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Sexual Orientation Identity Labels, in Slash and in Real Life - Mo's Journal
February 3rd, 2008
08:59 am

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Sexual Orientation Identity Labels, in Slash and in Real Life
This post is being prompted by some discussion concerning slash and sexual orientation that arose during the recent round of "Is slash anti-canonical?" and the meta offshoots from that. I've seen a few comments suggesting a preference for slash writers writing characters who identify as bisexual. There have been some statements about assuming all characters who are depicted as having heterosexual relationships are bisexual until proven otherwise. I've also seen suggestions that someone who has heterosexual relationships in canon and same-sex ones in slash is necessarily bisexual. I disagree with those premises.

I wrote a post a while ago describing a bit of the complexity of how sexual orientation, sexual identity labeling and sexual behavior interact and I stand by what I said then. Now I want to say a little more about how and why people come to identify with a label, both in real life and in slash.

First of all, I think it needs to be pointed out that the whole idea of identifying oneself as gay or bisexual is a relatively new concept. People have had homosexual sex forever, and at some times and in some places that behavior was approved of and expected and in others it was severely sanctioned and in still others it was not even talked about. But the concept that homosexuality is an aspect of who one is, as opposed to what one does, is a modern Western idea. Various places and times have had assorted gender-bending concepts, but I do think that's a somewhat different issue. Certainly it is often related, since people who had "third gender" or cross-gender labeling were often engaging in homosexual sex. Still, because it conflates gender role, gender identity and sexual behavior, none of those categories are truly equivalent to the modern Western concepts of "gay" or "lesbian."

Slash is written in an assortment of fandoms and the worlds they exist in vary greatly. If the fandom world is not ours, it's worth considering how close it is to ours in making decisions about whether to use sexual orientation labels for the characters at all. Would m/m lovers in a Galaxy Far Far Away perceive themselves as different from the heterosexual romantic couples we see on screen? How and why? Would those differences lead to a label of homosexual or bisexual or something else? Or no label at all? These are questions worth considering.

I write in X-Men, which presents a world very much like ours, that's occurring in "the not-so-distant future" and has the addition of the mutant sub-species. Those who write in HP are writing in a fandom that concerns itself with a hidden world within our own, which has the addition of magic. Other fandoms where I'm not familiar with the source text, but I get from the meta that they are much like our world with some change, include SGA and Buffy. In all of these cases, I think it behooves the author to think about how sexual orientation identity labeling works within our world, before writing how it affects the characters.

Not all men who have sex with men (MSM) in contemporary Western society identify as gay or homosexual. Some MSM identify as heterosexual, in fact, and see any same-sex behavior as sinful and a lapse on their part, not an expression of their identity. Some do identify as bisexual for a period, and others as a persistent identity. And some identify as gay, even those who have been in love with and married to women. The latter often go through a long and painful coming out process that includes a developing and changing sense of self before they choose and accept the label of gay or homosexual. I think it's important to note that choosing that label does not mean that they've never had sex with women, never been in love with a woman, never had a significant relationship with a woman. It doesn't negate their past. It's about who they are, not what they do.

I think part of the misunderstanding between gay people and bisexuals comes from the very common phenomenon of gay men and lesbians identifying as bisexual for a period of time during the coming out process. So if we overgeneralize we look at people with a persistent bisexual identity as only half-way out of the closet. We shouldn't do that and bisexual people are right to get offended when some of us do.

OTOH, a common misconception from the other side is that if we are sometimes attracted to people of the opposite sex, or have been in love with someone of the opposite sex, then we aren't "really" gay or lesbian, we're bisexual. A related, and equally mistaken, claim is that we only claim the label for political reasons. I'm an old style second wave feminist and do believe that the personal is political, but it's not just political. And for many of us it's a very personal thing and a core part of our personal identity.

I think that fandom has a disproportionate (relative to the general population) number of women who live heterosexual lives and identify as bisexual, so this latter misunderstanding abounds here, much more than others. These women often feel that if they identify as bisexual due to attraction, even though their behavior is exclusively or predominantly heterosexual, that gay men and lesbians - in slash, at least - should also so identify, if they have any attraction to or history with the opposite sex. And in slash we usually do have canonical heterosexual relationships to contend with.

I think it's a mistake to presume that someone who had a canonical heterosexual attraction or relationship (like Harry's to Ginny or Scott's to Jean) must come out as bisexual, if he develops or discovers feelings for men. That may be where he ends up, but it's not the only possibility, and the writer should in my opinion be open to other possibilities.

All analogies are flawed, of course, but race is not a bad analog as such things go. Mixed race people identify in a variety of ways in our society. There has to be room in our society for people of mixed parentage who identify as biracial (like Tiger Woods) and people who identify as black (like Barack Obama). Race is a social construct, not a biological one, but that doesn't make it less real.

Similarly, a lot of us identify as gay or lesbian even if we have mixed pasts or somewhat mixed attraction. We so identify because it's a central feature of who we are and how we relate sexually. Just because some people could have sex with a person of either gender doesn't mean they want to or that it has the same quality of centrality to who they are if they do. And generally that is a feeling that develops over time, sometimes with a stop on the way station of bisexuality.

I identify as a lesbian and have for decades now. For me, the sure and certain knowledge that I was going to live my life as a lesbian, that I wanted my lover or lovers to be women no matter what happened in my relationship at the time, is what led me to embrace that label. I still embrace it. I have fond memories of romantic and sexual relationships with men (perhaps I should say "boys" since we were so young). I often think men are attractive. I clearly don't have an aversion to men's bodies or to men having sex or I wouldn't be writing and reading slash. I'm always happy to hear about my male friends' sex lives. But I know that, for me, sex with a woman is profoundly different and better and more core to who I am than sex with a man could ever be. I am not alone in this. Many real people of both sexes (mutatis mutandum) feel similarly. Fictional people can as well.

Here's how my X2 version of Scott, who has come to identify as gay, explains it to Logan after Jean's "death":

"Do you still think you could change, forget about that part, like you said? Could you meet someone else, another woman? Fall in love?"

I shook my head. "No, I'm pretty sure I couldn't. Even if I did meet another woman, I wouldn't try to live like that, not again. It was a mistake, what Jean and I tried to do. An honest mistake, a loving mistake, but still a mistake. I've given it a lot of thought. It's not just about sex for me. I think I notice men more, am drawn to men more in lots of ways. But a whole lot of it is sex. You can't help what turns you on, and it's men's bodies that turn me on. I spent so much time fighting it, and I want to be true to myself now. It feels good not to fight it anymore. I can’t go back. Sex with men is the only kind I want. It's different, there’s more to it – for me, anyway – than there is with a woman. It's hard to explain. I don’t know if you could understand, really."

"I know the parts are different."

I laughed. "Yeah, and that's certainly a lot of it. But it's not all. As close as telepathy during sex made me feel with Jean, we weren't really sharing the experience, not in the same way as when I'm doing it with a man, even a man I didn't love or even know well. There's something about having sex with another guy... it's hard to explain.” Well, that’s what I said, but what I was thinking was that I didn’t know whether or not I ought to try to explain. I wasn’t accustomed to talking about my sexuality at all, not having done so for a long time. And it felt a little bit risky to discuss it with Logan, although I wasn’t sure why. I took a deep breath and continued. “There's a shared understanding that I just don't think men and women can have, or at least that I can't have with a woman. Can I be specific? Or is that going to make you uncomfortable if I talk about homosex?"

"Go ahead."

"Okay. Here's an example: I love giving head. And some of that is just being totally turned on by men's bodies. There's little that feels as good to me as a big, hard cock in my mouth, down my throat." I sneaked a sidelong glance at him, checking to see that he wasn't getting upset with the graphic description, but he looked interested and listening. "It's more than that, though,” I went on. "I have this really intense impression every time I do it. I find myself thinking 'I know what this feels like; I know what he's feeling.' And there's an erotic charge and a connection in that knowledge that I just don't think I could have with a woman."

"Well, that's true. I can see that there's something there with a man that there isn't with women," he said, not seeming disturbed by the conversation at all. "But there's something else with women that you can’t get with a man. Some mystery or something. I don't know how to say it. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

"Yes and no. I do know that, for many men, that sense of 'otherness' about women is profoundly erotic. It doesn't matter that you don't know how to express it, Logan," I added with a smile. "I've heard it enough. Much of Western literature is devoted to expressing just that." I shook my head. "I understand it, in a way. I can teach it, I can write about it, but I don't feel it. It doesn't touch me the way it does you, or most men." I sighed and continued. "I've thought a lot about this, since Jean was...lost. I loved her so much, but not having her I've thought more about what kind of love it was, what kind of feelings I've had. I did think sometimes that I would change, when Jean and I were together, but I don't think it now. We loved each other and that was no small thing. But sex, even with some guy I didn't know, didn't care about, wouldn't see again, was always more intense, more fulfilling, more... complete than it was with Jean." I smiled wryly at Logan. "So, I really am gay."


Bisexuality is not the only option for people with histories of sexual behavior with members of both sexes. I think we do our characters and ourselves a disservice if we make it the default rather than carefully considering what works with our concepts of the characters.

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From:eveningblue
Date:February 3rd, 2008 10:36 pm (UTC)
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Excellent post. I have nothing to add, just wanted to say that that was really interesting.


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From:mofic
Date:February 4th, 2008 12:02 am (UTC)
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Thanks for reading. I'm glad you found it interesting.
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From:lilacsigil
Date:February 4th, 2008 06:33 am (UTC)
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Excellent post, and I like that you mention characters *not* of our place and time! Unfortunately, I do sometimes see this idea manifest in "I'm not gay, I'm not bi, I just like [same-sex person]," which I see as highly possible as an attitude from the character, but a bit of a cop-out from the author, who is writing in our time, with at least some knowledge of current identity politics.
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From:mofic
Date:February 4th, 2008 01:14 pm (UTC)
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That's an interesting point. I'd like the author to at least consider how the character perceives him- or herself, in the context of the time and place. I think, for example, that it's likely that Wilde really did not consider himself a "sodomite" and that's how he got into that whole mess. Still, he had to consider his preference for sex with men/boys as meaning something and I think that's worth considering. Not that I think anybody is writing Oscar Wilde fanfic :-) but the historical fandoms (Age of Sail, etc) do require thinking through what meaning same-sex attraction and behavior would have had for people at the time.

I think the fantasy ones require the same thing. One can certainly posit a Jedi society where m/m relationships have nothing to do with identity. OTOH, one has to take into account how much we see on screen of of m/f romance, marriage, etc. and the complete lack of any mention of m/m couples. If one doesn't think about those issues and deal with them, I do think it's a cop out.
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From:talktooloose
Date:February 4th, 2008 05:04 pm (UTC)
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I liked the analogy to racial identity. I remember this discussion between Logan and Scott fondly and I like that Scott had the balls to get graphic. I love situations in which it is possible to discuss the philosophy of sex with full graphic language.

I've been tempted to write some meta about what it means to be a gay man writing slash in a largely het woman's world. Probably you, as a lesbian male-slash writer, are an even rarer bird.
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From:mofic
Date:February 4th, 2008 05:12 pm (UTC)
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Well, he gets graphic because he's attracted to Logan and he wants to see how he reacts. But he doesn't know that's why he's doing it :-). And yes, I do think it takes balls to do it, even with asking if it's okay.

I think you're the rarer bird. There seem to be a lot of lesbians into m/m slash, surprisingly so. And not all of them are women I seduced into it :-).

I'd love to see your meta on the subject. I have friends who are a gay male couple with a kid who do a great workshop on "Being a Dad in a Mom's World." I've seen them do it a few times and I learn something new every time.

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From:elspethdixon
Date:February 8th, 2008 02:06 am (UTC)
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Bisexuality is not the only option for people with histories of sexual behavior with members of both sexes. I think we do our characters and ourselves a disservice if we make it the default rather than carefully considering what works with our concepts of the characters.

*nods* As has been said, modern concepts of sexual identity often don't fit into historical fandoms (Jack Sparrow wouldn't think of himself as bisexual, even though that's what most of fandom thinks of him as).

My current fandom involves a character who grew up in the 1930s, and concepts of sexuality were a lot more tied into gender-performance and sexual role then: a masculine-acting man who only topped wouldn't necesarily have perceived himself as "homosexual" (especially if he was also interested in women; I don't think the concept of bisexuality had caught on yet). Thus far all my slash fic has been set after said character's been around in the modern-day long enough to be familiar with modern concepts of sexuality, but I'm really looking forward to playing with that at some point.

Though I have to admit, sometimes it's hard not to fall into the "over-identifying with the character" trap and make everybody de-fault bisexual.
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From:mofic
Date:February 8th, 2008 03:44 am (UTC)
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Thanks for stopping by. How did you find me?

Your fandom sounds intriguing. What is it?

I agree it's hard not to over-identify with the character. It's something I think an author has to keep working at. If she doesn't you get m/m slash where at least one of the guys sounds like a woman...
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From:khym_chanur
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Here via metafandom

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Or that in order to keep a slash story IC there must be a bit of exposition in which the character explains why he/she was never happy in the canonical heterosexual relationship, never liked the other person involved, was forced into the relationship by circumstances, etc. all to justify that they were really gay, honestly, all along (I've seen this done with Draco in HP fic a lot, to dismiss his canon interactions with Pansy Parkinson).

Merely repeating what others have said in other metafandom'd posts, but part of this might be the notion that a person can only have a single True Love in their lifetime, so if their current partner is their One True Love then their previous partner must have been a Non-True Non-Love.
From:0nlymemories
Date:February 9th, 2008 06:38 am (UTC)

here via Metafandom

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I think it's just as important to stress that bisexuality is an option, though. In my home fandom (bandom) there are a lot of boys who have both wives and an established affection for making out with dudes. We have semi-canonical entanglements between dudes who later went on to get wives/very serious girlfriends. And yet, in fic, it seems like it is always "magical disappearing wife/girlfriend" season or "RLY gay, always has been, just took a shock to startle them out of it after years of COMPLETE STRAIGHTNESS" characterisations, which read really wonky when you take into account all of the boy-snogging-boy shenanigans that go on ALL THE TIME in the fandom.

But then, I am bisexual, and I've snogged both boys and girls pretty much equally, so my position is probably skewed. But in my fandom, at least, I would really like for it to show up as an option at least SOMETIMES, if only to avoid the magical disappearing girlfriends.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 03:29 pm (UTC)

Re: here via Metafandom

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I'm certainly not suggesting that bisexuality shouldn't be considered. In bandom, I agree, that it's often the most plausible explanation that lets you slash the characters (the "straight but knows the fans like to see them kissing each other" explanation is probably the real one but not as much fun).
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From:paradise_city
Date:February 9th, 2008 06:54 am (UTC)
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Here from metafandom.

Not all men who have sex with men (MSM) in contemporary Western society identify as gay or homosexual. Some MSM identify as heterosexual...
This was a great post and the quote above really gets to the heart of the issue for me. While behavior and identity are intimately entwined for many people, they're not entwined for everyone. Heterosexual MSM is a completely valid label if that's how a person chooses to identify and as writers, I think we ought to take into consideration how the character in question might identify themselves. We often about write about people of a different gender, generation, culture, etc. and our personal outlook on orientation and identity may be a poor fit when overlaid on a character with a different demographic than our own.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 04:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm not sure I can totally buy into the idea that "heterosexual MSM is a completely valid label." I tend to look on it as a label of men in denial. OTOH I think it's a true-to-life circumstance that men are in such denial, so the author ought to consider it as one of several possible options and it may be the "best" - i.e. most appropriate, most consistent with character - in some cases.



Edited at 2008-02-25 07:49 pm (UTC)
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From:moorspede
Date:February 9th, 2008 08:31 am (UTC)
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slightly OT, I read an interview with kd lang this morning. She said that she found men sexually attractive but she hadn't followed through because she found women more interesting.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
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Very interesting!
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From:kattahj
Date:February 9th, 2008 09:26 am (UTC)
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Hm, ouch. *grin*

I do tend to use bisexuality as a most-of-the-time default, if only in my head (that is to say, the characters often don't mention it), and consequently your post made me go very thinky. I guess for me as a ficcer, it ties into how I feel about OTPs - I don't feel comfortable, personally, in doing direct comparisons between one pairing and another, regardless of gender. So instead of "I never felt for A what I feel for B" I tend to have (if anything), "I could have been happy with A, but now I'm happy with B." I don't know why that is. Certainly, in my own life, every attempt at a more meaningful relationship has been a mistake, so why is it so alien to me to have my characters admit a mistake in their lovelife? The pressure it creates on their new relationship, maybe?

Anyway. Thinky thoughts going on here.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)
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I get that you don't want to compare, but the fact is a lot of people really do compare how they feel about one person, or how sex is with one person to how it is with another. So I think it's worth thinking about for some of your characters, even if not for yourself.

I don't really believe in OTP either, but I don't think that that precludes comparisons. I also don't think it means that my characters always agree with me. When J-P and Adam break up, Wendy tells J-P that she feels they are really meant to be together, and I think he agrees, even if the author doesn't believe in such romantic bullshit.

Anyway, glad to induce you to think :-).
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From:executrix
Date:February 9th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)
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I think the question is, when a character is emotionally involved with a character of the same sex, and especially when the character is sexually involved with someone of the same sex, WHO is saying the character isn't gay--the character or the writer? And is anybody lying or in denial?

In either case, I often see a lot of denial, premised around the character, or the writer locating "gay" as somewhere over there, and primarily negative. I know that not every writer who writes "We're not gay, we just love each other" stories doesn't also think "We're gay, so we don't love each other, we just exploit each other for sex" but I bet SOME of them do.
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From:mofic
Date:February 12th, 2008 12:47 pm (UTC)
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I know that not every writer who writes "We're not gay, we just love each other" stories doesn't also think "We're gay, so we don't love each other, we just exploit each other for sex" but I bet SOME of them do.

There's an interesting thought! I wonder if that attitude reflects a negative view of heterosexuality. I do think there's something in the "We're not gay, we just love each other" trope that puts that kind of relationship above that of men and women. So maybe it's not just gay couples some authors think exploit each other for sex...
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From:lenija
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:48 pm (UTC)
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Here via metafandom.

Your post was very helpful for me.
I identify as pansexual, and I have often tried to understand how being heterosexual or homosexual works, tried to imagine what it's like to be attracted to only one gender. This point you're talking about,the idea that someone can in a way be attracted to both men and women and yet identify as homosexual (or heterosexual) was particularly hard for me to grasp. Were they talking about percentage, like "I'm 90% interested in men and only 10% interested in women, so I'll identify as gay!"?? My heterosexual friends were unable to explain.
Your explanation, but especially the extract from your fic, lets me understand the whole concept much better, and I will keep your arguments in mind the next time I write about relationships.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:48 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad the post was helpful. Can you help me? I never know what people mean by "pansexual." How does that differ from bisexual? I know the pan means "all" but other than men and women, what does the "all" consist of?
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From:mf_luder_xf
Date:February 9th, 2008 07:11 pm (UTC)
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I really enjoyed this post. I think it brings up some things that we all take for granted. For example, you bring up that bisexuality is used for characters who have had canon het romances but are in slash ones (either in canon or fic, I presume). Myself, I notice an overwhelming amount of fic that does the opposite. In SGA I tend to find characters go from het to solely gay, be that for one specific person or for the populace in general. I rarely see the idea of bisexuality addressed.

But at the same time, I have had the thoughts that canon het mixed with fic slash should be addressed as some kind of bisexuality (especially, if it's gay-for-you fic). And that's a bias on my part. So, very interesting read.

And I like how you used race as a similar analogy here, because you're right. Labels in and of themselves are social constructs (which is why unless forced to in RL, I avoid them at all costs) that often constrict us. But it's interesting to see how people choose what they want to be seen as or what they tend to consider themselves. It's an analogy I hadn't considered before.
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From:mofic
Date:February 10th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
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I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I think however our characters end up, if we're talking about someone with a significant heterosexual relationship or significant indication of heterosexual desire in canon, it behooves us to show the character going through some sort of process, whether he ends up identifying as gay, bi, something else, or nothing. Otherwise it's not realistic.
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From:mofic
Date:February 9th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome to use any of the post and link to it. My name is Dale Rosenberg and my user name is mofic. Please put both in the citation. Good luck with your paper.
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From:akktri
Date:August 30th, 2010 12:40 am (UTC)
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But if they're aliens and have sex with their armpits, is that really considered gay or bi?
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