The freedom to define our own sexuality isn’t quite as liberating as we expected, says “hasbian” Anouchka Grose
After he’d had a stressful night being hounded around a South London pub by a middle-aged, pot-bellied, finger-stabbing man, my flamboyantly camp gay friend suddenly broke into a beatific smile. “I get it now!” he said. “That man doesn’t know it, but he’s fascinated by me. He can’t take his eyes off me. He thinks he hates me, but he can’t leave me alone for a second.” It happened towards the end of the last millennium and, for this particular friend, it was a breakthrough.
While it was hardly relaxing to be the target of homophobic attention, at least it wasn’t simple prejudice. The staring, the questions – “Are you a man or a woman or what?” – the avid attention, all pointed towards something much more like attraction than repulsion. This guy didn’t hate him at all – the problem was that he had no idea what to do about the fact that he liked him.
Famously, for Freud, we can all presume ourselves to be, at heart, bisexual and polymorphously perverse – at least until society talks us out of it. In fin-de-siècle Vienna, “society” would have tended to be pretty much in favour of heterosexuality with a loosely procreative flavour. But what about, say, in Britain today? How are we supposed to be? While it would be naïve to argue that the days of normalised homophobia are over, it’s surely true to say that all of our sexual options have loosened a little. If we’re into latex or prodding we can simply put up a profile on an app and find someone to do it with us. No need to worry about being seen – everyone does it these days. Lesbian clubs have all but vanished thanks to the fact that women feel freer than ever to kiss and hold hands in public. Of course, it’s great, except it’s more difficult to know who to chat up. But then again – at least in theory – no one will mind if you get it wrong. If you’re an AFAB (assigned female at birth) non-binary person with a boyfriend, no one (under the age of 40) will mistake you for a common-or-garden heterosexual. You can basically put together any kind of love or sex life you want, including being asexual or aromantic; not having a partner is also a perfectly viable sexual orientation.
For someone who went through the disappointment of coming out as a lesbian to a loosely unsympathetic family in the early ’90s, it’s heartening to see that things have changed so much. Still, it doesn’t seem easy, at least to me, to place oneself in the current discourse. My swashbuckling, declarative coming out moment soon ran into sticky territory over the fact that “being a lesbian” didn’t seem to stop me fancying boys. Although B was certainly one of the original four letters in the original LGBTQIA line-up, it didn’t feel like such a good one. Especially while you were in a relationship with a man.
Not that the man himself tended to mind, just that you might sound a bit shrill if you went around reminding everyone that it was just by chance that this particular partner of yours landed you in the het camp, and that you deserved your rightful place among the queer folk, in spite of currently profiting from all the advantages of heteronormativity. If only to avoid that, I’ll happily be called a hasbian.
I’m hyper-aware of the possibility of being ungrateful to the amazing people who had the courage to be out and proud, and who didn’t have the option to oscillate between sexual orientations. Whingey bisexuals are nobody’s favourite: “I don’t fit in anywhere, boohoo.” (Except when you’re getting away with being straight, bitch!) Still, it would be nice to find a better way of not being exactly hetero. I have the impression younger people can be great at this stuff. They have subtle quarter-tones, like she/they pronouns, and would of course balk at the limiting term “bi”: “What, you think there are only two genders?!” But then again, there still seems to be a strong cultural imperative to state where you’re at sexuality-wise, rather than just taking it as read that any of us could be anything.
A decade or so ago I supervised a gay male colleague whose constant “discovery” was that all his heterosexual analysands were secretly gay. Presumably he wasn’t mistaken in clocking that people’s sexuality was multi-layered, and that one state of affairs might very well conceal another. However, he never seemed to make “discoveries” in the opposite direction; none of his gay analysands were secretly straight, apparently. If you’re going to follow Freud in arguing that bits of one’s sexuality succumb to repression, I think you also need to follow him in seeing that homosexual people can sometimes repress their heterosexual inclinations. I tried it, so I know. One of the most annoying effects of attempting to exist under a single, defining term was that it made it very difficult to go to the cinema. Whereas I’d previously loved seeing all films, including ones where men and women fell in love, while I was in my temporary state of hetero-suppression, this became impossible. It was too excruciating to be reminded of those lost parts of myself. In that sense, I was not unlike the pub bully – except the only person I was bullying was me.
Of course, many open-minded gay people are radically out there about all this. A young analysand of mine was delighted to have found the queerest activity in the world, at least among his circle – having sex with a woman. For him, if you could do that and enjoy it, you were demonstrating true freedom. (And, in case you were wondering, it was very important to him that the woman enjoyed it too.)
All of which is to say that human sexuality can be confusing and we still have quite a way to go before arriving at the “anything goes” state so feared by conservatives and idealised by the radicals. But is it in any way realistic to imagine we’ll ever get there? Much has been said about the need for obstacles in the construction of human sexuality. Obstructions to satisfaction can be provided by laws, distance, clothes, norms, shyness, fidelity.
In a sense it doesn’t matter what gets in the way, as long as it’s something. If we’re allowed to do whatever we like, not only will we lose some of the supposedly comforting traditions that structure society, so might we find ourselves unable to enjoy anything. Isn’t that one of the problems with marriage after all? How is it interesting to sleep with the one person you’re actually allowed to? And isn’t it understandable that older gay people often reminisce about the joys of illicitness, even illegality? Perhaps it’s not simply bad politics that keeps sexuality under surveillance, but a reluctance to find out what would happen if we didn’t have rules in place – even if all the rules do is give us the satisfaction of breaking them?
I sometimes wonder about that belligerent man who chased my friend in the pub. What will have happened to him in the course of the last couple of decades? I’m guessing he probably hasn’t come out, but then again you never know. Is it possible his position has softened – that the increasing number of queer people in mainstream culture has made him less anxious about himself? Does he watch Strictly with his wife and family? Is one of his grandchildren pansexual and/or trans? Or has he managed, in spite of it all, to blot out unwelcome knowledge?
At the time of writing Blackpool forward Jake Daniels has become the first football player in the UK to come out as gay since Justin Fashanu in 1990. We’re still a million miles from across-the-board sexual and gender liberation. Still, we’re closer than we were. Perhaps the next step will be learning to live with a certain level of contradiction and confusion rather than hoping for some future utopia where everyone’s sexuality makes sense.
Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer based in London. Her books include “A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: how to protect the planet and your mental health” (Watkins 2020). Her latest, “Uneasy Listening: Notes on Hearing and Being Heard” co-written with Robert Brewer Young (Mack Books), is out this month