GENDER AND SEX: RETHINKING LABELS IN VIEW OF NEW EVIDENCE

A recent article in The Washington Post announced that “1 in 6 Gen Z adults are LGBT: And this number could continue to grow.” Gen Zers are the persons born between 1997 and 2012 (or 2015 depending on the sources). They are, thus, between 6 and 24 years old, but the article refers specifically to those over 18. Journalist Samantha Schmidt describes this demographic as “a group of young Americans that is breaking from binary notions of gender and sexuality—and is far more likely than older generations to identify as something other than heterosexual.” Yes, this is indeed cause for celebration, but we’re speaking about 16.6% of Gen Zers at most, meaning that 83.4% still see themselves as binary and heterosexual, a reality nobody really knows how to approach.
Schmidt’s data come from a Gallup survey declaring that 5.6% of all US adults identify as LGTB, whereas the percentage was 4.5% in the previous survey of 2017 (3.5% in 2012). The survey has other very interesting figures: “More than half of LGBT adults (54.6%) identify as bisexual. About a quarter (24.5%) say they are gay, with 11.7% identifying as lesbian and 11.3% as transgender;” only 3.3% give other self-definitions regarding gender and sexuality. Gallup confirms that 3.1% of Americans identify as bisexual (most of them are women), 1.4% as gay, 0.7% as lesbian, and 0.6% as transgender (which is a gender identity, not a sexual identity). The figures for Generation Z are 11.5% bisexual, 2.1% gay, 1.4% lesbian and 1.8% transgender (other 0.4%). “The pronounced generational differences” Gallup concludes, “raise questions about whether higher LGBT identification in younger than older Americans reflects a true shift in sexual orientation, or if it merely reflects a greater willingness of younger people to identify as LGBT.”
My view is quite different: what the survey unveils, at least for the USA, is that the label LGBT might soon implode, as bisexuality, which is increasingly accompanied by individuals’ declaring themselves genderfluid, is undermining any essentialisms that may still survive in this label. I don’t want to go too much into this complex territory for fear of offending anyone but I must ask how a gay man and a genderfluid bisexual person can be grouped under the same label since the former’s identity depends on binary constructions which are totally irrelevant (and unwelcome) for the latter. The Gallup survey seems to speak, rather, of a future in which the majority will still be heterosexual but diminishing (maybe down to 60-50%), followed by a very large group of bisexual persons (perhaps even 20 to 25%), next homosexuals (gays and lesbians), then transgender people, and then others (what happened to intersexuals and asexuals in this survey?). There will come a time, therefore, when the label LGTB, or LGTBIAQ+, whatever you prefer, will have to be reconsidered. As far as I am concerned, I welcome any news that speak of a greater variety of identities for people, related both to gender and reality. I find it cool that persons may refer to themselves as bisexual and genderfluid rather than be repressed for refusing binary labels (even though bisexual is also a binary label, pansexual being the non-binary term). However, I am left with two important questions: how do we speak of heterosexuality in this changing context? And why is sexuality still so important to define a person’s identity?
About ten years ago I wrote a little book called Desafíos a la heterosexualidad obligatoria [Challenges to Compulsory Heterosexuality] (yes, you can download it for free) and last week I was interviewed on it by Maria Giménez for the radio programme ‘Feminismes a Ràdio 4’ (here’s the podcast, in Catalan). I must say that my book has one very negative review on GoodReads, calling me awfully patronizing, and I have not re-read it since then for fear of really sounding condescending. I wish that person could explain to me over coffee why I sound so terribly to them but I think I can guess: the point I made in the book is that we need to establish a better dialogue between LGTB persons and the heterosexuals I called ‘heteroqueer’ (borrowing the word from Jackson Katz), that is to say, the persons who, like myself, do not care at all for heteronormativity. Or maybe it’s just that my tone is really patronizing, for which I apologize.
Heterosexuality is not an invention of patriarchy, but it is certainly the case that patriarchy has used it to constitute the norm by which all other sexual identities have been repressed: that is what we call heteronormativity. This has been used to repress heterosexuals themselves, forcing us to understand sexuality as a tool for procreation, which of course it is not (or not only). In case you didn’t know, the word ‘heterosexuality’ emerged in the 1920s, long after homosexuality (coined in 1869) to name a perversion: the sexual practice by man-woman couples who had sex without intention to reproduce. Heterosexuals, it turns out, know very little about the history of the concept and, unlike LGTB persons, have a very poor understanding of our own sexual identity. In fact, my book came about because I was harping all the time about this to the LGTB members of the research group I belonged to (Body and textuality) and its principal investigator, Meri Torras, asked me to write the volume and be done complaining, for which I thank her (though, as you can see, I am not done complaining).
‘Heteroqueer’ has never caught on but, as I did when I wrote the book, I still feel that the label LGTB forgets the heterosexuals who are not heteronormative and firmly reject heteronormativity. The position of heterosexuals in identity activism is as uncomfortable as the position of men in feminism (or whites in racism): we may be accepted as allies, but never as members integral to the movement. This is fine by me, but, just as I think that men can help feminism by undermining patriarchy, I believe that heterosexuals can help (and do help) LGTB persons by undermining heteronormativity. If it is a matter of renouncing privilege, then I think this can and must be done. My point is that just as it is not right to promote androphobia and identify all men with the patriarchal enemy –as French radical feminist Pauline Harmange has done in her recent book I Hate Men– it is not right to see all heterosexuals as the very embodiment of heteronormativity. As a heterosexual woman I stress that the patriarchal construction is heteronormativity, not heterosexuality, and, being in favour of the demolition of normativity for good, I declare myself an anti-patriarchal, anti-heteronormative heterosexual woman. This is my choice, and, if reading this you think that I am a deluded person who cannot see that her gender and her sexuality have been conditioned by patriarchy, maybe you’re being patronizing…
Having said that, I must say that I am totally fed up with the insistence on sex and what I will call ‘sexnormativity’. Heteronormativity has been used to repress people horribly into thinking that sex should be connected with reproduction, but now that sex has been disconnected from reproduction (not too successfully, thinking of how many women need to have abortions every year) we are in the grip of this constant compulsion to be sexual beings all the time. I wrote ten years ago and I will insist now that human affectivity goes beyond sex, not only with one’s partners but generally in life. I’m really sick and tired of reading so many articles and books about how we connect with other persons in bed while nobody seems to care about how we connect with others as friends, in a work-related context, in the neighbourhood, etc. I agree, of course, that sex needs to be discussed as openly as possible, both in its good and its bad aspects, but there seems to be a kind of sex police out there monitoring how often we have sex and with how many partners, from adolescence to the day we die. To be honest, I fail to understand why sex has this hyperbolic presence in our lives, though I very much suspect that this is not examined in depth because the main promoters of its omnipresence are sexnormativist men. I am not disputing the discourse of sexual liberation but wondering why this aspect of human behaviour is taking up so much personal and social energy, at the expense of other forms of human affectivity.
So, going back to where I started, I will insist that both LGTB and heterosexuality are labels that need to be revised and reconfigured, even lost if that would help everyone be happier. As regards gender, as much as I like the label ‘genderfluid’ I still think that we do not have yet the cultural markers –from fashion down to person’s names– that can help genderfluid non-binary persons make themselves visible. We do need them urgently. I do not doubt for a moment that humankind would be better off with more variety, and with many more genderfluid pansexuals. But, above all, I would like to have sex become less ubiquitous in the media, the social networks, and so on, so that people can be free from compulsory sexnormativity. Perhaps I’ll eventually write a book called Challenges to Compulsory Sexuality. And try to be less patronizing…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/