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.)