Boxes and Boxes: why bother with orientation at all?

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.


4 thoughts on “Boxes and Boxes: why bother with orientation at all?

  1. A great post as always Jo. As someone who agrees with the “don’t see why sexual orientation and identity has to be a big deal” I would like to explain my reasons for this (in case they are the same reasons as others).

    Before I start: I do think if someone feels that identifying with a label helps them understand who they are better and maybe go some way towards feeling like they aren’t alone, by all means, I support and encourage that. I believe that feeling like I am part of a group who have something in common with me goes a long way towards feeling that the part of me I have in common with the group is accepted. I think I can safely assume the same principle applies regarding sexual orientation to those who are not heterosexual.

    The making it a big deal part that I don’t agree with is, unless either a) I am interested in pursuing some kind of ‘relationship’ (I use this term loosely) or b) the individual wants to share that aspect of themselves with me (a friend/family member perhaps) then I’m not all that interested in knowing someone’s sexual orientation. I liken this to the fact that I would be taken aback if I just met a person and they straight out asked whether I’m more attracted to men who are extroverted or introverted, tall and slim or short and muscly, blonde or brunette, for instance. Unless that person was trying to pursue some kind of ‘relationship’ with me, I would find that questioning weird, unnecessary and somewhat invasive. I’d probably find those questions weird even if a ‘relationship’ *was* being pursued, but I think I’d understand why they were asking them.

    So I let this apply to how I treat others. If I’m interested in a ‘relationship’, I hope a person would understand why I might ask their orientation. Although I would also be satisfied with a simple “no, I’m not interested” with no explanation.

    If I’m not interested, I see the question as unnecessary, invasive and should make absolutely no difference to the way I treat them. Yes, this regularly leads to awkward “I thought you knew I was gay, it’s really obvious?” type of situations. The answer is “Maybe I considered it a possibility, but you didn’t tell me yourself, so I didn’t assume, nor should your answer change anything so I don’t really care what it is.” Thus, labels = not a big deal. So if I am someone’s boss, or personal trainer, or teacher, business partner, etc sexual orientation should not be a big deal.

    Writing this has made me realise that perhaps heterosexual individuals use the “not a big deal” because they see treating sexual orientation as a big deal as the root of phobias and discrimination. Which we don’t want, so we go to the other extreme. I’d be interested to hear if others think this is why?

  2. Steph said something interesting there, about assumptions. Kudos to you if you’re beyond them.

    However, people make assumptions about others’ orientation all the time, and most of the time they assume other people are straight. I mean, first week into my new job I was asked how my menfolk at home were. I hadn’t gotten around to telling that particularly colleague that I was living alone, and she just assumed I had at least one guy (that is, a spouse and maybe a son) at home.

    It’s a kind of assumption that can be somewhat annoying, if you’re subjected to it on a regular basis.

    Also, some people get deeply uncomfortable when their assumptions are challenged, and maybe they just wish that they’d never had been shown their error in the first place.

    Therefore, I believe that making a bit of noise and sometimes shoving sexual diversity into other people’s faces is sometimes quite necessary.

  3. Hey Carmilla – yes, I picked up on the same thing! Heterosexism is really the thing that underlies this issue. Not the sort of heterosexism that says “heterosexuality is the only true/acceptable sexuality,” but the heterosexism that says “everything is heterosexual until proven otherwise/by assumption.”

    Steph, it’s not exactly a bad thing in itself – I think it’s really great that you consider someone else’s sexuality not much of your business, and that you wouldn’t treat anyone differently if you knew they were gay, bi, ace, straight, whatever. But it seems to me that there’s still a lot of assumed heterosexuality around – after all, we don’t go around automatically assuming people are gay. I know there are a few people who genuinely don’t assume – personally, I would much rather someone ask straight out (in a respectful, do-you-mind-if-I-ask way) what I identify as than someone assume I was heterosexual. That’s what I tend to do with people when I get to know them a little better, if they haven’t already made some indication (and most people will, through speak of partners and such).

    So in that sense, I agree with Carmilla that sometimes you need to (respectfully) shove a bit of diversity in people’s faces. If people can’t openly show their identity, then that’s very limiting and discriminatory.

    As for the “big deal” thing as the root of homophobia, etc: I think there’s a certain element of truth to that. But I don’t think limiting labels or seeing them as irrelevant does much against that either. The more open things are and the more words people are exposed to, the more educated they are, after all, and the more chance they have of changing their views to be more open.

    I guess what this post is really trying to say is that people/allies/friends need to say “your identity is not a big deal to me in that I don’t have a problem with it at all. But I understand that it is to you, because it makes up a part of who you are, and in that way it also means a lot to me. So I will support your use of that label or identity, and you don’t have to worry about me thinking you’re being a special snowflake or anything like that.” That is the crux of this.

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