One of the main characters in my soon-to-be-released second novel Identity Theft (shameless plug: you can place an advance order via the “Identity Theft” link above) is an 80s pop star. Thus I have been a bit nostalgic about my musical loves past. (As some of my recent articles here will attest.) Today I found myself with a sugar craving for “Karma Chameleon” which led me to check into what became of Culture Club (seems they’re back together and have a new single), which led me (as the internet tends to make you do) to various old interviews and articles about the band. This, in turn, led me back to my current thematic obsession– identity and the social categories we inhabit in life.
Back in the days when I was selecting potential new fantasy boyfriends from among the bands on MTV Culture Club’s drummer Jon Moss (second from left) seemed to have a lot of potential. That is a long-winded way of saying that when I was 13, I thought he was cute. (You will have noticed by now that I probably had more than my fair share of rock star crushes.)
Anyway, I never dated Jon Moss. He was, instead, dating Boy George. After that significant union ended, he went on to marry a woman, have children and divorce. I was reading an article about an earlier Culture Club reunion around 1990 today, which I am afraid I was not able to find again to quote directly. The main point, though, is that the writer of the piece was essentially slamming Moss for giving the impression that his four year relationship with George notwithstanding, he considered himself to be primarily heterosexual. More accurately, if I remember the article correctly, he seemed to be shying away from expanding his relationships and feelings into any identity label.
The writer of the article clearly thought the notion that Jon Moss could be anything but gay was laughable and worthy of scorn. This led me to wonder a number of things. For example, why the author believed he knew someone’s sexual orientation better than the individual himself, and why he cared how this particular musician chooses to describe or think about himself.
The reason this interests me is that my first novel, Angel, features a character who is surprised to discover he is attracted to another man. He, too, has a hard time with the various categories and labels. He recognizes that he is the same man he has always been. He has always considered himself to be “straight” and nothing has changed about his essential nature. He has to admit, however, that given the circumstances the label no longer fits. Yet none of the other labels seem to fit how he feels about himself either.
Angel, of course, is fiction. But an interesting thing happened after the book came out. I’ve had a surprising number of “straight” people tell me that they related to Paul because they had experienced something similar. They’d felt at least one strong attraction to someone of their own gender. “Who hasn’t had that happen?” one friend asked me after reading the book. This is entirely anecdotal, of course, but I suspect that this phenomenon is much more common than we are led to believe.
A lot of people seem to be very uncomfortable with this notion. People are becoming much more fine with the idea that there are homosexuals and it is ok to be one. Yet they like to have a nice clean line separating “us” from “them.”
“If you’ve had sex with someone of your own gender you are gay– just admit it.”
I do understand this. The assumption is that the only reason someone would deny being gay is shame. They want to encourage people to “own” the label, not to contribute to the notion that there is something wrong with being gay.
You will notice that people do not argue with people who call themselves “gay” if they have had sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex. You would not expect anyone to say, “You may be with a man now, but you were with a woman before. You’re straight. Just admit it.” No one thinks anyone would try to hide their heterosexuality.
I remember when Ricky Martin went on Oprah. He said that his relationships with women had been real, not for show, but that he did not consider himself to be bisexual. “I am a gay man.” This was met with applause from the audience. Why did they clap? Why did they express greater approval of the notion that he wanted to be identified as “gay” than being identified as “bisexual”? Is having the capacity to be attracted to the opposite sex in any degree considered “safer” than being entirely attracted one’s own?
This interests me because the way people tend to defend gay rights is by saying “it is not a choice.” This implies that if a person had any capacity at all to love someone of the opposite sex we think he should have to conform. We only tolerate it because we believe he can’t. Given this, shouldn’t “bisexual” be the less “safe” label? This would be a person who does “have a choice” and yet does not conform. It should theoretically be more brave for Ricky Martin to say “I am a bisexual man.” Yet I don’t think that would have been an applause line.
And so I continue to wonder– I do not have the answer– why it is that sexual orientation has become such an important part of our social identities? Why do people seem to need to know what category to put each other in? Why do some people become so uncomfortable when someone’s self description fails to match the categories they hold?