35 thoughts on “The orientation police

  1. Why does the narrator seem to criticize others for wanting to put a neat label on his sexuality, while he himself insists that he be identified as gay?

  2. Richard, it seems to me that the narrator (who is also the author) insists that he be identified as gay because that’s how he self-identifies, and he’d like that self-identification to be respected. He’s someone who’s attracted to (only) men, and for him that seems to be what is to be gay (rather than bisexual or pansexual or…etc).

    I take it that a big part of his point is that sexuality – and sexual identities – are a lot more complicated than just “I like boy bits” or “I like girl bits”. And that we should respect, and not attempt to police, how people choose to self-identify.

  3. He insists on being called gay because he only dates men: transmen are men not women. If people call him bisexual or even straight because he dates a man with a vagina then they deny his partner’s male identity.

  4. Why does the narrator seem to criticize others for wanting to put a neat wrong and cissexist on his sexuality, while he himself insists that he be identified as gayin accordance with his self identification which seem based on a reasonable and increasingly common understanding of the label in question?

    If my friendly amendments to your question don’t immediately generate the answer, Richard, I suggest you read the whole cartoon which explains things in quite a lot of detail.

    magicalersatz, great find, btw. Loved it.

  5. I don’t understand the last part of the comic. If the point is that self-identification is the best way of determining someone’s identity…why does he then end the thing with the ‘gold star gay’ label…something that would apply not only to him but to any man and seems to imply that it is better (i.e. ‘gold star!’) or more authentic somehow to never have had sex with a woman if you are going to consider yourself gay?

  6. magicalersatz, it might be helpful to add a few cues, e.g., “here’s the first panel” before it and “read the whole thing” after.

    I confess that I had to do a double take to figure out that this wasn’t the whole thing, scan back up to the top to find the link. (The comic itself is not linked either.)

  7. Bijan Parsia, I was specifically reacting to the panel where the characters say, “There he is! Quick, give him a label!” The implication seems to be that the narrator isn’t simply complaining about wrong/cissexist labels, but is complaining about the general tendency of people to slap familiar labels onto each other (correct or otherwise) without any nuance. In that case, I would expect the author to apply the same reasoning to himself and not insist on self-identifying with a particular label.

    If his problem isn’t with labels per se, but rather with wrong/cissexist ones, then the upshot of the cartoon makes sense. But that panel is misleading.

  8. Er…there’s no “quick” in that bit.

    Earlier, he’s struggling to hold on to his gold star.

    Obviously, his identity as a gay man is hugely important to him (from the very first panel).

    (And there is a difference between identity and labels and it’s obvious from everything up until then that he doesn’t want to be labeled with the wrong label.)

    I notice that you move from “neat” labels to “quickness” to “nuanced” to “familiar”. You get all this out of a misreading of a transition line between two panels? The overwhelming force of the comic is not wanting to be mislabeled.

    It’s a pretty big misreading based on a very little bit.

  9. I read the whole thing, but also hated the ‘gold star gay’ part. (Sounds too much like “hey, I’m against people being judgmental and trying to decide for me if I am or am not gay enough for them – but just to make it clear I’m not one of those less-than-proper gay guys that has also slept with women…”)

  10. I really don’t think the author intend to endorse the “Gold Star’ idea – it reads to me as totally tongue in cheek. In fact, the author says as much in the discussion about the comic (scroll down from the comic itself):

    “The gold star is not a thing that anyone actually takes seriously. I mean, it’s what the teacher gave out in elementary school if you were a good boy. I’m a grown-up now – who cares?

    I used it here because I thought it made a cute visual metaphor for my “credentials” as a gay man. The “Noooo! It’s mine!” was intended to be humorously hyperbolic.”

  11. I agree with magicalersatz that the author wasn’t endorsing the gold star idea. But the author should be pretty careful going down that road, because there are folks out there who take it VERY, VERY seriously. It has been a known problem in lesbian communities for a long time that lesbians who have sex with men (i.e., lesbians who don’t have a “gold star”) are looked down upon by certain other lesbians.

    So the answer to the “who cares?” question is – quite a few people, actually.

  12. I should say that, to the best of my knowledge, this isn’t much of an issue in gay male communities. So that’s probably why this author didn’t think anything of it.

  13. I think the other aspect of the Gold Star bit (which I agree isn’t a great thing) is that it is precisely that the attempt to deny him Gold Star status is a denial of the sex identiy of some of his boyfriends. Given his personal investment in his identity as gay, this is an enforcement mechanism against him having such relations.

  14. “The gold star is not a thing that anyone actually takes seriously. I mean, it’s what the teacher gave out in elementary school if you were a good boy. I’m a grown-up now – who cares?

    I used it here because I thought it made a cute visual metaphor for my “credentials” as a gay man. The “Noooo! It’s mine!” was intended to be humorously hyperbolic.”

    Uhh…FALSE. It’s considered a big deal by some people. My lesbian girlfriend, because she was previously married to a man, is considered “tainted” as a lesbian (having lost her ‘gold star’). …it’s a real thing. This guy is taking the “Hey we’re not serious” attitude while embracing the thing that perpetuates the culture of ‘gold star’ gays and lesbians.

  15. Gold Star is a terrifying term for someone, like myself, that realized later in life that I was lesbian. It often feels like the lesbian “clique” is hard enough to fit into (if you’re not an obvious stereotype butch or femme), there is honest to goodness fear in admitting that I was with a man for many years — it doesn’t matter if what I’m saying is really true in the community, it’s the perceived threat and how I’ve been made to feel. Rachel uses the word ‘tainted’ and I think it’s apt. I’ll never had the chance to be a gold star, there are plenty of people in the community that use that to judge me (yes it’s happened), and the “lesbian judgement” (which isn’t even fair to begin with) even worse when people find out my heart belongs to a trans woman. I love this comic and am happy these horrible labels are being exposed through it.

  16. But Rachel, is *the term* ‘gold star’ ever actually used seriously in these discussions? I think that’s his point. Again, he’s trying to emphasize the bit about gold stars was a joke. (Also, I think people are reading to much into ‘who cares’. ‘Who cares’ can be used rhetorically just to mean ‘I don’t care’.)

  17. FYI, on my computer the link to read the rest of the comic is not clear. I had to mouse over the whole thing twice before I found the link in the word “This” which on my screen is not a different color or underlined… if I am not the only one with this issue that might explain the confusion of some of the commentors here.

  18. Rachel, reading Syringa’s comment didn’t clarify for me whether it’s *the term* ‘Gold Star’ or the concept it symoblizes which is commonly used/taken seriously. Which is, y’know, why I asked.

  19. But yes, a quick google search reveals that some people take it *very* seriously. Having only ever heard it used semi-jokingly or ironically (which might still have some problematic aspects, but whatever), I’ll admit I’m really surprised! And appalled.

  20. Here’s where she says it:

    “I’ll never had the chance to be a gold star, there are plenty of people in the community that use that to judge me (yes it’s happened), and the “lesbian judgement” (which isn’t even fair to begin with) even worse when people find out my heart belongs to a trans woman.”

    She says that ‘gold star’ has been used to judge her and says “(yes it’s happened)” and that the judgment is *even worse* when people find out she’s dating a trans woman.

    …also, y’know, it’s my girlfriend, so I know that it’s been used seriously against her.

  21. In addition to the issue over the term there’s an issue over the term’s purpose. Folks sometimes assume that the term is used to shame gay and lesbian people over past “transgressions.” And it’s sometimes used that way. But I think the term is also used as a warning against *future* “transgressions,” and it’s here where the author of this comic fails to understand why the joke is hurtful to some people, because this is where we see a strong gap between lesbian women and gay men.

    Gay men largely aren’t concerned about their male partners having sex with women. The sexology literature shows that gay men generally don’t have sex with women after self-identifying as gay, and gay relationships are much more likely, vis a vis lesbian relationships, to survive such an event. The sexology literature shows that the vast majority of lesbian women do continue having sex with men after self-identifying as lesbian, and lesbian relationships are less likely to survive such an event.

    Anyway, I think that’s the social context the author might be missing.

  22. Rachel, once again – the quoted passage you mention (from Syringa) did not make clear to me, as a reader, whether she intended to refer to *the term* ‘gold star’ or to the corresponding concept. Either could be used to judge her. And she doesn’t indicate via quotation marks that she’s talking specifically about the term. Hence my confusion/uncertainty. Hence, once again, *why I asked*.

    Matt, what you say seems spot on, and doubtless the kind of social factor that the author might be unaware of/insensitive to. Anyway, he’s got a protracted discussion of a bunch of this stuff below the comic. People might want to read what he has to say for himself and how he explains things (and comment there, if they have concerns).

  23. Magical: I’m really bothered here by what you say. Questioning whether it was the “concept” of gold star or the term that was used strikes me as *at best* academic. The term *and* the concept are used widely in queer communities, and definitely in the lesbian communities. And they’re used seriously as a way to judge people. I don’t see how asking whether Syringa was referring to the concept or the term (why not *both* I ask?) ‘Gold star’ is useful, particularly in the context of this thread where people are raising the problematic ways that ‘Gold star’ (the phrase and concept) is used in such communities.

    You say that you’re surprised and appalled…but that’s exactly the point I was trying to make earlier: it *is* used seriously in such communities. The comic author’s flippant use of it (without properly understanding how it is used as a term/concept of oppression and judgment in such communities) is really bothersome and alienating. This strikes me as problematically ignorant, and akin to how some trans men are perfectly fine using “tranny” when it’s not theirs to “reclaim” (since the term is disproportionately used to oppress trans women).

  24. Thanks, magical. And, for the record, I didn’t want to imply any blame on the author. My impression is that the author was clearly, and unproblematically, unaware of the issue.

  25. Rachel, I’m not sure prolonging this conversation is helpful, so I will make one last comment and then be done.

    It seems to me that whether the term or the concept was intended was very relevant. The concept is something like this: a gay person who has only had same-gender sex, and gets accolades/special status accordingly. The author suggested that “Gold Star” was a hyperbolic, ironic way to refer to this concept (because gold stars are what you get in kindergarten for completing your homework – they are rewards for being a good little girl/boy). He thought it would be obvious that he was kidding/being ironic by his choice of the ‘gold star’ meme. Indeed, he thought it would be ridiculous to assume he’d use the term in any seriousness, because of it’s silly, child-like connotations.

    Obviously, I get that the concept is pernicious, commonplace, and used to judge people. I was never questioning this, nor questioning Syringa’s reported experience. What I wanted to know was whether the term ‘Gold Star’ is ever used, in seriousness, to refer to the problematic concept. Because if it is, then the author is misguided about that term’s being obviously hyperbolic/rhetorical/comical. I know that the concept is used to judge. I was genuinely asking whether *the term* is used to similarly serious and pernicious affect. Like the author, the term strikes me as so silly/ironic that finding out that it is used seriously in some circles has been very surprising. (As I said, I’d only ever heard it used in a tongue-in-cheek manner.)

    So all that to say, I’ve never attempted to express skepticism about anyone’s experience, or to in any way doubt that gay people are judged for gendered sleeping-with decisions (whether they sleep with different-gender people, or with transgender people, or what have you). Rather, I’ve tried to clarify how terms are used, so I could better understand whether and to what extent the author was right/wrong about what he said about his choice of the term ‘gold star’.

    If you are bothered by any of that, I’ll express bafflement and leave it at that. All I’ve tried to do is get clearer on what’s going on in this discussion, so that I can have a better sense of what the salient issues are. And now, I’m done.

  26. Thanks for your clarification. Yes, “Gold Star” is the term used: it’s the name of the concept. People literally talk about whether someone is “a gold star lesbian” or whether or not someone has or has “lost” their gold star (e.g., “So, do you have your gold star?” or “So, are you a gold star lesbian?”).

    So I agree when you write: “Because if it is, then the author is misguided about that term’s being obviously hyperbolic/rhetorical/comical..”

    This is what irks me about the author’s flippant use of it and his apparently ignorant defence of his usage. Yeah it *is* childish to use the term/concept, and yet it persists and it’s pernicious.

  27. There’s something very interesting going on here, both in this discussion and in the comic. It makes me wonder if there isn’t something at the intersection of what Kukla calls “discursive injustice” and what Fricker terms “hermeneutical injustice.” Because people are coming from (it seems) a background of differing experiences related to social identity, the author of the comic takes the “gold star” term to be not especially serious, and thus the sort of thing that lends itself to humorous hyperbole, whereas those coming from a background of greater experience within the lesbian community take the term in a very different way–and here, differing backgrounds here led to reading an assertion metaphorically or literally in light of hermeneutical difference.

  28. Not to belabour the point, but here’s Syringa’s first sentence:

    “Gold Star is a terrifying term for someone, like myself, that realized later in life that I was lesbian.”

    She uses ‘term.’ I think that, combined with the rest of her comment, should show that she meant the term ‘gold star’ and not just the concept.

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