This month, Shay Mitchell, Emily Fields on Pretty Little Liars, told Cosmopolitan magazine that she wouldn’t rule out being in a relationship with a woman one day even though she’s never been attracted to one yet. Maisie Williams, Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, echoed similar sentiments to Nylon magazine earlier in the month about not wanting to label her sexuality. Once upon a time, these actresses might have self-identified as “heteroflexible”—though since we’re now in a post-label world they view such labeling as parochial—and they join a small group of several other previously self-declared “straight but not narrow” actresses. The queer community cheers on this type of high-profile statement about sexual open-mindedness because of its positive effects on acceptance and visibility, and these positive externalities are not in doubt…but from a practical perspective, when the rubber hits the road, what does heteroflexibility (used widely as a catch-all including individuals who identify as “label-free”) actually mean and does it matter?
At its heart, heteroflexibility is about the Kinsey scale. It is a recognition that sexuality exists on a sliding scale (for some), not a black and white dichotomy, and a nod on the part of the claimant to the possibility of being somewhere along that scale, or at least of being willing to move along it. It is also a social statement: an indicator of solidarity with the gay community, and a public embrace of the flexibility of sexuality. Public figures like Mitchell and Williams are consciously using their celebrity to indirectly push forward acceptance (or at least awareness) of sexual diversity by way of their influence over thousands of fans, while even non-celebrities can use a public statement of heteroflexibility to positively influence their peers.
Public declarations of heteroflexibility are a net positive for the gay community in the straight community. That said, they are not entirely without controversy in the queer community. For example, although I believe in the sexual spectrum, and acknowledge that in a mirror image scenario to that of the hypothetical one set forth by Mitchell, I could end up settling down with a man even if it seems impossible now, I don’t identify as “homoflexible.” For me, the idea of identifying as “homoflexible,” even though the usage would be exactly the same as how these actresses are using the idea of heteroflexibility, sounds somehow silly. If the odds that I will end up with a man are 0.001%, is it even worth mentioning? If it is, then aren’t we all just omni/pansexual and we might as well just say that rather than using ideas like heteroflexibility or “label-free”? And if it is not worth mentioning given the low odds, then should anyone bother identifying as heteroflexible?
There is a tendency among some in the queer community—myself included—to look critically at how labels (or their absence) are used by people closer to the straight end of the Kinsey scale, and it is largely for this reason that the effects of a celebrity publicly self-identifying as heteroflexible generally are divided along the gay-straight line:
1. Straights: Positive. As previously mentioned, the heterosexual community becomes sensitized to the sexual spectrum and becomes more accepting. The straight community sees in heteroflexibles what the Kinsey scale looks like when an individual is just a few centimeters away from the margins—an unusual perspective given they’re more used to seeing either Elizabeth Taylors or Ellen DeGeneres‘.
2. Gays: Mixed. The queer community is often divided between excitement and frustration when a celebrity “comes out” as heteroflexible. Many in the queer community embrace any and all actions by celebrities that raise LGBT visibility and feel invigorated when more celebrities join the queer community. Yet others feel frustrated, knowing that 99.99% of self-identified heteroflexibles will never date someone of the same sex. Some people in the latter category also question the motives of any celebrity professing heteroflexibility, concerned the celebrity may be pandering to the queer community rather than expressing true beliefs.
In February, AfterEllen readers had a spirited debate over whether straight people could identify as queer. The question of the importance of identifying as heteroflexible could fall into the same debate. Is the idea of conditional (conditional on finding the right person) sexual flexibility a purely heterosexual construction, or should more lesbians be open to calling themselves “homoflexible”? To what extent is “heteroflexibility” a mindset rather than a true sexual orientation, and if it’s only the former, does that make it more or less acceptable to the gay and/or straight community? Could any of the phenomenon be straight people wanting to feel part of a culture they enjoy and using “flexibility” as a way in?
Obviously, those who claim to be heteroflexible do believe they could fall in love with someone of the same gender and it is often the queer community that takes a more skeptical view of this happening. But then, the queer community might counter-argue that actions speak louder than words. Someone who identified as heteroflexible but never dated the same gender might just have been a garden-variety straight person. The fact that she never dated another woman wasn’t a result of coincidence; it was proof that she simply wasn’t attracted to women. And if that is the case, then coming out as heteroflexible may have helped advance visibility and acceptance among her straight peers…but was also not altogether accurate to her true sexual orientation/identity.
So where is the line between straight but not narrow, heteroflexible, and just barely bisexual? Is it subjective, or can we create measures of objectivity? Obviously, the issue raises more questions than it answers.
When answers do come, they tend to be subjective. For example, answers to the questions “Does heteroflexibility matter?” and “Should people bother coming out as heteroflexibility?” are in the eye of the beholder, but for me personally, I would say no, that “heteroflexibility” is a generally useless concept because it is inadequately diagnostic; too subjective, too personal choice vice programmed orientation. It has been my experience that if someone identifies as “heteroflexible,” 99.99% of the time that person is actually heterosexual but supportive of the LGBT community. Being supportive of the queer community doesn’t make you queer. It’s okay to just be straight.
What’s more, although publicly identifying as heterosexual can help increase visibility and acceptance, these two things can also be achieved by celebrities coming out as advocates and straight allies, and be just as effective. If a celebrity wants to use labels (being “label-free” is itself a label), then I wish she would just stick with either bisexual or heterosexual. Realistically, she’s either one or the other and she might as well be honest with herself and fans about which it is. But then again, that’s just me. What do you think? Should celebrities embrace heteroflexibility, or should they stick with more traditional sexual orientation labels?