Culture January 20, 2017
“I am lesbian. I am Christian.”
This may sound like an oxymoron, and thus you may empathize with how stressful it is to identify yourself as both. There’s this notion that because I’m one thing, I can’t be another. There’s no in between. No room to falter.
When I started dating my first girlfriend, I didn’t want to label myself as “lesbian” because I was afraid. I was terrified of what being lesbian would mean in relation to my religion, worried about how my parents and friends would interpret my sexuality and scared of how drastically my life would change. So I spent years hiding in the dark, constricting closet I had shoved every important aspect of myself into – my values, my sexuality, my identity.
Eventually, fear turned into frustration. It’s seven years later and I find myself resentful toward the limitations of our language, our culture and our practices. There are no words to accurately describe how I see myself because the only labels I know of are both paradoxical in nature. I’m either an “abomination” for liking women or I’m not “queer enough” because I believe in a supposedly spiteful God.
When people learn about one part of my identity, they automatically assume that the other doesn’t exist. And because of the way our society has traditionally defined those two terms, I become this anomaly that sometimes even I have trouble understanding.
Language has been constructed to help people comprehend the world around them; it’s what allows us to communicate abstract ideas and concepts. Likewise, labels have been created to help people grasp who they are. But the problem is, there are a series of definitions, stereotypes and traditions that are too simple for something as complex as attraction. The understanding we’ve established around these labels – straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual – are constricting.
This is shown in the very way that many people today find themselves more sexually fluid than they’re willing to admit. In a recent survey conducted by market research firm YouGov, British adults plotted themselves on the sexuality scale created by Alfred Kinsey in the 1940s.
The data shows that while 89 percent of the participants describe themselves as heterosexual, “The results for 18-24-year-olds are particularly striking, as 43 percent place themselves in the non-binary area between 1 and 5 and 52 percent place themselves at one end or the other. Of these, only 46 percent say they are completely heterosexual and 6 percent as completely homosexual.”
Then, when Americans were asked to take the same test, YouGov found similar results. It turns out that 29 percent of adults under 30 put themselves in the “bisexual” category.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also conducted a similar survey, which found that 16 percent of American women and 5 percent of men under 45 didn’t want to say they were only attracted to one sex. Instead, the respondents admitted to being mostly attracted to one sex, equally attracted to both or unsure of their attraction.
Essentially, people today are avoiding the extremes because they’re recognizing the limitations of traditional binaries. “I’m very upset that the English language does not allow me to accurately describe myself in some very important ways,” writes Dr. Joe Wenke, author of “The Human Agenda: Conversations about Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity,” on the Huffington Post. He then goes on to explain how he is attracted to transgender women, but doesn’t feel like “straight” or “gay” are adequate descriptions of his sexuality.
“The truth is that language reflects cultural values, or perhaps I should say ‘cultural biases.’ The term ‘atheist’ is a negative value judgment,” Dr. Wenke explains. “[And] the lack of any word to describe sexual attraction to transgender people represents a refusal to grant integrity to transgender people or even to acknowledge that they exist.”
Although we have specific words to understand our identities, the definitions are restrictive. So, people like me prefer to forgo labeling themselves altogether. Because even when people do label themselves, there are still various stereotypes trying to invalidate their identity.
For instance, being bisexual is often dismissed as some sort of transition phase for people who are confused or just biding their time until they make a “real choice.” Even in the queer community, Everyday Feminism explains that bisexual-identified people have to face the stigma that they “don’t exist,” “are just going through a phase,” “are sexually greedy” or “spread HIV and live for threesomes.” There is an ongoing erasure that bisexual people have to deal with and many of them are told that their sexuality “doesn’t exist” because “ultimately, you can test the waters, but you must pick a side.”
So while our words like trans, lesbian, gay, intersex, genderqueer, nonbinary and pansexual can feel like salvation for some people, they’re still flawed, ever-evolving words. Our definitions of these terms need to change in order to include new discoveries along the way.
I acknowledge, celebrate and stand with the generations of people that have fought for the right to claim these labels. But for me, I still can’t find the words to describe how I am both lesbian and Christian because the current definitions of the two refuse to acknowledge my existence.
Right now, I’m hovering between both categories, torn by the idea that I have to choose one or the other. But really, I shouldn’t have to legitimize my existence whenever I choose labels to identify with. Sexual orientation, sexual attraction and identity are complex and multifaceted. Our language needs to reflect that because I already do.
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