Fans, friends, and coworkers often ask if I am lesbian, bisexual, or straight. These folks want to know how I identify. They want to know what I am and expect me to respond to questions about my sexual orientation by revealing a hidden truth about my core sense of self. But who I am is defined moment by moment by what I do. My sexuality is a dynamic reflection of my behaviors rather than a fixed aspect of my identity. I'm not gay or straight. I'm me. And I'm debunking the whole idea of a "sexual orientation."
Modern views of sexuality differentiate between attraction to a certain gender (sexual orientation), and attraction to personal qualities apart from gender per se (sexual behaviors). The first is a fixed part of a man’s identity and the second a set of preferences and behaviors. Sexual orientation is a state of being which an individual cannot escape. A homosexual man is homosexual everyday all day long. A sexual behavior is an activity in which a man sometimes partakes, which does not reflect upon his essence of or state of being—an activity independent of a man’s lived identity.
Modern Americans consider a person’s sexual orientation is a part of his essence like eye color and height. Such attributes are known as “essentialized characteristics”: fixed and unchangeable truths about an individual. In our minds, essentialized traits transcend appearance and can exist as a truth about an individual regardless of that individual’s behavior—a person is defined by what’s “inside.” Even if a man looks or acts like a heterosexual, he is still a homosexual if being such is part of his “real,” internal essence.
Modern Americans differentiate between essentialized sexual orientation and other similar aspects of sexuality using language. Americans use different sentence structures to describe essentialized traits and behaviors. To describe essentialized sexual preference we say, “He is a homosexual.” A modern American man describes himself as being “a gay man.” Modern English speakers do not say, “he enjoys sex with other men.” A man does not say, “I sometimes enjoy sex with both men and women,” rather he describes himself by saying, “I am bisexual.” Modern Americans essentialize attraction to and desire for others of a certain sex by describing it in such a way that it becomes part of a man’s identity. But to make this distinction between sexual orientation and other sexual behaviors, English speakers first had to develop a set of single words to describe this identity.
The modern understanding of sexual orientation came about only after the development of the word “homosexual.” In One Hundred Years Of Homosexually, David Halperin says that, “Before 1892 there was no homosexuality, only sexual inversion” –an umbrella term used to classify “a broad range of deviant gender behavior.” Before this time, there was no word to describe heterosexuality or bisexuality. Texts dating before the early-mid 1900s treated attraction to and desire for others of a certain sex as a behavior like other sexual preferences. Rather than saying, “he is a homosexual and different in nature from a heterosexual,” they “assum[ed], instead, that we all share the same fundamental set of sexual appetites, the same ‘sexuality.’” Without a way to describe attraction to and desire for others of a certain sex as an essentialized identity, they treated it as a behavior independent of a person’s nature.
Modern English speakers use many words to describe sexual orientation as an identity including "straight," "bi," “homo,” “queen,” “queer,” “lesbian,” “dyke,” “fag,” and “gay.” These words we use to describe ourselves often limit the possibilities we imagine for our futures. When a man says, “I am gay,” he limits his options. When a woman says, “I am bisexual,” she subjects herself to stereotyping. Through understanding the etymology of terms like “gay,” perhaps we can break free from some of the limitations we place on ourselves. Maybe we can learn to describe ourselves by what we desire and what we do rather than who we are. This trend starts here: I'm me, and no single word can describe my appetite for sex.