What’s in a name?

Sex on Tuesday

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I write to you from a dreamlike state brought about whenever I listen to Carly Rae Jepsen’s second or third albums. Or ABBA. Or any musical starring Nathan Lane or Julie Andrews. This hypnotic soundtrack of camp and kitsch creates my happy place, a little gay paradise of pop and show tunes. And from my Carly Rae-inflected ecstasy, I write to you of stereotypes.

By my music taste alone, you can likely infer my sexuality (within a margin of error). If you weren’t sure, you might’ve guessed I was gay or possibly bisexual. But definitely queer. Because straight boys don’t adore Dame Julie Andrews. 

And you’d be right, I am bisexual, but I also don’t feel my sexuality is especially interesting or important. In fact, it’s an identity I perform mostly to entertain people: People clearly find flamboyant gayness titillating enough to watch reality shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race” or “Queer Eye.”

Personally, I think of gay/queer stereotypes more as a tool than a facet of my personality. For instance, I likely wouldn’t mention I loved ABBA or compliment someone’s shoes unless I wanted to signal I was queer. Those might be real thoughts and feelings I have, but I mostly find them banal and unremarkable unless I want to advertise to other queer people that I belong to the club. I also perform my queerness when I want to befriend straight girls, since it makes me seem bubbly and nonthreatening — i.e. perhaps more approachable than the average straight guy.

But though I turn my noticeably queer energy up or down at will, I usually dispense with it once I’m close with someone, since it signals something I trust they already understand. To me, performing the stereotypical behaviors says, “Hi, I’m bisexual,” and once someone sees that, I care more about demonstrating my other traits, which matter to me far more than my sexuality does.

And sure, I fit tons of the quintessential stereotypes: I listen to Barbara Streisand; I cried during “A Star is Born”; I’ve had my legs waxed; I wear absurdly tight jeans and lots of women’s shoes and occasionally makeup; on my most flaming days, I talk like Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” and act like I’m in the music video for “Let’s Have a Kiki.” 

But this unapologetic hyperfemininity is just the varnish on a more complicated reality. I also think Streisand has become just another old, rich, out-of-touch celebrity, and her albums are mostly schlock. I prefer Streep’s darker, grittier work from the late ‘70s. I’d choose the Rolling Stones over Lady Gaga. I think cattiness should be a pastime and not a mode de vie.

So to remain my real self, I also sometimes work to play down my stereotypical traits. Stereotypes are nice shorthand within our assorted in-groups, but cliche traits do not make a person. Leaning too much into cliches yields vapidity and erodes individuality. And like a true prima donna, but also like any human being, I care profoundly that I’m understood as an individual and not as another instance of a one-dimensional trope.

Above all, I find my own queerness boring. Particularly with straight people, most discussions of queer life consist of describing commonplace queer experiences to those who’ve never had them. And every queer person is at a slightly different stage of self-discovery. Chatting about the queer life with an often-performative new recruit, for instance, feels substantially more rote and superficial than discussing queer experiences with someone who’s already assimilated their sexuality into the rest of their personality. Candidly, I prefer the world-weary, veteran queers to our flashier up-and-coming counterparts.

Before I came out, my abiding fear was that people would presume they knew all about me based only on my sexuality. Lest we all forget how rapidly the tables have turned on queer issues, I can attest that as recently as 2015 (the year I came out), most media portrayals of queer characters made their sexuality into their entire story. I feared having my story similarly reduced in people’s minds.

So far as I can tell, this hasn’t happened. Growing up in Seattle, Boston and now the Bay Area, I’ve lived in the citadels of the country’s queer landscape, and there are too many gays in San Francisco for me to seem like all of them. But as queer life grows increasingly normalized in the United States’ major cities, I still feel a subtle flattening of queer identity into stock characteristics that straight people — and worse, other queer people — use to simplify reality.

At its worst, this simplification can bleed into a pressure to conform. I’ve written in other installments of this column about the need I felt to prove myself or “live up to” being bisexual by having sexual experiences with both boys and girls as soon as possible. I’ve also found queer environments are often so intensely progressive that dissent feels risky even for other queer people. For instance, I hate using the word “queer.” As a nerdy little kid, I grew up reading lots of old British children’s books, and I’ve never lost the association of “queer” with its original definition connoting bizarre otherness. (Though it’s old-fashioned and inaccurate, I mostly use “gay” as my catchall of choice.) But we’re stuck with “queer” because we can’t seem to find ourselves a better band name.

So stereotypes reach their tentacles into many parts of life: They can be handy signals, entertaining pastimes, hackneyed tropes, reductive concepts or sources of social pressure, even if it’s pressure from within and not from others. And at the end of the day, I’m agnostic about the danger of stereotypes. As a gayby (a technical term), I used stereotypes as an imperfect sort of North Star: They helped me accept that I belonged by showing me traits with which I identified. But I’ve outgrown some of the stereotypes and gotten tired of others.

Nowadays, I watch “The Birdcage” and see myself not in Albert but in Armand. Once, I cried myself through my first breakup listening to Taylor Swift on repeat; lately, I don’t even watch the Tonys. Sue me. And while I love and respect my fellow queers who are naturally, unfeignedly flaming queens or inveterate butches, I’ve come to a place where I think my sexuality says almost nothing about me. “Bisexual” is but a name. And far from being the end of my story, it’s just the beginning.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].

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