straightness is dead. gen z killed it

As Love Island’s Curtis refuses to submit to the labels pushed upon him, isn't it about time we admitted sexuality is a spectrum, and straight up heteronormativity is an outdated concept?

by Douglas Greenwood
14 August 2019, 11:03am

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Who would have thought that a contestant on Love Island would catalyse a worthy debate on queer discourse? It seemed nigh on impossible, and yet here we are dissecting the semantics of sexuality through that aggressively heterosexual lens: a much loved reality television show populated by perma-tanned muscly blokes and impossibly beautiful women.

But this is 2019 and anything is possible, not least the opportunity to dismantle the damaging stereotypes surrounding sexual identity and whether or not ‘coming out’ is all that necessary. This conversation, as with anything that spirals out of control in the hands of the British public, came to us via The Sun. In an interview with the tabloid, Islander Curtis Pritchard was quizzed about his sexuality; a lazy follow-up to the fact he kissed fellow contestant Tommy Fury on the lips on the island (don’t straight male mates do this and not make a big deal of it anyway?) and the fact he didn’t have sex with his two partners, first Amy and then Maura, on primetime television. His response? Opaque but hardly untrue: “You can never put a label on anything,” he said. “It’s a cliche to say, but love is blind. I can never ever say what will happen in the future. I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

“I wouldn’t rule anything out” has, in the hands of Love Island fans and the media at large, become a clear declaration of Curtis being bisexual. Which he might be, not that it’s any of our business. After The Sun interview, Curtis then appeared on popular morning magazine show-slash-soapbox for Piers Morgan Good Morning Britain, where the question was posed again. “The future is a road that’s unwritten,” he said, “I never want to label what the future is going to be.” He reiterated that he was happy with Maura. “So are you saying you’re bisexual?” a presenter butted in. “I’m not labelling anything, because I don’t feel like I need to label anything,” he responded. “Things change.”

Curtis’s comments have instigated a conversation surrounding binary definitions of sexuality, queerbaiting and blatant queerphobia. While he has never stated that he is bisexual, the mere idea of it has caused plenty of people to point out the gross treatment of people who have sex with both men and women. Women are fetishised and men are ridiculed, labeled “effeminate”. But Curtis never said he was bisexual, he said something less rigid than that. And he’s allowed to do so.

"At least as many young people are attracted to more than one gender as are 'exclusively heterosexual'."

“Probably the most important point to make is that it is nobody else's business to insist that Curtis or anybody else claim a particular identity label,” Meg-John Barker, author of The Psychology of Sex and Queer: A Graphic History tells i-D. “Some people resist the sense that anybody who is anything other than straight have to 'come out' with an identity term -- reinforcing the idea that being straight is somehow the natural, normal way of being. Actually, at least as many young people are attracted to more than one gender as are 'exclusively heterosexual'. We might question whether we're assuming that all the other people on Love Island are straight simply because they're currently demonstrating interest in people of a different gender. They could just as easily be bi or pansexual.”

To date, statements like Curtis’s have been dismissed as queer-baiting, or a foolproof way of covering your back in a time of cancel culture, but Meg-John’s thoughts prove the debate runs deeper than that. Truth be told, queer people don’t want everyone to be open to the idea of falling in love or having sex in the same way they do, they just want respect and to be treated as people. Being an ally means more than making false statements to appease us. But considering the huge aperture between Love Island and the LGBTQ+ community, Curtis’s statement (which isn’t all that jaw-dropping anyway) feels like it might be rooted in truth.

We’ve reached an interesting point -- an intersection of social issues and pop culture -- in which we demand receipts for every famous person’s stated sexual preference. When Miley Cyrus came out as bisexual and then subsequently married Liam Hemsworth, she was thrown under the bus by pissed off people -- both queer and non-queer -- for “lesbian tourism” or faking her sexuality as a marketing ploy. Now, it turns out, she’s single again. But is it not possible to just allow people to exist without the need to constantly remind us of who they love or are attracted to? On one hand, yes -- it’s shitty to tell queer people in heteronormative relationships that their identity isn’t valid. But there’s a gigantic grey area in which the demand for activism within the LGBTQ+ community takes precedence. Until we’re all liberated -- not just the white, cisgender gay men -- isn’t it necessary that we wear our hearts on our sleeves and demand change for everyone? In an ideal world, the restrictive, binary definitions of sexuality would cease to exist, and everybody would have the opportunity to live without labels.

"To adhere to what society falsely considers ‘the norm’ is putting yourself in the minority category -- despite what the public perception may be."

We’ve come to see heterosexuality as the age-old norm, and any deviation from that as ‘the other’, but the idea of Adam and Eve setting the precedent right from the get-go is bullshit. As theorist Leila Rupp points out in her piece ‘Everyone’s Queer’, in the streets of New York at the beginning of the 19th century, straight-identifying men would have sex with other men and not let it impede on their sexual identity, so long as they played the male, penetrative part. Some may call that denial, some may consider it offensive, and others might see it as a progressive act. In fact, the term heterosexuality didn't exist until the late 19th century. Back then, at least in the US, that concept was known as ‘True Love’ instead: a “fine romance with no laviscuous kisses” as human sexuality historian Jonathan Ned Katz calls it. Sure, it tied back to sex as purely a means of procreation -- a distinctly hetty act -- but it showed that solely having a sexual attraction to a member of the opposite sex wasn’t always the norm.

To me, the definition of “queer” has always been about the rejection of heteronormativity: an open-minded approach to sexuality free from limits and confused conversations with extended family members. In many ways, Curtis is queer-aligning, and understands that there’s no benefit that stems from stating who you can and can’t fall in love with.

The concept of sexuality existing on a spectrum isn’t a far flung one, but as exciting and progressive as the notion of removing binary definitions sounds, it also erases the struggles that out, queer people who call themselves such have faced. If we’re to get rid of 'straightness', surely there’s a knock-on effect to those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual and other sexuality-based parts of the LGBTQ+ community too, right? Jamie Windust is a non-binary writer and activist. They think that, in Curtis’s complex case, the idea of not identifying with a set sexual identity could have both positive and negative effects on the community as a whole. “If people are going to express themselves in that way, it’s important that they need to be aware of the history of the community, and the privilege of being able to say it [in a non-straightforward way]. But yes, people should be able to do that. It’s progression.” They compare it to being able to identify as non-binary. “The whole essence of being non-binary is that it will help people of all genders to be able to take a look at the rigid structures of binary gender and to become comfortable with themselves, however they identify,” they say. “Through the lens of sexuality, that’s something I’d support, so long as those who do it acknowledge the privilege that stems from being able to say that, and the community that they're now a part of.”

Meg-John concurs. “The downside to a 'no labels' approach is that we still do live in a very, very heteronormative world,” they say. “LGBTQ+ people still face massive stigma and discrimination. There are issues with people who have relative privilege in relation to their sexuality -- and gender -- claiming a place under the LGBTQ+ or queer umbrella. At the same time, it can be useful to recognise that the proportion of people who are exclusively straight, cisgender, monogamous, and vanilla in relation to their sexual practices is actually the minority.” They’re right. Meg-Jack points out the vast array of elements within the sexuality spectrum beyond merely who we’re attracted to: kinks, desires and our own approaches to monogamy. To adhere to what society falsely considers ‘the norm’ is putting yourself in the minority category -- despite what the public perception may be.

As a concept, it’s queerness writ large: everybody rejecting binary definitions and embracing all. But if Jamie’s perception is anything to go by, the LGBTQ+ community’s history would have to be safeguarded, so long as everybody was well versed in the struggle that ‘the other’ has fought for the decades leading up to now. Think of this whole process as an allegory for knocking down a building that’s stood undisturbed for two hundred years. There was once a time without it, and it can come down with the right amount of power. But at this rate, dismantling brick-by-brick makes a little more sense than taking a sledgehammer to it. “For many of us, the utopia is a future where nobody needs these labels and where -- instead of having any notion of 'normal' sexuality, gender, or relationships -- we see that all of these things are massively diverse and focus on people finding whatever works for them,” Meg-John points out. Maybe by the time queer people have achieved the liberation they still desperately need -- away from the allusions, opaque suggestions and winking references to non-straightness -- we’ll have learned to be a bit more relaxed about the whole thing.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Gender & Sexuality
Love Island