The writer is a student at the University of Cambridge. In her piece, she interrogates the efficacy of labels that have come to dominate discussions of sexuality in the West.
As a woman who has had relationships with both men and women, I am not straight. But neither am I queer. This is not a case of internalised homophobia or confused hypocrisy. I simply find the term personally obsolete – and I know I’m not the only one. But what does it mean to engage in same-sex relations while not relating to the notion of ‘being queer?’
Having toyed with every label under the sun from the age of thirteen to make sense of my attraction to men and women, I’ve recently found more solace in halting this search completely. At fourteen I thought I might be demi-sexual, at eighteen it was firmly bisexual. In times of crisis, questioning the value of attraction to men, I thought I might be fully homosexual. Starting university just over two years ago, I tried desperately to fit in with a group of out-and-proud gays, lesbians, bisexuals and pansexuals, but slowly I began to question my place in this group. Why could I not find pride in this part of my identity like they did? It wasn’t because I felt it was something to be ashamed of, but rather it was something I didn’t find to be particularly exceptional at all. The term bisexual would, on paper, seem to describe me best, but when I ‘came out’ as bisexual to my close friends three years ago it felt insincere. As much as being attracted to women is a part of who I am, there is a gap between myself and the idea of ‘queer’ that cannot be bridged, and attempts to do so while growing up have only served to confuse and frustrate me.
Sexuality has not been a ‘fixed’ category of identification throughout history. Take, for example, the Ancient Greeks. It’s not uncommon that many of their contemporary defenders will point to their shining record on gay tolerance. But how accurate is this perception? For the Ancient Greeks, male same-sex relations weren’t considered ‘gay’ or homosexual in any sense, as these categories were non-existent. Instead, what was at issue were power dynamics and the moderation of pleasure, whereby a particular emphasis was placed on the roles and freedoms accorded to each type of person. An elite male who was considered a citizen of the polis had higher status than his slaves, and so this power imbalance meant it was acceptable for him to have sexual relations with them – whether the slaves were male or not. On the other hand, if a male citizen were to have sexual relations with a younger boy who was not yet considered an adult but was on his way to becoming a citizen, this was considered morally fraught. The younger elite male was seen as being corrupted and risked being fixed in an enduring subordinate position inappropriate for a person of his status.
This contestation surrounding the category of sexuality is, however, not strictly limited to the history books. Being classed as ‘gay’ is highly disputed throughout the world, and is not nearly as clear-cut as many would like to think it is – both in the ‘West,’ and outside of it. In the Islamic world, for example, there was no such thing as a ‘gay’ person. There were only people who would engage in certain acts, such as anal sex, which were in themselves prohibited. Those who engaged in such practises, however, were not classed as ‘gay.’ From the perspective of others, they were merely people who engaged in a taboo sexual practice that was prohibited in scripture and in law. In the West, a similar phenomenon is discernible. Laws against sodomy historically prohibited anal sex and were developed to criminalise something people do, rather than something they are in their nature. In the West, one’s sexual inclinations have come to be intertwined with a notion of one’s ‘inner truth,’ meaning that someone who engages in same-sex relations becomes gay – gayness is formulated as an immutable quality within them. This shift from doing to being has allowed for the growth of LGBT+ communities as well as the gradual increase of social acceptance – if one is gay, then they cannot simply stop engaging in same-sex practises, and any suggestions otherwise are rightly oppressive. This conceptualisation of ‘gayness’ as a socio-political identity is clearly historically situated, and attempts to transpose it onto other places is problematic. Moreover, it is shows that the way we understand what it means to ‘be gay’ in the West perhaps can and should be interrogated rather than being simply assumed as fixed and unchangeable.
In the West, one’s sexual inclinations have come to be intertwined with a notion of one’s ‘inner truth,’ meaning that someone who engages in same-sex relations becomes gay – gayness is formulated as an immutable quality within them.
read by voice actor
By understanding and utilising this lens, we can better understand how discourses of homosexuality may differ from what we take for granted in the UK. But what about in places which do generally adopt the discourse of homosexuality and heterosexuality? In many industrialised Western nations, the same notion of power dynamics remains as central as it was with the Ancient Greeks. The trope of giving it rather than taking it in male same-sex relations is common in media. Questions of active versus passive and dominant versus subordinate are central in determining what ‘counts’ as gay or otherwise.
To be able to completely reject any label I feel doesn’t quite ‘fit’ and to go about my life having relationships with anyone I want comes undoubtedly from a position of privilege. The UK, all in all, is a good place to be gay. Incidences of homophobia are not uncommon, yet perceptions of and treatment towards ‘queer’ people have improved greatly over the past century. In fact, a recent survey by YouGov showed that amongst 18-24-year-olds, 49% even identify as something other than completely heterosexual, suggesting that the youth are increasingly ‘flexible’ in their sexualities, or are at least more open to admitting it. With such a substantial contingent of young people freely abandoning a heterosexual identity, I can comfortably explore the possibilities of a sexuality beyond labels, reassured by the fact that the majority of my peers will accept me. Nevertheless, I am aware that this is not the case for a lot of people for whom labels such as gay, lesbian, queer provide a lifeline. My point is not that we should abolish these terms, but that we should make room for those who feel them unnecessary.
labels such as gay, lesbian, queer provide a lifeline.
This is not a proposal which I find to be fantastical or utopian, and with a strong enough commitment to acceptance, as well as open and honest communication within relationships, it is achievable. The alternative risks individuals being forced to pick a label that may conflict with how they conceive of intimacy. But this is more than just a risk. For many, it is a reality. Those who shirk labels are often perceived as going through a phase, or not actually being interested in individuals of the same-sex. Friends and family may feel lied to or betrayed because they struggle to understand the fluidity behind this way of feeling and being. The failure of the label is that it sets a limit on how, who, why and when you love. It makes you wonder if your so-called ‘queerness’ is enough to be acceptable, to be unquestioned. Where there is no alternative to the pre-set, presumptive bounds of the label, the only alternative is to lie. For myself, this newfound emphasis on fluidity and openness importantly allows room for transformation – in a few more years, I may find the category of ‘queer’ relevant once again. But for now, navigating the complexities of relationships are made that little bit easier once the pressure of having to define myself as a demarcated thing has dissolved.