I don’t remember sexuality feeling terribly complicated until the guest speaker from the Queer Club wrote all those letters on the whiteboard.
Okay, got it. Those ones I know. I thought the G came first, but whatever.
Shit. What’s that one, again? Questioning, right? No, wait. Queer. It’s Queer.
Wait, what? I thought “Q” was the last one. What the hell is “I”?
Now she’s shitting with me. Sorry, they. They’re shitting me. Even though it’s just one person. It’s a they. Wait, not it—— They’s a they. They’re a they? Someone said “zhe” earlier but I don’t even know how to spell that.
I scrawl the definition of “cis” in my notes and look back up at the board, straightening my posture so I look like I know what’s going on. This stuff is supposed to be old news for me, due to the fact that I like to bang both girls and dudes. Not necessarily at the same time but just in general. I’m supposed to be the Class Gay Expert, ready to educate my peers at a moment’s notice. But instead I’m sitting there feeling like I’ve failed my people somehow, thinking, what’s the damn “A” for?
In parentheses, underneath the rest of the letters, the singular-they-person writes “P, F.” My first thought is “Changs” but she doesn’t write that. They doesn’t. Dammit. I’m trying to be sensitive, I really am, but the English major in me cringes every time I force myself to think of “they” as a singular pronoun. It just isn’t, and I wish I knew how to spell “zhe” so we could use that one instead, because I really do want everyone to
have a word they like. That’s the important part, right? To have a word?
As we go through each letter, I can tell my classmates are getting more and more lost. These are future teachers, and they have even less of an idea what’s going on than I do——but they’ve got big hearts and they’re determined to get this. I’m almost positive I’m the gayest one in the room. That’s okay for me to say if it’s a spectrum, right? I’m gayest. I win. Game over.
And yet I still feel like a failure. Am I some kind of Incompetent Gay, if I can’t even keep the acronym straight? It’s not that I don’t care——I do, promise——it’s just that my attention span isn’t qualified to keep track of that ever-growing jumbled up alphabet that’s written on the board. And doesn’t it seem counter-productive, anyway? To keep narrowing things down in the name of expanding inclusivity? How long until we just have to sing the ABCs to make everyone feel represented? We’ll have to omit the “S,” though, because straight people aren’t allowed. This is OUR club. Very exclusive.
A few weeks later I started seeing posters around campus advertising free pizza. Naturally, I followed them, and soon found that the pizza-givers were none other than the Queer Club who’d come to my class. “Everyone Welcome!” was posted in rainbow letters on the front of the check-in table. Before I could get my pizza, though, they told me: Pick out a button. You can take it home if you want to, but you have to pick one so we can identify each other.
There was a little color-coded key, so that we wouldn’t accidentally pick the button that meant “B” when really we were “G.” Some of the letters weren’t on the key, though. “S” certainly wasn’t. And I didn’t see anything for “F,” either, which had turned out to be my favorite of the letters on that whiteboard. It stands for Fluid, which means that sometimes you like girls more and sometimes you like dudes more, but you always kinda-sorta like both. This one fits me best, I think, because sometimes girls are bitches and boys buy me flowers, but sometimes boys are assholes and girls buy me drinks. Eventually it all evens out, I guess, but there wasn’t any button for it anyway. I ended up picking “P,” the one that said “PAN WITH A PLAN,” mostly because it rhymed. I didn’t really have a plan, except to get some pizza. P for Pizza.
Or, P for Piaget. In one teacher-prep class I learned about this dude named Jean Piaget (“pee-uh-jay” for anyone reading this aloud). He thought that kids learn information by organizing them into metaphorical filing cabinets in their mind, called schemas. Colors go here, numbers go there, animals go in that one over in the corner. Then, the more they learn, they come across new information that doesn’t fit into one of their cabinets, so they have to make new ones. Dog goes in the animal cabinet, on the shelf labeled “four-legged.” But then you introduce the concept of different dog breeds, and things start to get tricky.
You’ll catch really little kids mixing things up, pulling information out of the wrong files, because it’s all so new to them and not yet organized. You could ask, “What shape is that ball?” and they’ll yell back, “Red!” and you’ll laugh, because as adults we’ve learned where the “shape” cabinet is in our own heads and it’s nowhere near the colors at all.
But as we grow, information doesn’t stop becoming new to us. In fact, the new stuff gets even more complicated, and according to Piaget we can really freak out if we can’t find a place to organize it. It’s why we reject people who look or act in a way we don’t understand; it’s why the little girls all hang out with other girls and the boys hang with the boys. It’s all we know.
And eventually, we start trying to organize things that inherently can’t be organized——race, for example, or sexuality. Because their qualifiers (skin pigment, attraction) exist on a spectrum, it becomes impossible to sift through the infinite possibilities within. We can’t create a new filing cabinet, or even a folder, for every point on the map. So we do what any sensible person would and try to shove them into one we’ve already got. And in the process, things have no choice but to get messy.
We get frustrated when other people don’t fit into our schemas. It messes up the whole game and we have to admit what we don’t know, we have to start building cabinets from scratch. (Or we can reject the idea entirely and become racists and homophobes, but I don’t recommend that route.)
But what about when we can’t fit into our own schemas? We have to start expanding. The gay/straight dichotomy grows; lesbians want to distinguish themselves from gay men, so they get their own letter. Then B for Bisexual, and so on. As people realize they fit somewhere outside the predetermined letter system, they make new letters for themselves along the spectrum. New words that encompass the complexities of what they feel as individual human beings, new labels they can slap on during the month of June (or at a pizza party) to distinguish themselves from other similar, but not identical, people; to feel represented, to feel individualized, but to always feel included.
As someone who doesn’t quite fit into the confines of the current Gay Alphabet, and so as someone poised to be the next groundbreaking letter-creator, I must ask: Where does it end? Do we keep separating ourselves from the singularity of being human, until the explosion of all of these expanding identities forces us apart? Somehow, I’m not convinced that’s the route we should take.
Too often, these rigid dividing lines work to confine rather than liberate, to discriminate rather than embrace. When the well-meaning manager makes the timid bisexual girl work during PrideFest so her gay coworker doesn’t have to, because “he needs it more.” When even members of the gay community dismiss the concept of bisexuality at all, saying that people “can’t decide” or “won’t admit they’re gay.” When “Everyone Welcome!” doesn’t include the straight ally, because he doesn’t have a button; when telling your boyfriend you’re into girls leads to: “So does that mean we get to have a threesome?” and when the girl you’re on a third date with asks whether you’re a capital-L Lesbian yet, or if you’re still messing around with dick. I thought I was just Rosie.
You can file that under “R.”
Rosie Byrnes is a writer and college student from Denver, CO. She is queer in every sense of the word, survives mostly on ice cream, and is currently working on a rad screenplay about Bigfoot (who is a big softie, deep down). She can be found on Twitter via the username @rosiebwrites.
Probably the first time I’ve actually been intrigued in reading and being able to finish. As a young-gay, I’m always super curious about stuff , this article/theory is a great example, it was truly interesting and awesome.
Inspiring and mind-opening. Trying to not be cliche here lol but I love it
This is fantastic, honest and insightful. Sharing it like mad!
Very thoughtful essay on a complicated subject.