Note: This article has also been cross-posted to Womanist Musings.
Heterosexuality: It’s not just about who you sleep with
Most people think that heterosexuality is about being attracted to the opposite sex. But it’s more than that. Much more.
Heterosexuality is a lifestyle. Even more so, it’s a powerful social construction that shapes and maintains people’s identities. It acts as a lens that filters people’s understandings and experiences of their world. Heterosexuality also underlies social concepts such as normal, family, family values, Christian, moral, sacred… And of course, heterosexuality occupies a privileged social location — even more so if you are also male, white, and able-bodied.
Gay liberation: Alternative sexual identities
The Gay Liberation movement of the late 1960s contested the hegemony of heterosexuality. It gave voice to alternative identities of gay and lesbian. These activists changed society. They created alternative cultures and ways of being. They critiqued the heterosexual norms and fought hard for acceptance and equal rights.
The problem is that gayness was often constructed in an essentialist manner – you are gay or you are straight. The biological argument was important, because if you are born gay, if it’s part of your genetic make-up, then it’s not your fault that you are gay. You didn’t choose to be gay, nor can you choose to be straight. Biological determinism takes sexual identity out of the realm of morality.
The categories of straight, gay, lesbian were often quite clearly boundaried. And they were sometimes defined in either/or terms, with gay being set in opposition to heterosexuality. One could cross over, but only in one direction — from straight to gay.
More categories emerge!
Since then, categories have been multiplying. It turns out that gay, lesbian, and bisexual or not sufficient to describe the range of sexual identities. In Toronto, we currently use LBGTTIQ2 (expanded from the former LGBTTQ): lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and 2-spirited. Each of these identities has its own advocacy groups and support networks to address issues unique to that group.
Crossing boundaries is problematic
The boundaries around these sexual identity groups are sometimes problematic. For example, some lesbians ultimately found they were also attracted to men. They moved from the category of lesbian to the category of bisexual, which has been a problematic one. Many lesbians believed bisexual-identified women were not willing to give up their heterosexual privilege and commit to a lesbian identity. But straight people did not accept them among their ranks either. Thus lesbians who entered into relationships with men were often seen as traitors and shunned by their former communities.
Some of my friends have been through this evolution. For example, my friend Robin came out in adolescence as a lesbian. Her parents were unable to accept this identity, resulting in ongoing conflict. Robin embraced her lesbian identity. She cut her hair very short, wore men’s shirts, jeans, and boots, and became a committed activist to the cause. Her most important relationships were in “the community” and she flourished. But in her early 30s, she began to realize she was sometimes attracted to men. She experienced great inner conflict — was she a true lesbian or a pretender? Was she reverting to an easier identity? What the hell was going on with her?
The shift to queer
Eventually, Robin went away for a while and took time to reflect on these questions. When she came back, her hair was shoulder length and curly and she wore a flowing skirt. I barely recognized her! Robin eventually made a shift in how she identified herself, from lesbian to queer.
Some straight people still have trouble with the word queer, viewing it as a politically incorrect word. It’s not. It has a meaning that is distinct from gay and lesbian. There are even queer studies now. So you can use it — but know what it means.
Queer is an alternative identity to straight. It rejects all other categories of sexual identity. Straight remains normative and has privilege attached to it. Queer encompasses the entire range of non-straight identities — and is not limited to LBGTTIQ2.
Queer views sexual identity as something that is fluid, situational, and shifting. For example, if you come out at age 40, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were living the “wrong” identity your entire life. It doesn’t mean everything before now was a lie. Sexuality is very complex and multidimensional. Coming out doesn’t necessarily completely annul everything that came before it.
Queer is a state of mind
More than anything, I view queer as a state of mind.
Queer does not have a need for labels. And it recognizes that sexual identity does not necessarily stay static over time. Queer is transgressive and boundary crossing. It undermines and destabilizes identities and categories. That’s one reason why it can be so threatening to straight people.
Queer dissociates itself from heterosexuality. With the important exception of the power issues attached to heterosexuality, straight is irrelevant to queer. Queer is a different paradigm altogether.
Queer does not name the sexuality of other people. It listens and accepts people’s self-identifications. It is open and curious about the incredible diversity of sexual experience. Queer accepts that people can choose what they want to do and not do — not because of societal strictures but because of their own preferences and values. (Please note that I do, however, limit my definition of queer to anything that happens between two consenting adults, as defined by the legal age of consent.)
Let me give an example of how I view queer as a state of mind. I know of a lesbian couple who lives in suburbia with two kids, an SUV, and a dog. They belong to the PTA and they vote conservative. They do not have a critical consciousness about their sexual identity and they will say that they never have a problem being lesbian moms in their community. According to my definition, these lesbians have more in common with straight than queer. They are living a straight lifestyle, they adhere to their community’s values, they have similar opinions on most things as their neighbours. There is nothing wrong with living in this way. But I don’t have much in common with these women.
On the other hand, there are some heterosexual people that I consider to be more queer than straight. If I tell you this, I am giving you a high compliment! Although you may never desire anyone other than your opposite-sex partner,the way you think about the world and about sexuality is open, fluid, shifting, and you have taken time to really listen to people who identify as queer. That’s what I mean when I say that queer is a state of mind.