Gay is not a prescriptive ‘label’, nor a monolithic ‘identity’. It’s just a description.

The Guardian re-published a blog post by Chris Morris (no, not that Chris Morris, another Chris Morris). In it he explains, in the words of the title he wrote himself, ‘why I’m no longer Gay but still want to marry a man’. He describes how, having up to that point enjoyed sexual relationships with both males and females, he decided at the age of 15 to become Gay (the capitalisation is his). He goes on to describe how he threw himself wholeheartedly into his new ‘identity’, and drew comfort from it: it seems to have functioned for him both as a protective carapace and a means of seeking acceptance for himself as an individual. He subsequently met and fell in love with ‘a beautiful young journalist’ who he felt loved him for himself rather than his ‘Gay mask’, and has now reverted to an earlier understanding of himself, in which he views sex as something he does, not something he is. He also feels that ‘love transcends everything and it doesn’t matter who you love as long as you love’.

The post is wonderful – eloquently written, and very moving in places (the pean to transcendent love is a bit Céline Dion, but then again we should expect a little excess sentimentality in loved-up people planning their weddings). The sections where he describes himself as a lonely boy who’d grown up in care and thought he would find acceptance by subsuming himself in a Gay identity, only to find that ultimately hollow and unfulfilling, are very affecting. However, the fact I describe this post to be – as it is – eloquent and moving shouldn’t be taken as meaning that I agree with everything Chris Morris says in it.

Of course, the fact I disagree is in large part irrelevant. Mr Morris is describing his own understanding of himself, and he is, by definition, the world authority on that subject. I’m also instinctively libertarian on these kinds of issues. I think individuals should be free to come to their own conclusions since it is a matter of supreme irrelevance to anyone else how someone chooses to describe themselves. If Chris Morris understands himself – as I think, without wanting to put words in his mouth, he does – to be a man in love with another man rather than a gay man, or a bi man, or a queer man, or any of the other words that other people in this situation sometimes use to describe themselves, then that’s just fine by me. More than that: I am glad to honour his description of himself.

That said, I’m not altogether surprised that Chris Morris found his rather monolithic conception of a ‘Gay identity’ to be incompatible with his inner sense of self, or that he began to think of it as a disguise. I’m unsurprised because of his mention that, before he took the conscious decision to be Gay, he had enjoyed sexual relationships with both females and males. This is atypical for many of us who describe ourselves as gay: we tend only to desire physical intimacy with people of our own sex, and as a result have never taken a conscious decision to be gay. The experiences Morris describes are more typical of those who sometimes identify as bisexual, since that (much misunderstood, and grossly maligned) term more easily encompasses the breadth of their desires.

Let me be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here. There are of course men who describe themselves as gay who enjoy sexual/ romantic relationships with both men and women, just as there are some self-identified gay men who feel that they have taken a conscious decision to be gay. That is all, of course, absolutely fine – gay is not a prescriptive ‘label’ which mandates a particular kind of behaviour and a particular aetiology. It’s not necessary that anyone who uses the word to describe themselves must have experienced nothing but same-sex attraction, or that they must believe they were born with an innate and unvarying sexual orientation. The fact remains that those fine, wonderful people who call themselves gay even though they are attracted to both men and women are not typical of many men who describe themselves as gay.

I think this leads to the first problem with Chris Morris’ post, when he starts to generalise from his own atypical experience. The fact that Mr Morris rightly identified a disconnection between the person he truly was inside and the all-encompassing ‘Gay identity’ that he tried to live out does not mean that the same disconnection exists for all of us. The fact that describing himself as Gay was, for him, an act akin to putting on a mask does not mean that all of us who describe ourselves as gay are wearing a mask or that, as is almost implied in the closing paragraphs of Morris’ post, we must take off our ‘masks’ if we are to ever be truly ourselves.

Being gay is usually understood to mean being romantically and sexually attracted to one’s own sex and, for those of us who only experience romantic and sexual attraction to our own sex, the word fits more comfortably than it does for a person like Chris Morris, who knows himself to sometimes feel sexually and romantically attracted to women. Again, at the risk of endlessly belabouring the same point, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with a man who has fancied both women and men using the word gay to describe himself – it’s entirely his choice, just as it’s entirely his choice to subsequently opt out of using the word, even though he’s still passionately in love with a man. I’m just pointing out that such a person’s perception of the appropriateness/ inappropriateness of the word gay will be different to that of a person who has only ever experienced same-sex attraction.

Then, too, there’s the matter of the difference between the Gay-with-a-capital-G that Morris writes about and the lower-case gay that I prefer. With his capitalisation of the term (something he explicitly says in his post ‘isn’t an accident’), Chris Morris implies that identifying as gay is a matter of subsuming oneself within a monolithic identity, but this is not something I believe to be true.

There are as many ways of being gay as there are gay men, and it is not the case – has never been the case – that being gay mandates a particular demeanour (i.e. camp), or a particular mode of dress (the latest fashions, accesorised with exactly the right consumer electricals), or requires a particular suite of cultural interests (divas and torch songs). Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that – personally, I find camp men very attractive – but none of it is required. (And just as well: if all gay men were required to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge of the collected works of the Garland–Minnelli dynasty then I’d be in deep trouble.)

The word gay may sometimes be used as though it encompasses things other than sexual orientation, so that people talk about gay clubs, gay music, gay fashion etc., but that’s just a kind of shorthand. When people talk about a gay club they don’t actually mean that there is anything intrinsically gay about the club, they just mean it’s a club where gay men tend to congregate. It’s not that the thing itself is gay, it’s just that it’s quicker to say “gay club” than it is “club frequented by gay men” or “gay music” than it is “music of the kind preferred by many gay men”. And it’s certainly not the case that a gay man must perforce like ‘gay music’ or attend a ‘gay club’.

This, then, is the other area where I respectfully disagree with Chris Morris. For me, gay isn’t an ‘identity’, it’s just the most popular of the words we use to describe men who are romantically and sexually attracted to other men. When I describe myself as gay, I’m not signing up to a monolithic social identity, and I’m not donning a mask that disguises the real me. When I describe myself as gay I’m just describing myself as a man who’s romantically and sexually attracted to other men. I don’t mean that I’m nothing but gay, or even that being gay is the most important thing about me (it varies with context: when I’m dating it’s crucial, when I’m plumbing in a washing machine it’s irrelevant). I mean that I am a distinct, idiosyncratic individual about whom the use of the word ‘gay’ announces nothing but the sex of the people I find attractive.

Chris Morris is not alone in the way he writes about these kinds of issues. The tendency to assume that categories like ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are old-fashioned, or not fit for purpose, is a commonplace one. Some people think we are already living in a ‘post-gay’ environment (such people argue that it’s the existence of anti-gay laws that creates gayness as a distinct thing, and that in places where those laws have virtually disappeared gayness has disappeared alongside them). Others – influenced, often without realising it, by Michel Foucault’s intellectually bankrupt but hugely influential assertion that gay people didn’t exist until scholarly works on the subject began to emerge in the mid-19th century – imagine us to be on the threshold of rediscovering an old utopia where sexual orientation didn’t exist, and there was just love and sex. Without wishing to put words in his mouth, I think Morris comes close to the latter view – he seems to think we are on the cusp of leaving behind ‘Gay’ and entering in on a world of pure love.

It’s a perfectly lovely idea, and I have no wish to question his or anyone else’s utopia. Personally – being the kind of nerdy, details-obsessed person I am – I’m not entirely sure this ‘no labels’ scenario will be a utopia so much as a place of confusion and mild social embarrassment. After all, a world in which no-one uses the words ‘cat’, and ‘dog’ isn’t a world in which cats and dogs have ceased to exist, it’s just a world in which it’s harder to talk about domestic pets. In the same way, so far as I can see, a world in which people have stopped using the words ‘gay’, ‘bi’ and ‘straight’ isn’t a world in which sexual orientation has ceased to exist, it’s just a world in which it’s harder to talk about it, and I’m not sure that’s a net gain. I just can’t help thinking of all the embarrassingly detailed questions I’d have to ask someone I fancied in place of the straightforward “Are you gay?”

Personally, I don’t see perfection as a situation in which no-one talks about sexual orientation, or where there aren’t even any words to discuss it. I worry that’s a utopia imagined by people who, deep down, are concerned that any mention of sexual orientation will lead to disapproval and discrimination, and think that the solution is to suppress the differences between people, or to pretend they don’t exist. In the utopia I envision people will still, when it’s relevant, talk openly about being bi, or straight, or gay, but no-one will bat an eyelash: it just won’t matter any more.

I sometimes doubt that utopia will arrive in my lifetime. Maybe it’s silly even to fantasise about it – homosexuality and bisexuality are a great deal less common than heterosexuality, so maybe it will always be noteworthy to a person’s friends and family when they come out. One thing I do know is that, whether that utopia comes about or not, I will always be glad to celebrate the kind of happiness Chris Morris has found, how ever he describes himself. I may be too much of a battered old cynic to believe as ardently in the transcendent power of love as Mr Morris, but I hope I will never be so hard of heart as to do anything other than take pleasure in the happiness of others.

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One Response to Gay is not a prescriptive ‘label’, nor a monolithic ‘identity’. It’s just a description.

  1. Kapitano says:

    It sounds like Mr Morris just got bored with Gay Culture.

    Which means by his definition I’m not of The Gay anymore, and probably neither are you.

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