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Why sexual fluidity is having a moment in pop culture

Pansexual’s Labyrinth: pop stars are speaking out about their fluid sexualities in 2019, often with backlash – but why? We are all on our own journey

In his Dazed Voices column Chocolate-Cream Soldier, Otamere Guobadia reflects on life and love at the intersection of blackness and queerness.

Pansexuality, sexual fluidity, and non-monosexual identities more generally, appear to be having a moment in the pop-culture sun. MTV is relaunching it's infamous dating show “Are You The One?” with its “first sexually fluid cast”, while Chris from Christine and the Queens, Miley Cyrus, Munroe Bergdorf, Joe Lycett, Janelle MonáeEzra Miller and Brendan Urie are just a small number of a growing pantheon who explicitly refuse to subscribe to traditional binaries of sexual identity, opting for an approach that is less rigid, one in which gender is not the biggest consideration in the selection of (a) potential romantic partner(s).

When Ariana Grande, pop-princess du jour, recently said in a tweet about labelling her sexuality, that she (hasn’t) before and still (doesn’t) feel the need to now,” the backlash was swift and overwhelming. Grande’s declaration was met with an understandable, if uncomfortable cynicism from some LGBT people who have routinely had their queerness trivialised and sensationalised for headline fodder.

Some read these celeb statements as queerbaiting exploitation. From Harry Styles’ “we’re all a little bit gay”, to Andrew Garfield’s “(I’m) a gay man right now just without the physical act” – large swathes of the LGBT community see these sentiments as a way of avoiding being explicitly queer. It allows celebs to occupy that liminal space – a winking, plausibly deniable queerness – by using the sexuality spectrum’s haziness and flexibility to benefit from being perceived as queer without actually having to be, or in some cases, maybe, to lie about being queer. A cynical tactic for securing the pink pound and the support of LGBT fans without actually committing to identifying as one of us. They can reap the perceived ‘edginess’ or ‘intrigue’ of queerness in an age of infinite identities, without the shitstorm that comes with publicly occupying them.

However, the sexuality of Ariana Grande and other stars that might evade labels, is not ours to decide. This kind of queer gatekeeping often has messy consequences such as forcing stars like Rita Ora, to out themselves to ameliorate a barrage of criticism or preventing others from being candid about their sexuality in the first place. Chlöe Grace Moretz found herself accused of contributing to queer erasure in cinema for being a purportedly straight actor playing gay, only to dismantle all presumptions when a paparazzi long-focus lens captured her kissing a female model months later. It might seem on the face of it, that stars like Grande and Garfield want to have their queer cake and eat it too, but true queer liberation means that we believe everyone when they speak about and self-determine their sexuality – even in the vaguest of terms – whether or not they have the experience, public performance or ‘credentials’ to underscore their identity. 

We believe them because we have an obligation to do so. To deny them the words and agency to determine their sexuality is to deny it to all queer people. 

For the longest time, gayness is a label that has been persistently applied to me, and one that I’ve passively accepted, cringing internally every time someone referred to me as a gay man but making minimal protestations, despite the fact that it no longer aligned with how I understood or experienced my own sexuality. I’ve spent the last few years reluctant to talk about my experience of sexual fluidity for manifold fears and conflicts. The embarrassment of having spent so long being one thing in public consciousness then reneging; the disbelief I faced on the occasions when I alluded to it or referred to it explicitly; the self-doubt; the allegations that it was all in the name of attention; my fear that it would unsettle long resolved issues with people who had long accepted me, because they thought I was ‘born this way’ and my sexuality was an unchangeable fact of who I am; that I might change my mind and be left to come out as something a third, maybe fourth time. And perhaps, most terrifyingly of all, that I’d receive a flurry of invasive questions about who I liked to fuck, and how I liked to fuck, and what kind of porn I wanted to watch and who I wanted to love and marry, and all manner of things that I did not, and perhaps still could not, answer. 

“For the longest time, gayness is a label that has been persistently applied to me, and one that I’ve passively accepted, cringing internally every time someone referred to me as a gay man but making minimal protestations”

When I spoke with Jake, a writer who identifies as queer and non-binary, they reiterated to me parallel experiences on their journey from identifying as gay towards sexual fluidity: “Identifying as ‘gay’ just cut out a lot of tricky conversations around gender and sexuality which I honestly just didn’t want to have. It’s so exhausting to be constantly politicised!”

The mindset shift for Jake came when they had a big breakup and found themselves in London surrounded by a network of trans/gender non-conforming people: “I guess it prompted me to reconsider the way that I define myself...gay is way too linear,” they explained. “I’ve had sexual experiences that I’ve really enjoyed with people who identify across the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality, and honestly the only thing that attracts me to a person now is connection and intimacy. That’s why I identify as queer now, because to me it feels really restricting to say only want to date men.”

Emmanuelle, a producer and DJ friend, describes her journey with sexuality and sexual fluidity as a “very confusing, one she’s finally beginning to understand the cyclical nature of.” She’d previously identified as straight, then bi, before identifying as pansexual for a period of time, gay for some time after that, and has come to accept that she is, in her own words, “just completely fluid and on the whole attracted to mostly non-binary people.”

“I have a hard time (with labels),” my friend Charlie* explains in a series of midnight voice notes. “On the one hand I do think I’m kind of technically bi, but I find something like the Kinsey scale (he currently identifies somewhere between a 1.5 and 2) more comfortable. It isn’t at all perfect, because I do shift along it and it is dynamic, so it kind of feels weird to put a single number on it.”

A few weeks prior, he revealed over dinner that after recent years of largely heteronormative relationships and encounters, he’d spent the last few months as a male unicorn in an ongoing threeway sexual relationship with a bisexual couple. Despite early adolescent experimentation (predominantly with boys), he’s always publicly labeled himself as heterosexual, especially in conversations with other heterosexual people, because he “finds it quite an intimate thing to talk about,” and to avoid the perceived stigma attached to being a bi man. 

The thing about all monosexual identities (straight, gay, lesbian) is that they mostly require we define our desire by its proximity or distance to our own gender and sex. It requires us to prescribe truths to other people’s bodies. Conventional narratives about attraction imply and force boundaries of what the bodies we are drawn to, not only ‘look like’ but ‘are’, forcing us to delineate what bodies are and can be ’man’ or ’woman’ (or neither) and found our desires upon that, not just our instinctual attractions. It requires we distance ourselves from whatever attraction we might have felt if we were unburdened by these rigid categories.

And yet “man” and “woman” as described in our sexual orientations are not only necessarily imperfect characterisations, but they are flexible and porous categories; in our lifetimes and indeed in our everyday, our desires weave many times in and out of them. I have desired bodies that both uphold these categories, and bodies that fail them entirely, and everybody in between. I have had men wolf whistle at my skinny jean-clad legs as I walked down the stairs of a double decker bus, only for their leering to turn to agitation and anger when the rest of my torso came into view. Desire is a silly and changeable thing. 

“I have had men wolf whistle at my skinny jean-clad legs as I walked down the stairs of a double decker bus, only for their leering to turn to agitation and anger when the rest of my torso came into view”

The more people I spoke to for this column, the more thrilled I was by just how many people that had experienced sexual desire in the way I did: with crossed lines and sudden bursts, with shifting entanglements and no real linearity. I heard experiences that fell far from conventional narratives about coming outs and sexual self-discovery. I felt less ridiculous. We might be outliers, but our experiences are far from uncommon. For me the complex truth is that my sexuality fluctuates, it sneaks up on me, dazzles me, it suffocates – and in Chris’ words, surprises me – day in day out. A faggotry somewhere between pansexuality and sexual fluidity (if words exist for such a space). There are parts of my childhood in which I can recall a distinct, consuming queerness, and other times in early adolescence where it faded into the background replaced by genuine heteronormative sexuality. The very moment I feel I have a grasp on what I am and what I want, it blindsides me, as though my mind is doing some random, confusing dance up and down the Kinsey scale. I have for too long gone against the flow, denied this, let others deny it for me, let others prescribe what could be true based on how much of a flaming, feminine dress-wearing, wing-linered fag I present to the world. 

Queer Eye’s resident heartthrob chef, Antoni Porowski, said in a recent YouTube video that the show’s producers were surprised when he said he didn’t really consider himself 100 per cent gay, and is most comfortable describing his sexuality as fluid. “By referring to myself as gay, I wasn’t really honouring...the real love that I’d had for the women I’d been in relationships with,” he explained.

I once said, in a relatively unseen article for a small zine, that I have experienced desire on a spectrum that beggars belief. I think many people who subscribe to the binarism, the “straight vs gay”, to the fixedness of sexuality, find fluidity inherently destabilising to their world view. Sexual fluidity causes complications for old school LGBTQ rights arguments based on the idea that we are ’born this way’ and therefore should be valued, respected, and accepted, simply because our sexuality is innate and unchangeable. In the eyes of queerphobic bigots, sexual fluidity gives more currency to the idea that we are simply choosing to be different, and ergo, deviant. But simply because sexuality changes, evolves, or is not linear, doesn’t mean it is chosen. It is difficult for skeptics of fluidity to grasp that something so fundamental, something they thought of as entrenched and inborn, might after all be changeable – not just in others but in themselves. It forces them to ask the question: how long might I reliably be, or how truly am I, the things that I’ve always believed myself to be?

“This is not a coming out, but a coming into. A reconciliation of long-running tensions, and the emergence of a truth that I’ve been too self-conscious to voice”

This is not a coming out, but a coming into. A reconciliation of long-running tensions, and the emergence of a truth that I’ve been too self-conscious to voice, too determined to ignore for fear of embarrassment and disbelief. I’ve never been a gold-star anything, much less a gold-star gay. 

To me, labels now feel like an imperfect fiction. As I write this I can already feel the ones I’ve chosen to describe myself here slacken around my body. I look and I see the old labels I once held close to my chest, fade into the horizon. For some of us, labels cannot last a lifetime. In a few hours, I will lock eyes with someone on my daily commute, and feel them tighten. These are the words for my sexuality, for my want, that I choose right now – who knows which ones I’ll choose tomorrow?