Identity is a strange thing.
Ultimately, we are all… humans, right? Like, we are all people. And then, after that, identity breaks itself down into a billion different sub-components (of varied importance): preferences, month of birth, gender, religion, hair color, whether or not we like cilantro. You know, stuff.
Photo attribution: here
Most of these sub-components are not who we are. In the sentence “Josh is human,” you cannot replace the identifier “human” with something like “Josh is allergic to cats” and have it serve as a nominative equivalent. “Allergic to cats” describes Josh. “Human” identifies Josh.
When I posted my coming out post last month (oh, wait, you hadn’t heard? Spoiler alert: I’m gay), one of the things that most surprised me was something I hadn’t anticipated at all. And it has to do with that little parenthetical. My self-description as a gay man–and I mean specifically as a “gay” man, using that word itself–had more impact than I ever would have imagined. Somehow, that little word tore through a lot of divides that I hadn’t realized existed, and caused a reaction that I never would have imagined. I sincerely believe that that word is, at least in part, why my post went viral at all. It crossed barriers. It spoke to the masses. Nobody was confused by what I was saying like they might have been had I exclusively used a different word or phrase to describe my sexual orientation.
Granted, I used other words too. I do in all of my writings on this subject and I have for many years, even from back when I was closeted and wrote (even on this very blog) anonymously. I have very specific and pre-mediated reasons for doing this, but it basically just boils down to this. I hate forced semantical divides for synonyms. I think they are a total waste of time, and that they confuse rather than clarify.
When it comes to describing sexual orientation, there are many people who feel it is very important to eschew labels. People don’t want to be boxed in by one phrase or word. People don’t want to be defined or identified by terms used to describe parts of them.
I feel the same way.
There are several synonyms for the concept of “a person sexually attracted to his or her same gender.” The three I generally use in my writings are “gay,” “homosexual” and “same-sex attracted”. I see a lot of people who really resist being boxed into a label like one of those words, so their response is to try to avoid using the terms altogether, and to ask others to respectfully avoid “this” or “that” synonym to describe their condition.
Where others avoid being labeled by saying something like “Don’t call me this or that or the other–those labels don’t really fit me”–thus leaving no room for an accurate description of the state of being sexually attracted to people of the same gender–I go precisely in the opposite direction. I say, “call me this, that and the other, because while they all describe me, none of them define me.”
Did that make sense?
So, I take those synonyms: gay, homosexual and same sex attracted (each of which having the exact same primary definition–someone sexually attracted to his or her own gender) and I ruthlessly rip away people’s ability to infer what they want to from any one potential label by using them all. A lot.
Those words all accurately and precisely describe a quality about me as a person. But none of them define my identity.
And as a writer, my instinct is to use the least cumbersome, simplest word to communicate an idea to the highest number of people. This is a common trait among writers–it’s what makes writing good. And by far, the least cumbersome of these words is “gay.” So that’s the one I tend to use in things like titles or bios where I have limited space to convey an idea.
What can I say? I’m a language minimalist. (Lolly laughed hard when she read that sentence, and I don’t get it. Why is she laughing???)
Some people who have read my coming out post seem to “get” where I was coming from in doing this.
One lawyer who says he has been actively engaged in trying to explain and grapple and help with this issue for over a decade put it this way: “Perhaps not everyone can or even should speak about their experiences as Josh and Lolly have done, or using the vocabulary Josh has used. I have been and remain concerned about the effects of self-labeling, and wish we had a different vocabulary to describe human attractions altogether. Every story of faith is important, and all will, thankfully, be different. But Josh pushed beyond the labels, and while he accepts the labels and uses them to effectively describe himself and his feelings in ways others can clearly understand, he has refused to be constrained by either the labels or the attractions.”
But others get very, very, very hung up on one particular word of the three synonyms. And that word is “gay.” I haven’t been able to entirely figure out why this word is so bothersome to some people. I think it has to do with Mormon culture, and its concept of what “gay” implies culturally. But the thing that’s ironic, is that the piece of advice these individuals, without fail, give me regarding this word is “Come on, man. Don’t label yourself.”
Here’s the irony: I haven’t labeled myself. I have described myself with a predicate adjective. However, you have labeled me if you think that word is something that can be used to define me as a human being. Which is totally your choice, and I don’t mind if you do that. But don’t assume that because your mind automatically goes to “nominative equivalent” mine has done the same thing. Because it hasn’t. I might say “I am six feet tall” but that doesn’t mean that I am saying I am literally six feet stacked on one another, nor that I am “six feet tall” as a person, and that’s what defines my identity. It is an adjectival description of a part of my identity. And it’s not the only descriptor that could be used to explain this feature of my persondom. “A little above average height” also describes it. As does “Lying because I’m actually 5′ 11″.”
Think of it this way. Let’s say some guy who was into girls, perhaps one of the guys who has said to me “Come on, man. Don’t label yourself,” was on the dating scene, and he met a girl that he really liked. And let’s say he was trying to get to know her because he was interested in asking her out. And let’s say that for some reason, she asked him “Hey, are you gay?” What would his response be?
He would, without hesitation, say “No, no, no, I’m straight. I’m completely straight.”
Did he just label himself–did he define himself as a person? Or did he just describe his sexual orientation?
The latter is my contention.
If he is not supposed to use the word “straight” (the dictionary antonym to “gay”) to describe his sexual orientation because someone else might then think he has labeled himself, then how on earth was he supposed to communicate to the girl that he is interested sexually in girls? Can you imagine if he were to say to her “no, I’m actually OSA.” She would look at him like he was insane, and then he’d say “Oh, that means opposite-sex-attracted…” and by that point she would be totally baffled and looking for a reason to get away from the creepy guy. His original self-description was perfect–a perfectly accurate description of his sexual orientation. He is straight. Meaning, that is a component of his personhood: he is attracted to women.
The only thing I could think of that he could reasonably say is “No, I’m attracted to girls.” But even that indicates that the word “gay” is an obvious indicator of “being attracted to boys.” Both as descriptors.
Similarly, as gay men (or women) how are we supposed to be able to tell people that we are attracted to guys (or girls, respectively)? There are words for that concept. And I think it’s okay to use them–all of them. I believe that using all of them is what eschews the labels. It breaks through cultural biases and mis-conceptions. It helps people think in a more nuanced way about a subject that is very complex without inhibiting the common lexicon and confusing people who genuinely want to understand. It increases understanding. Not decreases. It amplifies the message and makes it more accessible and less confusing.
That being said, I think it’s important for people to be able to describe their sexual orientation in whatever way they feel comfortable. I am careful with my gay clients to understand how each one of them is comfortable describing the state of their sexual orientation, and I use the terms that resonate with them. This is a matter of “to each his own,” of course.
But I would ask the same courtesy. I do describe myself as a gay man. And as a homosexual man. And as a same-sex-attracted man. In doing so, I am communicating the exact same idea: I am sexually attracted to other men, and not to women. Each of those term’s primary definition is: “somebody who is sexually attracted to his or her same gender.” I personally don’t view this as problematic, and, indeed, I think of it as a solution to the semantical mess we find ourselves in sometimes.
I hope that people won’t describe me as something I’m not (petulant, inflammatory, uneducated, grandstanding, whatever) because I choose to use all three of those dictionary-validated terms (well, except for SSA–that’s not in any dictionary) to describe my sexual orientation. But if you do, that’s absolutely your prerogative. Because that’s how language works.
I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this subject. How do you describe your sexual orientation, and why? (And remember the basic respectful truth as we discuss: “to each his or her own.”)