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Allison Hope

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How Much Gay Sex Makes You Gay?

Posted: 05/29/2012 5:54 pm

I know, I know. You don't have to sleep with anyone to know whom you're attracted to, and, at least in many Western cultures, you can sleep with whomever you want and call yourself whatever you like. We'd be foolish to think, though, that judgment wasn't placed on us by ourselves and others based on how we self-identify and how closely that aligns with our actual behaviors.

Where is the line between fantasy, desire, bedroom behavior, and identity, and who gets to draw it?

Even the most enlightened among us have probably placed judgment on someone at some point for not "owning up" to their preferences: the politician who keeps a coiffed trophy wife around to maintain his "electability status" but sleeps with same-sex prostitutes in secret; the straight guy who throws homophobic slurs but flirts with men when he's had more than four beers; the straight housewife who fantasizes about scoring with the other soccer moms and was never in love with her husband. Less overt examples that seem to stir the pot include the self-identified bisexual who sleeps mostly with same-sex partners, and the woman who sleeps exclusively with men but wears more rainbow gear than the NYC pride parade and talks about gay rights like she's part of the marginalized cohort.

Around dinner tables and happy-hour beers, under our breath and between the sheets with our lovers, we place pressure on ourselves and others to be "true" to whom we say we are -- and we feel uneasy when the sum isn't reflective of all the parts. There's a visceral reaction many of us have, however right or wrong, when we see someone breaking the rules of engagement between sexual identity and behavior that we've come to know and play by.

Why Do We Care?

Is a gold-star lesbian a more "authentic" lesbian than one who's slept with multiple men? Is a self-identified lesbian who has sex with more men than women an imposter? How many times can a self-proclaimed bisexual sleep with someone of the same sex before others start to whisper that his identity is being worn like a protective veil and that he's gay and afraid to admit it?

Is sexual identity more about attraction or politics? What about the social, emotional, mental, and physical factors, and can any of these ever really be separated? What's the difference between the labels you assign (or don't) to yourself and how others perceive you? Are you "allowed" to get a share with the boys in Fire Island Pines if you're straight? Are you "permitted" to keep a straight partner whom you're not sexually attracted to in order to maintain an outward heterosexual lifestyle? And why does it bother us so much when someone seems to violate those rules we've all silently agreed on?

A scene from Rose Troche's quintessential lesbian film Go Fish flickers in my mind. In a dream sequence, poor, lesbian Daria faces scrutiny and criticism from her lesbian contingent, which condemns her for betraying her identity when she sleeps with a man. The character feels a sense of shame for deviating from her sexual identity label and fears being ostracized from her lesbian community.

Many of us have been in Daria's shoes and shared her fear of excommunication from what may be the one group that has embraced us. At the same time that we're fearful, we've also been on the other side of the fence and pointed fingers -- overtly or subtly -- at someone who identifies in one way but acts in another.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA):

Sexual orientation is defined in terms of relationships with others. People express their sexual orientation through behaviors with others, including such simple actions as holding hands or kissing. One's sexual orientation defines the group of people in which one is likely to find the satisfying and fulfilling romantic relationships that are an essential component of personal identity for many people.

Of course the APA isn't the end-all (or even necessarily the beginning) when it comes to understanding sexual identity, and its definition doesn't acknowledge self-identification, including fantasy, desire, or self-perception, but its emphasis on "relationships with others" plays well into why and how we expect ourselves and others to call a spade a spade, to identify ourselves according to our behaviors. We see our external label as a reflection of our internal sense of being, and we expect that the two shall meet.

Cynthia Nixon's recent claim that she's "gay by choice" comes to mind. In a way, her largely misunderstood and controversial statement -- made because she is attracted to both men and women, and is currently "choosing" to be partnered with a woman -- is the opposite of many stories. Commonly known as a loud, public advocate for LGBTQ rights, Nixon might have been perceived as having stepped halfway back into the closet by "coming out" as bisexual after her perceived lesbianism, because she previously referred to herself as "gay." Were her comments an attempt to up her ante as an activist, to clarify her sexual identity, or to safeguard a piece of heteronormativity? Regardless of intention, the comment created uproar across mainstream and gay communities alike and generated discussion around identity politics. Can a woman who calls herself "gay" seemingly retract and call herself "bisexual"? Or does "gay" mean something different for her than it does for others?

What's in a Name?

To understand identity labels we have to understand semantics. Labels are words that we create, assign, and use to describe feelings, senses, actions, experiences, and ways of being, or for political or social alignment. "Gay" could mean something very different to some than to others. For Nixon it seemed she used "gay" to describe the community in which she subscribed, as well as an alignment politically and socially, but not necessarily to describe her own sexual attraction.

Sexual expressions and identities exist on a spectrum, after all, and are not nearly as rigid as our current labels connote. Is it fair to judge ourselves and others for not fitting into neatly assigned boxes, or are we merely protecting a fragile cause by policing the turf?

 
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