I’ve identified as queer for about five years. After a process of reckoning much the same as many other coming out stories of the kind—though in my own fortunate case, my own terror was a far greater impediment than the actual reactions of those closest to me—I was able to come to terms with and find joy in an identity that finally, finally seemed to suit me. That is not a new story.
I know that recently there has been some question about the need for “labeling,” and when more celebrities than ever (though the broad declarations of “phenomenon” or “wave” hardly make for an accurate depiction of the reality) have come out with statements along the lines of an openness to love anyone, not explicitly naming a sexuality but suggesting that it doesn’t matter. I don’t think I am alone in having found this, at turns, frustrating: I would myself prefer to live in a world where differences in sexual orientation had no impact upon the way in which we lead our lives, and, ideally, one’s gender would have no affect on the validity of one’s love, but this is not the world in which we live. And to claim a kind of “sexuality blindness” is problematic in a way that bears similarity to the problematic nature of “colorblindness”—it dismisses the very real, institutional, systemic prejudice that occurs against very real people.
No, in an ideal world, specific kinds of attraction would affect no one negatively; there would be more space to fall in love with someone outside the confinement heteronormativity presents and without the repercussions. But saying it doesn’t matter very simply isn’t true—and it only works to erase the courage of the people who come out again and again and again, sometimes publicly and sometimes privately, and sometimes even when it puts their lives in danger.
I say this because I want to be clear that my aim in articulating the struggles I’ve recently faced with my own identity do not erase the fact that sexual orientation—and the stigma around it—exists in a very real, very tangible way, and is very important (and rightly so) to an enormous number of people.
Still, the last three years have features gender studies classes that, overtime, have taken have brought me into conflict with a supposedly stable notion of sexuality. The fact is that our so-called “stable” notion of gender is all—or at the very least, largely—a matter of construction. Gender is of course a lived experience, engrained in each person nearly since the moment of birth—but different cultures have approached gender very differently, and while ours only accounts for two “opposite” genders (each requiring a certain kind of maintenance, as simple as shaving or make-up or what clothes to wear), other cultures have accounted for three, four, and even sixteen different genders.
Many trans* bodies expose this constructedness for what it is, and in doing so force a new perception of what it means to be “gendered”—and since I do agree that gender is a matter of construction, and a matter of performance (one in which the actors often are unable to see the stage upon which they stand, which is exactly the point), I have lately struggled with the question of my own identity. How can I identify as someone who “likes girls” when I do not trust the stability of the very definition of “girl”?
Yes, in our society “girl” and “boy” conjure very different images, though the reality, even within our particularly gendered ideology, is not without blurred lines. But it is both incredibly outdated and transphobic to assume that we should identify “girl” and “boy” with particular reproductive organs, and though “girl” and “boy” have both become a lived reality, I have no interest in seeking to naturalize these performances any further.
In a world when gender is so often considered “stable” within mainstream culture—and widely unequal, still—I fear that by establishing an identity for myself which qualifies a certain gender I will only be further sedimenting this idea. How can I profess to like “only girls” when—except as a way of functioning in society, admittedly a very big except—the gender binary does not “really” exist as a necessary way of dividing gender? I have come to wonder if the quality of “being gay” does not only make these supposed lines more rigid, more fervent, more “real.” And as someone who would like more than anything to reveal the constructedness—and the absurdity—of gender, does “gay” not simply reinforce that?
I do not anticipate living in a world devoid of gender in anything like the near future—real as it may not actually be, it is certainly a very real experience, and it has become in many ways the backbone of our ability to function as a culture, and even, in many cases, on a global scale. I do not anticipate their being a word to describe this, nor can I really even conceive of what it would be like. I understand the very real world purpose it serves. But in a world where gender is so policed, I wish I could fathom an identity that did not simply add more space between two opposites that were never very different to begin with.