There is no right or wrong way to be queer.
Last week, in a piece for Salon, writer EJ Levy detailed her rare and inverted “coming out” story as a lesbian who married a man. Lesbian, readers cried, You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Among the responses: Accusations of biphobia, suggestions that the author see a therapist, and exclusionary resentment like “you are not only not a lesbian, you are a threat to lesbians.” In essence, readers’ reactions ranged from bewilderment to outrage over a love they didn’t understand. Sound familiar?
I’ve written before about sexual orientation labels, particularly as they apply to those who don’t consider themselves exclusively gay or straight, and about how those labels have acquired negative stigmas due to demands that more fluid folks “pick a side and stay there.” Despite bisexuality’s bad rap and frequent denial as a “valid” orientation, it’s the term many readers were more than happy to assign EJ Levy with.
Perhaps amid the cognitive dissonance that a lesbian in a heterosexual partnership gives us, we can take sudden comfort in the comparable simplicity of bisexuality and its tri-colored flag: blue for boys, pink for girls, and that nice purple stripe across the middle where Levy clearly belongs.
I don’t believe EJ Levy is mistaken, or biphobic, or as one commenter so charmingly called her, “a wealthy narcissistic fake lesbian drama queen.” I believe she is a demonstration that human beings are complex, and that there are too many varieties of love, sex, and desire in our lives to be accurately captured with a single word.
Part of the reason labels so often fall short is because romantic love and sexual desire are two completely different elements of orientation. Developmental psychologist and University of Utah professor Lisa Diamond confirmed this distinction when she studied a group of women over a 10-year span. Many of these women developed romantic feelings toward “individual men in their lives,” despite identifying as non-heterosexual.
According to the APA, Diamond’s model “proposes that romantic love is not intrinsically oriented to same-gender or other-gender partners; and that the links between love and desire are bidirectional.”
So yes, it is possible for a lesbian to romantically love a man. Beyond that, it is possible for romantic love to stem from sexual desire and vice-versa, and we needn’t identify as gay, queer, or bisexual to understand this.
A few years ago, I was completely blindsided by gooey puppy-love feelings for a friend I didn’t desire in the least, only to find that physical attraction generated as the nature of our relationship changed. Falling in love with or being physically attracted to someone who “isn’t your type,” is a phenomenon we’ve all experienced in one way or another.
Diamond also argues that the biological “goals” of romantic and sexual attraction are fundamentally different: whereas sexual desire is an urge for reproduction and/or pleasure, “romantic love is governed by the attachment or pair-bonding system, with its goal of maintaining an enduring bond between two individuals.”
In other words, just because love can blossom into sex doesn’t mean that it will. One of my best friends—a gay man—and I are a testament to this idea as we often display affection by holding hands, cuddling, and kissing on the lips. Yet there has never been a sexual element to our relationship, because love and sex are not one in the same. Intimate bonding without physical desire in close friendships, romantic partnerships, or among parents and children, Diamond hypothesizes, all stems from the connection between infant and caregiver. Which is, ideally, a lifelong platonic bond.
But as we know, society’s love story is one that melds romance and sex in a perfectly-mixed cocktail: Consider Holden’s idealization of Alyssa in Chasing Amy and subsequent dismay when he realizes that human sexuality is more complicated than it seems. While we cheer for the narrative of the friendzoned hero who wins his crush’s heart against all odds, we simultaneously frown upon relationships that do not (as seems to be the case with Levy’s) center around sexual chemistry.
Beyond ignoring the very real distinctions between love and sex, if we criticize EJ Levy and others like her, we are also dictating that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to be queer. “Long before we had a partner to mirror back to us love and chosen identity, we had to choose ourselves,” Levy writes. “We had to consciously decide who we were and embrace it, aware that we experienced the world in a manner often at odds with the dominant culture, our lives informed by desires different from what we’re told ours should be.”
And even apart from that dominant culture, voices within the LGBT community regularly condemn those who don’t fit their conception of what “gay,” “queer,” or “trans” should be. Early on in her piece, Levy mentions that she “hadn’t read as queer” to her fiancé’s friends, given her “long brunette hair and short skirts.” Not only do femme women face invisibility in their own community, they’re a frequent target of the indignation some LGBT folks feel at the “social privileges” of passing for straight.
So who’s the “real” lesbian? The butch woman with the shaved head and tattoos? The femme applying a smear of lipstick before she goes out on the town in search of other femmes? The woman who wears a compression shirt over her breasts? What happens when a self-identified heterosexual woman marries an assigned-at-birth male who later transitions, and she stays in the relationship? Or when a woman-loving woman who, against all likelihood, falls for “a Freudian projection of a man”? The answer, of course, is found through their eyes, not ours.
As much as readers would like to diminish your identity by reducing you to a happy hetero housewife stereotype, EJ, you go, girl. I’m not sure where any of us come off thinking we know someone else’s sexuality better than they know it themselves.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications in Maryland. She runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen and also writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, and the media. Find her on Twitter.