My freshman year of college I met this guy from Ohio who claimed to be “heteroflexible.” What the hell is that! I was 18 and I’d never heard that particular term before. As far as I knew, people were either gay, straight, or perhaps bisexual. When he explained just how being “heteroflexible” works, he said that he mostly dated girls but that he would be open to hooking up with a dude, though he didn’t imagine having a relationship with a guy. But like, how is that not bisexuality? I didn’t get it.
Later that year I had the hots for this guy Ryan who lived on my floor. I think this is every straight guy’s nightmare — that all gay men want to do is sleep with you. We do! But not because you’re straight — you have to be hot first. And if you’re not hot, well then that’s just too bad. Gay people are attracted to hot people, gay or straight. Being gay doesn’t mean you can only be attracted to other gay people, which I think some people think. I used to hate when I would tell people that so-in-so was hot and they’d be like, Oh but he’s straight. CALM DOWN!!! I didn’t say I wanted to have 10,000 of his babies, damn.
Ryan, as far as I knew, was straight. The day I told him he was hot and asked if he wanted to hook up he didn’t beat me up or get angry or anything. He was just like, Thanks, bro. But I’m straight. I’m flattered though, which is what they always say. But in my teenage mind, which had not yet been touched by the great Judith Butler, I didn’t understand why his being “straight” and my being “gay” mattered any. We were just a bunch of 18 year old guys with bodies, can’t we just enjoy ourselves? Why do we have to get tripped up on labels?
If you take a gender studies class, one of the things you learn is how gender and sexuality are tied together. You’ll talk about Foucault, and you’ll hear about how the categories of homosexual and heterosexual were “invented” in the late 19th century. But for many people, a gender studies class is the only place where this kind of conversation happens. In our daily lives, we accept that people are either gay, straight, or the ever elusive bisexual boogeyman, without any possible wiggle room for other experimentation. A gender studies class is for many the first time they get to think about how sexuality works.
Without stomping on anybody’s sexual history or preference, I wonder what would happen if we stopped thinking in terms of sexuality altogether. What if we inhabited a cultural space where people’s sexuality or gender was fluid, where you could be dating someone of a different gender one day and then up and decide that, hey, you want to do this other thing now — without being ridiculed, guilted, or made to identify? What if we removed all the labels and just explored human sensation?
These are questions that partly drive the brilliant theorist Jack Hablerstam’s recent book Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal, where his primary interest is in using Lady Gaga as an example of a new kind of feminism. Halberstam wants to liberate us from norms, which he sees as obsessed with classifying and making things clear when in fact we should be confused — being confused is where all the power lies. He writes:
What if gender shifted over the course of a lifetime—what if someone began life as a boy but became a boygirl and then a boy/man? What if some males are ladies, some ladies are butch, some butches are women, some women are gay, some gays are feminine, some femmes are straight, and some straight people don’t know what the hell is going on?….What if you begin life as a queer mix of desires and impulses and then are trained to be heterosexual but might relapse into queerness once the training wears off?….What if girls stopped wearing pink, boys started wearing skirts, women stopped competing with other women, and men stopped grabbing their crotches in public?….What if sexual orientation could also be read as less fixed, less determined, more negotiated and fluid? (Halberstam, 8-9)
Most people never think about their sexual behavior like this and accept the idea that they were born straight, born gay, born male, born female. But if you play with the exercise for a little bit and imagine what, in fact, it would be like to inhabit the world of “What Ifs” that Halberstam is encouraging us to think about, what do you discover about yourself? What do you think would happen?
Part of me thinks that many of us in our 20s and 30s are already in that moment. I have plenty of friends, male and female, who live this way. Fashion models like Lea T., Andrej Pejic, and Casey Legler add some exciting gender non-normativity into the fashion mix. If you’re a straight guy and find yourself attracted to the beautiful Andrej Pejic, a male model who can easily navigate the boudaries between the masculine and the feminine, what does that mean? Does that make you a big old homo or does it make you a person who is attracted to this one particular person in that particular instance?
And, you know, I’ve received a number of emails from many of you who, without being prompted, immediately identify yourselves to me as sexually “curious” or “mostly-straight” or “straight but not narrow.” What does that mean? What are we doing?
I think heterosexuality and homosexuality are a hoax. Yes, many of us will think of ourselves in terms of those binaries — we have to — and the majority of us are OK enough with ourselves to accept our sexual behaviors. And let me be clear: I’m not saying that if you identify as gay or straight that you’re just lying to yourself. No one is being attacked. What I’m trying to propose as a thought experiment is that, whether we’re gay or straight, we’re attracted to specific physical traits in people, wherever they appear, not genders themselves. Certainly I’m obsessed with hot guys with absolutely enormous sticks, but I admit that there are some girls that make me go “hmmm.” I’m sure I’m not alone, so where does that leave us?