Recently I asked after a friend's seventeen-year-old daughter. "Oh, she's gay again." "Again? You mean she was gay and went straight for a bit and thought better of it. So she's bisexual?" "No, it doesn't work like that anymore. Young people aren't one or the other or a bit of both like in our day. They dabble in it."
Ignoring the assumption that my "day" is now done, I wondered if young people might take umbrage at "dabble". If Jenny McCartney's piece in this week's Spectator is anything to go by, sexuality is not something to poke fun at.
Confining yourself to terms such as straight, gay and bisexual — which once, perhaps, covered most of what you thought you needed to know about a person’s orientation — is indicative of adherence to a ‘binary’ view of sexuality. It is fast becoming the equivalent of walking around in plus-fours, peering at human desire through a monocle.
These days, people — particularly those in their teens and twenties — are declaring themselves ‘pansexual’, ‘genderfluid’ and ‘genderqueer,’ which means they won’t be confined to the old folks’ dreary, black-and-white view of attraction or gender. Take Miley Cyrus, for example, the US pop singer and former child star of Disney’s Hanna Montana. [...] Last August Cyrus came out as ‘pansexual’: defined as an attraction ‘towards people of any sex or gender identity’, including those who are ‘transgender’ or ‘genderqueer’. A transgender person, as many now know, is someone who does not identify with their biological sex, and wishes instead to unite their form with their feelings — for example Caitlyn Jenner, the former US Olympic athlete once known as Bruce; or Kellie Maloney, originally the boxing promoter Frank. Although both were men who became women, the travel can of course be in either direction.
Yet sometimes individuals want to climb out of one gender, but not straight into another, arriving at the third way: ‘non–binary and genderqueer’. Some days, such folk say, they identify as a man and on others as a woman. Or they might never feel like either, but remain in a genderless space between the two. Some genderqueer people insist on being called the singular form of ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’. The polite thing when in doubt, apparently, is to check first: which pronoun do you prefer?
the argument about sex and gender has grown increasingly factional. On university campuses and social media it has often created not a new utopia of relaxed tolerance, but claustrophobic bickering over terminology and thought-crime. In a climate of competitive victimhood, where the key phrase is ‘check your privilege’, there is a battle over who can claim the highest level of oppression.
The claim to being woefully misunderstood has a particular allure for clever young female students. One such, Farhana Khan, wrote recently in the Independent about her ‘pansexuality’. At the end of the article, she noted that she had exclusively dated men. It was outrageous that some people used this to cast doubt on her pansexuality, she said, since ‘I’m attracted to all different kinds of people.’ It appeared to me as if Ms Khan was pansexual in the same way that I am a resident of Ulan Bator, on the basis that I haven’t actually visited but might like to go there some day. Then again, such an interpretation marks me as out of date: identity is no longer about what you actually do, but the hazier notion of how you might feel.
Transgender activists and their supporters use the prefix ‘cis’ to describe those who identify as the sex they were born into, speaking of ‘cis privilege’. Some radical feminists, however, resent ‘cis’, and counter that trans women were born with male privilege.
But how do you stop "cis privilege"? With a cis and desis order?
Em Travis, a first-year Cambridge student [...] describes herself as ‘non-binary trans’ although ‘mostly coded as “appearing female”’. In other words, she looks feminine — acutely so, from pictures — but doesn’t ‘identify’ as either gender. That’s tough, Travis says, since ‘all too often, we are forgotten or erased, either by the world at large or by the queer community itself’.
Big deal, one is tempted to respond. For who indeed does feel or behave wholly like a man or a woman, when characteristics are often defined by stereotypes in any case? Must George, the headstrong, crop-haired heroine of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, now be specially categorised as ‘non-binary trans’? I myself am fond of heels and make-up, but am also untidy, poor at multitasking, and keen on Antony Beevor’s military histories. [Beevor? Oooh missus!] I have a shed in the garden, and sometimes my husband amuses himself by comparing me to Mark Corrigan, the misfit bachelor from Peep Show. Maybe I am internally ‘non-binary trans’ too, but then — by the lights of not strictly conforming to a mutating set of stereotypes — so are many women I know.
Unless one’s biology and identity feel so wildly out of whack that it causes severe, continuing unhappiness, mightn’t it be best — while choosing whatever clothes and relationships bring you joy — to quit the more nebulous refinements of self-definition and get on with life? Or, perhaps, to concentrate those campaigning energies on situations in which people face truly horrifying persecution for perceived departures from heterosexuality? In Isis-held Syria, for example, or Putin’s Russia. Instead, to paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, I see the best minds of their generation destroyed by jargon.
Gender-blurring has hit the Tinder generation: in terms of sexual choice, a ‘swipe right’ market of wild capitalism has replaced the old Soviet-style system in which demand reliably outstripped supply. Yet many students now seem as obsessively preoccupied with finely categorising their sexual and gender identities as their grandparents once were with stamp collections. Still, it will probably put a brake on youthful libidos: while it might not always be an option to laugh someone into bed, it is surely still possible to bore someone out of it.