Labels are important. They tell us things like what delicious chemicals are in our food, which colleague’s sandwich we are stealing from the work fridge, and what size the jeans are that we can’t fit into anymore because we keep eating Dave’s meatball sandwich from the work fridge.
But labels can also be exercised in a more troubling manner. This was made clear last week when diver Tom Daley and actress Maria Bello made separate announcements that they are currently in romantic relationships with a member of their own sex. In a video message, Daley made it clear that he was in a relationship with a man but still ‘fancied’ women.
Bello discussed having previous relationships with men alongside the current relationship she has with a woman. Both announcements made clear that they had fallen in love with a person, irrespective of sex or gender. Both were careful not to prescribe themselves to any defined identity or sexuality. What followed, however, were various media (mainstream and unconventional) running headlines claiming that one or both stars had come out as ‘gay’.
Even though most articles were supportive of Daley and/or Bello, the headlines almost exclusively disregarded that both individuals had consciously made an effort not to label themselves, while also discounting the fact that both Daley and Bello had been in heterosexual relationships in the past, and may find themselves again in the future.
We don’t know if either of them identifies as gay, lesbian, queer, bisexual or any other grouping. We do know by reading with our eyes and listening with our ears that they were careful not to attach a label to themselves for our benefit. Honoring this may, in turn, have benefited the people around the world that do not fall neatly into a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ archetype. People who might not feel truly comfortable in either camp; who might like both Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal; and who might sleep better at night knowing that the very handsome and successful athlete Tom Daley is just like them – able to dive headfirst into a larger dating pool than the rest of us (10/10).
Humans seemingly cannot be comfortable until every other human we come across has been labeled and packaged neatly into some kind of gift box, ready for Santa to deliver to families (with a mummy and a daddy) all over the world.
Even I have been guilty of this. I recently met a very unguarded and delightful American transgender waitress who waited on me at a fast-food chain I stopped at while driving through a tiny town in the conservative state of Virginia. Before our conversation, I probably would have labeled her colleagues (and regular customers) as small-town right-wing conservatives who would never embrace a trans woman. Instead, inside that Waffle House, I found an incredibly open and honest woman who seemed to have the full support of her workmates (and two servings of delicious pecan waffles to give my mouth).
Humans are complex. Some of them are women who are attracted to women, some are men attracted to men. Some men and women are attracted to each other, some think attraction is a social construct, and some are attracted to nobody. Some are Republicans who hate Obama but love their transgendered waitress because she calls them darlin’ and gives them extra maple syrup and induces Australian tourists to tip her way too much.
If Maria Bello or Tom Daley chose to label themselves as bisexual or gay, and that is what was reported, of course I would have seen that as a positive for the queer community. However, they didn’t. The decision by many outlets to overlook any grey area and label them very definitively as ‘gay’ because they are currently in a same-sex relationship only serves to further dismiss any individuals whose relationships and attractions exist outside of the gay/straight dichotomy.