Drawing the line between LGBT labels

When defining sexual orientations, there can be major personal differences between labeling oneself as “gay,” “bisexual,” and now, “queer.”

After the end of mind-numbing Spring 2009 finals, a female friend and I enjoyed a warm night at the Gayborhood bar QLounge, formerly known as Bump. While eating fettuccini and sipping cosmos, we had an in-depth discussion on sexuality. We poked fun, guessing who among our peers was possibly gay, lesbian, bisexual or just open and eventually talked about our own sexualities. Picture 5

During this time, my lovely female friend came out to me. It was a coming out experience I was not familiar with, but it wasn’t that she was closeted – she wasn’t – or that I was experiencing a bit of a shock.

What made this coming out experience unique was that my friend did not come out as a lesbian or a bisexual woman. She said she had been with both men and women, but she did not put a label on her sexuality. She was sexually label-less.

“I’ll put it to you this way,” she said. “I’m attracted to people, not gender.”

Ladies, gentlemen and everyone between and beyond, believe me when I say that this night was the start of a summer during which I was schooled on gender and sexuality.

My friend’s revelation opened my eyes to a world outside the sexual binary. In our heteronormative society, we think of sexuality in a two-tier system – heterosexuality, the norm, and homosexuality. This is very similar to the way binary society looks at gender: You’re either male or female, and you perform your societal gender roles as male or female.

“I think the sensitivity to labels is to really think about who is labeling whom in what context and what work the label [does] for them,” said Laura Levitt, director of the women’s studies program.

Levitt said “label-lessness” could help the individual get out of LGBTQ labels, so that those aren’t the only options. And while my without-a-sexual-label friend did not refer to herself as queer, the term “queer” is a label that, in a way, could potentially describe the orientation she’s trying to achieve.

But she never used the term “queer,” which was once used as a derogatory term for effeminate gay men and is now commonly used as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ community.

Levitt explained that the difference between queer and the other identities was that queer broke the binaries and that queer as an umbrella term is good, but still using other terms, like gay, lesbian, et cetera, is important, too.

“We want to have that range because [these terms] mean and have meant historically different things,” said Levitt. “Sometimes, it’s really important to use different words in different contexts to help get at that.”

Queer, in addition to being the alphabet soup synonym, is a complex identity, but in an attempt to make it clear, the purpose of being queer is that you do no operate in a heteronormative sexuality and/or gender.

“This is my general understanding, but the whole point of the queer identity is that it’s tailored to the individual, and it ushers in this conversation that you have to have for each individual person,” Raphaële Saïah, a Temple alumna, said. “It’s based on a rejection of heteronormativity, which then in return allows for conversations on consent in sexual practice…because it’s all formulated around what that person would potentially consent to in sexual practice.”

QueerVSgay_living_feb02_LeeMiller_07
LEE MILLER TTN Temple alumnus Raphaële Saïah discusses the differences between “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual” and “queer” sexual orientation labels with undeclared freshman Tenny Augustin and The Temple News columnist Josh Fernandez.

Saïah, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies in December 2009, self-identifies as queer. She sees her queer identity as “being fluid, under the umbrella of queer identities.”

She was introduced to the queer identity through a punk scene — called queercore, which began in the mid-1980s — that, while both privileged and predominantly white at the time, rejected the gender binary and openly talked about sexual assault, consent, and being LGBT and genderqueer.

Saïah looked back on Equality Forum 2008 and remembered an article that said the queer identity was the buzzword at the event.

“I was like, ‘Where were you in the early ‘90s when queer theory came on the scene?’ and even before that, I’m sure. It’s just weird that it’s still not in the mainstream view, that it’s an alternative that doesn’t remove all those other identities but still puts the focus on the person,” Saïah said.

Queer is such a radical – and in my opinion, refreshing – way of looking at sexuality, that it perhaps took people until 2008 to make it a buzzword. Regardless, the queer movement has been liberating for people who label themselves as queer because the ambiguity protects against the rigidness of traditional gay/straight labels.

So what would queers like Saïah think of those who classify someone’s sexuality as the equivalent of a “lazy bisexual”?

“It’s not fair because it’s not being a ‘lazy bisexual,’ it’s being someone who rejects the implication in bisexuality that gender works on a binary,” Saïah said.

And although queer appears to be the limitless sexual label, I felt it important to get Saïah’s opinion on the idea of “label-lessness,” which also screams endless possibilities.

“I think it’s totally valid,” Saïah said. “You can say you like people, not gender, but I think it’s totally unfair to say ‘I don’t see gender. I see people.’”

She added that it would be fair to say that a person who identifies as label-less does not base his or her attractions on gender – but that gender and gender roles (or lack thereof) are recognized.

Either way, label-lessness or the queer identity, the idea is that we as a society are uncovering our sexual repression and realizing we don’t have to be so rigid in how we think of our sexuality and how it relates to the people with whom we’re intimate.

Whether you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, label-less, gender-queer, et cetera, you’re acknowledging that you are not straight, heteronormative or whatever other academic or cultural terminology falls into that category.

The important thing in all of this is that you don’t let others label you. You label yourself. We’re all human, and the only way can understand identity is if we talk about these things that many of us aren’t aware of.

Josh Fernandez can be reached at josh@temple.edu.

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