Men can just be men. Sometimes men have sex with each other. Sometimes men have sex with women. This actually doesn’t have to become a central part of our identities.
I value a degree of ambiguity with my sexual identity, and in that sense, I genuinely love that some people are convinced I’m heterosexual while others insist that I’m a homosexual.
In truth I’d like to decline to identify. I think I do enough identifying as a man already. Sexual identity, while a useful metric for a lot of contemporary identity politics, isn’t as useful to me as an individual, and is also something I’ve found that a lot of men really struggle with mapping to their own internal sense of self. Maybe in the future, I’ll dig a little deeper into how a lot of the language around this stuff feels foreign to most men’s lives.
But today is about declining to pick a sexual orientation.
In high school, I had so much anxiety about coming out. At the time it was a sort of cultural novelty — and a sadistic one at that. No one really knew what bisexuality was and definitely no one talked about gender like they do these days, so your options were either to be a macho Cro-Magnon man, a lithe effeminate queer, or a closet case that everyone pressured into coming out, really no matter how you actually saw yourself. The expectation was that you’d receive a lot of rejection in response, and that your family would disown you because of it.
Still, we had to do it?
And let’s be clear — while TV might depict this rite of passage as a sort of singular event after which everyone magically knows you like dick — in reality, no one knows your sexual business unless you tell them. So in practice, coming out is something that happens over and over again until you either stop caring to announce your sexual preference to total strangers or you find other ways to cue it to the world.
On the subtle side, you used to have things like denim, bandanas, and leather to try and catch the wandering eyes of other gentlemen who share your proclivities. On the more obnoxious side, you have everything about internet culture that seems like a whole lot of too much information to everyone over about thirty-five.
Even the now passé rainbow flag is a bit loud, yeah?
The thing about coming out for me was that it felt so definitive. At fourteen or so who can really say who they’re going to fuck for the rest of their life? At the risk of sounding repressive here, who — even as a sexually active teenager — knows what they like and don’t like at that age?
You either jump the gun with the choice that best fits at the time (and potentially cut yourself off from experiences that might be truly liberating), or you turn coming out into a process of public refinements you allow to change over time. Gay this year. Straight the next. Bi-curious in college. Next year, who knows? To me, the latter feels again like too much information. With apologies to any prudes reading, humans are sexual beings. It makes sense for our interests and passions to evolve over time. I’m not convinced that a public announcement of each new preference is required (or even feasible).
The other side of this has nothing to do with sex at all.
When I was a teenager, the push for same-sex civil marriage was just starting to eclipse AIDS activism. Coming out was absolutely a political act — whose impact and often intention was directly connected to liberal politics around sexuality. This was a difficult jump for me, and still is, I suppose.
The Clinton administration had just overseen the implementation of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and the Defense of Marriage Act. They briefly made the news for wearing gloves to shake hands with gay activists. And then overnight all of this was seemingly forgiven as Democrats — who still outright opposed same-sex marriage at the time — were seen as the only party interested in moving LGBT civil rights issues forward.
Of course, there was NAFTA too. And even when gay activists can just get over the fact that Democrats helped to institute the two big anti-gay policies they’d spend the next two decades reversing, the unbreakable bond between the LGBT establishment and Democrats created the liberal side of this culture war where people have to choose between their class and their sexual identity. One of these can largely remain a private matter. The other defines nearly every aspect of your life trajectory, including how the former matters.
Nuance around this is still taboo. And that’s because the LGBT community (in the States at least) primarily functions as an affinity group within the Democratic cultural establishment. I’d argue that this relationship is counterintuitively even stronger than the relationship between the LGBT community and actual sexual minorities. In the past, heterodox beliefs around marriage or political affiliation got you labeled “self-hating” or a “closet case.” Today the criteria are expanded even further — most observably in the cross-pollination between the LGBT community and another Democratic cultural affinity group, Black Lives Matter, where support is such a given that even the traditional Pride flag had to be changed.
Literal sexual attraction seems to be another front of the liberal culture war here too. Disinterest in fat people is “fatphobia,” disinterest in trans people is “transphobia,” disinterest in people from another culture is “racism,” etc. Although, at the same time, too much interest in any of these groups is “fetishizing,” which mirrors perfectly the liberal conundrum around social justice issues in general — they are something we must at once be both outraged about but also completely disinterested in resolving beyond unending symbolic proclamations of support.
Passion — in whatever direction — is suspect.
Mere years ago, the suggestion was that men who did not support Hillary Clinton for president did so entirely because they are misogynists. This assessment still stands. Gay men are now additionally decried as “transphobes” for not accepting the sexual advances of trans men they have no sexual interest in. I want to be clear that I don’t put this on trans men as a whole, many of whom do not engage in this sort of sexual policing. Rather, I see this as a quality of liberal cultural understandings of sexuality. Passion is replaced by accessibility and entitlement.
The hippie insult of being “repressed” for declining sex is today another pathology or two.
When I was a teenager, it was not uncommon for feminists to theorize that male homosexuality was a form of misogyny, or to spread rumors about men who rejected them being secretly gay. Of course, I’m sure all of this was intended as a joke, but then again, liberal culture sees men as a joke, so who cares about impact, right? Today’s iterations of this same culture are just another way to abstract men and to punish them by denigrating their autonomy. It’s liberal homophobia and misandry by another name.
Likewise, I cannot count the number of gay men who seem completely unwilling to understand that I do not want to have sex or a relationship with them, and it is not because of any sort of political beliefs I hold about race, size, gender identity, or autism. It is because I do not find them attractive or I do not think we could make a relationship work.
Despite the rather recent cultural moment same-sex marriage had, the idea that I might be interested in marriage and only interested in spending my time with people who share a similar goal (and the aspiration of creating a Jewish home together, at that) is dismissed as beside the point. My sexual ambiguity is itself taken as an invitation which I am then a prude for not freely offering to everyone who desires me.
Democratic culture sees sexuality through the lens of politics — and a pathologized politics of phobias at that — “self-hating,” “repressed,” “fatphobic,” etc. Sex, like politics, are dispassionate, divorced from actual desire and climax. You must be whatever anyone wants and yet nothing at all to any one of them. Every other approach is on its way to being called fascism.
In my experience, most men find neither this culture nor its reactionary, hyper-monogamous counterpart to be a natural fit for their lives. While the indifference of society to men in general allows heterosexual men more often to evade either cultural front and to negotiate their sexual and political lives as individuals, for everyone else, the cultural pipeline from sexual discovery to liberal politics is so hegemonic, that life beyond it is difficult to even conceptualize.
Most gay men for instance can readily provide you with examples of how individual conservatives and right-wing politicians rejected them or opposed their civil rights at various times. Mention specific instances of individual liberals or left-wing politicians doing the exact same thing, and suddenly grace is extended and justifications are offered.
From the outside looking in, it seems like most gay men are trapped in an abusive political relationship. Liberals created both major institutional obstacles your struggle has focused on for the last twenty years, and simultaneously declined to advance protections for the civil rights categories they created for you. Today, the Democratic base interjects litmus tests to your literal sexual attraction — and I assure you, no one is going around demanding that heterosexual men bed trans women, and no one bats an eye if a straight man says he either is or is not into Asian girls, fat girls, etc.
What are you getting out of this? What part of this feels like a healthy community?
There’s a lot of great theory out there that a class analysis ought to replace all of this liberal identitarian nonsense. With respect to Marx though, there’s a gendered angle here still to explore.
In my experience, straight men who grew up in liberal environments and gay men alike both struggle more than conservative men to relate to manhood or to conceptualize masculinity, sexual desire, and passionate relationships as things which can ever be healthy. So many qualifications pollute how we want to identify or assert ourselves. Coaching men like this really comes down to the core issue of teaching men it’s okay to be their own man.
Sex and attention aren’t things we owe others on the basis of their desire for our bodies. We have a right to determine our own attractions (and a responsibility to act on them consensually). Being a man is enough. We are under no obligation to define ourselves by the words others use. Sometimes men love and engage sexually with each other. Sometimes men love and engage sexually with women and people whose bodies or genders don’t really fit clearly into binary concepts of either. Men have done this throughout history. And doing so neither robs us of our manliness, makes us into sexual predators, nor necessarily defines a central part of our identity.
Here I promised an essay on sexual orientation, and I’m afraid I’ve covered everything but that. How it really ties together though for me is that the simple concept of sexual orientation is an inherently political one. Accepting that concept ties our sexuality into politics that more often than not constrain and micromanage our masculinity.
A healthier choice for many men — and the path I myself have chosen — is to reject being identified in these terms, to step instead into the much older tradition of men as dynamic sexual beings, obliged only to those they choose, and uncompromised by how others would define them. In some ways I think my ambiguity is the clearest sense of myself as a man I’ve discovered yet.
To you still clarifying yourselves, I encourage: accept labels and theories where they are useful to you. Adjust or discard without hesitation what does not fit.
And be mindful where others seek to define you for yourself and the world you inhabit. To accept the name they give you is to accept the story they are telling about you.