Do Labels Inform or Conceal?


labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?

Reaching My Reader — Part III


Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.  ~  Stephen King

"Rock and a Hard Place" Several months ago, I blogged about the challenge of writing on a controversial subject—sexual fluidity—for an audience that spans three generations.  As I noted then, many of the words that describe the spectrum of sexual relationships described by Alfred Kinsey a half century ago carry very different connotations depending on whether you are age 20, 40 or 60. 

In retrospect, the challenge was more easily met than I anticipated. Because the theme of A Fitting Place is the growth that occurs when you step outside of your comfort zone, my interest was in how Lindsey Chandler deals with change, not with social constructs of gender or sexual identity. 

In this context, my camera is trained on the day-to-day interaction between two idiosyncratic women who are searching for new ways to cope as they struggle with failed marriages and distraught children. What matters is their ability to provide support, affection and physical comfort along the way. They see no need to attach a label—such as lesbian, bisexual, or sexually fluid—to their relationship. 

In a sense, the concept of sexual fluidity is of much more interest to me as an author than to my characters. In recognizing that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is often influenced more by the person than the gender, the concept allows me to discuss the dynamics of rebound relationships without getting ensnared in the “chick lit” genre.

The situation seems far more problematic now that my focus has shifted to marketing,  to getting this book into the hands of readers interested in the options available to women who have left, not always by choice, a long and stable relationship.

Suddenly, I am in the world of sound-bites, of pithy phrases, of zingy one-liners.  To use a cliché, I feel like I am between a rock and hard place.  

The term “sexual fluidity” has only recently come into non-academic usage, and is unlikely to resonate with a large audience.  Marketing copy that uses “lesbian” or “bisexual” implies something about my characters that may or may not be true, depending on the reader’s definition of those terms.  While the labels don’t really matter to the story, leaving such terms out of my marketing materials may result in  disappointed or angry readers who do not wish to read about unconventional sexual behaviors.

A Fitting Place addresses the challenges of rebound relationships, and their implications for all of us. The trick is to find a way to make an unconventional story appealing and accessible to a broad range of women.  

Hmmh ?  ?


My series on themes in A Fitting Place continues.  I welcome your comments on this blog. If you would be interested in contributing to the discussion with a guest blog, please check out my guidelines here. 


Sexual Fluidity and Bisexuality–Are They the Same?


56a0438218f0434a9d1c639b47ec41f3My guest this week is Penelope James, who has co-authored Marina Peralta’s recently released memoir that “celebrates affection in any form regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression.”  A key issue in this memoir, as in my novel A Fitting Place, is the concept of sexual fluidity. In the interview below, Penelope shares some of the insights she gained from working on this memoir.

 Sexually Fluid vs. Bisexual

MG: Lisa Diamond, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Utah has theorized that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is influenced as much—or more—by personal characteristics than by gender. Do you agree with her theory? 

PJ:  Yes. I do believe women are mainly attracted by personal characteristics. It can be a sexual,  intellectual or emotional attraction that has nothing to do with gender.  I can see myself being drawn to someone because of his/her mind regardless of gender even though physically I’m attracted to the opposite sex.

If the attraction to someone of the same sex is physical, it can be considered bisexual. Maybe it’s a genetic predisposition, or a result of early experiences, or even background influences. I have a friend who was heterosexual until her late sixties when she had a 5-year relationship with a woman. When I last saw my friend, she was very upset about what “people are saying.” It seems she’d been tagged as a lesbian due to that one relationship. She didn’t consider herself a lesbian but rather a heterosexual woman who had loved another woman for a brief period. 

MG:  Did your own view of bisexuality change while you were working on Peralta’s memoir?

PJ:  I didn’t know much about bisexuality before I started working with Marina on what was intended to be a memoir about her life. The subject of bisexuality kept coming up and it became the focus of the book. There are only a few memoirs on this subject and none that I know of about sexual fluidity.

My understanding of bisexuality used to be “having the best of both worlds,” more in the sense of swingers than serious relationships. It changed when I met Marina, through her former partner who was a friend of mine.  My friend told me they were bisexuals, as they both had been with men in the past. For them, it was the person who mattered and not the gender. After their relationship ended, my friend married a man.

I learned from Marina that the emotional aspects of a bisexual’s same-sex relationship may outweigh or even eclipse the physical attraction. In her memoir, Marina points out that her relationships with women were always more emotional and hence more painful throughout than her more physical relationships with men.

MG: Based on Diamond’s work, it strikes me that all bisexuals are sexually fluid, but that being sexually fluid does not require the label of bisexual? Any thoughts?

PJ: Marina says being bisexual means you have the potential for involvement with either gender … whether it be sexually, emotionally, in reality or in fantasy. But she also believes that sexuality runs along a continuum. It is not a static “thing” but rather a process that can flow, changing throughout our lifetime. For instance, women who have late-life switches to same sex relationships should not be categorized as lesbians but rather as bisexuals. Most of them had only opposite sex relationships before they discovered they could love a person exclusive of his/her gender.       

Homosexual vs. Bisexual

MG: There is considerable overlap between the terms lesbian and bi-sexual, but they are not the same. Can you comment on that?

PJ: They’re definitely not the same. A lesbian loves/prefers only members of the same sex. Bisexuals choose the person regardless of their gender. 

The public in general defines people in same-sex relationships as gay or lesbian. For most, there is no in-between … even though married women and men may have same-sex extra-marital sex. The word “bisexual” is often brushed off, or considered an excuse, or even offensive by heterosexuals and gays/lesbians alike. “Bisexuality” may be today’s version of yesterday’s homosexuality – to be kept in the closet or under wraps for fear of derision, ignorance, intolerance. While homosexuality is accepted or tolerated in most places nowadays, bisexuality is still an enigma, a term that suggests loose morals or sex addiction.

Marina’s book attempts to dispel many of the myths associated with the term bisexual, and instead focus on the bisexual identity. What Marina is doing, coming out openly as a bisexual, can be considered groundbreaking. Her aim is to use her life story to illustrate the bisexual identity and bisexual fluidity – something few people know of, understand or accept.


Pennie James

Penelope collaborated on Marina Peralta’s memoir Barriers to Love: Embracing A Bisexual Identity

Penelope is also the author of Don’t Hang Up! Dialing My Way to a New Start to be published in 2014.

Find more information at: and


 This blog continues the discussion on themes in my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like to do a guest blog on one or more of the issues relevant to A Fitting Place


Writing for My Reader


A Fitting PlaceIn writing A Fitting Place, my goal has always been a book that would be considered literary fiction, a high quality novel with richly developed characters that would reflect key elements of the human condition.

As I get closer and closer to the final draft, however, I ask myself the very question Richard Sutton posed last week: how do I make sure it resonates with my audience?

I am at the leading edge of the baby boomers, writing a novel about “mid-life coming-of-age.”  Ideally, I am writing for three generations of readers, both male and female.  I am writing for my own generation, assuming that my protagonist, Lindsey Chandler, will echo the experiences many of us had in our 40’s.  I am writing for Generation X, in their 40’s now, hoping to provide encouragement to those in the throes of mid-life crises.  I am writing for the Millennial Generation, with an eye to offering a bit of insight into the challenges they will face as they age.

But how do I talk about the love affair between two women?  My generation made sexual freedom a key part of the social fabric, but that freedom was commonly seen to apply to male-female relationships, rather than to same-sex relationships.  

And when people did talk about such relationships, they did so using labels—gay, queer, butch, dyke, bi-sexual—that had powerful positive or negative connotations depending on where you stood.  Many of the women of my generation who had sexual encounters or love affairs with a woman did not talk about it, as the term “lesbian” had less to do with sexual orientation or preference and more to do with militant feminism. 

The Millennials seem to look at sexuality much differently.  Many abjure the labels that define sexuality, viewing it as fluid, akin to the spectrum of sexual types described by Alfred Kinsey (in 1948).  His classification ranged from exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual, with “un-labeled” gradations in between, depending on an individual’s preference for one or both types of sexuality. 

sexual-fluidityIn a remarkable 2008 book, Sexual Fluidity, based on a decade of longitudinal research on women, Dr. Lisa Diamond proposed the increasingly accepted theory that sexual attraction, particularly for women, is based more on personal and emotional attraction than on gender, and is often unrelated to sexual or gender identity.

A key theme in my novel is, in fact, sexual fluidity as defined by Diamond.  While the second draft of my novel was done before I read her book, the final version is much influenced by the clarity of her thinking.

But thinking more clearly about sexual fluidity does not change the fact that I instinctively write using the language I learned in my youth.  For A Fitting Place to reach the audiences I want, I need to rely heavily on Richard Sutton’s “reader on my shoulder.” 

What are the topics you find hard to talk about or write because the language doesn’t meet your needs?


To learn more about Lisa Diamond, click on the book.