In her book Contemporary Feminist Theory and Activism, Wendy Lynne Lee discusses six global issues that she sees as feminist undertakings, one of which is sexual identities. Specifically, she focuses on the problems caused by viewing sexuality as a binary and encourages us to see sexuality as fluid. She explains that anytime a binary exists, one member of the pair is devalued as inferior to the other: male/female, masculine/feminine, human/animal, white/black, us/them. So too is the case with sexuality – heterosexual is valued as superior to homosexual. In addition, the binary serves to erase all other identities in between the two poles of homosexual and heterosexual. This exclusionary nature of the binary is especially problematic. In the face of these issues, Lee asks us how we can move away from the binary and celebrate the fluidity of identity. I would argue that dismantling of the binary of sexual identities is important not only on a societal level, but also on an individual level. As we learn to understand sexuality as fluid and non-binary, we are able to open up to the possibility of new experiences and allow ourselves to explore. Through this exploration we find our true selves.
I believe that people often feel limited by the categorical options provided by the binary: gay or straight. And within those two options, only one is validated by society, which basically leaves you with no choice. For this reason, I think that many people automatically identify as straight because they’re told that it’s normal and natural. It is definitely safer and more comforting to feel like you are “normal.” From a very early age we are told, explicitly and implicitly, that we should be attracted to the opposite sex, and only the opposite sex. We internalize this message and many of us never question whether or not it actually reflects our true desires. Some people only realize it later in life, after starting a family with a spouse of the opposite sex.
In my own experience, I considered myself a straight woman until I got to college. I had always been attracted to men, and so I assumed that I was “normal” and heterosexual. Occasionally I felt attracted to women, but I didn’t take it seriously and never dated anyone who was not a cisgender male. When I came to college everything changed. Through my feminist and gender studies classes I learned that sexuality is, in fact, fluid. I learned that gender is fluid as well and that people identify in many different ways, often outside of the binary. I learned to question my long-time assumption that I could only be attracted to cis males. What if that wasn’t true? I had never been open to the possibility before, but now I let myself explore. I dated a transitioning transgender man who helped me better understand my sexuality. I learned that genitals were not something that mattered to me in my feelings for and attraction to others. This was a revelation to me, and I opened up to the idea of dating people who were not men. When I found myself attracted to women, I let my feelings develop instead of pushing them away. Through sexuality workshops I learned about all different kinds of sexualities, sexualities that I didn’t even know existed. I saw that the binary did not encompass the true diversity of human experience. I now identify as pansexual, and it feels very liberating to finally break out of the straight “box” that I was in for so long. Because I don’t fit in a tidy box anymore, however, it can be difficult and awkward to explain my dating preferences to people. Most people see sexuality as binary, so it is confusing for them when I mention being open to dating women as well as men. The boxes that we so often force people into makes things more complicated than they are – sexuality is fluid and just can’t be easily categorized.
When people are given the opportunity to explore their sexual identity beyond preconceived notions that they are fed by society, something very empowering occurs. This individual empowerment is incredibly important and leads to the need for societal emancipation as well. As Lee asserts, we can only reach this freedom through a total paradigm shift. We must learn to understand sexuality as fluid and embrace sexual identities that are outside of the binary. This also involves creating visibility for identities that are often silenced and ignored, such as bisexual and asexual individuals. To fully move away from a heternormative society, we must leave behind the gay-straight binary that both perpetuates inequality and erases the identities of so many other people. Amidst the conservative political effort to constitutionalize heterosexuality, these issues are as pressing and relevant as ever.