“A rose by any other name”

By: Ow Yong Zhi Qi

Sexuality and gender.

The things that everyone’s curious about. In all of written history, there are only two immutable constants: war and sex. And since there aren’t any outrageous developments in the arena of foreign affairs, I shall settle for talking about the latter.

Sex is a curious thing. It complicates, fascinates and frustrates. Questions upon questions regarding it swim across our minds at one point or the other, whether we want them to or not.  Am I bisexual if I think that girl looks cute? Could I be gay? What if I’m asexual, what does that mean? Google is a good outlet to find answers, even if it isn’t always terribly helpful. But it’s interesting anyway, to scroll down those sites and hear new interesting terms with neat little syllables that flutter on your tongue.

But personally, I find that as the novelty wears off, there’s something truly uncomfortable with the way some people are using these new terms. Almost obsessively. Divisively. Undesirably. It makes navigating sexuality less of a collaborative process than an arms race.  When norms about gender identity and attraction are steadily being torn away, there is much to say about the sexual liberty that we are afforded today compared to the recent past but— there’s something about the labels.

Gone are the crisp consonants and lilting vowels. Replaced with militant borderlines drawn in invisible sand. With the increasing visibility of LGBTQ rights, many new words have entered modern day vernacular: demisexuality, androphilia, cisnormativity, and many, many others with more syllables and increasingly specific meanings. There are so many boxes that you can fit yourself in now that one questions the presence of the boxes in the first place. And is there really a need to divide society by pigeonholing one’s sexuality?

In the strictest sense, being male or female, or even of a third sex, is a biological difference. It is scientific and much less ambiguous than gender. Not to mention, sexual orientation is also argued to be genetically determined. Consequently, the LGBTQ movement fights for equal social treatment of the unconventional. But as the movement wishes to erase the barriers between society’s connotation of what is traditionally regarded as “normal” and “unnatural”, are they instead perpetuating it with the creation of all these needless labels? The mind stereotypes what we are unfamiliar with and labels reinforce these perspectives that may take the form of hurtful generalisations. Why must I be heterosexual? Or pansexual? Or whatever-sexual? I am who I am and I like what I like.

When thinking of the obstacles facing universal sexual liberation, this niggling irritation over mere labels sounds trivial. Since the cause bears noble ideals of equality and unity, what’s a few labels to these perennial principles? Singapore seems to adore them anyway. The state labels us based on creed and colour, educational background, language… what’s wrong with adding a few more? To give credit where it is due, they do offer a safe refuge under which people who are being discriminated against can find community and solidarity. But labels are paltry when you look at the grand scheme of the movement. In fact, creating label after label can fuel deeper conflicts that may destabilise future communities.

Because try as you might, the stronger one’s affiliation to a particular identity, the harder it is to build collective unity amongst a group which one does not identify with. Labels narrows perspectives and if anything, galvanises groups against people they consider to be “outsiders”. We all get defensive when we perceive we are being attacked by an external threat. Labels make it harder for us to feel a sense of belonging within the whole.

But what about the role of labels in articulating privilege? Some might ask. Think about the old white men, the cis privilege, the power of the conventional and the majority over the untraditional? Surely, labels are necessary to delineate these groups. In many parts of the world, the acceptance of gender and sexual equality has not yet reached its zenith. There is an argument that dropping divisive labels means submitting to the “comfortable”, politically correct attitude that will not help spur change.

Perhaps. But the pressure to qualify yourself as to your sexual or gender identity, especially when it’s already so confusing, gets exhausting. I think that girl is cute. Do I really have to say “But I’m straight”, for the comment to mean anything? Does being heterosexual mean the girl is less cute or more? And what happens when you don’t fall into the many existing boxes? Many as they may be, they are still finite. What if I have a strange predilection and am aroused by shoes and only shoes, or only by a person of a certain race (opening a whole new can of worms that that comes with)? What does that make me then? Is my preference reduced to being a kink because it’s an object or specific racial group that I am attracted to? Is it more inferior? Would I be thought of as less because of it? As long as the attraction in question does not harm anyone, shouldn’t it be accepted?

It is important to acknowledge privilege. But acceptance trumps that. The sexual liberation movement began because of the need for acceptance – this remains a core tenet today. We can hold many individual groups responsible for past transgressions and current prejudices but the movement is about looking towards the future. That means an egalitarian society for all, even the heterosexuals, even the ones who love shoes with a passion unprecedented. Humanity has an incredible capability to love. We throw our hearts out there for our family, friends, ideals and beliefs. We are all human beings first, and despite our vast differences, we all love someone, something, somewhere. And that goes to both the bigoted conservatives, and the radical-liberals.

It’s understandable to want to find an identity. Many of us stride out there eager to find a label that defines us, a place where we can belong. But it’s dangerous to hold on too tightly to merely one aspect of us. One word should not define who you are. I am not arguing for the erasure of all labels, but the relaxing of them. Because in a way, everyone is more than their sexualities, more than their genders, and hopefully, one day the world wouldn’t need these words to define what simply is. Like a spectrum of iridescent colour, sexuality and gender are and always will remain as much about the greys and whites as the stunning indigos, carmine and muddy greens.


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