The Queer Generation Gap

How the sexual fluidity of the next generation reflects the limitations of the one that came before it.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | November 2018 | 10 minutes (2,422 words)

Should I be married to a woman? If today were yesterday, if all this sexual fluidity were in the discourse when I was coming of age in the ‘90s, would I have been with a woman instead of a man? It is a question that “The Bisexual” creator Desiree Akhavan also poses in the second episode of her Hulu series, co-produced with Channel 4 because no U.S. network wanted it. Akhavan directed, co-wrote, and stars in the show in which her character, Leila, splits with her girlfriend of 10 years, Sadie (Maxine Peake), and starts having sex with men for the first time. So, Leila asks, if the opposite had happened to her — as it did to me — and a guy had swept her off her feet instead of a woman, would things have turned out differently? “Maybe I would’ve gone the path of least resistance,” Leila says. Maybe I did.

This is a conundrum that marks a previous generation — one that had to “fight for it,” as Akhavan’s heroine puts it, and is all the more self-conscious for being juxtaposed with the next one, the one populated by the fluid youth of social media idolizing the likes of pansexual Janelle Monáe, polyamorous Ezra Miller, undecided Lucas Hedges. Call it a queer generation gap (what’s one more label?). “I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with the Internet,” 32-year-old Akhavan explains to a younger self-described “queer woman” in her show. “I just get the sense that it’s changing your relationship to gender and to sexuality in a really good way, but in a way I can’t relate to.”

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This Playboy bunny is chest out, lips open, legs wide. This Playboy bunny is every other Playboy bunny except for the flat hairy chest because this Playboy bunny is Ezra Miller. The star of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald calls himself “queer” but it’s hard to take him seriously. What was it Susan Sontag said: it’s not camp if it’s trying to be camp? And for the past few months, while promoting the Potterverse prequel no one asked for, this 26-year-old fashionisto has been trying his damndest, styling himself as a sort of latter day Ziggy Stardust — the monastic Moncler puffer cape, the glittering Givenchy feathers — minus the depth. Six months ago, Miller looked like every other guy on the red carpet and now, per his own request, models bunny ears, fishnets, and heels as a gender-fluid rabbit for a randy Playboy interview. Okay, I guess, but it reads disingenuous to someone who grew up surrounded by closets to see them plundered so flagrantly for publicity. Described as “attracted to men and women,” Miller is nevertheless quoted mostly on the subject of guys, the ones he jerked off and fell in love with. He claims his lack of romantic success has lead him to be a polycule: a “polyamorous molecule” involving multiple “queer beings who understand me as a queer being.”

The article hit two weeks after i-D published a feature in which heartthrob Harry Styles interviewed heartthrob Timothée Chalamet with — despite their supposed reframing of masculinity — the upshot, as always, being female genuflection. “I want to say you can be whatever you want to be,” Chalamet explains, styled as a sensitive greaser for the cover. “There isn’t a specific notion, or jean size, or muscle shirt, or affectation, or eyebrow raise, or dissolution, or drug use that you have to take part in to be masculine.” Styles, on brand, pushes it further. “I think there’s so much masculinity in being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be feminine,” the 24-year-old musician says, “and I’m very comfortable with that.” (Of course you are comfortable, white guy…did I say that out loud?) As part of the boy band One Direction, Styles was marketed as a female fantasy and became a kind of latter-day Mick Jagger, the playboy who gets all the girls. His subsequent refusal to label himself, the rumors about his close relationship with band mate Louis Tomlinson, and the elevation of his song “Medicine” to “bisexual anthem”– “The boys and the girls are in/I mess around with them/And I’m OK with it” — all build on a solid foundation of cis white male heterosexuality.

Timothée Chalamet’s sexuality, meanwhile, flows freely between fiction and fact. While the 22-year-old actor is “straight-identifying,” he acquires a queer veneer by virtue of his signature role as Call Me by Your Name’s Elio, a bisexual teen (or, at least, a boy who has had sex with both women and men). Yet off screen, as Timothée, he embodies a robust heterosexuality. On social media, the thirst for him skews overwhelmingly female, while reports about his romantic partners — Madonna’s daughter, Johnny Depp’s daughter — not only paint him straight but enviably so. Lucas Hedges, another straight-identified actor who plays gay in the conversion therapy drama Boy Erased, somewhat disrupts this narrative, returning fluidity to the ambiguous space it came from. The 21-year-old admitted in an interview with Vulture that he found it difficult to pin himself down, having been “infatuated with” close male friends but more often women. “I recognize myself as existing on that spectrum,” he says. “Not totally straight, but also not gay and not necessarily bisexual.” That he felt “ashamed” for not being binary despite having a sixth-grade health teacher who introduced him to the range of sexuality suggests how married our culture is to it.

As a woman familiar with the shame associated with female sexuality, it’s difficult to ignore the difference in tenor of the response to famous young white males like Miller, Styles, and Chalamet and famous black women like Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson not only discussing it, but making even more radical statements. Appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone in May, Monáe said straight up (so to speak): “Being a queer black woman in America — someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” The same age as Desiree Akhavan, 32, Monáe identified as bisexual until she read about pansexuality. She initially came out through her music; her album, Dirty Computer, contains a song called “Q.U.E.E.N.” which was originally titled “Q.U.E.E.R.,” while the music video accompanying “Pynk” has actress Tessa Thompson emerging from Monáe’s Georgia O’Keeffe-esque pants. While neither one of them has discussed their relationship in detail, Thompson, who in Porter magazine’s July issue revealed she is attracted to men and women, said, “If people want to speculate about what we are, that’s okay.”

The mainstream press and what appeared to be a number of non-queer social media acolytes credited Chalamet and Styles with redefining their gender and trouncing toxic masculinity. “[H]arry styles, ezra miller, and timothee chalamet are going to save the world,” tweeted one woman, while The Guardian dubbed Miller the “hero we need right now.” Monáe, meanwhile, was predominantly championed by queer fans (“can we please talk about how our absolute monarch Janelle Monáe has been telegraphing her truth to the queers thru her art and fashion for YEARS and now this Rolling Stone interview is a delicious cherry on top + a ‘told u so’ to all the h*teros”) and eclipsed by questions about what pansexual actually means. While white male fluidity was held up as heroic, female fluidity, particularly black female fluidity, was somehow unremarkable. Why? Part of the answer was recently, eloquently, provided by “Younger” star Nico Tortorella, who identifies as gender-fluid, bisexual, and polyamorous. “I get to share my story,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s a privilege that I have because of what I look like, the color of my skin, what I have between my legs, my straight passing-ness, everything.”

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When I was growing up sex was not fun, it was fraught. Sex was AIDS, disease, death. The Supreme Court of Canada protected sexual orientation under the Charter when I was 15 but I went to school in Alberta, Canada’s version of Texas — my gym teacher was the face of Alberta beef. In my high school, no one was gay even if they were. All gender was binary. Sex was a penis in a vagina. Popular culture was as straight, and even Prince and David Bowie seemed to use their glam sparkle to sleep with more women rather than fewer. Bisexual women on film were murderers (Basic Instinct) or sluts (Chasing Amy) and in the end were united by their desire for “some serious deep dicking.” I saw no bisexual women on television (I didn’t watch “Buffy”) and LGBTQ characters were limited (“My So-Called Life”). Alanis Morissette was considered pop music’s feminist icon, but even she was singing about Dave Coulier. And the female celebrities who seemed to swing both ways — Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Bijou Phillips — were the kind who were already acting out, their sexuality a hallmark of their lack of control.

“I think unrealistic depictions of sex and relationships are harmful,” Akhavan told The New York Times. “I was raised on them and the first time I had sex, I had learned everything from film and television and I was like ‘Oh, this isn’t at all like I saw on the screen.’” Bisexuality has historically been passed over on screen for a more accessible binary depiction of relationships. In her 2013 book The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television, Maria San Filippo describes what has become known as “bisexual erasure” in pop culture: “Outside of the erotically transgressive realms of art cinema and pornography, screen as well as ‘real life’ bisexuality is effaced not only by what I’ve named compulsory monosexuality but also by compulsory monogamy,” she writes, adding, “the assumption remains that the gender of one’s current object choice indicates one’s sexuality.” So even high-profile films that include leads having sex with both genders — Brokeback Mountain, The Kids Are All Right, Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carol, Call Me By Your Name — are coded “gay” rather than “bi.”

Despite the rise in bisexual women on the small screen like Annalise in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Syd in “Transparent,” and Ilana in “Broad City,” GLAAD’s latest report on inclusion cited continued underrepresentation. While 28 percent of LGBTQ characters on television are bisexual, the majority are women (75 versus 18) and they are often associated with harmful tropes — sex is used to move the plot forward and the characters scan amoral and manipulative. This despite an increase in the U.S.’s queer population to 4.5 percent in 2017 from 3.5 percent in 2012 (when Gallup started tracking it). A notable detail is the extreme generational divide in identification: “The percentage of millennials who identify as LGBT expanded from 7.3% to 8.1% from 2016 to 2017, and is up from 5.8% in 2012,” reported Gallup. “By contrast, the LGBT percentage in Generation X (those born from 1965 to 1979) was up only .2% from 2016 to 2017.”

Here’s the embarrassing part. While I am technically a millennial, I align more with Generation X (that’s not the embarrassing bit). I am attracted more to men, but I am attracted to women as well yet don’t identify as LGBTQ. How best to describe this? I remember a relative being relieved when I acquired my first boyfriend (it was late). “Oh good, I thought you were gay,” they said. I was angry at them for suggesting that being gay was a bad thing, but also relieved that I had dodged a bullet. This isn’t exactly the internalized homophobia that Hannah Gadsby talked about, but it isn’t exactly not. My parents and my brother would have been fine with me being gay. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the standard I grew up with — in the culture, in the world around me — was not homosexuality, it was heterosexuality. I don’t judge non-heterosexual relationships, but having one myself somehow falls short of ideal. For the same reason, I can’t shake the false belief that lesbian sex is less legitimate than gay sex between men. The ideal is penetration. “That’s some Chasing Amy shit,” my boyfriend, eight years younger, said. And, yeah, unfortunately, it is. I have company though.

In a survey released in June, billed as “the most comprehensive of its kind,” Whitman Insight Strategies and BuzzFeed News polled 880 LGBTQ Americans, almost half of whom were between the ages of 18 and 29, and found that the majority, 46 percent, identified as bisexual. While women self-described as bi four times as often as men (79 to 19 percent), the report did not offer a single clear reason for the discrepancy. It did, however, suggest “phallocentrism,” the notion that the penis is the organizing principle for the world, the standard. In other words, sex is a penis in a vagina. “While bisexual women are often stereotyped as sleeping with women for male attention, or just going through a phase en route to permanent heterosexuality,” the report reads, “the opposite is presumed of bisexual men: that they are simply confused or semi-closeted gay men.” This explains why women who come out, like Monáe and Thompson, are considered less iconoclastic in the popular culture than men who even just make vague gestures towards fluidity — the stakes are considered higher for the guys. In truth, few feel comfortable being bi. Though the Pew Research Center’s survey of queer Americans in 2013 revealed that 40 percent of respondents identified as bisexual, this population was less likely to come out and more likely to be with a partner of the opposite sex. Famous women like Maria Bello, Cynthia Nixon, and Kristen Stewart have all come out, yet none of them really use the label.

“Not feeling gay enough, that’s something I felt a lot of guilt over,” Akhavan told the Times. It is guilt like this and the aforementioned shame which makes it all the more frustrating to watch the ease with which the younger generation publicly owns their fluidity. It is doubly hard to watch young white men being praised for wearing bunny ears in a magazine that has so long objectified women, simply because the expectations are so much lower for them. “I’m not looking down on the younger experience of being queer,” Akhavan said, “but I do think that there’s a resentment there that we gloss over.” In response, many of us react conservatively, with the feeling that they haven’t worked for it, that it is somehow less earned because of that. This is an acknowledgment of that resentment, of the eye rolling and the snickering with which we respond to the youth (ah, youth!). In the end we are not judging you for being empowered. We are judging ourselves for not being empowered enough.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.