Alan Bennett is wrong to reject the word 'gay', we need labels for sexuality

People should be able to define their sexuality as they wish, but we need words to provide clarity and a sense of community among non-heterosexuals




Acclaimed playwright Alan Bennett has revealed in a new interview that he has evaded talk of his sexuality throughout his career for fear of being 'pigeonholed' by the definition. It’s a grand illustration of an inarguable prerogative belonging to anyone on the sexuality spectrum - which almost immediately provokes a contrary 'But...' in my mind.

'I didn't want to be labelled as gay and that was it,' said a resolute Bennett - happily civil partnered to magazine editor Rupert Thomas – in an interview broadcast on BBC Four this Saturday. 'I just wanted to be my own man, as it were.'

It would be foolish to contradict an icon - especially given his spotlighting of gay issues in his most famous play, The History Boys, and beyond. What's more, for anyone of Bennett's age (he turns 80 this week), evasion in decades-past would have been essential to success and, in some cases, survival. Meanwhile, the fact that he is now volunteering an explanation which he is not obligated to give is to be appreciated - even if it does leave me confused. Does he avoid the label because he's not actually gay, or for another reason?

A broadly similar example of this comes courtesy of pop star Jessie J. During the early stages of her career she spoke openly about a previous same-sex relationship, but last month claimed that her bisexuality was just a phase and that she now identifies as straight. She said: 'At 26 I am only singing about loving a man and being broken hearted by a man, because I only date men.' 

She added: 'I was honest and then BAM it took over, the word bisexual before my name on almost every article - instantly I was boxed.'

Jessie's comments arrived following a nadir in record sales, and amid the usual music video posturing in which female stars must appear attractive to men, they caused a furore, not least among pockets of the gay community who saw her as a traitor, or even ashamed of what or who she once was. Bennett's comments are softer, but he's essentially exercising the same right as Jessie - to ownership of his sexuality and to define or not define it as he wishes, thank you very much.

Sexuality is too complex for language - that's what's so great about it. But in a world where anti-gay bullying continues to claim the lives of schoolchildren in need of role models, and where countries such as Russia and Uganda can create horrific new anti-gay laws, signposting and clarity is a necessary inconvenience. We need terms and labels in order to coherently discuss such issues, particularly in countries where the conversation isn't as evolved as our own. 

I think it's a shame the ‘g-word’ isn't embraced as an umbrella term, and used with more flexibility. The word 'queer' was once useful in creating a sense of community, but seems to have fallen out of favour in recent times. I like 'non-heterosexual' because it's so inclusive, but it's too bulky to ever catch on. Beyond these, I can only hope one day someone creates a powerful new term for 'not straight, and proud of it', that celebrates the fact that we're different, without anyone feeling suppressed.

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