  For some of us, once we find these identities we claim on and own it day in and day out.  One of my friends came out at 10 and has identified as gay ever since. Despite my love of looking at boys, I call myself a lesbian, and probably will until I get an old dyke haircut and maybe a motorcycle and ride off into the big queer sunset.

For some people their sexuality changes.  Most queers identified as straight at some point in their lives, whether to fit in with society or because they didn't have the ability to explore their sexuality.  Some people meet another person who sweeps them off of their feet.  

I have loved seeing the romance genre diversify over the past few years.  We are seeing characters with mental health issues, physical health challenges, autism, and more.  MM romance books are just filled with pretty white boys, and several authors have even explored asexuality and more.  Though there is always more than can be done, I think these are great steps in the right direction.  I hope we see more characters who have fluid sexual and gender identities, and I hope that we keep up the dialogues around how we label our stories, and who feels let in and who feels left out.  

In the midst of these advancements, what we have to be careful of is not labeling each other's sexuality.  If you are talking to a real queer person, ask them if they have a term they'd prefer you to use.  (Even as I type this I recall a recent set of posts on the word queer, and Kade Boehme pointing out how hurtful that word is in the Bible Belt, so ask before you use that word too!) Just like we ask trans people their PGPs (preferred gender pronouns) we need to listen to the labels people use for themselves and not label them based on our own comfort.  When a lesbian friend of mine began dating a man I asked her what she wanted to be referred to as for her sexual identity.  She told me she would always consider herself a lesbian, since that was where her primary attraction laid.  I don't have to get it to respect it, and I am not the lesbian police.  

When I tried to explain this the author who posted the piece above, she replied with a definition of bisexuality from an online dictionary.  I tried to explain to her that we are more complex than Merriam Webster (its why they add words each year!) and in order to have these discussions we have to start from a place of respect.

You know who is the best decider on someone's sexuality or gender?  They are.  Every time.

I also read an awesome post by a gay man who slept with a lesbian, and I loved the open way it explores love, attraction and identity.  I'll post the link here because it does a better job than I could in explaining how awesome identities are, and how labels can be on soup cans, and they can be on sexualities, but we can't police them for each other.

(Thanks to Jay Nortcotte for sharing the link)

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