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4Men - Opinions

Letters and opinions from concerned male South African citizens on current affairs and issues affecting us all

Tearing Up The Sexuality Label

Tearing Up The Sexuality Label

By Chris Donalds

When I was seventeen and living out a bohemian adventure, I answered an ad in the Exit (no internet in those days), offering a tiny room in a tatty share apartment in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.

A peroxide punk, who would become my first boyfriend, started the interview with: “Abby’s straight and I’m gay, in case that figures.”

“I’m bisexual,” I shot back, instantly shocked that I’d actually said it out loud.

And there it was. A smug grin inched across his chiselled Iggy Pop features, which said, “Sure, you’re bisexual.”

I came to understand that the rigid corsetry of gender and sexual prescriptions would never be more strongly reinforced than in the LGBTI community itself. Just as I had learnt, as a child, to squeeze the round peg of my diverse gender expression into the square hole of societal expectation, I now set out in earnest to collude with my own oppression within the community, adopting simplistic labels to represent the complexity of my authentic gender and sexual identities.

The labelling all begins with that prototype binary myth of male and female. Before we can even remember we are informed that we are one of two distinct kinds of human. We are boy or we are girl. And from that moment of assignment, society wrenches us apart at every feasible opportunity, as if fraternising with the enemy will somehow distract us from our task of gender-assimilation and spawn some delinquent gender sub-species.

Some of us discover the hard way that failure to comply with the prescribed rules of gender conformity can result in social ostracism. This is blatantly evident in the gladiatorial arena of the school playground, where teachers and peers alike watch, hawk-like, for transgressive social behaviour, which will single out the gender-subversives for public shaming and help the rest of us sleep a little easier in the assurance that we are normal.

If we take the reclamation of the word ‘Queer’ to represent a post-modern critique of traditional heteronormative and cisgenderist constructs of gender, sexuality and relationships, then we must surely conclude the following: There is nothing at all queer about an LGBTI community that supports and proliferates such a brutal attack on our naturally occurring diversity and the plethora of ways in which it can be expressed. Why on earth would we want to reduce such beautiful complexity to a menu of two available genders and three approved sexualities?

That’s not to suggest, of course, that labels can’t provide emotional support to people at various times in their lives. If you spend long enough walking alone through a seemingly endless desert of social ambiguity and isolation, a clearly defined label, marking the way to a sense of belonging glistens like the icy condensation on a chilled stubby.

For me, embracing the social identity of ‘gay man’ was like walking onto the set of Cheers and being greeted by a spontaneous rendition of the theme tune:

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
And they're always glad you came…

While my family at worst mocked my clumsy, fumbling explanations of my new gay identity and at best smiled, tolerant and clueless, here was a group of people that required no explanation at all.

…You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same.
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

‘Gay man’ was my name – my label du jour – and I wore it comfortably for a good 20 years. Queer and straight people alike understood what it meant and as long as I followed the position description faithfully, I would be guaranteed a level of emotional security and social acceptance.

Ah, but there’s the rub; for it’s a wicked and insidious slight-of-hand that turns a sanctuary into just another closet (albeit pink and shiny) when we are not paying attention. I gradually became aware that I was editing out elements of my sexuality and gender identity, because they didn’t fit with my adopted label. I suspected it would confuse my heterosexual friends and disappoint my queer comrades to learn of my occasional opposite-sex attractions. I feared that I would be seen as a fraud and have my membership summarily revoked. I hid my dirty secret and in doing so, tacitly colluded with the biphobia that I so detested.

Ultimately, it is the individual quest of each of us to discover our authentic gender and sexual identity and live in congruence with it, but we face this challenge (if indeed we do) within communities and cultures that are bent on telling us repeatedly and emphatically what we are and how we should behave.

I’ve been bisexual, gay, queer, male and gender-variant. My labels have provided the maps for journeys that have led to insights and deeper understandings. Next month, after eight wonderful years together, my partner and I will exchange vows that we reclaim from a societal construct I once thought belonged to others, not me. He will become my ‘husband’ and I his, and I wonder what embedded meanings that label will impose upon our ‘queer’ relationship.

As members of this rich, diverse community of ours (be it ‘LGBTI’, ‘Queer’ or ‘Rainbow’) we must always remember that whatever labels we choose for ourselves, we never have the right to impose them upon any other person. Self-determination will always be the incontestable cornerstone of freedom and social justice.

The great educator and liberator Paulo Freire said that we change our world by naming our world. Language will always remain one of the most powerful weapons of the peaceful revolutionary. The labels we choose are necessarily transient, if we are to learn and freely evolve. And perhaps, one day, we may no longer need them at all.

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