How is sexual orientation defined?

Me, on the question of how sexual orientation is decided:

This comes down to the argument of “is it your attractions that decide your sexual orientation, or your behaviors?” And within the gay community, there is fierce argument over that question. Which is why I always go back to the Kinsey scale, which is based on attraction, rather than behavior, when defining my sexual orientation, because it’s a lot more clear what *I* mean when I say it.

Theoretically, it could be determined either way. From a practical standpoint, talking about a topic when different people have different definitions for the same terminology is problematic, to say the least, when real life issues are at stake.

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Sexual fluidity, Skins US, and labels! labels! labels!

This is a subject that has been bouncing around in my brain pan for several months… I’ve tried to figure out a number of ways to write about it, but nothing was really gelling well for me, and it’s a tricky subject, so I’ve left it alone. But I realized I had a way to discuss it yesterday when I ran across this particular paragraph in a piece of fan fiction that I was reading (YES, I’m reading Glee fan fiction. Do. Not. Judge. Me.):

“It’s quite alright. Although… I am curious, and you by all means don’t have to answer if it makes you uncomfortable, but I’m dying to know…” Quinn just looked at her. “Does this mean you’re… bisexual?”

Quinn made a noise which sounded half way between a snort and a laugh. “Um, I don’t think so. I hate to be so cliché, but I’m not a big fan of labels. I don’t like it when anyone wears their sexuality as a badge, you know? And, again, cliché alert, but I believe that you don’t really fall in love with someone’s gender. Like… you don’t fall for someone because of their genitalia, do you?” Rachel blushed. “I’m doing my very best to avoid using the word fluid but I suppose it does best describe… it. I guess… I guess the short answer to your question is maybe… probably… I don’t know? But it doesn’t really bother me.”

Okay. Problems. This whole concept would be fine if the character (or by extension, the author) were talking only about themselves. I know there are many folks for whom their sexuality is fluid, and they fall for the person, not their genitalia, and that’s awesome. Call it bisexuality, omni-sexuality, sexual fluidity, and if you want to enjoy your sexuality you can also use toys from a huge range of toys online.

But in this case, the author is making some broad statements about everyone‘s sexual orientation, including mine. And that’s where I must vigorously object. To me, defining other people’s sexuality for them is obnoxious no matter who is doing it – whether it’s coming from sexually fluid people or the Westboro Baptist Church. And the tendency of sexual fluidity advocates to paint the world in their own image has come up quite a bit lately in my online reading, which I’ll get to in a minute. But first a few statements of fact for the record, your honor:

My sexuality is not fluid. I am not attracted to guys. I am attracted to women. And for me, genitalia does matter. I like cis lady parts. A LOT. Sorry; don’t mean to be crude or anything, but I do. I’m on Team Vagina. I’ll even wear the shirt. I think about cis lady parts a lot. I daydream about them when I’m bored and zoned out in meetings. Although I promise I’ve never done this in a meeting with you. No sirree. (I totally have; sorry.) Sometimes I’m thinking about cis lady parts belonging to a specific lady, and sometimes to no lady in particular. Although I promise I’ve never thought about yours. I swear. (Okay, if you’re not related to me, I may possibly have. Again, I’m sorry; I’m not really doing on purpose or anything. Consciously. If it helps, I imagined they are awesome and a place of sparkly rainbows where unicorns frolic. Does that help? No? Please don’t hate me.)

Anyways – this isn’t to say that I fall in love with or am attracted to women solely because of their cis lady parts. But they really are a factor. And I don’t have such feelings for cis or trans men, or cis gentleman parts. At all. I think guys are awesome. Some of them are aesthetically pleasing, in the way that a painting or a summer meadow is aesthetically pleasing. But I don’t want to jump them and ride like a pony, any more than I want to do that to a painting. (Ignore that time I got kicked out of the art museum. I fell on that picture, I swear!). Many guys are quite handsome. In the same way that my brothers are handsome fellows, all of them. In my head, I picture them looking like Ken dolls under their pants.

So in summary: blanket statements about sexual fluidity != my sexuality. Vagina parts = awesome to me! Penis parts = not my first interest, but yay for you!

The reason this subject been rattling around in my brain lately is because the subject came up in a large fashion in the comments on the website, surrounding their coverage of the US version of Skins, the television show imported from Britain and aired on MTV recently.

I wrote a bit about my misgivings about that show (Skins: British vs. American) several weeks back. It was a big deal on several of the of the gay pop culture websites I read regularly, so I tuned in, and wasn’t terribly impressed, if you recall. I liked the British version, (which was also heavily blogged about on better, and thought some of the changes to the show had been made on the basis of the perception of American audiences being more receptive to female homosexuality than male homosexuality. I was also pretty critical of yet another storyline of a lesbian sleeping with a man – because is there a lesbian on television who hasn’t really? This is pretty standard fare for lesbian storylines. It’s usually one of three stories, none of which bears much resemblance to actual live lesbians: 1) sleeps with man, 2) birthin’ the babies! 3) psycho-stalker-killer!

As Skins US progressed through the season, the ‘lesbian’ character does indeed sleep with a man on more than one occasion, saying she has a connection with him and is attracted to him on some intellectual level. As the season went on, the regular commenters on after became pretty critical of the storyline in the comments.

Relating to the “lesbian sleeps with man” discussions on, during a couple of interviews with creators of the show, Bryan Elsley and his son Jamie Brittain, both of these fellows stated that they felt that everyone was really sexual fluid.

Bryan Elsley (“Skins” boss Bryan Elsley talks Tea, Tony and Naomily):

No one I’ve spoken to, in all the years I’ve been writing, even when I was writing Naomily — I’ve never met a lesbian who said, “You know, I’ve never, ever considered sleeping with a man. I’ve never slept with a man. I’d never consider doing that.”

That’s a pretty blanket statement – granted, he’s talking only about lesbians he’s met, not lesbians as a whole, but still, I am not the only woman in the world for whom this statement is completely untrue, as evidenced by the howls of protest from the comments and choruses of “well, he hasn’t met me, apparently!”

And then there’s this statement from co-creator Jamie Brittian (Exclusive: “Skins” boss Jamie Brittain talks series 5):

AE: Cool! I can’t wait to read it. I’m not asking you to label any of your characters, but is it fair to say that Liv and Franky and Mini are all three pretty sexually fluid?

JB: I think that would be a fair assessment. But then again, and this is where me and Bryan keep getting into trouble. I think everyone is at least a little bit sexually fluid. I know a lot of people don’t agree with that, though. Weirdly, I think Liv is the least sexually fluid out of all of them. But I think she’s a really brave girl who’s willing to go a long way to find love.

So a bit of generalizing about sexualities that are not owned by them from both of these men occurred, followed by much back and forth in the comments on both interviews as well as in the recaps of every one of the shows.

And speaking of the recaps – there is also Senior Editor Heather Hogan. She interviewed both of these fellows and she also wrote the recaps for each episode of the show. And she is also fairly invested in the idea that all humans are really sexually fluid, be-damned what some humans have to say on their own behalf about it. She brings up her point of view and tries to solidify her case in nearly every piece of writing she writes for the site, and on her own journal as well. She’s like a dog who just can’t stop worrying that bone, long after the discussion has died down. And she has a tendency to demonize the folks that disagree with her, accusing them of all manner of unsavory behaviors.

If it were me, I’d have tried to separate narrating the storyline from my opinions about the larger gay community to some extent, given that there was some pretty obvious disagreement about whether the storyline was a valid one that resonated with lesbians or whether it was a reflection of our disjointed cultural thought about gay characters.

But big deal; it’s a television show, right? I guess so. But it’s still putting out there this notion that gay girls should be ‘confused’ about their feelings, and that sleeping with a boy is how they should clarify that confusion. I really beg to differ with that message – it wasn’t true for me 20-some years ago, and it certainly shouldn’t be for today’s teens, who have lots better lesbian characters on whom to model healthy relationships from than I did. I never needed to sleep with a guy to know that I was a Kinsey 6, and the only role models I had were Colette novels I stumbled across in the library completely by accident. And flip that narrative around – we don’t say that straight teens should sleep with the same sex to sort out their sexual orientations.

Nor do we say that gay boys should get it on with girls to determine their orientation, either. Gay boys just have to say “I’m gay” and they’re totally believed, because why would they say that and subject themselves to society’s wrath if it weren’t true? So aside from the issues of sexual orientation, there’s a weird double standard that appears sexist to this whole thread as well. There’s lots and lots of talk about women being sexually fluid, but not really much about men. Nor are there lots of “male sexual fluidity” storylines going around, either.

And let’s cap this whole discussion off with the notion of “labeling” people, because it’s a common refrain from the “we’re all sexually fluid” advocates: “I don’t believe in labels!” The words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, heterosexual – they aren’t “labels” or “pigeon holes” or boxes. They are merely words. Words don’t define you, they describe you. And if these words don’t describe you accurately, you can always use more words. Write sentences. Write paragraphs. (Witness: the fifth paragraph of this article, wherein I do that about myself!) If you don’t, people may have difficulty relating to you, because they won’t understand where you’re coming from. Honesty and openness is a key component of happy and successful relationships. Yes life is messy, and we don’t always think about or describe ourselves the same way, but we have to communicate, and the key to that is not obfuscation. It’s clarity.

Continue ReadingSexual fluidity, Skins US, and labels! labels! labels!

Even more on Outing

I’ve talked about the subject of “Outing” in the past several times. Scott tackled the issue recently on Bilerico, and along with a lot of others, I commented. I wanted to pull my comment over here, though, because it’s a refinement of some of my previous ideas.

I’ve pointed this out in the past — I really try not to use the euphemisms “outing” and “closeted” because it masks what we really mean — being honest about sexual orientation, or lying about it — and because the terms are so pervasive we no longer think of the issue as an ethical one.

We really have built into our culture this shelter for people who lie about their sexual orientation. In many ways, that’s nurturing for people who are still coming to terms with themselves, but it’s also destructive in many ways. It allows predators to run rampant, it allows people to dodge stigmas they shouldn’t get to dodge, it allows a general air of dishonesty envelope our community that people take as license to be dishonest in other ways.

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“Outing” Revisited

Way back in March of 1998, I wrote a long article/essay/diatribe on the subject of “outing” people. Reading it today, I realize it wasn’t as much about “outing” people as it was about complaining about prevalence of opportunistic gay people who stay in the closet to prey on people who are out while avoiding the stigma of being gay, rather than about the action of “outing” itself.

The subject of “outing” has come up recently in the local gay community, surrounding the issue of Prop 68, the city’s human rights ordinance. It seems that there is some evidence that one of the city-county councilors who voted against the measure is gay or has a history of gay behavior, and none-other than State Rep. Julia Carson herself threatened publicly to “out” him as a hypocrite because he didn’t support it.

The suggestion has caused huge debate within the gay community; see for some of the discussion on the issue. It even has the religious right’s panties in a bunch; Micah Clark from the AFA sent out an email to his kool-aid drinkers where he was all in a tizzy about it.

Here’s my take: If you truly believe there’s nothing wrong with being gay, then revealing someone as gay shouldn’t be wrong, should it? If there’s nothing wrong with me having blue eyes, then why would you be hesitant/bothered/ashamed to talk about my blue eyes with other people? You don’t see black people running around worried about whether to reveal other black people as black, do you?

I thought not.

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On the Subject of “Outing”

The phrases “in the closet,” “coming out” and “outing” are euphemisms for lying about your sexual orientation, or telling the truth about it. They’re phrases I dislike, because they allow people to rationalize away the fact that “staying in the closet” is a fundamental dishonesty. It’s much easier to say, “I’m not out yet at work,” than to say, “I’m telling the people I work with lies about my sexual orientation.”

The gay and lesbian community has created a whole culture around the concept of the “closet,” going as far as creating a pop-psychology theory about the “process of coming out” and naming national magazines and websites after it. (Out Magazine, PlanetOut)

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it takes time for people to learn about, understand, and accept their own sexuality when it’s different from the norm. I went through it like everyone else, and it’s understandable that we want to help people who are going through the “great awakening.”

The problem is that the “closet” culture we’ve created allows people who are well aware of their sexuality the opportunity to be dishonest merely to avoid the stigma attached to being gay.

I say once you’re aware of your own sexual orientation, it’s time to tell other people unless you have some compelling reason not to. The older I get, the less tolerant I get of people who are lying about their sexual orientation for no good reason.

And there are some good reasons to lie:

  • If you are in immediate danger of losing your life.
  • If you are in danger of losing your children.
  • If you are very poor and losing your job will cause you to be out of food, clothing or housing.
  • If you are very young and telling the truth will get you thrown out into the streets before you are able to care for yourself, or bullied by your peers.

Many of the gay and lesbian people in this country who lie about their sexual orientation are not doing it for one of these reasons. Many of them are lying because they are afraid to face the hatred; afraid they won’t fit in. Black people have to face the hatred every day; they don’t have the luxury of being cowards.

Privacy, Schmivacy

As much difficulty as I have with the concept of the "closet," I get even more bent out of shape when people try to claim that their gay relationships are a "private matter" because that often reduces their relationship to a sexual one, rather than a loving, romantic one, which is the way the right-wing would like it to be.

When a straight person introduces their partner to anyone, they use the words "husband," "wife," "fiancé;" they naturally announce their emotions to complete strangers and don’t think twice about it. Straight people declare their love by getting married in front of family and friends and send announcements of their wedding to the community paper.

The "private" aspect of any relationship is the sexual, intimate part of a relationship between two individuals; the part that takes place behind closed doors. Heterosexual people have a "public" aspect as well; an aspect of their relationship that is the emotional, "love" part, and that love that is shared to some degree with the couple’s friends, family, and community. When other people know about their love and participate in it, they support it and strenghten it. That’s why the public part of their relationship is important.

Gay people rarely have a truly "public" part to their relationships, they may be honest to friends, and some family, but when it comes to holding hands in public or telling new acquaintances about their relationships, they censor themselves. Their relationships are often limited to the private, to the "bedroom." Because of this, gay people and straight people alike tend to think of gay relationships as merely sexual, rather than sexual and loving.

I know one of the first objections gay people will bring up is that we shouldn’t define our relationships by those of straight people. It’s true that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to that model; but we can draw some conclusions about human behavior by looking at them. Not all gay people want traditional, committed relationships and families, but some do and they shouldn’t be denied the opportunity.

"But… I’m Not Lying, I’m Just Not Telling People"

Oh, baloney. There’s no way to "not tell people." Within the first few weeks of getting to know someone, they’re going to ask you questions about your personal life that you have to answer. Sooner of later, you’re going to have to state a pronoun. If you choose to censor your answers, or be evasive, bingo! You’re lying.

I Don’t Want to Help You Lie

The closet culture we’ve created fosters a conspiracy of dishonesty within the community as well. People who are lying about their sexual orientation assume and expect those who are not lying to help them. They speak in conspiratorial whispers, rather than normal conversation tones. They look around before relating information, speak in code ("Is he family?" "Does he sing in the choir?") and expect others to do so, all with a bit of glee: "we’re putting one over on all these stupid straight people aren’t we?"

If people are lying to stay in the closet, and if I help them by perpetuating that lie, then I am as dishonest as they are, and as much of a coward as they are by going along with them.

Continue ReadingOn the Subject of “Outing”