For much of my life, my sexuality has been defined by other people – mostly other men. People mark me as different, pointing out the way I speak and the way I hold my body: your wrist, your voice, your walk. Growing up, these labels never explained why my eyes wandered to the handsomest boy – calling me gay didn’t explain to me the what, the why, the how of being gay, thinking gay, the 'doing' of gayness (whatever that is). Rather, the words (and often worse words and actions) were silencing – they made me afraid to question why I was labelled this way.
Over history, sexuality has been expressed as one man and one woman coming together in marriage, procreating, raising children, and not deviating from their path. While not a problem in and of itself, older definitions of sexuality and ‘normalness’ sit uncomfortably in our post-millennial world, and can cause harm when we talk about sexuality.
I recently watched Tab Hunter Confidential. Tab was Hollywood’s boy-next-door movie star during the 1950s and early 1960s. He’s gay – a fact he tried to hide because he didn’t want his sexuality to define him. At the height of his career, Tab took male lovers out on dates, and yet the root of his desire to date the same sex – his sexuality – was something he didn’t want to attach himself to.
While today’s world differs from Tab’s, concerns about sexuality defining us are justified, especially given that sexuality has traditionally been seen as deviant. In Homophobia, Byrne Fone writes that for centuries “‘sexuality’ […] was nevertheless subject to moral judgements about mental health and emotional stability. ‘Normal’ sexuality was stable and mentally sound; ‘abnormal’ sexuality unstable and emotionally damaged”. Just think, the word ‘heterosexual’ hadn’t widely existed until medical professionals began warning against its aberration, ‘homosexual’, in 1880s–90s.
In Tab Hunter’s heyday, people were expected to find an opposite-sex partner, put a ring on them, and live happily ever after. Countless generations have been discouraged to talk about sexuality and how it defines us as unique humans; and many would argue that sex education continues to be taught inadequately.
In How to be Gay, David Halperin notes that “Gay men who want to style themselves as virile, non-queer, post-gay, or simply as ordinary, regular guys whose sexual preference does not mark them as different from normal folk, recoil instinctively from any aspect of male homosexuality that might seem to express or signify effeminacy”. This suggests that what we have been taught about sexuality (and gender) – either in school sex ed or by our families and friends – is that if you want to be ‘normal folk’ you have to act and feel like X, Y and Z.
Culture has helped define diverse sexualities as dangerous. In children’s films, how often are villains as evil to the hero not only in ideology but in gesture and diction? The documentary Do I Sound Gay? explores how the stereotypical ‘gay walk’, ‘gay way of talking’ and the ‘sassy gay best friend’ is applied to villains like Captain Hook in Peter Pan or Hades in Hercules. Such villainy - paired with that peculiar way of life - lets viewers know these deviations are sinister.
My initial reaction to being defined in this manner was to self-harm. Not because I disagreed with what people said I was – gay – but because I disagreed with the way they spoke about my ‘gayness’ – with teasing, prodding, and poking, as though I were a science experiment. Perhaps when Tab Hunter says that he doesn’t want his sexuality to define him, he’s suggesting that he doesn’t want traditional versions of male homosexuality to be applied to how he thinks of his sexuality.
In part, I agree with Tab Hunter – I am more than my sexuality. I’m a writer, a reader and bunch of other boring things. But my sexuality makes up such a large part of how I live my life. The problem is letting other people define sexuality for me – all those countless men who said I’m this or that. Maybe they see me as threat, maybe they’re replicating views and opinions they’ve grown up with. This is why I think sexuality deserves more: to be acknowledged in a respectful and productive conversation.