“All young people, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, deserve a safe and supportive environment in which to achieve their full potential.” –Harvey Milk
WHAT ARE YOU? This is possibly my least favorite question in the world. We ask it when we need to put someone in a box. We feel compelled to label people and fit them neatly into a category in our mind so that we know how to treat them. “What are you?” We ask it about religion. We ask it about race and ethnic background. There are often very clear answers to these questions: “I am Muslim and White,” or “I am an atheist and am half-Black and half-Korean.” When it comes to sexuality, our WHAT ARE YOU? implies that we expect the same cut-and-dried type of answer: “I am straight. Period,” or “I am gay. Period.” Once in a blue moon, we hear that someone is bisexual, but we tend to dismiss that as an aberration. We prefer the person to fit neatly into one of the two boxes: Straight or Gay. That’s it. Label assigned. No more thinking for me to do about it. You are an option for me or you aren’t. But maybe, just maybe, it isn’t that simple.
I think that sexuality exists on a continuum—a spectrum—and that very few people are 100% at either the heterosexual end or the homosexual end. We receive so many demands from the day we are born—both overt and covert—to get in a box and stay in it. Of course, in this culture we demand our children to stick to the Straight box. This demand causes all kinds of difficulties for those who come to realize that they were born to be in a different box. But, any move away from the Straight box puts the person on a one-way trip to the Gay box. Straight or Gay: that’s what we are, according to the rules. But, like I said, I think it is more complicated than that.
Humans are complicated. We take the easy way out when we paint others with such broad brush-strokes, turning everyone into a cartoon figure as hero, villain, sweetheart, jerk, witch, great guy, mean girl, and so on. Most people fit all of these descriptions at one moment or another, so to try to put them into a box with a label only gives us a very limited and unrealistic view of their true character. The fewer the labels that we allow in our mental grid of our world, the less accurate (and more cartooned) is our worldview.
So, where does my Sexuality Spectrum fit in here? In order to understand where you truly are sexually, you have to be willing to comb your innermost thoughts, feelings, and inclinations, not just your sexual history. What thoughts excite you? What repels you? What shows up in your dreams, and how do you feel about that when it does? Who do you imagine yourself snuggling up with? Getting freaky with? Growing old with? Then you have to consider whether your honest answers to all of these questions match entirely with the box you are in—Straight or Gay—or if your answers make you feel like your box is getting a bit constraining. Maybe it isn’t so black-&-white. That’s how it feels to me.
If you make me claim a box, I will definitely claim Straight. I always have. I have always been highly attracted to women and find no difficulty in becoming excited at the thought of being naked with them. I have arousing dreams about being with them. When I use my less-sexy test of “What type of body do you want to snuggle with?”—or, another version is, “Who do you want to share passionate kisses with?”–I am definitely drawn to images of women. I sound pretty darn straight, right? Well, yes, but maybe not 100% yes. As I said, humans are complicated. I can certainly acknowledge when a man is attractive. I am not repulsed by the idea of being with a man sexually. I have had a few dreams in my life involving men and could even get excited thinking about some aspects of it. Some. Not all, and certainly less so than my very frequent thoughts of women. And when it comes to my Snuggle-&-Kiss Tests, I have a tough time envisioning myself warmly wrapped in a man’s arms. It is just not as appealing to me as a woman’s.
So, where do I rate? Based on everything I just mentioned, I guess I would say that I am an 85% Straight. Maybe it is more, possibly slightly less, but let’s call it 85%. The immediate thought that comes to me is, “Does that mean I am BISEXUAL?” This takes me right back to the curse of labeling. If I admit to even the slightest attraction to a male, I might be evicted from my comfortable home in the Straight box. Heck, in some people’s mind, that admission might send me directly to the Gay box. Yikes! I don’t want to be in the Gay box. There is way too much persecution there. All of my straight privilege—assumptions that I am masculine, not wondering if I have equal protection under the law, etc.—goes right out the window. And for what, a few thoughts?
If I have to go to the Gay box for an occasional thought about men in a sea of thoughts about women, it is no wonder I never actually took the step of entering into a relationship with a man. I have known and liked many gay men over the years, and in my younger years certainly had opportunities to enter into romantic or physical relationships with some. I chose not to. As I think back about that time from this distance, I think that maybe the reason I never did “experiment” or get into a relationship with a man is just this fear that a single transgression would get me permanently evicted from the friendly confines of Straighthood. This is exactly how it works: The Curse of Labeling. When we try to fit neatly into a box—even if it mostly describes us—we deny ourselves the richness of the full human experience.
When I think of the Sexuality Spectrum and of people ignoring it to honor their own Truth, a few examples come to mind. I know a very enlightened woman who always thought of herself as a heterosexual. She met a gay woman and fell in love, and, more importantly, gave herself permission to disregard the labels that everyone else wanted to put on her and allowed herself to enjoy the experience of loving another person. Years later and still together, I would bet she still assigns herself a number clearly on the heterosexual side of the spectrum but would probably tell you that she simply rejects labels altogether. I have another friend who always badly wanted to be on the straight side, so his actions allowed him to be labeled as such, even if, deep down, he knew that he was at least somewhat more on the gay side. When he finally lived long enough to realize that the Straight label didn’t make him approve of himself the way society promised it would, he gave himself permission to test the waters on the other side. What he thought was a tolerable “62% Gay-but-living-as-Straight” turned into the realization that he had always been 85% Gay but was finally willing to admit it to himself and the world. That permission liberated him, and he can now live with the Gay label if you insist on making him wear one. Finally, I think of the movie “Brokeback Mountain” and its two main characters, Jack and Ennis, who fall in love in a place and time that does not accept love between men. Jack, as the story unfolds, is revealed to us as someone who is probably 90% Gay, while Ennis is probably 85% Straight. Yet somehow, each person fell in love with the other person. In their tiny bubble in the Universe, the labels went out the window, and there was only Love.
What seems to happen to most of the rest of us, though, is that we never get past the labels. We get our WHO ARE YOU? answers as soon as we can and then get right to the task of imprisoning ourselves and those we meet in the boxes of those answers. They determine who we can love and who we should fear, who we tolerate and who we persecute. The labels separate us. The labels minimize us. They make us smaller, simpler, and more bland. They strip us of our richness and complexity. But the worst thing that the labels do is reduce our chances to experience Love.
They immediately cut us off from a huge portion of the population. They send us to another label—the “right” gender, race, religion, and economic class for our label–instead of a person. Sure, these labels help us organize our world in a coherent way, but when taken as rule-making truths, they organize us right into a prison of our own making. So, if I am truly an 85% Straight guy who accepts the label of Straight, I am only allowed to fall in love with the women who also accept Straight, no matter if their actual percentages are 40% Straight or 100%. That 15% Gay aspect of my being must neither be acknowledged nor allowed to find love. Instead of choosing freely amongst nearly all of the adult population to find the right one to share my entire, complex, beautiful being with, I am left to scrounge around for true love amongst less than half of the population, most of whom have been stripped of their authenticity by accepting their label without a fight. Suddenly, I don’t like my chances so much!
Thankfully for me, I am happily in love with my wife, and I hope she doesn’t go anywhere for a very long time. But if she does, I hope that I will be strong enough to be open to Love however it shows up. I hope that for my kids, too. In a world where it is such a challenge to find and sustain happiness, and where a significant component of happiness comes from the giving and receiving of love, I hope for them that no matter where they land on the Sexuality Spectrum, they accept themselves completely and accept Love openly and gratefully.
How about you? Where do you score yourself on the Sexuality Spectrum, and how does that affect who you are willing to love? Open up your journal and dive deep. This is a huge and very private topic for most of us, so perhaps your journal is the only one you dare share this with right now. I know that for my part, this letter to you has things that I have never shared with anyone. If I can do it for you, you can do it for yourself! What is your label? Gay? Straight? Something else? How tightly do you cling to that label? Would you ever dare stray to the other side, or would you be afraid, like me, that going there—even just once—might define you as something other than your current label? Does that seem too risky to you? Do you agree with me that people exist all across the Sexuality Spectrum, or do you think it is more black-and-white than that, i.e. that most people are 100% Gay or 100% Straight? Do you think your number on the Sexuality Spectrum changes at all throughout life, or do you think we simply become more clear about it at a certain point? Do you think you are allowed any choice in the matter? Why do you think we make such a big deal about this topic? Why has it been so taboo? How has this affected who you are open to loving? Has it narrowed your choices? Does that seem right to you? Be honest with yourself, and if you dare, leave me a reply. I would like to know: Are you open to Love, however it shows up?
Authenticity is beautiful,