Monday, 17 February 2014

Gender and Sexuality Part 2: Labels

Recently there was a cheap attention-seeking article on the Telegraph, about how the word gay is changing meaning among youth, as they increasingly use it to mean lame or rubbish rather than homosexual. The article's 'controversial' angle was that words change meaning and we just have to accept that instead of trying to protect them like gay rights organisation Stonewall is trying to do. Of course the problem here, which the article bluntly disregards or tries to refute, is that this change in meaning happened because people have been equating gay with lame, not replacing one with the other, which of course perpetuates negative attitudes towards gay people. Now, I have a problem with these negative attitudes, but not necessarily with losing the word gay to describe homosexuals. I don't think the current meaning of gay will be lost any time soon, but I kind of wish it did.

See, gay, lesbian, queer, straight etc. are all labels and labels encourage segregation, identification and consequently conflict. When people say gay they don't just mean a person who is attracted to a person of the same sex; the word carries an individual's perception of what gay people are like as a community, their cultural output, their 'lifestyle', the way they are portrayed in media, as well as the political, religious and moral implications that the word carries for each person. Even worse, a person who has an attraction to the same sex, will automatically think they are part of what they think that word means, and will identify with that word and all it entails. The people who attach that word to other people, and the people who identify with that word, are unaware of the fact that their perception of that word is entirely subjective and its meaning largely arbitrary. The label gay for example creates the illusion that everyone who is labelled as such will be pretty much the same. It leads to stereotypes. How many times have I met people with very little experience of gays surprised that I was not what they thought gay people were like. The funny thing is that they think I'm the exception, not realising that gays are just like any other arbitrary group, they come in every colour under the rainbow. We are just regular people all completely different from each other with only one thing in common. We all fall under that same ambiguous label and people focus on that label instead of the individual person. This even happens among gay people, such is the power of the label. And herein lies the problem with words and labels, they are all-encompassing. Language and mind tend to do that, they like to organise and put things neatly into groups, the so called fragmented way of thinking. Where everything is a continuous spectrum of experience, language and mind come and break it into pieces, separate it, and make complex connections between the arbitrary pieces. At least that is how our Western languages work, I'm sure there are more holistic, continuum-like languages out there.

Of course if people were aware that labels are just that, ways of categorising the world so that it can be digestible to the everyday mind, we wouldn't have a problem. The problem is giving these words more power by attaching more meaning onto them, using them to separate one person from another when they are merely describing one attribute out of many a person possesses. Let's say you have a black Christian working class gay man, a disabled Jewish middle class bisexual woman, and a white atheist upper class transgendered straight man. Which is their defining characteristic? Which group would you attach them to, and which group would they attach to themselves? It soon becomes clear that they might have affinities to certain groups, but what they actually are is an amalgam, an overlap of cultural, social and biological tensions that makes up who they are. We all have similarities and differences to each other, but there's one thing we all share: we're all human. Why do we let connotations of words separate us? And what's more, these words and labels create hierarchies for us which we abide to. Which is the most privileged combination of attributes on this planet? Of course it is the White upper/middle class straight male. So anyone lucky enough to be born with melanin-lacking skin, in a well-off family, with a penis and a sexual attraction to people with vaginas is automatically privileged over everybody else. That is absolutely preposterous, but that is the power of labels, of not only putting people into groups but creating hierarchies of power and privilege. And language reflects this, in the case of male domination with androcentricism. There’s a funny blog entry I found where being a straight white male is compared to playing on the easy setting in World of Warcraft which definitely nails this point.

So no I don't want to be thought of as gay, or as a man, or olive skinned, or a foreigner, or middle class. I am a human being, a type of mammal (another type of classification but let's not get into that), whose biological constitution has given me primary and secondary male characteristics and a medium amount of melanin in my skin, my sexual and romantic attractions seem to be mainly towards certain humans with male characteristics, I live in a place geographically different than the one I grew up in, and have been raised and educated within a stable-ish family environment where money was neither scarce nor plenty, in a Western based society and culture. It's easier to just say I'm gay than "I'm a person with male characteristics who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to people with male characteristics", yet it seems that "gay" does not mean just that, it also includes all the baggage described above. And thus the confusion and politics and hatred follow. I wish whenever it came up in conversation instead of saying I'm gay, he's gay, etc I could say that long awkward sentence. But it would make me either sound like a pompous prick or someone who is not secure with his sexuality, or just nonsensical. It would still be more accurate than the word gay though.

In academia and especially gender studies, the term non-heterosexual is used for anyone that doesn't fall within a traditional hetero role. This term highlights our heteronormative thinking, that everything is always juxtaposed against heterosexuality. It points out the limitations of our language which has been crafted around a hetero understanding, and is unable to successfully incorporate modes outside its standard gender binary model. It is clear that centuries of Christian conditioning on western languages and culture have shaped languages around a model of man and woman, with the man being of course the dominant figure and the woman being submissive. Any other non-heterosexual modes were deemed defunct, sinful, unspeakable, and hence their almost complete erasure from the collective unconscious. Still, because of the hetero binary way of thinking, there is some room for linguistic comprehension of monosexual modes such as homosexuality which is actually not that different from heterosexuality in that respect. The major problem noted in the Wikipedia article is that our language leads to bisexual erasure, where a multisexual mode is not comprehended at all by any traditional monosexual.

I like the term non-heterosexual, it makes a statement and is an anti-label. It reverses the labelling back to heterosexuals, creating a limited group out of them while all the rest are freed from the confines of a label. Traditional heteros are really the suppressed ones here, limited by language and culture within their strict roles that they blindly abide to. Roles that have been carefully crafted through years of supposed religious sublimation, degrading women and bullying men into becoming bullies, while erasing traces of any other kind of sexuality. The same roles are now being imposed on the other monosexuals, either by force or by their own will to integrate. (see "gay" marriage.)

The term non-heterosexual retains a certain rebelliousness, an unwillingness to conform to any preset mould, all the while undermining rigid heterosexuality. As a label (or anti label) i think it is more successful than say gay or lesbian, as it not a mere label but a statement, it actually carries a clear message through the use of negation. Gay and lesbian are pure labels devoid of inherent meaning and thus allow for free interpretation. Homosexual and heterosexual as terms would be more successful if people actually knew the meaning of homo and hetero. Any Greek person of course knows that homo means same and hetero means other, yet this etymology is lost in translation - which deems these words ineffectual to convey a meaning and thus they become labels just like any other (not to mention the negative connotations they have garnered over the years) .

Still I feel like non-heterosexual is a transitional term that serves its own purpose, but there is a need for a more inclusive term. Recently somebody proposed the acronym GSD which stands for gender and sexual diversities to include basically everything that is not heterosexual. This works well in including other kinds of sexualities besides the trio of hetero-homo-bi, such as asexuals, pansexuals etc. But it fails in another respect. It does not include heterosexuality as a kind of GSD, keeping it as a separate thing with its own status, and secondly its creators want to include secondary modes of sexual expression such as piss play, s&m and paraphilias within this all inclusive term. By taking heterosexuality out of the picture it implies a common ground between these secondary expressions and non-heterosexual modes which in a way undermines the latter. So heterosexuality should be included or at least secondary modes should be excluded to make this in any way credible. (Of course I understand that this term was used as an all inclusive term that makes sense within their practice as psychologists, but the way they advertised this new term was as a replacement for the acronym LGBTQ.)

Other semi successful terms have been androphilic and gynephilic, that avoid gender binary altogether but instead focus on the object of attraction either male/masculine or female/feminine. This succeeds in including transgender people and by not referring to gender it effectively groups straight men with lesbians and straight women with gays, an interesting and quite thought-provoking grouping. Where it fails though is in describing pansexuals and asexuals (bisexuals are termed ambiphilic) . Also again the Greek etymology of these words means that it will be incomprehensible to mainstream consciousness. Still even as labels the paradigm shift they create is enough to shake current understanding of sexualities.

My take on this, and this is by no means presented as a solution but more like a thought experiment, has been these acronyms :

a2m - attracted to male characteristics
a2f - attracted to female characteristics
a2b - attracted to both
a2n - attracted to none
a2a - attracted to all

My thinking behind these terms was as such: being acronyms of commonly understood words avoids labelisation (and subsequently stereotypes) and conveys a clear message in plain English rather than Greek or Latin terms . It describes the focus of attraction rather than the gender of the attractee, and hence can easily be applied to transgendered people in a similar way to androphilia/gynephilia. The fact that attraction does not necessarily only include sexual attraction but also romantic attraction (or even friendly attractions) means that homoromantic and heteroromantic asexuals are grouped with monosexuals (a2m and a2f). A2b and a2a are purposefully left open so that they not only describe bisexuals and pansexuals, but also genderqueers. In fact, gender queers can happily move from one term to the other as they please. These terms are absolutely non-committal, which can also be seen in the fact that they are referring to male and female characteristics rather than men and women . I stayed away from the words masculinity and femininity as they do not allow for the flexibility of a mixture of the two. What happens here is a breakdown of binary thinking – allowing for a fluid and fuzzy way of seeing sexuality. What is a woman who is attracted to women with masculine characteristics? Clearly a lesbian you would say in our archaic system, and the stereotypes ensue. In my system this woman is really a2b or even a2a. It stops being an attraction towards a particular sex or gender, and it becomes about an attraction to a plurality of characteristics, of modes and being. Soon it becomes clear that everyone is genderqueer to a degree. Soon it stops being about separating people in arbitrary ways but looking at each person as a unique conglomeration, an inseparable flow of different characteristics, biological, social, cultural. It becomes an attraction towards people, and it can finally transform into a2h, an attraction to humans (or lack thereof). Then this stupid conversation about gender and sexuality will be over and humans will stop fighting about categorisations they themselves had created, and accept each other as the complex entities that each of us is. A gender-free utopia. Let's all just be human.

Further reading/Refs:

The World Health Organization defines gender as the result of socially constructed ideas about the behavior, actions, and roles a particular sex performs.[4] The beliefs, values and attitude taken up and exhibited by them is as per the agreeable norms of the society and the personal opinions of the person is not taken into the primary consideration of assignment of gender and imposition of gender roles as per the assigned gender.[4] Intersections and crossing of the prescribed boundaries have no place in the arena of the social construct of the term "gender".

They strongly believe that their community is able to function because gender roles are not placed on individuals but rather that everyone is equal—for example there is no identifiable “bread winner”. Children are taken care of by whoever can help; food is cooked by anyone who is able to and drinking beer and smoking is not only okay for the “men” of the community.

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