Sexual Quantification: No More Western Dichotomies, Please

by Erika Lynn Abigail Persephone Joanna Kreeger, ’15

What percentage gay/straight are you?

I was asked this question earlier today on a form I had to fill out for the iO Tillett Wright photo shoot this afternoon at Terra. I had initially wanted to get my photo taken for the same reasons as probably many of the other people who got their picture taken: it’s a national campaign, it’s making waves and iO Tillett Wright had a great TEDx talk about her project and sexual orientation.

But that question bothered me. It bothered me a lot. I ended up writing “me/me%- I don’t conform to bs dichotomies.” And I took my picture, and as much as I wanted to, I didn’t challenger her. But I kind of wish I had. Here’s why:

The most apparent concern is its treatment of bisexual/pansexual/non-gay/straight/fluid identities. As someone who is attracted to people of multiple genders, I don’t think of myself as part straight and part gay. I think of myself as someone who is attracted to multiple genders in very different ways. Furthermore, my attraction to those different genders (if you will, the degree of my attractions to these broad categories of people) has varied significantly over my life. There will be days when I wake up and all I can think about is feminine, female role people. And I might wake up the next day and only think about masculine, male role people. I want to respect the fact that my attractions vary, not write down the “percentage” of that day.

There is also a lot of trans* erasure in the question. First off, I’m always suspicious of gay spacious that inherently are not necessarily accessible to trans* people. By framing eligibility for the photo shoot as “being less than 100% straight,” Tillett Wright is essentially saying that straight trans* and genderqueer people cannot be a part of the photo shoot. (It’s worth mentioning that her project is funded largely by the HRC —  if you want to know why HRC isn’t great, read all of these articles)

I wouldn’t be so peeved about its exclusivity, if it weren’t for the fact that in her TEDx Talk, Tillett Wright discusses how the many inequalities LGB Americans face led her to create her campaign, “Self-Evident Truths.” Yet all the statistics that she cites are much graver for trans* Americans. I do not want to play oppression Olympics, but I do want to point out that if her goal is to raise visibility for marginalized communities, she might have also considered opening her project up to the trans* community as well.

But more importantly, by framing sexual orientation in terms of straightness (attraction to people of the opposite gender) and gayness (attraction to people of the same gender), there is inherent erasure of people who are attracted to genders outside of the traditional Western two-gender, cis-male/cis-female dichotomy. In her TEDx Talk, she discusses how she doesn’t want to place boxes on people, and yet this question reinforces an unfortunate and oppressive box society places on people in its assumption that people’s sexual attraction will fall within the traditional Western sexual dichotomy of gay straight. Granted, she’s allowing for more nuance than simply asking if you’re gay or straight, but what about those of us who are or have been attracted to people of genders besides male or female? Do we not count as queer (or, by your metric, 100% straight)?

Now, probably the most controversial of my criticisms is of her use of the term “gay” and the implications of that term. In her TEDx Talk, she extends the belief that “we [gays] have always been here,” a popular belief among nearly every gay organization to spew. But the fact of the matter is that gay people have not been here since the inception of the human race. The gay identity is a recent Western invention of the last 100 or so years.

In many cultures across the history of time, there has been not just tolerance but social acceptance of same-gender attraction without confining people to a specific identity based on that same-gender attraction. Furthermore, across time, there have been societies that socially accept and encourage relationships among people of any number of genders besides those that correspond nicely to the Western male/female equivalent.

Across time, attraction hasn’t been a function of a person’s identity as it is often seen today. And when we use terms like “gay” to broadly refer to people who aren’t “straight”, we reinforce the oppressive nature of our current social identification structure, which the gay movement of the 1900s largely solidified.

In our Western society, it makes sense that the understanding of sexual orientation as a function of our identity developed in the 1900s, because it’s easier for people to understand who we are if there is a tangible term to describe and understand us by. But the consequence of that paradigm shift is that now we must come out as an identity, generally gay, and from that identity people understand how our attraction functions. And by reducing the nuance of our attractions to a monolithic identity-gayness or bisexuality or pansexuality or whatever- we strip ourselves of our agency in determining our attractions. We are a function of that identity.

I want to be clear. I’m not challenging the personal use of the words gay or straight or bisexual or pansexual or anything else like that. But instead, I want to challenge the very notion of identification in the first place. Instead of focusing on creating a world that is more accepting of people who can easily identify with Western sexual identities and dichotomies, we should instead be focusing on liberating all of us from this system of identification and the systematic assumptions made that peoples sexualities will function a certain way, whether that be being attracted to men, women, white people, rich people, people with penises or vaginas or any other assumption that could be made about someone’s sexual attraction.

And if iO Tillett Wright were so keen on not boxing people in as she says she is in her TEDx Talk, then she wouldn’t ask people to conform to some identity. She would take their picture and add it to her collection of pictures of people whose sexual attractions do not conform to what society deems is appropriate.

So in short, I’m happy that I got my picture taken. I’m glad that a project like this exists. I wish however that instead of being focused on improving the equality of gay people, her collection was focused more broadly on dismantling the oppressive nature of our current understanding of sexuality, so that people had more freedom to explode and more freedom to allow their attractions to exist harmoniously with society and the world.


Erika is a feminine of center organism who loves to frolic in fields and promote vegetarianism and non-Western types of love.

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4 thoughts on “Sexual Quantification: No More Western Dichotomies, Please

  1. Sammie says:

    I must admit, as a little baby queer coming into my own, the notion of defining my sexuality by percentages was quite comforting. The notion that a person didn’t have to be 100% ANYTHING was mind-blowing in itself. I could reflect a each day, deem it a “30/70” day (straight/gay), and take solace in the next day being “60/40.” While nowadays, I see the fault in my attempts to only use two stagnant identities to define myself, I can still remember and imagine why the use of percentages is so invigorating. Fluid, quantifiable identities are eye-opening and accessible to those coming into queer spaces. I appreciate this piece in that it also propels my own thinking forward, and it provides me with a new point-of-view. I have fresh knowledge, and a new tool to utilize. With that, I’m not attempting to say that we need to take a step back–but I am trying to say that we should reflect and remember what our previous steps were like. A short time ago, it was hard enough for people to grasp the idea of “gay” in the first place. Now, people are given the tools and opportunities to understand fluidity in regards to sexuality–and that’s pretty great.

  2. Anonymous says:

    YES, thank you for writing this!! Couldn’t agree more.

    Also, it’s worth noting that statistics show that the biggest victim of LGBT violence are trans* women of color (http://www.advocate.com/news/daily-news/2011/07/12/lgbt-violence-significantly). But of course that just gets lumped into the larger LGBT umbrella as a means for orgs like HRC to continue getting $$ to fund “marriage equality” movements 😦

  3. devney says:

    (speaking with limited scope of the word ‘identity’ ) ‘Identity,’ as used on Stanford campus, has been useful in promoting change in U.S. cultural politics. Of course, one thing it is useful for is collectivizing the voices of people who share different problems rooted in one set of assumptions and/or prejudices of dominant culture/politics. The most applicable example here is that ‘queer’ tries to capture people who experience various problems rooted in hetero and cis assumptions. I wonder if as we recognize the limitations of ‘identity,’ we might seriously discuss (more than I have in the short, jargony sentences above) WHY and HOW ‘identity’ can be useful and harmful, so that our next buzzword for cultural/political change might dive even deeper into what people need in order to respect each other across infinite sorts of differences and power differentials. This article sets a good precedent for continuing that discussion. I hope the conceptual decendent(s) of ‘identity’ will turn attention away from naming individuals and instead name the assumptions and prejudices that make it too easy to hurt each other. It might move discussion away from changing individual minds to changing the discourses, segregation etc that keep these assumptions and prejudices going. Perhaps instead, or at least alongside of (optional) boxes, we tell stories of how we come to view the world, ourselves, and people as we do (no that’s not a pie in the sky – college essays are an attempt in this direction). I’m of course interested in red-flags others see ‘something after identity’ since I have only one person’s view on all the ways we hurt each other.

  4. Stop hating on the West says:

    You pretty much undermine the entire point you are trying to make by making the implicit assumption that the world is split up into the West and the non-West as if every non Western culture pretty much treated sexuality the same way and that their way of handling sexuality is necessarily better.

    There has never been a time or place where labels or identities were not attached to people for their attraction or behavior. The modern West uses the words “gay” and “lesbian” amongst others but other labels from history include “sodomite”, “third-gender”, “two-spirit”, “eunuch” amongst countless others. All of these terms carry with them some sort of societal expectation imposed on the individuals in question.

    Additionally, despite the West’s system of labeling, LGBT people here I would argue are much more able to express themselves freely even compared to countries where same-sex relationships were normalized from antiquity. For instance, there are some cultures including those of the Middle East and parts of South Asia where it was okay for a male to have sex with another male as long as he penetrated. Men who liked to bottom (to use modern vernacular) either had to hide that part of themselves in order to continue to be perceived as masculine and respected. Otherwise they risked the condemnation of their community and being relegated to non-men, just for this one aspect of themselves.

    Compare this to the modern West where straight men can ask their girlfriends to peg them and still be considered straight! Gay men also are able to top and bottom without being made to feel that they’re less of a man because of what they enjoy doing in bed. All this freedom in a society that you claim represses people because of the use of labels.

    This is just one example, but there are many others I could point to as well. Many areas of the non-Western world never had “labels” but they had rigid social expectations that may as well have had a label attached to them.

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