Disclaimer: I am not some whiny ingrate. I have the deepest admiration and respect and gratitude for lesbians and gay men who were activists in a 2nd wave feminist way, and I am in utter awe of drag queens. Their courage makes my life possible. This post is just about my innermost identity; it is not meant to be a political rallying cry.
When people in college used to ask me if I was “gay, straight, or bi,” I used to reply that I defined my sexuality as “pre Oscar Wilde.”
I wasn’t trying to be snotty; I was trying to be accurate. I defined my sexuality in terms of an action or an impulse rather than an all-encompassing identity. Having written one too many papers on Foucault’s History of Sexuality, I felt that Oscar Wilde’s trials of “gross indecency” wherein “homosexual” became a noun rather than an adjective–a species rather than a fun weekend activity–was a turning point in history that didn’t really work with my identity.
I didn’t want to go back to a time when homosexual actions were hushed up in polite company, but neither did I want to introduce myself to everyone according to a label that defined my entire self based upon something as arbitrary as the genitalia of the person with whom I had last had sex.
For political solidarity I could stand and march in pride parades. When on campus, I’d sign petitions and join organizations. But if someone was actually asking me in person, “what are you?” I felt the need to reply, “Pre Oscar Wilde,” and then explain what I meant.
It didn’t go over well in dive bars.
But I stand by my anti-label thing, even to this day. It’s great that more people are embracing “queer” as a flexible term, because when a word is vague like that, there’s enough space to start a conversation. When someone asks “what are you,” it’s nice that a person is asking, but a one word response in regards to sexual impulses over the course of a lifetime? Not quite enough.
In college, I discovered that sexuality is too intricate and complicated a subject for single word definitions, and now I’m learning that religion might be the same way. Defining one’s Jewish practice or defining one’s Jewish community is such a challenge when given words like “Reform,” “Conservative,” and “Orthodox.” Even adding words like “egalitarian” can only help so much–my hippy community at the Conservative Egalitarian shul in Berkeley felt a lot different from the women in nylons and pearls I met at a Conservative Egalitarian shul in Brookline. What if I keep Shabbat but don’t go to synagogue? What if I go to different synagogues? What if I was raised with a different kind of Jewish practice than the community I now inhabit, leading me to have a different kind of Jewish knowledge and experiences?
Labels feel inadequate these days in my Jewish life–but I think that might be a good thing. I hope Judaism explodes in the same way that the “gay, straight, or bi” labels exploded for me during college. It was exciting, and it was a deeper truth than the labels that already existed. Here’s to excitement and to deeper truths.