Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Opting out of sexuality

Sunday, February 11, 2018 - 5:28pm

I’m taking a class right now about the history of LGBTQ studies, and it’s having a profound impact on how I see myself and my own sexuality. We often discuss the social construction of gender and sexuality. This is what that means: To say sexuality is constructed is to point out that when we describe someone as homosexual or heterosexual, we are saying that person has their eyes on a love object whose sex does not change. They will spend their whole lives pursuing sexual partners of this same sex, and anything that falls outside of this pattern is deviant, unexpected and/or wrong. And when that person does break out of that dominant pattern, they are not listening to themselves and are deceiving themselves into some false reality.

The dominant narrative around sexuality continues; nothing can throw you off that path. Your sexuality is your essence, distinct from all of your other traits, not influenced by anything that you experience, because this thing is how you were born. You were born this way, and you will die this way.

We say this is constructed because none of this is a “fact.” Our speculation of what should happen and what should be people’s sexual desires and inclinations is all produced by our collective, culturally-produced expectations of sexual behavior. As we have read in this class from queer theorists, sociologists and historians alike, historically there have been multiple cultures with understandings of homosexual or heterosexual behavior entirely different from our own — based, for example, not solely upon the sex of the chosen love object but, instead, centering on what kind of role you take during sex: passive versus active, receptive versus insertive, etc. Other understandings are based on your gender presentation, or any of the other individual preferences within your own sexual desires.

I’m also taking this class while in the throes of contemplating my own sexuality. The truth is, I don’t know. I don’t know what I like, I don’t know who I want to be with. I’ve only ever been with women, but these experiences have almost never felt as natural or as open-and-shut as they seem to be for all my “straight” friends, who talk about heterosexual sex with a certain facility and comfort that I have always found alienating.

I also know I have sexual desires for men every now and then. I recently switched my Tinder settings to show me both men and women. And this feels like a step in the right direction. I am definitely swiping right on a fair number of dudes who I can imagine myself getting to know, cuddling with and all the rest.

But still, there is nothing conclusive. No moment has happened yet when I think, “This is my sexuality, this is who I am.”

And this ambiguity tears me up. It makes me feel totally alienated from myself, like I don’t know anything about who I am. If I can’t figure this out, who am I, at all? Not having this knowledge when I am about to graduate and enter the “real world” makes me existentially anxious, as if not knowing this thing means I know nothing at all. Mired in feeling sad about this ambiguity, everything around me gets sucked into a whirlpool of negative thoughts: a force that drains all of the life out of everything I am experiencing, transporting me to a faraway place where only I roam, a place inaccessible to anybody else, where all that once seemed promising and light now appears gloomy, hopeless and unknowable.

I think part of the reason why I feel so sad about not knowing has to do with the pressure caused by the social construction of sexuality, the pressure to apply a label to myself — in other words, to know what I am. This system of categorizing desires (modern conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality only first entered our discourse at the end of the 19th century) does not really allow for not knowing. Sure, there is the category “Questioning.” But this, of course, doesn’t serve me beyond a passive, limited way of stating these thoughts I am having. There isn’t any depth to this moniker. What is the context of these questions, and why are they happening? It fails to capture the context of my investigations, to capture anything deeper than its surface level description. It’s not specific to my experience, to the sets of questions I am grappling with every day.

I also think, though, that self-realization can only really come through experience, through an open and honest engagement with the people around me. My dear friend and roommate lives his life with extraordinary deliberateness and attention. For example, he doesn’t like us using swear words in our apartment, because they taint his ongoing dialogue with God. As a secularly-raised person, I initially felt this concept to be strange and restrictive.

But now, in fact, I would like to live with this same level of openness. Not necessarily in touch with God, and not necessarily refraining from swearing, but instead more generally remaining relentlessly aware of the fact that all interactions might contribute or lead to something divine. That by maintaining an open heart while examining my own mind and interacting with people in order to collaboratively explore their minds, I might come to some greater understanding of myself and my own (conflicting, messy and erratic) set of desires.

The class I’m taking provides me with a really vital education into the experiences of people with non-normative sexual identities throughout the history of humanity and the construction of those sexualities according to the cultural and social moment of those various times.

But it is also really helping me deconstruct a pressure I feel strongly but do not remember learning, a pressure to categorize, name and know my sexuality in some irreversible, definite way that defines my essence, forever. Instead, I’m trying to buck this trend. By demanding something deeper than these labels, than this path that everyone expects me to take, I am opting out of sexuality as a system. My thoughts about my own sexual desires are trying to work against this dominant paradigm by cultivating a new voice, one that is accepting and wildly supportive of my — and everyone’s — messy process of coming to a place that works for us, distinct from any label or culturally produced expectation.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.