Labels, bi erasure and Tom Daley’s words

25 April 2014 by Jennifer

So, Tom Daley said “I Am a Gay Man Now”?

Actually no. That’s not a phrase which has ever yet – as far as I know – come out of his mouth in a public context.

In his original 6-minute coming-out video, back in December, he didn’t use any labels of that kind – instead simply describing his feelings and a bit of the journey which had brought him to that point. (Incidentally, I thought that video was gracefully done and lovely to see.)

The excuse for the recent news stories was him saying something like “I, yeah” or “I, er” in amiable, uncomfortable response to a nosey, pushy, leading question, as discussed already by Alex Gabriel at Freethoughtblogs.

(Various people reckon he did actually say the words “I am”, but personally I’m not hearing any “m” in whatever that second syllable was. See video at the article if you want to form your own opinion on that. But even if he did acquiesce or semi-acquiesce in that moment, I have things to say about the position he was placed in, and the way the story’s been told.)

This is familiar

Some of how I’m feeling about this recent episode: oh, that again. Depressingly familiar. Same old same old.

What it’s reminding me of is stories I’ve heard over the years: people who initially thought of themselves as bi, were out for some time as bi… but as soon as they got into a same-sex relationship, came under social pressure to identify as lesbian. (Or gay of course, but I’ve heard more women’s stories of this than men’s, ’cause of my friendship & activism networks.) “Why would you not?… are you planning to go back to men?… pick a side… after all, now you’re with so-and-so, you’re living as a lesbian now… it’s a pity you can’t come with us to the lesbian walking group…”.

Similar social pressures can push upon single people too, depending on the circles they’re spending time in. “Make up your mind… confused… sitting on the fence… bisexuals don’t exist hahaha… [other unfunny “jokes”]… when are you going to come out properly?”

It’s in those kinds of circumstances that a lot of people switch from “bi” to “gay” as a label. When your life at the time could be described either way – at least the parts visible to other people – it can start to seem that stubbornly holding to the bi label is some kind of theoretical point with a recurring cost in social acceptance.

Non-bi people often suggest that coming out as bi is “the easy option”, a half measure or a stepping stone to coming out as lesbian or gay. But a lot of people have stories of when staying out as bi would’ve been – or has been – the much harder option.

Switching labels can seem like a reasonable choice at the time: “can’t see myself being with a man/woman again… perhaps lesbian/gay is a better political statement… it’s simpler… does it really matter…?”

And yet… when I’ve heard someone tell a story like that, it’s typically been after they’ve reconsidered – perhaps soon, if they found some kind of bi community, perhaps not till years later. “Well, this-and-such is what I was thinking back then, and these were the circumstances which made those thoughts make sense… but you know what? Now I think bi is more true.”

Coming out as bi for the second time. It’s a thing.

(While I was in the middle of writing this & thinking the whole thing over, Alex has done a follow-up covering some similar territory, including a variety of other contexts in which bi people use, or don’t argue against, the words “gay” or “lesbian”. I recommend it!)

Feelings, histories, standards & mismatches

A quote I’m remembering:

I met more and more lesbian women and gay men who, in private conversation, talked about relationships, self-concepts, and plain old lust that didn’t match up with the exclusively lesbian or gay identity most of us publicly presented. Some people spoke of former boyfriends or girlfriends they had loved before they came out, or members of the opposite sex on whom they had crushes. Several gay male friends have talked to me about becoming upset when they were attracted to a woman, after having been exclusively attracted to men. And I am not the only butch woman who has been startled to realize the hot thing in the rugby shirt and short haircut isn’t a dyke after all, but a cute boy.

As a telephone crisis counselor, I heard a great deal of pain and grief from people who felt they didn’t fit the standards of what a lesbian woman or gay man was supposed to be.

Robin Sweeney, Too Butch to Be Bi, in the anthology Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queries & Visions, 1995.

A pattern with a name

I see people seizing upon Tom D’s two-syllable utterance, “picking it up and running with it” beyond what he actually said on that occasion.

I see an active flattening-away of the nuances of his own chosen words from December. (“Obviously when you shared from the heart about your feelings, what you really meant to say was GAY! GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY GAY! There, fixed that for ya!“)

And I think of those other stories, from people I know and first-hand accounts I’ve read.

Why is it so important to some people to get him to have a label? Why must that label be gay and not bi? Why is that so delightful and satisfactory a theme to write up and share links about? Why not just let him have unpressured space to claim a label in his own good time, or stick with no label? What is this NEED which people are enacting on him?


Well, it’s not entirely a mystery.

All of this is part of a pattern, and the pattern has a name: bi erasure.

I have more to say about that… maybe another day… but for now I’ll only say that the cost of it is paid in different ways by many people.

It’s up to him

Of course, Tom D has every right to say in future “Yes, I’ll have the label gay, I’m cool with that”, just as he still has every right to do the same with “bi”. Given what he said in his self-produced coming-out video, it seems to me he’s in emotional territory where either “gay” or “bi” could make sense to him, if he wanted a label. No-one else can say for him whether “bi” or “gay” or “queer” or some other word is most true to his feelings & political values, or if none of those labels really fits for him.

A story about other people

So I don’t see the story here as “Tom Daley comes out as gay”, despite all the hoo-ha to that effect.

In a sense, I don’t even think the story is about Tom himself.

What I see happening is: “Tom Daley is put under relentless, intrusive pressure to label himself as gay, regardless of his own narrative, in order to satisfy other people’s wants“.

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