Sexual identity is a tricky business. While I, for one, have always known that I am straight, that does not mean a) that everyone immediately recognizes or embraces their sexual identity and b) that sexual identities are easy to define. In other words, they are not straightforward. Admittedly, if you are heterosexual, defining and embracing your sexual identity often happens inadvertently: you are part of a pre-established norm. There is no need to come out. But discovering and embracing your sexual identity when you are not straight-then you have no choice but to think about it. Queer theory, after all, is largely based on the idea that you do not have to conform to any social norms in order to define yourself; you can be whoever you want to be.
When most of us hear the word "queer" in reference to sexuality, we quickly think gay, lesbian, bisexual. And at the most basic level, those are some of the individual identities to which it refers. But queer identity is, in fact, much more encompassing; for example, many men and women consider themselves gender-queer, meaning they do not identify with or attempt to live up to the social and cultural expectations of one specific gender. According to Anna So, who writes the "Sexpelunking" column for AdHoc and identifies herself as a queer woman, "People who identify as queer say that the norm should not be held up to this position of authority, or a place everyone needs to be measured up against, however you want to your life is OK." Queer identity is specifically that which is not heterosexual; perhaps most importantly, it creates a space for nonheteronormative discussion.
Yet identifying oneself as queer is not one and the same as identifying oneself as not heterosexual. Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons take issue with the word "queer" precisely because it implies an inherent difference. My friend Peter, for instance, views his identity as a gay man as almost secondary; in other words, it does not significantly impact any other aspects of his identity. "It makes up as much as my identity as heterosexual's heterosexuality makes up his," he says. "In that sense, it is less political and divisive." Columbia College Student Council President Seth Flaxman, who is also gay, expresses similar discomfort, telling me he appreciates the need for a queer identity, but wishes the movement had picked a different, less alienating word. That his sexual identity had little, if anything, to do with his election last semester, provides a positive measure of the level of sexual tolerance on campus for both Seth and Peter alike.
Perhaps the trickiest piece of sexual identity lies in the discrepancies between the ways we define ourselves and the ways we are perceived by others. If a well-groomed man loves to cook and screams whenever he sees a rat in the subway, we almost automatically assume he is gay, even though he may very well be straight. Similarly, a girl in knee-high boots and a miniskirt would quickly be labeled straight, or maybe bisexual, before she would be labeled a lesbian or even queer. But when a gay man is outwardly flamboyant or a lesbian cuts her hair close to her head, he or she is often criticized or pressured to act more "straight" by others. "When someone is pressured to be one way or the other, it's a problem," Alex Jung, former president of the Columbia Queer Alliance and Spectator columnist, tells me. "Certain identities become more legitimate than others. ... The straight gay man is more likely to be accepted than the flamboyant one.
To me, as a straight woman, the beauty of queer identity theory is that defining yourself as queer almost forces you to think about sexuality in a way you might never do as a straight person. Even if you take issue with the queer movement, or the word queer itself, it still inherently asks you, as someone who is not heterosexual, to think long and hard about what your sexuality means, and what role it plays in who you are. Or, as Anna puts it, "part of me identifying as queer has to do with thinking about sexuality, and how it relates to class and race. ... Expressions of sexuality, for example, pornography, are often seen as low-class. ... If something is kinky or deviant in any way, it creates a high- versus low-class mentality." Sexual identity reaches beyond sexual acts and into a wider set of ideas and thoughts.
I am explicitly, absolutely, without a doubt, a straight woman. So why write this column? Because recognizing and embracing my sexual identity has as much to do with figuring out what gets me off as it does understanding my sexual identity in the context of those different from mine. And while I can understand and respect the desire to make your sexuality a secondary component of your identity, I'm not really sure that is ever possible. Some people may think about what their sexuality means to themselves more. But sexual identity isn't secondary or primary. It just is.