“Love Is Love:” The New, No-Labels Sexuality

Bisexual? Pansexual? Queer? Whatever. Sarah Liss explores the newfound freedom of no labels

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This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of FLARE

Last fall, the actress Maria Bello described, in a New York Times “Modern Love” column, the experience of falling for her best friend, Clare. Though she wrote of having been involved with a woman in the past, she sounded struck to discover herself so enmeshed in a same-sex relationship. “I would like to consider myself a ‘whatever,’” she went on to declare. “Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not … ‘love is love.’”

Blogs and tabloids rushed to trumpet Bello’s coming out. But like Michelle Rodriguez and Cara Delevingne, who were photographed making out in Cancun this spring; like Blondie’s Debbie Harry, who confirmed this past April that she’s had affairs with women over the years; Bello didn’t actually announce her preference for one gender over another, nor did she self-identify as bisexual. Her “whatever” was an open-ended declaration.

Around the time of Bello’s revelation, The Lancet published the results of an extensive study that found that four times as many women aged 16 to 44 now report having had same-sex relationships, compared with two decades prior. And while it’s not uncommon to discover latent tendencies later in life, the findings suggested that the spike in same-sex experiences was more prominent among young to middle-aged women.

Bello’s whatever-ness encompasses far more shades of grey than same-sex relationships alone; it’s also very much of the moment. Earlier this year, another study suggested both men and women have sexual identities that shift over time. (Until this point, women’s sexual identities were thought to be more fluid than men’s.) This fluidity extends beyond sexuality to gender. It’s becoming increasingly common to see positive representations of transgender people across all genres of pop culture: in the fashion world, Bruce Weber’s spring campaign for the upscale retailer Barneys New York featured 17 transgender models; Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, who is transgender, is another timely example. The Australian High Court recently upheld a ruling that allowed one of its citizens to register with the government as a “non-specific” gender. And Facebook has introduced 56 new options for users to define their gender identity, including “two-spirit” and “non-binary.”

With all of this in mind, it’s fair to say our collective understanding of both sexuality and gender has been cracked wide open, and not just in terms of progressive attitudes toward, say, gay marriage and RuPaul. Instead, the lines that once cleanly delineated the boxes around discrete sexual identities have been blurred. It’s becoming clear that everything we thought we knew about sexuality is wrong—and that’s OK.

While I can’t remember the moment I realized I liked girls (it might have had something to do with an ancient Disney movie starring Jodie Foster), when I was 14, I cheerily announced to friends and family that I was bi. I proceeded to fall in love with my female best friend, simultaneously making angsty mix tapes for the boys I thought I should have crushes on. Nobody flinched.

At the time—it was the mid-’90s, the age of CK One ads, Ani DiFranco and Sandra Bernhard—bisexual chic was à la mode. I was drawn to the implications of bisexuality, if not the word itself. I fell for girls, but I was nevertheless attracted to androgyny, gender play, folks who fell outside the strict binary between “male” and “female.” I am cisgender—a term used to describe someone who identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth, and one that has become increasingly common in everyday conversation, its growing popularity a sign of our cultural evolution around gender—and I tend to date other cisgender women. But I’ve been drawn to transgender dudes and gender-queer people (who identify as neither strictly male nor female) as well.

By the time I started university, on the cusp of the new millennium, bisexuality had become a bona fide punchline. Girls who casually hooked up with other girls but still liked boys were viewed by “real” lesbians with skepticism, or even derided as LUGs (lesbians until graduation). There seemed to be little understanding that sexuality could exist on a spectrum. I quickly eschewed the bi label for something that seemed … well, not just more accurate, but cooler. I was a lesbian, a dyke, even, in circles of friends, a homo—a term delivered with deadpan irony. I eventually settled on queer.

Queer originally had pejorative, homophobic connotations, but by the late ’80s, academics and activists reclaimed it, infusing it with radical energy. Today, it’s used as an umbrella term that encapsulates differences along sexuality and gender lines. Ideologically, queer is probably not so far off from “whatever.” Still, there’s a distinction between the two. Queer makes a clear, politicized statement: I’m not straight. The message behind “whatever” is slightly different: “I am what I am, and that might change over time, but either way, it’s none of your damn business.” After decades of label strife, could “whatever” be the one-size-fits-all term that sticks?

“I have come to believe that, collectively, we know absolutely nothing about gender or sexual orientation,” says barbara findlay (whose name is legally spelled with lowercase letters), a 64-year-old lawyer and self-described queer feminist who first came out as a lesbian in the ’70s. “When people are invited to name their own gender identities, they are vastly more complex than the male/female boxes can capture.” She isn’t alone in this outside-the-box thinking. “I’ve struggled with a lot of the terms we use,” says Stephanie Markowitz, a 33-year-old Torontonian who has relationships with both men and women, and who likes the idea of reclaiming the term “bisexual” from its history of stigma and invisibility. That said, she thinks “there’s a lot of baggage that still comes with the identity.” Case in point: several years ago, Markowitz posted a profile on an online dating site that required users to include their sexual orientation; bisexual was the label that fit. “The only messages I got were from people who wanted a three-way, and men who were looking for something kinky.” Eventually, she says, she added a line to her profile: “I’m not interested in being your third.”

Plenty of incorrect assumptions about bisexuality persist: Bi people sleep with everyone! They’re into kink! They’re just indecisive! This is exactly why a recent New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject was so refreshing. Citing a study that found that bisexual American adults (slightly) outnumber gay ones, it continued on to explore a raft of research supporting the legitimacy of the identity and also the complexity of trying to scientifically gauge sexuality. I can attest to this: I was surprised to discover, in my late teens, that I fall considerably higher on the Kinsey scale—on which zero indicates an exclusively hetero orientation and six is 100-percent homosexual—than my initial embrace of bisexuality would suggest. (Today, at 33, I’ve still never gone past second base with a boy.)

Although Markowitz strongly supports boosting bi visibility, she also identifies as queer. In part, she says, she appreciates its looseness and inclusivity. “It resonates with me more in terms of my attraction to both people who identify as male and people who identify as female.” Beyond that, though, she sees queerness as a political orientation, one that encompasses her world view, not just the types of people she likes to sleep with. As an academic discipline, queer theory (a critical field that peaked in the ’90s) challenges conventional systems and structures; it shakes up identity categories the same way queer individuals have shaken up the traditional binary between male and female.

For 34-year-old Vanessa Dunn, a social-work student, actor and musician in Toronto, identity and politics are similarly intertwined. Growing up, Dunn exclusively dated cisgender guys. She’d had serious crushes on other girls in her teens, but it wasn’t until a lesbian acquaintance swept her off her feet in her early 20s that she fell into a same-sex relationship.

Erin (whose name has been changed at Dunn’s request) was “androgynous, which just blew my mind,” Dunn recalls of her now ex. “I was so attracted to that aesthetic—it created something new and refreshing, neither typical man nor typical woman, and I loved it. I knew there was something going on within me, but suddenly that was being explored, and it was so dramatic and so huge. When we first started dating, I felt like I had to choose a sexual orientation and stick with it.” Dunn tried on the label of lesbian for size, but it wasn’t a perfect fit—she felt that it denoted a person who exclusively dated and slept with women; she was still open to having hetero relationships.

As a result, she had twinges of anxiety around her newly claimed sexuality. “The rigidity meant that all of a sudden, I was gay, and that bothered me, because I didn’t feel 100-percent lesbian.” At the same time, she says, she began to feel a kinship with the unabashed feminism that underpins lesbian culture. Today, Dunn is married to a woman and describes her politics as “queer or lesbian,” although if she had to choose a single label, she would, reluctantly, choose bisexual. Or perhaps “pansexual,” a back-in-vogue term that can be used as a sex-and-gender catch-all. (Dunn tells me she first learned of it through her social-work placement with young adults.) It’s similar to queer, but freed of the heavier political baggage—think of it as the 20-something’s version of “whatever.”

Dunn has noticed some remarkable differences between the coming-out experiences of the LGBTQ youth she works with today and her own in 2002. She tells me about one participant who first identified as a lesbian and used female pronouns. “Two weeks later, the pronoun was ‘he.’ And then it was ‘they.’ Not to minimize their experience and say there’s not anguish and confusion … but it blew my mind that, at 22, someone could be so confident in that fluidity. Everything felt super transparent. In my time, there wasn’t that patience. It was more like, ‘Tick, tock, hon-—figure it out!’”

You can’t talk about sexual fluidity without acknowledging that some members of the mainstream gay and lesbian community seem to have little time for it. “I keep having to admit this, and it embarrasses me, but we lesbian feminists mistrusted bisexual women in the ’70s and ’80s,” recalls findlay. “We felt they just hadn’t worked up the courage to come out, or that they would misuse their heterosexual privilege by telling their boyfriends.” She no longer feels this way, but at the time, lesbian feminism “was an identity carved out of stone, because there was no social visibility—none.”

Twenty-five years later, the times haven’t entirely changed: when British Olympic diver Tom Daley announced last fall that he had been dating a guy but still “fancied” girls, high-profile gay writer Andrew Sullivan scoffed, describing Daley’s statement on his blog The Dish as “a classic bridging mechanism to ease the transition to his real sexual identity.” (In this case, Sullivan was right; Daley came out as gay in April.)

“I think that the mainstream gay and lesbian movement requires people to claim a fixed sexuality and then mobilize it,” suggests Wendy Peters, an assistant professor in the gender equality and social justice department at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont. Findlay sees a correlation between the political struggles that have consumed LGBTQ people and allies over the past couple of decades, and the civil-rights battles fought by African-Americans and women. But she’s quick to note that the situations are dramatically different on either side of the border.
“In Canada, we’re lucky to have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity,” says findlay. “The U.S. Constitution, however, doesn’t include anti-discrimination provisions, so queer activists have to lobby for protection under the law. The strident, strong religious right argues that sexual orientation can be changed and cured, and should not be protected the same way innate features like race would. That’s a slippery slope.”

The weird irony in the great strides that have been made around same-sex marriage and other advancements for the LGBTQ community is that they have inadvertently created a palpable tension: on the one hand, more people feel empowered to live their lives however they choose within the full continuum of sexuality; on the other, the rigidity of mainstream-activist politics (in the U.S. in particular) means that those who dare to express anything other than a Gaga-endorsed “born this way” message run the risk of being admonished.

This shift toward fluid sexual identities is undoubtedly generational—the research bears that out. It’s worth noting, too, that the Lancet study mentioned earlier simply tracked the number of respondents who reported same-sex encounters. It’s possible that these patterns existed two decades ago, but that the movement of cultural mores and our increasing acceptance of LGBTQ folks has emboldened women to speak honestly about sexuality that falls outside the norm.

The best antidote to the all-or-nothing attitude that continues to pervade sexual identity politics, in my mind, comes from the American feminist writer Ann Friedman. In a post on New York magazine’s The Cut blog in April, she mounted a staunch defense of Tom Daley’s sexual self-discovery. “I support Tom Daley calling himself bisexual, then calling himself gay, and I’d support him claiming an entirely different label another four months from now, if that’s what he’s comfortable with and identifies with most. If he says he’s bi, he’s bi to me. If he’s a gay man now and forever, that’s cool, too. Labels can help some people find community or clarity, but I don’t think they should be required—of Tom Daley or of anyone. And I certainly don’t think they should be permanently fixed.”

Facebook seems to agree. While social networks aren’t necessarily a harbinger of political progress, there’s something pretty awesome about an online monolith acknowledging that its users might not fit neatly into two—or even two dozen—categories. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine settling on a single, fixed idea to designate your own sexual identity when every potential new partner might have selected one of 58 different genders. In that context, “whatever,” with its open-ended implications and universe of possibilities, makes an awful lot of sense. Welcome to the sexuality revolution.

Related: 
12 Queer Millennial Women on Why Pride Matters

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