The Danger of Labels

By Emma Weisberg

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carissa M. Froyum’s article “‘At Least I’m Not Gay’: Heterosexual Identity Making Among Poor Black Teens,’” is how so many of the teenagers believed their peers, family, and friends chose to be gay.  While the teenagers list an array of reasons why someone would choose to be gay, the most interesting to read about were the ones addressing “complications of heterosexual relationships or because they failed them” (611).   As Froyum states, “a girl or boy claimed that a ‘naturally’ heterosexual person abandoned their orientation because of the potential emotional costs” (612).  This observation infuriated me, because I realized these teenagers were seeing gayness as the “easy way out” and not acknowledging it as a lifestyle (one that is just as complicated as a traditional heterosexual relationship).  When the teenagers theorized that people move away from heterosexuality as a means of avoiding “potential emotional costs,” they are making a claim that gay and lesbian relationships are devoid of emotional connection.  This assumption supports the very hyper-sexualized media portrayal of homosexuality being just about sex and nothing more. These teenagers also believed others turned away from heterosexuality because of previous situations of “Being cheated on and getting sick of a partner were especially popular scenarios.  Others saw rape or stints in jail as avenues to homosexuality” (612).  Often when we talk about, say, domestic violence and sexual assault, we generalize about men taking advantage of women. This allows same-sex couples to slip through the cracks, so we’re made less aware about these situations being just as much of an issue in gay and lesbian relationships.

Another observation I made throughout the reading was how teenagers’ rejections of their peers, suspected of being gay or peers who had officially come out, were gender aligned: “Boys were much more likely to use and threaten violence, but girls tended to dissociate themselves from nonconforming behaviors and lesbian peers” (619) Boys needed to prove their heterosexuality by asserting their masculinity—or lack of femininity—with violence.  These boys are resorting to violence as a way to establish status and hierarchy.  On the other hand, teenage girls tended to reject their peers with social isolation. If they were around women who did not dress or act like a stereotypical feminine woman, they believed others would equate their peers’ gender nonconformity with homosexuality and suspect them as gay as well.

This awareness of peer evaluation is also evident in “Queer Women in the Hookup Scene: Beyond the Closet?” with the use of labels to construct sexual identity. The term “bisexual” is especially interesting, because it can receive backlash from gay/lesbian and straight people (in this dichotomous structure) alike.   For instance, one college student explained how women she dated would react when they learned she identified as “bisexual:” “I’d feel they’d always be, like, ‘Oh, you’re bisexual, ugh.  Well, just tell me when you, like, are gonna start wanting dick’” (16).  As if women can be neatly categorized as exclusively interested in either women or men.  Often, women would use the term “lesbian” even though they knew they also were interested in men, because they didn’t feel like friends or family would understand.  I find it so frustrating that we always have this external pressure to put a label on things when, in reality, most people’s sexualities rest somewhere in between the rigid poles of heterosexuality and homosexuality.  Yet, we place so much meaning in labels that coming out as anything but heterosexual becomes a declaration of a change in identity.

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4 thoughts on “The Danger of Labels

  1. Sophie Furman

    I agree with you when you say that it’s frustrating when people think that others are choosing to be gay as an “easy way out” like they’re tired of dating the opposite sex and haven’t been successful with that so they’ve just given up and changed their sexual preference, while meanwhile it’s probably something they’ve been trying to figure out their whole life and be comfortable with in a society that isn’t as accepting as they like to believe. I also was intrigued when you brought up the point about girls isolating other women who don’t dress feminine. I find it really annoying when my friends or people I know say that they “look like a lesbian today” because of what they’re dressed in, I think it’s the same thing as saying “that’s so gay.” It’s putting a negative tone on something that shouldn’t be negative at all, also the fact that not all lesbians dress one way so it doesn’t even make sense.

  2. Ahhhh Emma I totally agree with your take on both articles! Froyum’s observations and analysis were SO interesting. The particular conclusion that “girls gain access to the most resources by stroking boys’ egos, acting fragile, accommodating boys, and becoming mothers. Together, the masculinity and femininity practices that boys and girls enact create and legitimate a system of gender hierarchy that subordinates girls and women” (605) was both fascinating and disturbing at the same time. If we compile this analysis with everything we have learned about the media, masculinity and music videos (Dream Worlds), it would make perfect sense that the way these boys attempt to gain power and control is to utilize gender as a tool of privilege. Further, for girls to then conform to the one thing they are taught and feel they are worthy enough of being; mothers. Yet the same society that pressures girls into becoming children, then condemns them; thus the double-bind.

    I’m unsure of how I feel about Rupp (et al.)’s theories of queer women in hook up culture. From what I have experienced, in a number of different contexts, it is not really “acceptable” for women to be hooking up in public spaces. It tends to be defined as “slutty, provocative, insecurities manifesting” or “attention-seeking”. Further, I think that these perceptions of women hooking up in heteronormative spaces tend to lead to sexual identity confusion amongst queer-curious women; that being that it is kind of acceptable, because its woman on woman hooking up and therefore “sexy” or “pleasureful for the watcher (typically men)” and therefore justify the hook up without considering ones sexuality (this happens more often than you think!) Does that also delegitimize societies understanding that the women may just be hooking up because they are queer and sexually attracted to each other?

    Alia

  3. Sophie Sharps

    I’m really happy that you mentioned the ways in which media portray certain groups of people and ideas of homosexuality through hypersexualization. Rupp et al. mention a few different sources of media that inform people of social norms and expected behaviors. The authors quoted lyrics from an SNL skit in which the men sing about how “it’s not gay when it’s a threeway.” Meanwhile, they also use Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” to portray the influence media have on on people and the social norms they create.

  4. Gracie Hall:

    Emma, I was so glad that you chose to look at the section of the Rupp et al. article that discusses labeling. In one way, I was kind of shocked that some of the participants used words/phrases such as “pansexual,” “fluid,” “heterosexual but not against something with a
    woman,” “straight with bisexual tendencies,” and “mostly straight” but after thinking about it more deeply it started to make sense. As you mentioned there is a lot of meaning that comes with labels, and I would further argue that additionally there is a lot of power. In our dichotomous system, as you mentioned, there is always a good/bad side and a privileged/unprivileged side. Additionally, as you mentioned human sexuality isn’t inherently polarized and people are inbetween these unreal dichotomies. In this way, these terms the participants used seems to make a little more sense.

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