On Sexuality – How Do We Identify?

In a recent post, I identified myself as a straight male.  After reading the post, someone who knows me well remarked, “I’m really surprised that you said you’re straight!  I thought you didn’t identify as straight?”  The discussion that ensued was an awesome look at sexual identity, particularly with regards to how men choose to identify in our very heterosexist culture.  It really got me thinking about a lot of things that I hadn’t mulled over in a while, so I thought I would share some of my thoughts here.

It is interesting . . . While in my personal life, I don’t identify as straight, I almost always identify as straight in my work.  I think that my main reason for doing so is the very subject of this blog: it is often a pretty complicated discussion to explain how I identify sexually, and I am not always ready and willing to jump into that discussion in the middle of a workshop or in a debrief afterward.  In my recent blog post, it was simply easier to say, “as a straight male . . . ” than to say, “as a man who chooses not to identify within a restrictive dichotomy of sexuality that I don’t feel describes the reality of my sexual orientation . . .”

After all, for all intents and purposes, I am “straight” as that term has been constructed by our society.  I am more likely to be attracted to women, and throughout my general relationship experience, I have dated women.  However, I have never felt like the term “straight” described how I feel.  Am I attracted to men?  Yes!  I just am not attracted to that many men.  In fact, I am pretty darn picky with the men to whom I am attracted.  I just feel like the traditional understanding of sexuality as broken into two distinct categories, “straight” and “gay” with a middle ground called “bisexual” that implies an equal attraction, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of human sexuality!

And it’s not just me!  We are strictly socialized from birth to see sexuality as a simple duality.  You’re either “straight” or you’re “gay.”  However, as I have discussed this with many people, more and more, I find that people don’t like the duality, but they don’t know how to identify.  And it’s not that these conversations are new; they have been going on for quite a long time.  Alfred Kinsey researched this dilemma around mid-century, yet the majority of us are still working within the “straight-gay” dichotomy!  Though still flawed, I love the basic conclusion of the Kinsey research, the Kinsey scale:

Copyright © The Kinsey Institute
0- Exclusively heterosexual with no homosexual
1- Predominantly heterosexual, only incidentally homosexual
2- Predominantly heterosexual, but more than incidentally homosexual
3- Equally heterosexual and homosexual
4- Predominantly homosexual, but more than incidentally heterosexual
5- Predominantly homosexual, only incidentally heterosexual
6- Exclusively homosexual

I, for one, agree with Kinsey that “the world is not to be divided into sheep and goats…The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.”  This scale describes the reality of human experience, where it is technically possible for someone to be “exclusively heterosexual” or “exclusively homosexual,” yet the vast majority of the population will fall somewhere in-between.  This is why I like the concept of “queer,” a word reclaimed from being an anti-gay slur by those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning communities to encompass the very idea that one might identify as outside of the hetero-normative boxes built for us.  I, for one, don’t identify as “queer” because as someone who mostly dates and is attracted to women, I don’t want to co-opt or appropriate the term so that it loses its value for LGBTQ-identified folks.  I do feel, though, that it likely better describes how I feel about my sexuality than the term “straight” does.

For much of my adolescent life, I projected a hyper-masculine facade to try to fit into the tiny box of hetero-normativity that was presented to me.  I talked about women in ways that were degrading, I interacted with other men almost solely through a competitive and often violent (through hitting or wrestling) and degrading (through trashing one another, particularly when it came to the other’s sexuality) lens, and I wanted everyone to know just how “straight” I was.  I just plain didn’t want people to think that I might somehow be a “fag.”  I now know that, again, though I am more toward the “heterosexual” end of the Kinsey scale, I did not fit into the tiny box of male sexuality.  It was frustrating, and it was hurtful.  It made me, an otherwise pretty open-minded kid, pretty confused and closed to the possibilities around me.  I, frankly, was pretty bigoted in my language.  I was the first to point out that someone was a “fag” or to say something like, “This is so gay.”

Perhaps it is time for us to begin to share with our young men and women a more realistic understanding of sexuality, one that encourages a spectrum of identity rather than tiny, restrictive boxes that hurt and frustrate us in adolescence or beyond.  Through doing so, maybe we can come to a healthier understanding of gender identity so that women don’t feel they must fit into a tiny construct of femininity and men must fit into a tiny construct of masculinity.  Now, to some, particularly many of my friends, this concept is pretty basic (almost old news), but to many of the people that I have talked to on this subject, it is revolutionary!  It is extreme!  To some people, there isn’t even a dichotomy.  There is only one sexuality: heterosexuality, and everything else is wrong or deviant.  I would like to see a day, though, when seeing sexuality in a dichotomy is extreme.

I want to end, though, by speaking to the limits of even the Kinsey scale.  In the end, sexual orientation is a construct.  It is something made up that helps us to classify.  Now, classification is not wholly unhealthy.  It is human nature to put things into boxes and to judge and classify.  However, even the scale does not speak to the reality that no one’s sexuality can be fully described once classified.  It is still limiting.  The human experience is so beautifully complex that to classify is to limit, and frankly, the experience of sexuality is unlimited.

So what do you think?  Is there some merit to the duality of “straight” vs “gay?”  Does the Kinsey Scale even do a better job in describing your understanding of sexuality?  Do YOU think that I ought to identify as straight in my work?  I want to know your thoughts.
Peace be the Journey.

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9 thoughts on “On Sexuality – How Do We Identify?

  1. Ooooh. I *just* wrote a blog post about being “bisexual” and was thinking about all these issues while I wrote it. I ended up self-identifying in the post as bisexual, mostly for simplicity (and because I don’t want to diminish my current relationship by trying to claim some other middle ground on the spectrum).

    I really agree with what you are writing here, though. I’ve always thought of sexuality as a spectrum, even before I’d heard of Kinsey. I very much hope that we can be moving toward a more open idea of human sexuality that doesn’t force people to try to fit into pre-defined boxes.

  2. Nice post. I am a new student at Earlham and I attended your “Wall” presentation. It brought a lot to my mind about judgment, racism, and prejudice. You did an amazing job and I really liked how you opened up my mind to the topic. Now, I don’t mean that I had a closed mind, necessarily to the subject. No, not at all. My brother just came out that he was “gay” about two years ago. Since then, I have been so intrigued in the way society views gays, homosexuals, bisexuals, lesbians, etc. It really hits home with me because I have a person close to my heart that is considered “different” in this world today. For me, my brother’s sexuality is not a problem. I applaud him for listening to his own heart and following his own orientation that makes him happy. In this life, all I look for is happiness. I am glad that he might be on his path to finding his.

    Again, thanks for the great program. 2 thumbs up! 🙂

    Katie Emmenegger

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