Why We Still Need to Perform Our Sexual Orientation
June 26. The US Supreme Court rules that state-level bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional. Worldwide celebrations ensue.
July 8. I am about to leave my apartment to attend a party. My well-meaning flatmate asks, “Is that your outfit? Expect girls to hit on you if you wear that jacket.”
July 28. A friend who also lives in gay-friendly, liberal Berlin sends me the following text: “Two teenage girls just asked me whether I was gay on the train.”
August 13. I get lunch with a friend who introduces me to her girlfriend. I ask how they met. “Tinder!” They both laugh awkwardly before explaining that, as a feminine lesbian, it is near impossible to meet someone in real life.
September 12. I seem to be getting more attention from women on the street since having my septum pierced. That evening, I attend a concert where I overhear a group of girls speculate on my sexual orientation.
“Why would it matter to them?” I think. And then I remember the countless times I have asked similar questions, albeit more discreetly, about acquaintances or complete strangers. But disappointment overcomes me every time I catch myself assuming someone is gay or straight based on their behaviour alone and I really do my best to correct my thinking.
Researching for this piece, I stumbled upon the publications of US law professor Luke A. Boso, who largely dedicates his work to the relationship between law and sexual orientation. In his paper Disrupting Sexual Categories of Intimate Preference (2010), he attempts to define sexual orientation, thereby highlighting the fact that this term encompasses so many other widely debated terminologies that “sexual orientation is an incoherent concept composed of many elements that are in and of themselves illusory.” Gender, sex and desire are some of them.
In most of the western world, you can be pretty much whatever you want – as long as you’re clear about it. The implication being that you have to “perform” your sexual orientation in a way that meets society’s expectations so, if you identify as homosexual, you must behave and look according to other people’s ideas of how homosexuals behave and look. This also explains the fact that there remains a strong prejudice against bisexuality, which somehow still doesn’t seem to be considered a valid form of sexual orientation. As Kristen Cochrane wrote for Slutever, coming out as bisexual can even “effectively relegate you to persona non grata in both spaces for straight and gay people”.
In that light, most non-heterosexual people – as well as an increasing number of heterosexuals, as shown by the recent story involving Cate Blanchett – are conflicted with regard to how others perceive them and their sexual orientation. Binary oppositions are still the norm and it seems transgressive to not fall right into either the gay or straight category. As a result, when processing thoughts regarding their own sexual orientation, people often have no choice but to comply with stereotypes forced on them by society. In many places, if you are a gay man, you are expected to like fashion, cosmopolitans and promiscuous sex. A lesbian ought to look manly and shouldn’t, under any circumstance, be considered attractive by straight men. “You’re too cute to be gay” is a sentence feminine lesbians hear way too often.
As shown by some messages posted on anonymous secret sharing app Whisper, gay men who don’t fit the stereotypes linked to their sexual orientation struggle. For example, “I’m too gay for straight people and too straight for gay people. Truth is, I’m not even bi, I’m gay. I don’t know where I belong, so I don’t have many people I can talk to”, says one user. Similarly, feminine-looking lesbians often have to turn to dating apps because they are not performing their sexual orientation obviously enough to meet girls in bars or at social events. They are also frequently forced to prove themselves both outside and inside of queer communities.
“When I began dating girls as a college sophomore, my first question was not, ‘So, how does this sex thing without a penis even go?’ Or, ‘How do I come out to my mother as bisexual, or possibly, a lesbian?’ What I really wanted to know was, ‘Can I still wear dresses?’” wrote Michelle Cheever on Thought Catalog. For her the answer to that last question, by the way, was a no. All in all, these stereotypes create yet another form of discrimination against people who already have to deal with daily stigmatisation.
As strange as it sounds, it seems that sexual orientation, its perception by others and the stigmas attached to it are mostly defined by factors that have very little to do with, well, sex. And while this is plainly true for non-straight people, people who are straight and do not want society to question that also see some of their choices and preferences influenced by binary norms. One example is that some straight men who feel they are not allowed to enjoy things usually associated with femininity that might make them seem gay, casually rebrand them – think brosé wine, bromance, man braids and even broga (yes, that’s yoga for bros). While this is definitely a sign of the masculine domination of society, it also says a lot about the influence of perceived sexual orientation.
When dealing with sexual orientation, the idea of perception should never be estranged. Attributes or characteristics that make someone seem gay or straight lead to one thing only – assumptions. Unfortunately, for some people, observing stereotypes linked to their sexual orientation is the only way to come to terms with their identify, and this goes well beyond forbidding oneself to like yoga as a straight man. For example, the documentary Do I Sound Gay? (2014) by David Thorpe, explores how someone’s sexuality is evaluated based on the way they sound when they speak and which oral markers could define whether somebody “sounds” gay or straight. The documentary shows the ambiguous relationship that gay men have, or have had, with the way they sound when they speak, especially before or during coming out. For some, it even created an additional stigma and caused bullying – yet another non sex-related implication of sexual orientation.
In The Problem With Straight Acting Gay Men, filmmaker and artist Amrou Al-Kadhi analyses the increasing popularity of events celebrating very masculine gay men, such as the Room Service club night in London. For him, “the opportunities now available for gay men – [their] ability to get married, raise children, have influential careers” are having unforeseen consequences. Heteronormative success and its defining criteria “are becoming the preoccupation of many gay men” who no longer support each other as part of a community which champions “diversity among each other”, the way it did when it still had to fight institutionalised oppression. The point he makes here is extremely interesting: sometimes, what might look like progress from the outside actually generates an unexpected negative backlash within a community.
As writer David Artavia pinpointed, “‘Gay’ acting is what society tells us not to be, while ‘straight’ acting is usually praised”. The way people deal with the expectations of society has such serious consequences that it can lead to internalised homophobia – a feeling self-hatred triggered by other people’s (assumed) perceptions of oneself. Nowadays, some gay men themselves celebrate “straight-acting” people more than “camp” ones. This also raises the debate of whether preferences are innate, or acquired and influenced by one’s environment. In his article, Artavia shows that “a masculine gay guy sits at the top” of the spectrum of attraction. For the author, it is the result of societal brainwashing, which subsequently comes down to the idea that taste and preferences are a social construct. Therefore, he advises other gay men to resist the pressure to act straight and to consider giving “self acting” a try instead.
The Gay Shame movement aims at combating a phenomenon that they describe as the increasing commercialisation of gay identity. For them, pride celebrations result “queer assimilation” and are a sign of being gay becoming mainstream, thus conforming to heteronormative rules. They oppose same-sex marriage for similar reasons, their website stating that “queers are so desperate to get their taste of straight privilege” that they would do anything to comply with society’s expectations. Although their homepage claims that “all are welcome”, they don’t display much tolerance in their messages and describe heterosexuality as a “misogynist, racist system of domination and oppression.” What this shows is that despite the recent strides made to achieve equal rights as far as the implications of sexual orientation are concerned, prejudice remains. Regardless of their sexual orientations, people still stigmatize each other based on this very trait, and this goes against making the world a more tolerant place.
Just as we all need to be more inclusive and less judgmental when dealing with the fact that some people do not identify as either male or female, we need to acknowledge the fact that the way someone acts does not say anything about who gets them off and that people’s sexual preferences can also fall out of the binary gay/straight realm. It takes an insane amount of self-confidence and self-esteem to perform being yourself without taking sexual orientation into account. But if we cannot find the strength to think and act beyond the binary limitations of society, then we are failing those who most need our compassion and support – be it those whose safety is endangered because homosexuality isn’t tolerated where they live, or people from younger generations who are trying to figure out who they are.
However, considering current discussions and news, it appears that there still is a long way to go.
September 23: Director Roland Emmerich explains he chose a “straight-acting” actor to play gay liberation movement movie Stonewall’s main character, to appeal to straight people. He also tried to justify his choice by stating that “as a director you have to put yourself in your movies, and I’m white and gay.”
Photograph by Camille Darroux