Truth In Labelling

By Matthew Cheney

The day after Independence Day in the U.S. this year, the New York Times published a story in its science section with the headline "Straight, Gay or Lying? Bisexuality Revisited," which begins by saying that people may claim they're attracted to both men and women, "But a new study casts doubt on whether true bisexuality exists, at least in men."

The article became, according to the Times website, one of the most frequently emailed that week; it caused a few different organizations, including Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation to criticize not only the article but the background of the lead author of the study; and the Times published six letters in response to the article, five of them criticizing it.

Not everyone in the gay community responded with criticism of the article or the study it reported. Sex columnist Dan Savage said, "The sad fact is that male bisexuality is rare, much more so than female bisexuality. While there are a lot of guys out there having bisexual experiences—probably more than ever, God bless them—there's a difference between someone's true sexual orientation and their sexual capabilities."

Truth, that's what it all boils down to. The headline implies bisexuals are liars, the study suggests "true bisexuality" doesn't exist in men, and Dan Savage is a true believer in "true sexual orientation" as the key to true love (at least for men). Savage says that "nominally bisexual men are not emotionally available to other men—in other words, these guys may have sex with other guys, but . . . they only have relationships with women. Which is why dating bi guys isn't something most gay men are willing to do. Even if the bi guy you're dating is single, you're still just his piece on the side."

Is this pursuit of truth the result of anxiety over our inability to live inside another person's mind? The people closest to us could be liars. They could have motives we don't know about, feelings we aren't aware of, dreams they don't share with us, secret lives. In a quest for omniscience, we dig through the data of genes and history to find what is natural and what is not, we crunch numbers to calculate normality, we generalize and accuse, legislate and imprison, delineate and define. To define is to control, and the appeal of narrow definitions of sexual identity is that they allow the person doing the defining to feel in control of the people being defined. Say whatever you want about yourself, but we know the truth.

This is essentially the same argument made by advocates of "fixing" anyone who isn't 100% heterosexual through therapy, prayer, or prolonged exposure to cold climates and monster trucks. (Not that there's anything wrong with monster trucks.) Such zealots believe heterosexuality is the default identity of humanity, the only true way to have a happy life, and therefore anything else is perverse, a diseased deviance from the approved norm, a cesspool of failure and freakishness. Everyone is good at heart, because everyone is straight at heart.

Are we so terrified of free choice? Is it wrong for people to choose how best to live for themselves rather than for everyone else? Is the person who claims to choose to be gay/lesbian/bi/trans/straight/anything worse than a person who says they had no choice, they couldn't help themselves, nature and God and Freud and Dan Savage made them who they are? Must all relationships look like the kind of relationship that works for you? Must all labels be the same?

Though the word queer has become a cute word in TV show titles, it's still useful as a label for the large group of people who are not comfortable describing themselves as always-and-forever-straight, because it gets away from the essentialist elements of all the other labels. It appropriates what was once an insult, stripping it of some of its hurtful power, it doesn't suggest a specific gender, it can include everybody from Bush-loving gays to Green Party transexuals to open-minded heterosexuals who like disco and hot dogs, and it preserves the sense of being outside the oppressive norms of a conformity-inducing society, the forces that mold and disfigure the many-splendored world, leaving shards of dead imagination in the wake of a paint-by-numbers vision.

Maybe all the words don't work—maybe they've all been modified into nonsense and tainted by the stereotypes they have to bear, the commodities they've been attached to, the noise of clashing definitions. Put an old John Lennon record on, sit back, relax, and indulge in utopian dreaming for a moment: a dream of a world where people are free to choose for themselves how they are defined. Imagine what could happen if people shed labels the way fashionistas shed yesterday's haute couture. Imagine the act of defining as a creative act.

The record skips, the song ends, the dream dissipates, and here we are, back in a world where fundamentalists of all orientations vomit dogma and destruction across the open landscape of desire. The enemy should not be bisexuality or homosexuality or heterosexuality or transexuality—the enemy should be coercion, and we shouldn't condone compulsory sexuality any more than we should condone compulsory sex. If we have to sound like a broken record, let the needle get stuck on one word: imagine, imagine, imagine . . .


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus. Read more of his columns in our archives.