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Objects of a Look

How our need for labels caused me to mislabel myself and my sexuality

 

It clove him like a scythe, extraordinary, heartbreaking and pleasurable. At long last the husk bursts and opens, I am myself for all eternity, pederast, villain, coward. I am seen; no, not even that: it sees me. He was the object of a look (Sartre, 2001 edition: 116).

 

When I was in my second year at university I came out as being gay. My friends were somewhat surprised to hear I fancied guys and didn't fancy women, as I didn’t “come across as being gay”. I've since done something of a 180 degree turn – one might even be tempted to quip that I’ve gone back into the closet which would be true were it not for the fact my reversal wasn’t due to any sense of shame. The simple fact is that coming out as gay was a premature move. So why did I do it?

 

The short answer is that I was confused but before I go into that, I should stop and clear up a few points, as I’m already anticipating some objections to this description. After all, people use the word ‘confused’ when attempting to explain homosexuality away as something abnormal, some sort of perversion of the heterosexual ideal. So, just for the record I don’t believe that being gay is in itself the result of confusion, illness or anything unnatural. Indeed, I have met same sex couples who are deeply in love and I refuse to believe there is anything unnatural about that. The confusion, at least for me, was rooted in the need for a label, the desire to take feelings and emotions which felt very complicated and reduce them to something I could name.

 

However, this is the age we live in – we live in an age of labels. People are no longer people who find it difficult to read; they are dyslexic. People no longer feel sad or angry or lonely; they simply are depressed. Following that train of thought, it seems that people no longer fancy someone who happens to be of a particular gender; they are gay, or straight or bi-sexual.

 

This may seem like a strange distinction to make but let’s not forget what a powerful thing a label can be. Granted, we need language to communicate and as such, we need words so that other people know what we’re talking about. Even so, it appears that the labels we use are becoming less of a description and more and more of a tool for reducing us to something simple which, arguably, we are not.

 

The revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, explaining how he felt when all the other aspects of his identity were negated as a result of being described as a “negro” by white colonialists, once described the experience of being an object in the midst of other objects (Wartenberg, 2008:159). This point can be applied to the arena of sexuality as well.

 

When we meet people, we automatically take it that they're “straight”, unless they are a noticeably camp man or butch woman. This automatic labelling is something that we as humans do on impulse. However, as soon as labels are applied, assumptions are made about what people like, do, and are – or should be – capable of. For example, the fact that I can’t stand football is now met with shocked gasps in a way which it wasn’t when I was “gay”.

 

So how would I label myself now? “Bisexual?” An “ex-bi guy?” “A formerly experimental student”? Any of these labels will be accompanied by a set of assumptions about who I am as a person and yet all of those labels are lacking in something.

 

However, to return to my original point, that is where the confusion came in. Our attitudes towards sexuality may recently have broadened in this country but it seems as though we still have that inherent need to label ourselves and others, to form identities around one (albeit fairly powerful) aspect of our and others' personalities.

 

As soon as I felt the first stirrings of curiosity around my sexuality, I felt the need to label myself, both inwardly and publicly. This may be partly down to human nature but does the need to impose this rigidity on ourselves suggest that perhaps we have not come as far as we thought?

 

So if I could venture back into the past and do things differently, what lessons would I take with me? For one thing, as I've already established, I wouldn’t come out as being “gay”. Indeed, I wouldn’t feel the need to come out as being anything, although I'd probably announce the change in my preferences, if only for practical purposes!

 

What I felt was a strong longing to experiment with my sexuality with members of the same sex. For some reason, that desire became stronger than any other sexual urge that I was feeling. Try as I might to avoid it, that urge reared to the forefront of my consciousness, seemingly negating any other impulses. To this day, I've never really been able to articulate why I felt that the desire to experiment with men annulled my awareness of the desire to explore my sexuality with members of the opposite sex. My first sexual experience was with a woman and the encounters that I've had since then have proved to me that I was indeed too hasty to embrace the label of being “gay”. But it also strikes me that plenty of people have been happy enough to enjoy being “bisexual” without ever feeling the pressure to assume that a desire for one gender ruled out a desire for the other. So what was going on for me that made it so difficult to keep an open mind about my own sexuality?

 

For one thing, let’s not underestimate the impact that society has on every aspect of our self image, including (and perhaps especially) on how we feel about sex and gender. Our media would have us believe that sex is something flawless, to be enjoyed immediately and without the need to be emotionally, as well as physically, ready. As consumers we are dazzled with images of the effortless, free and constantly available sex which we can and should be enjoying everywhere we go.

 

Never mind that people actually develop at different paces and that sex is something that can have repercussions if it takes place before one is ready. It can seem that in this day and age, there’s something wrong with you if you’re not constantly going out on the pull, happy and confident in your youth and beauty. It’s easy to forget just how awkward and self conscious some teenagers feel, when the message being drilled into them is that everyone is handsome, happy and secure in themselves. That was certainly the case for me as a teenager.

 

This for me was at the heart of my conflict regarding sexuality in my adolescence. I didn’t especially enjoy my first sexual experience with a woman and ultimately it’s because I wasn’t ready for it. But that feeling that I should have been ready for it is hardly surprising given the aforementioned societal attitude towards sex and I can’t help but wonder how this could do anything but alter my perception of my sexuality.

 

So, to make a more general point, our self image and our willingness to accept one label over another is at least partially down to attitudes so implicit in our society that they often go unchallenged simply because they go unnoticed.

 

Despite his character's conflation of homosexuality and pederasty, I choose Sartre’s quote at the beginning with good reason. Daniel, the character in question, has spent his life repressing his homosexuality. He has married a woman and is attempting to settle down to what he deems to be an acceptable way of living. However, like so many of Sartre’s characters, Daniel is still haunted by being the object of a look. That is to say that his view of himself is coloured by how he is seen by others, or at least how he supposes he is seen by others.

 

There’s truth to Sartre’s observation. After all, whether we want a label or not, it seems we are still at the stage where we all must choose one. We live in an age of supposed personal freedom and yet by choosing what we are, we must also effectively decide what we are not.

 

Do I continue to describe myself as “bisexual” despite the fact that, in all honesty, I have no immediate desire to sleep with a member of the same sex? Do I describe myself as an “ex bi guy” thus making this distinction clear? Why should I need to make the distinction clear? It may not make a difference to some but it certainly will to others.

 

As a former girlfriend of mine said (only partly in jest) “It’s one thing to worry about you fancying other women but do I have to start competing with other guys as well”? Again, once you accept a label describing who you are, you accept implicit assumptions about the kind of behaviour you might indulge in. In this regard, we are all in danger of becoming objects of a look.

 

So, if society’s attitude towards sexuality is to continue to progress, how are we to address this issue? I can only speak for myself. Perhaps for some, embracing a specific label is a liberating experience, especially if it is something that they have previously felt unable to do.

 

On the one hand, I feel glad that we live in a country where people are free to take part in gay pride parades, in contrast to a time where they were forced to suppress a deeply personal aspect of their nature. However, by doing this one could also be said to be picking a side, thus cementing a polarisation. Is this “us and them” attitude really what we need in order to make true progress? Interestingly I've heard, although I honestly don't remember from whom, that in Scandinavia gay bars are going out of fashion as the need for them dwindles in these more accepting times.

 

If I were to give one piece of advice to a teenager in my shoes it would be “don't worry about labelling yourself on the basis of your sexuality; your sexuality can change and relabelling yourself can be a pain”. I would suggest they explore their sexual feelings when they are good and ready and worry more about how they treat their sexual partners than what gender the object of their desire happens to be. If they asked me if I thought they were gay or not, I would reply “why don’t you just wait and see”? Better yet, I might even reply “why the hurry to pick a side?”

 

Exploring one’s sexuality can be very liberating but what is potentially liberating can also be restrictive.

 

“There is more than one kind of freedom…freedom to and freedom from”, claims one character in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985: 32). It’s ironic that this kernel of truth should come from a character who is part of a regime determined to eliminate sexual freedom. Yet this is not inaccurate. I pray that we never lose our freedom to express our sexuality.

 

What about “freedom from”? Perhaps if and when our society becomes more liberal, the need for labels shall become a thing of the past. After all, if one’s sexuality is truly nothing to be ashamed of, do we really need a name for it?

 

REFERENCES

  • Atwood, Margaret (1985), The Handmaid’s Tale, USA, Fawcett Crest

  • Satre, John-Paul (2001), The Reprieve, Great Britain, Penguin

  • Wartenberg, Thomas E. (2008), Existentialism, Great Britain, Oneworld

 

Dan Barnett

About the Writer

Dan is in his late 20s, lives in Croydon and is training as a counsellor.

 

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