Tuesday, December 03, 2013

It's okay to call Tom Daley bisexual, even if he isn't.

Young Olympic diving hero Tom Daley talked publicly yesterday about being in a relationship with a man, provoking a huge variety of responses in my Twitter stream. These ranged from the romantic realism of "Oh good, I fancy Tom Daley and I'm a man, so there's hope for us yet!" to straight people coming out as straight in hilarious parody because, in their world, homophobia is a thing of the past... last week sometime, whatever, they're over it already.  But there was also an argument raging about what labels should be sewn on the young man's swimming trunks.

Some news outlets described Daley as gay when he had said he is still into girls. There were a deluge of complaints about bi erasure, followed by a second wave of scorn for anyone who described Daley as bi, given that he hadn't used the label himself:
Tom Daley has not said he is gay or bi. Let him choose his own label, if/when he wants to. - @kindjourneys
Find bi carping over media calling Tom Daley gay as annoying as the media calling every MSM gay. Project rigid sexual identity? No thanks. @MxsQueen.
(A deluge, as you see - there were many others but these were most direct and to the point).

On the same day, I read an article from last week, daringly entitled: Lesbianism: Sexual fluidity is a fact of life for women. The headline is misleading - the author, Stephanie Theobold doesn't actually claim that all women can experience profound shifts in who they're sexually attracted to, but does suggest a widespread degree of fluidity based on a great hodgepodge of evidence, some valid (the author herself has experienced such fluidity), and some irrelevant (glamorous straight interviewees expressing an enthusiasm for lesbianism - as does my Mum. She will physically cringe at a scene on telly where two women kiss, but on hearing that a woman is gay, she'll always say, "Well, it sort of makes sense - with another woman, you wouldn't have to be clearing up after her all the time.").

Human sexuality is fascinating and strange and labels are never ever going to cover it. In her article, Stephanie Theobold tries hard, referring to the fact she now identifies as a Kinsey 4. reminding me of folks who offer their Myers-Briggs results by way of introduction (and the fact you remember your MBTI results and offer them as important information about yourself says a lot, regardless of the actual result).

In fact, I can easily imagine a future whether someone will devise a Myers-Briggs type matrix to describe sexuality. You'd need more letters, of course. I'd guess you'd need at least four options for libido, ranging from asexual to highly sexual. Then at least four options for sexual preference - hetero, homo, bi and fluid. Of course, bisexual is complicated - many people reject bi as referring to two genders as opposed to homo and hetero, so we may need pansexual to clear that one up. For some people, being monogamous or polyamorous is something they feel is absolutely hard-wired, so maybe that should be included too.

Recently, a friend described themselves as sapiosexual (attracted primarily to the minds of others, rather than any particular shape of body) which implies yet another spectrum between sapiosexuals and... carnisexuals? - people for whom, sex is all about flesh and circus performers. Added to this is kink, which throws us into a complex web of multicoloured handkerchiefs,

In a culture which wants to place us all in one of two boxes - straight or gay - and where those boxes are loaded down with expectation, it is understandable that folks seek to define their own special box with great care. To describe myself as bisexual is necessarily an over-simplification. Bisexual is not a love story. Bisexual is not even a story about sex. It doesn't tell anyone anything about my behaviour, it isn't clear what it says about my feelings and it doesn't say whether this is how I am now, or this is how I've always been.

But as a political word, bisexual is just fine. Perhaps disability helps with this, partly because medical matters are far less interesting than sexual ones, but mostly because I'm used to separating the social and political effects of an identity (disability) from the personal mess of how I come to it (impairment, chronic illness, however else you'd phrase it).

This is why it is valid to talk about bisexuality in the context of Tom Daley. Not to say that he's bi in the sense of having joined our club and why isn't he waving our flag already. This isn't about labels, but merely description. Bless him, but the poor lad is already experiencing (hopefully unknowingly) prejudice as a bisexual man; the assumption that he must be gay, the assumption that, by loving a man, all attraction he claims to women is the folly of youth or a strategic ploy to avoid seeming too queer. He is also experiencing prejudice as a gay man, because of general assumption that he is and all the homophobia that follows.

All this becomes harder to describe if we can't use the word bisexual as opposed to experiences attraction towards his own gender and members of at least one other gender. The media assumption that a man who loves another man is gay is something which effects all bisexual people. It's okay to discuss that.

Same if we were talking about historic or fictional characters. Unless someone has identified the words they would choose themselves, we have no choice but to use the words that best describe the feelings or behaviour we witness (and sometimes we have to override folk - the protagonists from Brokeback Mountain insist that they're not queer, Liberace insisted he was straight, but we wouldn't be able to discuss their experiences without accepting that they are wrong.)

As queer people, we should reject the idea of rigid sexual identity. It shouldn't matter if anyone was born this way or happens to feel this way for the first time in their mid-seventies. But worrying about using a word like bisexual in this context is the anxiety that bisexual is something rigid, unwieldy, a mantle which, once placed on someone's shoulders, will stay on them for life. Tom Daley may never describe himself as bisexual. As disabled people, we're very used to famous and successful disabled people telling us that they don't see themselves as disabled. But if we're to talk about the way they're treated in the media and society at large, we need to use these words about them.

There are many contexts where it is inappropriate to presume a label. In conversation, we should avoid assumption and never demand that people use words they're not comfortable with. Describing famous people with words they wouldn't use themselves is very different from talking about our friends and acquaintances.

But if we want to promote a world where sexual identity does become politically irrelevant, where our labels become far more nuanced, flexible and fluid, then we need to remove the weight from the language we have to work with now, the language that everyone understands.

1 comment:

Imogen Michel said...

Such a great and nuanced argument! I personally describe myself as queer rather than bisexual because of the rigid gender duality the latter implies.