Categorically Gay

For queer people who grew up in an era when rigid identities were essential, today’s fluidity can feel like their history is washing out with the tide.

A grid of '80s and '90s gay and lesbian activist pins and leather club vests, blending into a photo of two people embracing and holding a sign saying "BREAK THE BINARY."
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Lisa Larson-Walker and Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

This piece is part of the Legacies issue, a special Pride Month series from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read an introduction to the issue here.

Recently, a middle-aged colleague of mine told me about an aspect of her identity I didn’t see coming. Despite a long and sexually satisfying marriage to a man, and a near complete absence of female lovers in her life, she told me, a gay man, with great enthusiasm, that her discomfort with heteronormative stereotypes had inspired her to now identify as “queer.” Because I like her, and very much despise confrontation, I didn’t press her on this. Instead, I smiled tightly and chirped, “Welcome to the club!”

Precisely two weeks later, a 22-year-old acquaintance confided in me that despite never having enjoyed so much as a kiss from another woman, and after avidly dating boys since puberty, she was experiencing some unacted-upon “thoughts” about her female friends. She followed this several months later by reporting that she had fallen in love with a man. Eight months later, they married. Yet she still wanted to affix the Q word to herself, in her case to signify “questioning.”

I seriously doubt any person, under a certain age, who’s fluent in the current evolution of LGBTQ identity concepts and terminology would find any part of this unusual. Nor would they have the faintest problem with it. And, intellectually, neither do I. But, down below, where emotions wrestle with the inescapable ghosts of our past, I have a serious problem with it. When hearing each of the disclosures above, I found myself repressing feelings of bafflement, estrangement, belittlement, irrelevance, and—because of all that repressing—rage.

I ran all this by gay peers of mine, meaning those who range in age from their late 40s to their early 60s, who had all come out in the ’70s and ’80s. Nearly every one of them mirrored my feelings precisely, before sharing similar stories of colleagues and acquaintances in their own lives.

It seems that many of us from that era are struggling to reconcile our excitement over the openness of the age of sexual and gender fluidity with the past we experienced, when sexual rigidity proved an indispensable tool—both for us and for the movement. Back then, it wasn’t a matter of “questioning,” but of asserting, not of exploring, but of declaring. And that history very much matters.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Pride, it’s important to recognize the debt that today’s fluidity owes to yesterday’s rigidity, to see how one presaged the other, only to create an uneasy relationship today.

In the first decade or so after the Stonewall riots, gay people needed to send the clearest, loudest, most set-in-stone message about our sexuality and identity possible. That was the only effective way to come out to a then overwhelmingly clueless, if not hostile, round of family, friends, and colleagues. The lack of nuance in our announcement eliminated any wiggle room for the benighted to dismiss our feelings as fad, provocation, or illusion. Because we had been told, in countless ways, clear and implicit, that we don’t exist, and certainly shouldn’t, only the most strident and narrow counterargument would begin to make our point. More, it was the surest way to keep from getting shut back into the closet, at least in the minds of those who couldn’t conceive of us existing anywhere else.

A similar dynamic applied to political organizing. The focused ideology you need to stoke a young movement isn’t given to fine distinctions. It’s as blunt as an advertising campaign and, with luck, as effective. The emphasis wasn’t on encouraging people to discover their sexuality for personal fulfillment, but on megaphoning a stark bulletin for public consumption to bolster the movement’s profile and message. Toward that end, certain attitudes wound up festering that would—and should—strike any contemporary LBGTQ identifier, or ally, as abhorrent.

I’m sad to report that three or four decades ago, many gay-assertive people (myself included) looked at some of those who identified as bisexual with suspicion, if not scorn. It wasn’t because we didn’t believe that many were telling the truth about their experience. It was because so many people that I, for one, knew actually identified as gay had been exploiting the “bi” term as a sexual caveat to avoid the risks of coming out completely. Or, at the very least, they were taking the term on loan as a baby step in that direction. The subsequent view of bisexuals as equivocators was reinforced by the fact that even the most progressive pop culture expressions of the time felt far more comfortable presenting sexually ambidextrous characters than strictly gay ones. That includes portrayals from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to Cabaret, as well as real-life events like Elton John’s legendary 1976 interview with Rolling Stone in which he described himself as bisexual—not a term he would think to use today.

It’s vital to note at this point that, back then, there were virtually no openly gay major pop, movie, or sports stars. Not even Liberace! Only those at the cult level tested that taboo. When celebrities whom everyone knew to be gay—but who hadn’t affirmed it in the media—were asked about such things, they tended to deliver exactly the kinds of statements we hear from some LGBTQ people today. They’d say, “I don’t want to be labeled,” or “I’m just sexual,” or “I’m open.” Today, those descriptions signal broad-mindedness. Back then, they felt like a betrayal, a hedging that pushed the movement back a step, making those of us who had come out feel more isolated and vulnerable at a time when being out had far greater consequence.

The mounting frustration over this, a feeling supremely intensified by the AIDS crisis, erupted in the vitriol of the “outing” movement of the early ’90s. While I was against “outing” at the time—believing it only boldfaced the message of shame—from this perspective I’m glad it happened. It greatly raised the number of prominent people revealed in public to be gay, resulting in an elevated level of acceptance for the rest of us. That, among many other elements, led to an exponential confidence in the movement, to the point where, today, it feels free enough to add as many letters, applications, and variations to its roster as it likes.

Wonderful as this is in many ways, today’s openness isn’t without consequences. If nearly any progressively minded person can find some way to identify as queer, what, exactly, does the term even mean? When I hear about fluidity in that context, it sounds like something made to wash away gay history—my history—drowning it in inclusiveness to broaden its clout. Perhaps that’s an inevitable element of advancement. After all, every movement winds up making itself irrelevant if it’s successful enough.

Of course, we don’t have to worry about so radical a result just yet. Scores of battles in the fight for LGBTQ rights remain, and setbacks to each advance we’ve won beckon at every turn. But if we’re going to engage them effectively and honestly, we’ll need the experiences of the past to inform the movement’s new attitudes and actions. It’s the only way to bridge the widening LGBTQ generation gap and unite us. I only hope the age of fluidity will be open enough to accept it.

Read more of Outward’s Legacies issue.