One of the things that often comes up in conversations about sexuality is that people don’t see why sexual orientation and identity has to be that big a deal in people’s lives. It’s an idea that frustrates me a bit, because most of the time that sort of comment will come from someone who actually means well, but has never actually had to think about their own identity before – so mostly heterosexual people.
I’ve talked a bit about labels before, and how not needing them is a privilege, not some sort of enlightenment. Here are some more thoughts on the matter.
It’s awfully easy to feel like other people rely too much on labels, and boxes, and categories of sexuality, when you’ve never had to question which of those you fit into. If you grow up heterosexual and stay heterosexual and never have to think about it (as many, many heterosexual people do), you’re incredibly lucky. That’s the nature of heterosexual privilege.
In a way, I can see why you’d think that all this boxing and categorising and finding words and terms for yourself that seem strange at first might seem confusing and beside the point. Because sexual orientation isn’t that big a deal, right? You’re gay or you’re straight or you’re ace, but really, we’re not that different from each other. Sexuality can be fluid, sexuality can be anywhere on a huge spectrum of attraction and identities. So why do people bother with all these labels and names? Why do some people make their sexual orientation such a huge part of their lives?
This sort of thinking is generally great, because it challenges the idea that the world is divided up into black-and-white binaries. But there’s a difference between recognising that all these spectra and scales exist, and in saying that people shouldn’t ‘limit’ themselves, or that categories should be abolished. That difference comes about through the real world/ideal world divide.
It’s like gender. We’d like to think that there isn’t a difference between men and women – that both are just complete constructs. Well, they are – at least if you subscribe to the Butlerian view. But the crucial difference in how we react to this idea is that some people only think of the ideal world situation – if gender is a construct, we don’t need women’s spaces, right? We don’t need affirmative action policies either, because there aren’t any actual differences between men and women! And all you trans* people, you’re just buying into the gender construct!
In the real world however, those constructs of gender still form a very tangible binary between men and women, and still dictate how people behave, what opportunities they are given, what place they hold in society. And when someone comes along who doesn’t fit into either narrowly-defined category, they are seen as radically different and challenging.
Sexual orientation is like that too. In an ideal world, recognising that sexuality is a spectrum, a fluid and shifting mass of identities, would mean that we don’t have to worry about any labels or words at all. Heterosexism wouldn’t exist, and everyone would be free to express their identity in whatever way they pleased.
But the world isn’t that ideal space. Heterosexism does exist as he default, assumed setting. Stereotypes of gay behaviour and character exist. Marginalisation and invisibility of sexual orientations exists. Although some people have moved past black-and-white thinking, on the whole our society still reifies the old “you must belong to one of these categories, and if you don’t, there is something wrong with you” idea.
This is why labels and boxes and categories are still so important, and for some people, it means that their sexual orientation will form the cornerstone of their identity. Labels and sexual identities are about control, about claiming and re-claiming agency over your own identity and saying to the world “yes, I exist like this, I can exist like this.” It’s a constant negotiation and of the power to assert who you are on your own terms, not on someone else’s. It’s taking the space you occupy on the margins and reclaiming is as the center (to paraphrase Toni Morrison on whiteness).
I know where people are coming from when they say that people shouldn’t have to label themselves, or to construct their identity in a way that places their sexual orientation at the forefront of their identity. Most of them genuinely mean well. But those ideas don’t always translate from ideal world into real world. And people need to remember that.