“I am announcing to the world that I am straight,” proclaimed writer David Sedaris at the start of a segment he recorded for the most recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning. “Isn’t he a noted gay?” you might be asking yourself, if you haven’t yet seen the segment or read the Twitter discourse about it. But before you call Sedaris’ announcement queer (don’t you dare call it queer!), hear him out! He has a point to be made, and with humor, like only a humorist can.
Sedaris has not fallen in love with a woman and remains with the same man he’s been involved with for the past 31 years. He’s now “straight” because, as he says, “I’m simply done fighting the term queer.” Why and how would you fight a term? Well, that’s unclear actually—there simply isn’t enough time in the two-minute segment to unpack that or much else about the greater forces of identity and nomenclature that he gestures toward. But your periodic gig quipping on Sunday morning television has to be about something, right?
We do know that Sedaris isn’t bothered by the former status of “queer” as a pejorative (it is probably still used as such in certain parts of the country among people of a certain age), but by the “fourth” rebranding he’s been forced to live through. He claims he’s seen his identity’s label shift several times throughout his 65 years—from “homosexual” to “gay” to “LGBT” to “queer.”
“And for what? Why the makeovers? And what will it be next?” the old man yelled at the cloud.
This fun-making of modern convention through absurdity is self-consciously goofy, albeit cranky and maybe a little irritated at having to accommodate groups that one doesn’t necessarily think one owes any fealty to (despite the contributions of lesbians and trans people to gay liberation). This is not fleshed-out sociological commentary, just one man’s take. But the funny that Sedaris is trading in is funny-’cause-it’s-true funny, which means that there’s no place for false premises, and his argument is teeming with them.
Firstly, it fails according to his own logic. Sedaris is tired of rebranding so he’s...rebranding. That is like cutting off your own nose, not even to spite your face, but for the sheer statement of cutting off your own nose. Secondly, he implies the rebranded identities have been imposed upon him—that he keeps having to “come out,” when it’s like, baby, we’ve been clocking you—but...that’s not true, either. The ascendency of “gay” occurred in the ‘40s, the decade before the one in which Sedaris was born. Also, no one really says, “I’m LGBT,” which answers another complaint of Sedaris’: “I’m told that queer is about inclusion... But why not just say, ‘I’m intersex, I’m trans, I’m a lesbian,’ etc.?” People do say that. And yes, “queer” is sometimes used as shorthand but, like any label, it’s imprecise. To understand language as someone as reliably witty as Sedaris has been is to understand this. He’s not really this dumb, but his dumbness for effect doesn’t work either.
Besides, there are many men that I wouldn’t describe as technically “queer” (like Pete and Chasten Buttigieg), but whom it would be nonetheless advantageous to refer to as such in a more general discussion of the sexual practices and culture of men who have sex with men, if I don’t want to say “men who have sex with men.” Because that term is mostly associated with academia or public-health jargon, and it, too, has the imprecise trappings of all labels.
Also, identifying as “queer” is far from a recent development—via Queer Nation (founded in 1990) and its iconic chant, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it,” it’s been brewing for decades. Its ascendency predated and has outperformed “LGBT” (or associated permutations of those letters), according to Google Ngram:
Like anyone, Sedaris has the right to identify how he likes, and like any smart person, he should understand that labels are imperfect. Furthermore, language is prone to the kind of “ever-changing umbrella[s]” that Sedaris rants against, as language itself is ever-changing and these umbrellas help foster the human imperative of linguistic efficiency. “I’m going with heterosexual because like the words Jewish or female, it rarely, if ever, changes,” claims Sedaris. That’s just bad writing. “Jewish” has multiple very clearcut connotations in American culture (religious and cultural, for example), not to mention all of the gray-area nuance, and “female” has, of course, expanded in concept for many of us in our evolving understanding of gender’s relationship with sex.
Also, the concepts of straight/heterosexual have been anything but constant. George Chauncey writes at length in Gay New York about the “reorganization of sexual categories and the transition from an early twentieth-century culture divided into ‘queers’ and ‘men’ on the basis of gender status to a late-twentieth-century culture divided into ‘homosexuals’ and ‘heterosexuals’ on the basis of sexual object choice.” As such, prior to the ‘30s, “normal” men’s statuses would not be necessarily affected or complicated by sex with other men, especially if those other men were feminine-presenting “fairies.” In the meantime, we’ve seen the rise of the “metrosexual” and the emergence of the “heteroflexible.” (Just log in to Feeld if you want to get a sense of how many “straight” dudes are extremely open to dick.) There is also an increasingly prevalent discourse seeping out from academia about the ability of straight men to retain their straightness despite sex—or the desire for it—with other men (see: Joe Kort). At the very least, “straight” is more complicated than it would need to be for Sedaris’ argument to work.
And “queer,” by the way, is not merely a reclaimed slur. Nearly 100 years ago, it was an expression of pride. As Chauncey writes:
Before [World War II], many men had been content to call themselves “queer” because they regarded themselves as self-evidently different from the men they usually called “normal.” Some of them were unhappy with this state of affairs, but others saw themselves as “special”—more sophisticated, more knowing—and took pleasure in being different from the mass.
As standards changed and, at least in New York, the “fairies” lost the tolerance that they experienced in the “gay” ‘20s, they were maligned, and all that went with them—including their labels—became bad. I don’t know the exact semantic history, but I can assume that this is very much like “gay” coming to be used as a pejorative for anything stupid or bad (what Hilary Duff warned us about).
Anyway, this is all to say that David Sedaris’ argument is dumb and his piece was bad. “From here on out, I’m as straight as they come, but with a boyfriend,” he concluded. Have fun explaining that! You could just say “gay.” Literally everyone still knows what it means!