Identities are tricky things. They can be used as a shorthand to tell people something about you (from the gender of your partner/s, to what sort of music you like), and they can be grappled with in coming to understand ourselves better as we grow and move through our lives. I’d like to try and use some of my own process and movement to talk about tensions and limitations of (sexual) identity, and how this can also be okay. This is a bit of a thought-dump, so I hope it’s navigable.
I came out to my friends and parents as gay when I was 18, and that was completely fine (a privilege that is informed by my position as middle class, white, and English). It was only later as I accrued more life experience (in both intimate relationships and intellectual ideas) that I was to turn attention to how I conceived of myself again.
Much of this experience relates to gender. Sexuality is both entwined with and separate from gender identity – who you go to bed with is not the same as who you go to bed as, yet if you’re attracted to say, exclusively girls, your gender is what is then used to position you as straight, or a lesbian. My experiences have forced me to confront often unspoken assumptions about what sexuality means for an individual. There’s an assumption that when we say ‘gay men’ we’re talking about cis gay men (because of cissexism), and thus whoever a gay man is interested in/sexual with is also cis. Far from it. By experiencing and acknowledging intimacy with trans gay people, gayness is decoupled from dominant assumptions that this means two people with the ‘same’ genitals.
Also, through deconstructing and questioning my own gender identity and attempting to negotiate feelings around the rejection of masculinity and manhood, identification with and as non-binary has become something I’ve increasingly positioned myself with. It’s important that we don’t assume that identification is as simple as putting oneself inside or outside of particular boxes – particularly when the labels on the boxes can have radically different meanings for different people. Therein lies something that attracts me to both non-binary and queer as identity categories – they position one within an umbrella LGBTQ+ discourse, without any rigid over-simplification of personal experience. They can tell people what you want them to know without having to have an existential crisis over the details of selfhood every time one outs oneself.
An important point though is how I found gay didn’t really work without erasing the complexities around my feelings of my gender. It also (for me) would potential disenfranchise the gender of my partner, who identified as male when we met, but does not now. Whilst there may (must?) be trans women out there with AMAB gay identified partners who don’t have a problem with the language their partner feels a resonance with to describe their sexuality, some will feel that this positions them as not ‘real’ women. As I don’t identify particularly as male, does that mean I would feel erased if I were to be involved with a guy who identified as gay? I don’t think so. Maybe this speaks to some internalised stuff about ‘not being non-binary enough’, but it would be far more important to me that they didn’t internalise essentialised notions of gender in articulating their sexuality (that ‘attraction to men’ makes assumptions about what a ‘male body’ is, or what gender expression ‘should’ be, etc.).
Further, if telling someone ‘I’m gay’ as someone read as male, this will result in people making an assumption about my partner’s gender, whether she’s there or not. Plus, we’re still together. I’m with a woman. So whether conceiving sexuality of who you’re sexual with, attracted to, in a relationship with, and then your own corresponding gender identity, I’ve royally muddied the waters on all of these fronts. In addition to all of that, over time I’ve felt a significant alienation from notions of a gay community – a social phenomenon that my experiences of have been very white (and racist), very male (and misogynistic), very cis (and transphobic), and very apolitical. Something I think is very important to acknowledge is that gay community is NOT homogeneous. In so far as my experiences have given me those associations, this is something that is obviously not inevitably symptomatic of all individual white cis gay men, or necessarily communities. If tensions with other individuals who share your identity label were all it took to result in disidentification, then identity would fragment apart into nothingness. Identity categories are inherently limited in grouping together people, when people comprise difference.
So if I was gay, but I no longer identify as such, that makes me an ‘ex-gay’ right? I say this very tongue in cheek, fully aware of the evangelical Christian undertones that the label ‘ex-gay’ is associated with, and how such a reading assumes both the possibility and success of conceptually repugnant and psychologically damaging ‘reparation therapy’. It’s slightly telling all on its own about how erasing society is in general that if not gay, we thus immediately leap to straight. Which I can at least confidently say I am not. I am queer – I cannot easily categorise the bodies, identities, appearances, or personalities of those I find attractive romantically or sexually. I can identify patterns, but such details don’t lend themselves well to identity labels. I’ve learnt not to worry about it any more.
What it means to ‘be gay’ is also undergoing social transmutation. Queer people (particularly in youth or internet subcultures) might use language such as ‘I’m hella gay’, in a way which resonates or communicates far more something queer than something rigidly, discretely homosexual. This echoes the historical phenomenon where before identities such as bisexual, pansexual, or even transgender were understood and demarcated, ‘gay’ itself was a catch-all term, but which erased people in a way that queer does not. The difference between this historical use of gay and of contemporary use of queer is how ideas of gender and sexuality have developed in the meantime and fed into community consciousnesses.
I do sometimes wish I had a simpler, easier experience of gender and sexuality, as it would make it easier to relate with certain parts of the world and to communicate. But I also think this is a trap. What I really wish is that I could tell anyone that I’m queer, and not worry about what they think that might mean, whether they’re okay with it, or whether I’m going to have to navigate various assumptions made about gender and orientation. Giving time to process the potential complexities of gender and sexuality can feel daunting, but it’s also incredibly important as it equips us all to be more respectful, and more understanding.