When I was a child, about eight or nine years old, I talked with my mother about the term ‘gay’ (‘schwul’ in German is exclusively a term for gay men). I had come home from school and stated that all women were gay. She explained to me how I had misunderstood the term and that ‘gay’ (‘schwul’) didn’t mean ‘a person (male or female) who likes men’.
During my training to become a kindergarten teacher, I took a course on intercultural education. It was team taught by one of the psychology teachers and a teacher from university, who was also a Turkish immigrant. We talked about social norms and at one point, the topic was manliness, he said this (or something to this effect) to the women in my class: ‘Manliness is very important to you! You know that you would never love and be with a man who was gay.’ My classmates did not understand what he meant by the term ‘a man who was gay’. In their understanding, a man couldn’t have been gay and then stopped being gay.
A few weeks ago, the German football player Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay. He said that after 30 years, he had come to the conclusion that he preferred to live with another man.
What do these incidents have in common? In none of these case is homosexuality seen as an inherently negative thing or something that should be avoided. The fact that there is a discourse about it at all shows that it is not taboo. However, it is also clear that it is not ‘normal’. Being gay or lesbian, is something that needs to be defined and declared to be accepted by the wider society.
See this short video of Judith Butler on the consequences of homosexuality being more acceptable:
Once more people identify as gay or lesbian, it becomes more thinkable and more acceptable to be gay or lesbian.
But the acceptance of an identification as gay or lesbian comes at a price. This can be seen in the later two incidents above. For the members of my class, there was no sense in a past tense for ‘being gay’. If you at one point had declared your sexuality, it stays that way and has always been just that. It’s retroactive. In the view of the public, all of Thomas Hitzlspergers relationships he might ever have had with women are at the very least a mistake on his part or in the most extreme sense a sham to cover up his sexuality from the extremely homophobic world of sports.
Another example is Chirlane McCray, who in 1979 came out as lesbian. In 1994, she married the now-mayor of New York, Bill De Blasio. In most of the articles about the couple, there is always at least an undertone of confusion on the part of the author when it comes to her sexuality. Others plain out declare her to be a ‘former’ lesbian. In any case, people struggle with her not using a label for her sexuality and wonder why she doesn’t just come out as bisexual.
In my view, our society is slowly becoming more accepting of male homosexuality and, to a lesser degree, also of female homosexuality. But while these ‘options’ of sexuality become available, they at the same time become restrictive. It’s okay to be gay, but you better be gay for the rest of your life, or all of your gay relationships will be declared invalid. A lesbian, who gets married to a man, must have been just fooling around or going through a phase. Our society can only accept those things, for which it has a name. ‘So, pick one and stick with it, or you become a problem.’ This could be the slogan when it comes to tolerance of different ‘lifestyles’. (I have written in another post here, why I find that term offensive.)
I would be misunderstood, if this was taken as a call for people to come out as bisexual. That, again, is just a label and a category we are starting to come to terms with. (However, bisexuals have the peculiar dilemma of being declared gay/lesbian or straight once they find a life-long partner or enter a committed relationship. ‘He was always gay, he just had to find the right man’, ‘She just needed to find the right man’, and so on.) The need for anything to be publicly declared is annoying to me.
And I also do not think to say or imply that being gay or lesbian is a ‘choice’. Of course, gay men want to be with men and lesbian women want to be with women, without ever making the choice. Who in their right mind would choose to be insulted, attacked and even killed? But we shouldn’t reduce gay and lesbian relationships to a sexual level or to a question of sexuality. A lesbian woman falls in love with another person, who happens to be a woman, not a pair of breast and female genitalia with a person attached. The fact that the other person is a woman is important, but it is not the only thing that matters. If the gender of another person was the only thing that mattered in a relationship, there would be no single people and no divorces! And every relationship with a trans* partner would end immediately once this person came out to their partner.
‘Are you then saying that gays and lesbians should refuse to identify as such or as anything at all?’ Yes and no.
Yes: In a perfect world, no one should have to identify as anything. In a perfect world, a woman can have had only relationships with other women, without ever having been identified as lesbian. As long as people have to identify as gay, lesbian, bi or anything else, ‘straight’ remains the default, because if you don’t declare yourself anything else in our world, you are seen as straight. ‘Straight until proven otherwise’ is the verdict spoken at birth. So, if we could just be into ‘people’ and not ‘men’ or ‘women’, that would be better, more inclusive and would save the lives of many of those people, who kill themselves, because they are rejected for being what they are. That would be a truly open society, in regards to which people are allowed, expected and/or accepted to be in a relationship. (However, such a society could still be transphobic.)
And No: We do not live in such a world. I’ll compare it to the problem of racism, since I understand that better: As long as there is racial discrimination, being colorblind only makes the problem worse, because you don’t see it and how it works. If people don’t identify as ‘non-straight’, their issues will be overlooked and especially young people in less open parts of the world (and all we Westerners don’t have to look to other continents for this!), who feel attracted to someone of the same sex, will have no role-models to look up to and be empowered by. As long as it is dangerous and potentially deadly to be non-straight, taking the step into a more liberal world, where all this doesn’t matter and you just love whom you love, is impossible. Identity and identification are still important.
But we should be very careful that we don’t start seeing these mere words as having any more meaning than they need to have. We made them to empower people or reclaimed them from people, who were trying to control others. They are tools and we should strive for a world where we don’t need them anymore. We should also not forget that definitions, however well phrased, tend to leave out people, who are then a new minority and have to fight for their rights against a now-bigger mainstream. As such ‘labeling’ remains a necessary evil. Nothing more, nothing less.