Grasping the Identity Thistle

One fascinating theme (well I thought so) to emerge from my doctoral research was how non-heterosexual men described themselves and what processes they went through in the aim of grappling with the sexual identity thistle. I call it a thistle as for some sexual identity labels were viewed as an imposition rather than a democratic negotiation. Sexual identity can be imbued with social meaning relevant to a particular time and place. The use of ‘gay’ is pretty commonplace these days (although I note with extreme regret the appropriation of the term to denote something naff).

Most of my interviewees grew up in the immediate post-war period, a time when there was a general absence of non-stigmatising discourses relating to non-heterosexuality (a term hotly debated in itself). Of the men I interviewed the self-descriptor ‘gay’ was adopted by 16 out of 24 men. The second most common term was ‘homosexual’ followed by ‘bisexual’. Two men refused to answer that question. For the men who answered ‘gay’ the term ‘homosexual’ carried too much baggage for them, associated with medical textbooks and legal speak, or with Sunday tabloid reports. Those who chose ‘gay’ were the men who engaged more directly with the gay liberation movements or philosophies during the 1960s and 1970s. The two ‘refused’ saw little value in categorising their intimate lives – in one case this might have been related to the fact that he was not fully ‘out’.  Of the bisexual men, both had been actively bisexual, one for his entire adult life. The other had been married for 20+ years; a monogamous relationship which only ended due to the death of his wife. The term ‘queer’ was not used by any of the men as a descriptor for their sexual identities although it was favoured by one or two to describe any form of non-heteronormative lives.

One respondent described his sexual identity as ‘non-practicing gay’.

Arguably, the term ‘homosexual’ has fallen out of favour due to its association with sexual binaries, and its emergence (in a British context) during the first half of the 20th century when it was a term most often used by medical or legal practitioners. The term ‘gay’ has shown remarkable endurance; in existence in relation to same-sex intimacies for 70 years or more.

It would be interesting to examine the attitudes and self-descriptors among a younger cohort to measure whether there has been a notable shift in identity politics over the last decade or so. Has the emergence of more accrediting discourses relating to same-sex love reshaped the development of sexual identities – or do ‘traditional’ labels really do stick?

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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