Gay Any Way: Why You Don’t Need To Meet Anyone Else’s Queer Expectations

We live in a supposedly more open age for those who don't identify as straight. But, argues Michael Amhert, demands that people be more 'out' risks bisexual erasure and creating new binaries

There is an increasing openness, particularly among the young, about the prevalence of same sex attraction. A YouGov poll found that when plotting themselves on the Kinsey scale 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds identified as neither gay nor straight. Pop has always lacked bi icons, but last week Harry Styles seemingly embraced fluid sexuality with new song ‘Medicine’, and its lyrics "The boys and the girls are here / I mess around with him / And I’m OK with it." However, it is not only Daily Mail commenters who find sexual fluidity threatening. As sexuality becomes more fluid, existing identities will fracture and multiply. Tensions are inevitable between those who value a fixed, gay identity, or make their identity focal, and those on the other hand who do not, or whose desires are transient and open to change.

I’ve observed instances of these tensions at work over the past couple of weeks. A twitter discussion of openly gay celebrities at the Oscars featured the observation that Sufjan Stevens, "could be a bit outer". Elsewhere, one of the hosts of the excellent Food4Thot podcast, Fran Tirado, observed that, "There is a certain brand of Gay Social Media Public Figure that is so wrung dry from any risky queerness or out-of-bounds personality traits … that they are, for all intents and purposes, straight."

Arguably one of the problems with identity politics is that it can result in new binaries and orthodoxies. Demands that people be gay enough or queer enough mandates a set of behaviours that are perceived to be gay. Those who adhere to these behaviours are valorised as true allies, those who do not are met with suspicion. One of the many things this does is to prioritise appearance and performance over action. It is not what you do or even what you say, but how you say it. However, such claims are predicated on a series of problematic assumptions.

Firstly, there is the presumption that there are behaviours or mannerisms intrinsic to same sex desire. Arguments that believe there are intrinsic differences and mandate certain behaviours are essentialist and have often been used in the service of discriminating against people deemed in some way ‘other’. Over the last century we have seen the slow, but gradual, dismantling of prejudicial ideas about intrinsic differences between men or women, heterosexuals or homosexuals, and members of ethnic groups. As James Baldwin argued, we should reject the terms of the oppressor.

This is not to deny the long history of using rejected identities in building solidarity and political movements. Behaviours and characteristics deemed undesirable by the mainstream have proved a rallying point, a focus of resistance and a challenge to perceived norms. It has opened up space for people to be as they are and to behave as they wish.

However, we cannot mandate behaviour. People cannot be other than they are. A freedom that champions queer behaviours while at the same time mandating it for people for whom it does not come naturally is no freedom at all. As Maggie Nelson observes in The Argonauts, "Think of how freaked some people got when activist/actress Cynthia Nixon described her experience of her sexuality as ‘a choice’. But while I can’t change even if I tried may be a true and moving anthem for some, it’s a piss-poor one for others. At a certain point the tent may need to give way to field."

Secondly, to call out others for being insufficiently gay, insufficiently out or insufficiently queer, ascribes a hierarchy of value. Ironically, it creates a new binary, with ‘straight’ at one end and ‘queer’ at the other. But the whole point of queer is to destabilise these binaries and simplistic oppositions.

A hierarchy of value also results in further levels of discrimination. It is an insistence that excludes as well as includes. Bisexuals are excluded for their same sex desire by heteronormative society, while being excluded from gay or queer culture for being deemed ‘too straight’. It is difficult to know how a bisexual acting out their heterosexual desire can avoid, in that instance, charges of conforming. Yet such a view reinforces the binary in which same sex desire is ‘other’, with a parallel binary of assimilation and transgression. Such a position comes very close to accepting sexual fluidity only on the condition that it is always gay. Yet, I would argue that equality cannot be about hierarchy of value. Nor is it about sameness, so much as celebrating a diverse range of lives. Again, Nelson challenges whether any one of us can be wholly assimilationist or transgressive, so much as a series of messy compromises around what is possible for us. In that way, we are each made up of conflicting desires and identities.

Thirdly, the demands for people to behave or identify in a certain way presumes that those who do not are simply choosing not to, or are insufficiently brave, or woke, or allied. There are legitimate concerns that gay equality is being won at the expense of those already marginalised or those queer people deemed unpalatable by heteronormative society. In his twitter thread, Fran Tirado derides a form of queer representation in which, "only one kind of queer person is prioritized for said representation. e.g. the white ones, squeaky cleaned and spit-shined for the straight masses." However, there is a difference between challenging a range of pervasive prejudices and creating new ones. A call for genuine equality is very different from insistence on a certain kind of queer.

Demands, political or otherwise, that we behave in a certain way can be a demand for inauthenticity; a demand, ironically, that we should be other than ourselves. In my book Go the Way Your Blood Beats, I cite a symposium on identity that took place at Skidmore College in the US. There, Robert Boyers gave the example of the late critic Lionel Trilling, who was accused by some of being "in flight from his Jewishness". As Boyers argued, calls for Trilling to be more Jewish were also a demand for him to be something other than he was. Boyers, who was friends with him, asked: “Do people who are Jewish look Jewish? … Are they supposed to look Jewish just to satisfy Alfred Kazin or Sidney Morgenbesser that they aren’t hiding something?” He went on to say that Trilling was exactly what he appeared – a complex man who, if he had appeared ethnically self-conscious, as others demanded, would have been doing so out of pretence. In his own way, Trilling was true to himself, “he knew that in truth his demeanour was not a mask he had put on but an expression of what he was … a man with many conflicts and ambivalences”.

Sufjan Stevens is another interesting example. He is openly Christian but refuses to go into detail about his faith or his personal life. I imagine this to be the result of his own personal imperatives, his own needs, his own complexities. All of us have histories and selves that intersect with differing, even competing, wants and demands. I cannot know what you have been through, what choices and compromises and pressures have resulted in forming you as you are. And neither can you know the experiences that have shaped and formed me as I am. Rather than presume that anyone’s behaviour is the result of their own form of prejudice, or flight from themselves, we should accept that, like Trilling or Stevens, it may be the best way for any of us to hold in balance the competing, complex aspects of ourselves.

Years ago, I rowed with an ex over Ben Whishaw’s recent marriage. He felt aggrieved that Whishaw was lauded for his marriage to a man, when he’d not been explicit about his same sex relationship or desire in the past. I disagreed: I liked that he’d denied the terms of the question by answering that for him it was about a person. I never felt he’d hidden or issued a denial but refused the question and the implicit sense that the interviewer, and indeed the public, had the right to his private life. That, to me, felt avowedly queer.

I now recognise that my ex and I had competing requirements in that situation: he for a sense of unalloyed solidarity, a public proclamation and a standing with; I for a solidarity that at the same time refused the imposition of others, that allowed Whishaw to do what was right for him rather than forcing him to become a certain kind of spokesman or political actor.

When someone says Stevens could be more out, I ask, ‘For who?’ There should be no hierarchy of sexuality – my needs are not yours, yours not mine. What you deem evasion, I might find a political resolution of silence that rejects the terms of the oppressor. Our experiences and the ways we choose, or are able, to respond will be different.

Demands that we be gay this way further a sense in which our values and politics dictate who we are, rather than the other way around. It curtails our ability to respond creatively to our own, individual stories. I learnt in therapy – and I feel it an especially common problem on the left – that my values, my politics, consistently dictated how I felt I should feel, how I felt I should behave. However, this was neither healthy nor practicable.

A potential problem with identity politics is that it can foreground identity over action. It is not about what you do or say, but how you say it. Yet, a demand to be other than myself is an imposition, a new hegemony. To be human is not to be a political slogan. It is to be incoherent, a compromise between the multitude of things that imbue us with meaning. In other words, we can only do what is possible for us, we can only be who we are.

Michael Amherst’s new book on bisexuality, Go The Way Your Blood Beats, is out now via Repeater Books – go here to find out more

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