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Alphabet Soup and Unlabelled Cans


blue

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Gay. Straight. Both. Neither. Transgender. Intersex. Queer. ... Just how many letters are in that alphabet soup, anyway, and what happens if you don't have enough letters?

There's a scene in one of my favorite shows, Firefly, where River Tam has taken the labels off most of the canned goods in the ship's pantry. Some of the crew (Jayne, for one) object. River's brother, Dr. Simon Tam, and the preacher, Shepherd Book, say they'll just have unlabelled cans for a while, pot luck, it'll keep things interesting. The idea is that we don't know what's inside, and we aren't defined, limited, to what the labels say.

Aha, now we're getting somewhere. -- And I'll return to that in a minute. First a few thoughts.

Neither? Yes, some people, for various reasons, might be "asexual" most of the time. Maybe they've had bad experiences. Maybe they take meds or their natural hormones mean they're not that interested. But yes, as interested as most of us, even the quiet ones, are in, well, one of humankind's favorite activities, there are those who aren't so interested.

Both? Before you say that's one or the other, perhaps we should consider that everyone feels the need for some time to be "just one of the guys" for "guy stuff" or "just us girls" for "girl talk." We all have best friends, or I'd hope we do. In other words, we are capable of affection, intimacy, with the same and the opposite sex, no matter who we are. OK, I grant, not everyone has sexual feelings for one or the other or wants them. But my point is, we all have some level of feeling for both sexes, built in. And for some of us, perhaps most of us, if we could really look down deep and be comfortable with ourselves, we might find a lot of people are more or less bisexual.

Gay? (And in this, I count gay males and gay females.) Yes, some percentage of us have sexual feelings primarily for the same sex. There was a UK census or tax study which found about eight percent of respondents were homosexual and living or partnered with someone. There's the 10% figure commonly cited. There's also a figure saying that as many as 1/3 of all guys and 1/3 of all girls have at least one same sex experience in their lifetime. One-third? That's a lot, isn't it? That seems to say either, yes, being gay or bi is more common than we think, or it lends credence to the idea that being bi is something more like the default state than we are generally raised to believe. Most gay people can look back into early teen years or pre-teen years, and see clear indications they were already gay, and parents and families can sometimes report that goes even further back, initial wondering by mom or dad about their child's behavior.

Straight? Well, yes, naturally, a large percentage of people are straight. The species has to continue. (But humans are good at procreating and at competing.) Being straight is usually considered the default, sometimes to the exclusion of those who aren't.

But let's see, there's a lot more.

Transgender, an issue of gender and body, psychological as well as physical gender identity. I've known someone transgender online, before and after coming out and transition. The gender identity was there way before any hormones or surgery to transition. So I count that as very real, not some made-up thing. It is as real for them as it is for me to like guys instead of girls, primarily.

Intersex, where there is a physical in-between state in how the person is born, a hermaphrodite, neither exactly male or female, for whatever bodily or chemical or genetic cause. Yes, it can be genetics. This is more common than you might think.

Queer. Well, OK, I grew up with that being as dirty a word as fag or faggot, and I get the distinction given to the word queer in context. It seems to me, in some ways, to cover territory that's already covered.

But after so many letters and distinctions, I kind of wonder if we are missing something. What if we run out of letters? What if we have to string together a bunch of letters to describe ourselves. I'll have a #4, a #9, a #14, a #19...and it begins to sound like you're ordering takeout from a fast food place, instead of describing your deep-set instinctual drives for physical and emotional fulfillment with another person (or alone, for that matter).

See, that's where we get into trouble. I think it's where kids get in trouble, way too soon. Why is it that a kid who's just started to figure out how he or she feels about girls and boys, should have to decide, for public hue and cry, that he or she is straight or gay or in between...or undecided, questioning, not quite sure yet? Why should that boy or girl have to decide, even within his or her own mind, "I am gay" or "I am straight" or "I am only this and once I say it, I'm forever labelled this way" ...and forever limited this way, in how he or she or others see him or her?

How is a pre-teen or teen supposed to figure all that out, when they've just begun really having strong feelings in any direction?

Now, I'll admit, for some, it's not an issue. They're straight and that's obvious to them. For some, being gay may be equally obvious, but not quite as popular with the rest of the planet, to up and say so, or ask your friend if he or she wants to be a whole lot closer...or just have a little fun experimenting, playing, being affectionate. There's that too, being able to show basic feelings, whether that's sexual, or whether it's just friendly affection, brotherly or sisterly love.

By the way, isn't it strange how we raise boys not to show feelings, and to shy away from certain kinds of feelings (anger, aggression, fear, sadness) or other kinds (hugging, holding hands, non-sexual touching) not to mention more specific and intimate affection (kissing, more private things). If a boy does certain things, he's a sissy, a cry-baby, not manly, not assertive. If he shows any compassion or outright affection to another boy, he's somehow assumed to be less than straight and less than masculine. How he talks, dresses, moves, sounds, a host of things that a boy or man is restricted from doing. Yet usually, girls are allowed to do those same things, and it's defined as girly, sissy. But that girl can't then be too tomboyish or act too masculine. She has a role to fulfill too. Heaven help her, too, if she doesn't look so pretty and cute. Heaven help that boy if he does look very cute. I wonder if we are creating all sorts of problems for our society because we so limit what boys/men and girls/women are "supposed" to be like, how they are supposed to behave, when as little ones, there isn't that limit. (We can go "awww," when two little boys hug or kiss. But it's not quite so cute by school age.)

I'm not letting the "gay community" or the "LGBT community" (or all those other letters) off so easily either. Why do folks who've experienced the lack of acceptance and inclusion, the bullying and prejudice that too often goes on, why do people who've been through that and then identify as gay or bi (etc.) then get so up in arms if someone else is, for example, bisexual? "Oh, he's just not admitting it. Or, Oh, he's just confused. He's really...." No, he's really bi. If he says so, we should accept that. If he later says he's gay or straight, we should accept that too. If he later says, yup, still a big ol' bi guy, then we need to accept that. And why should we urge anyone, particularly adolescents or pre-adolescents, to figure out what they are, definitely?

I did not have it all figured out when I was a teen. I was anywhere from questioning to in denial to undecided to none of the above to perhaps both, all in the same day. I really wasn't so sure if I was straight or gay. I knew, starting with my first real awareness at 11, that I "really, really liked that" (what a classmate and I did together). I knew that I was really curious about, interested in, other boys. But I didn't really understand it. Oh, I'd already been called queer, queer-baited, gay, and faggot by then. But I didn't really, fully get what those were, other than dirty words to call someone to make him feel bad for being different. I had some idea it meant a boy or man who liked other guys sexually. But I wasn't quite sure of what it really was, until it was applied directly, because of, well, what that boy and I did. (Hmm, funny, we both did, so how come that made me a faggot and him not?) -- But throughout my teens, I went from some level of interest in girls (in a sort of general way, but also as potentially sexy) through to less and less interest in them and more and more (oh boy!) an interest in other guys. (Yes, guys, because in my teens, I didn't want my friends and I to be called "boys." We weren't little "boys" anymore, we were guys, men! OK, almost there.)

It is a symptom of what's wrong, when a guy can't simply go up to a guy and ask him out, the way he can ask a girl he likes. The girl might turn him down, but she's only likely to get mean about it if he's been a jerk and deserves it.

It's also a symptom when we are so paranoid about same-sex feelings that we as a society forbid students from even hugging, or forbid teachers to hug kids, much less any "public displays of affection" between students. Now, I get how it could be distracting to see Johnny and Mary get into a big-time makeout scene in the middle of school. But I think it's really bad when a school system or other group actually thinks they have to tell students they can only have an "A-frame" hug, and teachers had better not do anything more, because even that A-frame hug is mighty iffy. -- Never mind if some kid just punched Jimmy, or if Sally did extra well and deserves a hug for it. -- No, I'm not making this up, it's from a real conversation with more than one current teacher and more than one school district or group to serve youth.

Yeah, also, if you grow up trying to find who among your friends you can talk to about those feelings and what you'd like to do, let alone finding a friend to do that stuff with, that really delays or misshapes formation of positive, healthy relationships, and not just sexually. Not only for my own history, either. It applies to a lot of kids and later adults. That's not even considering the kids who get bullied, gossiped about, picked on, or ostracized so much that they get deeply depressed and think about hurting themselves, or try it. When bullies beat up some kid, or when adults turn a blind eye or say it's wrong to be gay/bi, etc., we are missing the boat. When parents or groups won't accept a boy or girl who is being harassed, or who identifies as gay (LGBT), or who is perceived as that, we miss the boat. When a kid runs away or is kicked out -- "Ur doin' it rong," society. If that kid thinks he or she can't talk to mom and dad about it, or doesn't know anyone he or she thinks they can talk to, that's a big problem. Big. As in, potentially life-threatening and potentially losing a nice, smiling, smart kid. Or a nice, average kid who doesn't feel like smiling much. -- Or a young guy who gets just brave and desperate enough to post online for everyone to hear and see how he feels inside.

Even now, I can still blush, get a little nervous, around a girl (yes, a woman). Somewhere in me is still the latent potential to be with a woman. She doesn't have to be a "hot babe" either. In fact, usually, that's going to be less interesting. -- But no, I'm not nearly as likely to be interested in a girl as I am another guy. Uh, the last time I had a dream or fantasy about a girl was in junior high. What gets my motor going is guys. Anatomically and emotionally, that's who appeals to me. (Sorry, ladies.)

So, I have to say that somewhere deep down, I'm a little bit bi, but mostly, a lot gay. -- I can say that now, but oh my, in school or in college? Eek!

I wonder, then, why it is that so many of us, the straight folks and the LGBT folks, all of whom should know better, instead seem to have pressure on kids to decide undeniably one way or the other, and live with that choice.

I am fine if a teen can come out and be accepted for who he or she is. That's amazing, wonderful! ...And so different from how I grew up. But because of how I grew up, how I felt inside, regardless of how my parents or others might or might not have felt, and because it still is not necessarily safe and accepting out there, I hope teens are careful in how they handle it all. I want them to be loved and accepted at home and anywhere else, for who they are. I want them at least to accept and love themselves within the privacy of their own minds, if they cannot be out yet. Please don't misread me there.

But I think kids shouldn't have to decide for absolute certain right away, at least not until they are ready and have it figured out well enough inside that they are ready to say, this is me, this is who I really am.

On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend getting scared of it, denying yourself, and staying in the closet from 19 to only a few years ago, like I did. That, for sure, is not a healthy emotional way to be. It's also too physically lonely, and it means that you are very late getting started on relationships and dating.

But no, when you're a teen, you shouldn't be required to decide -- nor should you be prevented from affirming, yes, I'm gay or bi or straight or any other of those letters in the soup can. It's OK to be unlabelled, just like it's OK to have that label on the soup can. The main thing is to get a handle on how you feel and who you are, and who you want to be with, whether boyfriends or girlfriends, or with you friends and family in general living.

Don't even get started with the tomato soup or the crackers. (Grins.)

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First, I am touched by your sensitivity to those of us who are labeled or who label ourselves as bisexual. I never felt confused in terms of sexual desire, but I have experienced doubts from others as to the existence of my particular complication. I was prepared for distrust and even hatred from a segment of the straight community, but was quite unprepared for the level of distrust I experienced from the queer community. To be fair, much of that distrust occurred when the community was defining itself and finding its way. When you're trying to chart a course for gay men, probably not a good idea to muddle the issue with semi-queers. I was also struck by the level of animosity, almost a blood sport, between gay men and lesbians. But, as a sort of political correctness has settled over the community, things have improved in these regards.

As to intimacy, I've come to view men as living on a continuum of comfort with intimacy from total inability to form intimate relationships with other men to almost total comfort with that intimacy. A man's place on that continuum has little to do with any orientation to sexual behavior. I've had very intimate relationships with straight, gay, and bisexual men that had nothing to do with sex. I suspect that how men find their places on that continuum is too complex to reduce to a single theory.

Humans seem to have a need to establish a unique position in the world. That need disposes many to define any who do not conform tightly to a defined position as "other." To homophobes we're all the same, "other." But, we're human and jostle to claim our own identities within the community.

If I knew everyone who was sexually attracted to men and women, I'd find a palette of gradation such that almost every member of the group would require his or her own label. That number of labels renders all labels superfluous.

Last, do I understand you to believe that the existence of labels requires kids to choose one? If so, I'm not sure that's true. Good families, good schools, good parents, good teachers, and good friends can let kids know that labels, while sometimes convenient, don't tell a very complete story, notwithstanding their need to fit in.

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Thanks to a couple of good friends and some musing of my own, understanding how someone bisexual thought of things actually helped me understand being gay better. If I could understand that "in between" gradient, what it really meant, then I could better understand my own place on that scale and my feelings growing up.

I think kids feel pressured within themselves to figure out their feelings, if they notice much of a same-sex attraction in themselves, whether gay or bi. That's self-knowledge. But they also get pressures from their peers and family and from society in general to identify themselves, to label or pigeonhole themselves. The majority would have them label themselves as conveniently and solely straight. At least in my experience, it's much less likely kids growing up will find much acceptance for the idea of being not so straight. But when they do, there's again the pressure that surely they must belong to the "gay" label, meaning primarily or exclusively gay. And if they don't identify much with the perception they have of what it is to be "gay," then that's a problem, as it's another problem if they have some attraction to either sex and a larger attraction to the other, male or female. Because, as you noted, being bi is something not overly popular among either the straight or gay, uh, aggregates, for lack of a "community," per se.

The existence of the labels isn't so much what I think causes the pressure to define oneself according to one of those labels. I think it's the expectation by many (most?) people that surely you (or I) must fit some neatly defined label and only that one. But of course, words have shades of meaning that often connect to other words, or blur around the edges. I think yes, there's some pressure to label oneself, or to label others. The trouble with those labels is that they sometimes keep us from noticing the other shades of meaning or how those join or merge into adjoining areas or ideas.

If I say, for instance, that I'm white, that ignores the truth that, at a few points along the last few generations, there are either confirmed or rumored Indian ancestors and relatives, and perhaps others further back beyond what's in historical memory or what's been forgotten, lost. Never mind that I, generations down the line, might not mind, might be proud of, and might benefit from knowing genetically, if I have this or that particular group in my blood (and genes). That "white" label, or the very pale paleface white-boy me, blond hair and blue eyes, hides or covers or ignores the fact of those other ancestors (and probable present day cousins). (Not to mention that because a family or community might not approve, or an orphan might not know, that such things might be deliberately or accidentally lost to memory.)

Likewise, if I say I'm gay, that doesn't take into account that latent possibility that I might be attracted to a woman now and then, quite unexpectedly. Nor does being able to say I'm gay, being out, take into account my pre-teen and teen years, when I knew I liked boys, but couldn't simply say, "OK, cool, now if I can just find one who likes me back," instead of being reluctant or afraid to open up. (But hey, I was shy and it wasn't the most tolerant time and place, and I was uptight myself.) Saying I'm gay also doesn't really cover that period in the closet, when yup, I was gay, but not doing anything about it with anyone else. (Psst, Blue means it was a DIY kind of thing.) -- There are plenty of other people whose life experiences are quite different than mine, but they are equally "gay" or other labels; and I'm not the only one out there with a life history similar to mine.

There was a time when you were encouraged only to label as straight and nothing else, or when it was so assumed that no label was considered or accepted. Then there was a time, our present time, when other labels became permissible but still required.

What I'm trying to say is that I hope we can reach a time when we can outgrow the need for silly labels, when it doesn't really matter where along that scale we are, any more than our eye or hair color, and any more than our skin color ought not to matter, though our Western culture is still working on that one, including within its own Western definitions.

When having that label or indications of it can get a boy or girl, a man or woman, so harassed that they lose important parts of themselves (or their livelihood, home, relationships) or forced into anguish because of it, or feel hopeless, then that label is a hindrance to growth, personally or as a group. Too many do face negative consequences because they fit that not-quite-straight label. Surely there's some better way out there.

Note: I don't buy into the notion that if "they" won't accept "us," then we can just go over here and associate only with "us" in the gay neighborhood. That's isolationism, or less nicely, the ghetto mentality, or more childishly, "I'll just pick up my marbles and go home." That doesn't work. You can't be "only gay" (or only LGBT) and still participate with the rest of the world. If you limit yourself to just those gay folks, you're missing out on a large percentage (anywhere from 2/3 to 90% or so) who are straight primarily. "Us and them" just doesn't work.

How does that work by way of explanation? Does that make better sense?

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Your clarification is more nuanced than the original post. I agree with your essential points. Thanks.

I wish I had more faith that humans will abandon a slavish devotion to labels.

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