A Label Can’t Tell The Whole Story

If you’ve never heard of Courtney Roulston, it’s probably because – like me – you don’t pay attention to anything about Masterchef. But she’s a contestant on the popular cooking show and, apparently, she has a girlfriend. That in itself is not unusual. What’s strange, to some people at least, is that she doesn’t call herself a lesbian. She had a boyfriend for seven years before hooking up with her current girlfriend of three years. Social commentator and blogger Mia Freedman found this situation surprising. She writes:

“I found what Courtney says so interesting on so many levels. I’m of the belief that being gay is not a choice or a lifestyle decision.

Does one relationship have the power to label you? Are women like Courtney and Cynthia lesbians or are they just in love with individuals who also happen to be women?”

Kinsey ScaleIt’s important to remember, as I’ve said before, that we don’t live in a binary world. We’re not gay or straight, Labor or Liberal, black or white. We’re mostly all somewhere in between. Yes, some people are going to be 100% straight, or 100% gay, but research shows they are actually the minority. Most of us have some degree of same sex attraction. In the late 1940s Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed what became known as the Kinsey Scale. Essentially, 0 is completely heterosexual and 6 is completely homosexual, and most people fall somewhere along that scale. Another category, X, was added for asexual people.

So the popular concept of gay/straight/bisexual labels aren’t accurate, and don’t suffiently describe someone’s sexuality. But even the Kinsey Scale is still too simplistic. It only covers basic physical attraction, and at one point in time. Sexuality is so much more complicated than that. It’s about activities, fantasies and frequencies, not just gender. Sexuality is fluid, it changes over time. I do things now I never would have done ten years ago. And in ten years time they might not interest me anymore, and may be doing things I couldn’t dream of now.

Labels are simple tools for quick communication. They’re for getting to the ‘important’ bits quickly, without the “well, it’s complicated” talk. When I talk about my sexuality, I usually just say “I’m bisexual” because that’s an umbrella term that covers me best. But in reality it IS more complicated than that. Sure, I’m attracted to and have slept with both men and women – but that’s a purely physical thing. I’ve never been in an emotional relationship with a guy, and at the moment it seems unlikely – I have trust issues when it comes to men. But I’m certainly not ruling it out. And rather than give a long explanation like that, most of the time I’ll just say I’m bisexual and that covers it. People have the option to either question me further about it, or direct the conversation elsewhere. Because that’s all a label is – a quick and dirty way of describing something complicated.

To put any more stock in labels, or to be ‘shocked’ when someone doesn’t fit completely in a label, is to over-simplify our complicated lives. I am who I am, and you are who you are, and that’s it.

5 thoughts on “A Label Can’t Tell The Whole Story

  1. I certainly agree with you on labels – I’ll use bisexual and nerd for myself, geek for my brother, The Bitch for my partner’s ex-wife — but none of them accurately cover any of the people or situations involved in full. The fact that labels don’t really cut the mustard when it comes to reality isn’t new, though – and neither is the fact that the people who rely most on said labels are our parents or grandparents (I canNOT be the only one who has taken her Nana out to dinner and patiently explained that yes, Nan, there are a lot of Italians here in this ITALIAN RESTAURANT). Today you can label me as straight and mainstream – I’m with a guy and we’re raising four kids. Not many yesterdays ago, I was a woman in love with my female best friend, sharehousing with a former lover and living a mostly nocturnal lifestyle. Anyone reading this website will most likely shrug and say "so what?" to any of the above. Anyone who relies on labels to contextualise their world will find it confusing or disturbing to deal with.I don’t know, the fact that the labelling issue has been mentioned in The Age (in the Sat or Sun magazine, Ed, if I’m not mistaken?) as news kind of saddens me. I know it’s an opinion piece, and it’s not in any way judgemental (based on what I’ve read), but aren’t we working towards a society in which it just doesn’t matter? Where we don’t go, "This is my friend Rob… *he’s gay*!" Aren’t we going for a place where nobody feels locked into their sexuality, where choices are important but not final, where one will never be locked into a life that just doesn’t feel right?That’s not just a homo/hetro thing either – I don’t want to live in a fifties world where it’s better to be married than to admit I’m not happy, just the same as I don’t want to say that I’ll never find the same happiness with a woman as I would with a man. That said, I’m interested that Ed said (paraphrasing, if I may) that he’s not sought long-term same-sex relationships as much as he has hetro ones – because I ran into a mental block on that one myself. For a long time I was happy to sleep with women occasionally while having emotional relationships with men. My partner’s ex was in a twenty year marriage before leaving him for a woman, with nothing but (rumoured) same-sex flings in her past. I wonder how common it is for bisexuals to sort of default into assuming that "proper" reltionships aren’t necessarily for same-sex relations?

  2. I think it was about 3 years ago now when I first heard the term "GLBT" (Gay Lesbian Bi Transexual) to describe the queer community.This year I discovered that it’s expanded to GLBTIQ (ditto plus: Intergender and Queer (which basically means ‘not sure’ from my limited knowledge)) – and some people but an "A" on the end of it now. No idea what the A is for…. And apparently there’s now a term "pansexual" – which means something slightly different. Radio hosts on Joy refer to it simple as the "Alphabet Soup".So the upshot of all this is that: as time’s gone on, the inadequacy of the terminology becomes more and more obvious, and no number of labels is ever going to actually sum up the vast variations of humanity and the human experience. The solution appears to be: INVENT MORE LABELS!!!!I somehow don’t think language will ever catch up with life….Of course labels are a lot more than just words. But that’s a much broader discussion.

  3. I think ‘intersex’ has become the more common term than intergender. Hungry Beast did a really interesting episode around it.The A is usually ‘asexual’ – people who simply have no desire at all for sex. With anybody. Sometimes, but very rarely, it’s ‘autosexual’ – people who are only interested in self-sex.Pansexual or omnisexual refers to an attraction to all genders. It’s much the same as bisexuality except bisexuality implies only two genders, male and female (hence the ‘bi-‘ suffix). Again this is where the limitations of labels comes in, because not many people outside the queer community (I’ll get to that) know what it means. So while I describe myself as bisexual, I’m really more pansexual because I can be just as attracted to a transsexual as I can a man or woman.Queer is a more broad term, essentially meaning ‘anyone in the alphabet soup’. Sometimes it’s also used to describe people involved in ‘unusual’ (a dangerous term when talking sexuality) practices such as BDSM or polyamory, but I’ve noticed the words "kink" and "kink-friendly" being used a lot more for practices. So queer essentially means "not 100% straight" and kink means "fetish". Genderqueer means someone who falls outside the male/female gender binary. Adrongyne, for example, or people don’t know their sexual identity or don’t "feel" masculine or feminine.So once you’ve got your little collection of labels, all those little sub-demographics occasionally complain about which order they’re in. Should it be LGBTIQA, or LGBATIQ? Should the Q even be in there, since it’s all of the above?See how confusing it can be? Hence, labels: screw ’em.

  4. Seamus: Really? What’s the new euphemism label?Wen: Very interesting comment. You’re right, I hope we ARE moving towards (I had to make a conscious effort not to write "moving forward" then) a society where we don’t need to label people’s sexuality. That was kind of my point of my article – labels are only useful up to a point, beyond that they’re actually detrimental to the conversation. Courtney needs only say "my girlfriend", and shouldn’t need to explain her history to a gossip mag. As for "This is my friend Rob… *he’s gay*!", that reminded me of George Carlin’s comments on "openly gay" and "happens to be black". Funny stuff, but also very relevant.What did you mean with your last sentence, "I wonder how common it is for bisexuals to sort of default into assuming that "proper" reltionships aren’t necessarily for same-sex relations"? Do you mean if bisexuals feel they need to be in outwardly heterosexual couplings, like living with or married to someone of the opposite gender, to fit in with societal norms? If so, then I think the majority of them feel pressured into that. As soon as someone is in a same-sex relationship, we automatically throw the ‘gay’ label at them.

Comments are closed.