What Do They Really Mean? May 21, 2007
What do they really mean? What they say or what they write? The following information was written by self-identified gays and lesbians, many who are university professors with PhDs. Why is it discrimination or a rights issue if is about one’s behavior.
We tend to think now that the word homosexual has an unvarying meaning, beyond time and history. In fact it is itself a product of history, a cultural artifact designed to express a particular concept. (Weeks, Coming Out, p. 3)
In sum, homosexuality is not one but many things, many psychosocial forms, which can be viewed as symbolic mediations between psychocultural and historical conditions and human potentials for sexual response across life course. (Herdt, Cross-Cultural Issues in the Development of Bisexuality and Homosexuality, p.55)
Against the certainties of this tradition, I intend in this essay to offer an alternative way of understanding sexually (indeed sexualities). This involves seeing sexuality not as a primordially natural instinct phenomenon but rather as a product of social and historical forces. Sexuality I shall argue, is a fictional unity, that once did not exist, and some time in the future may not exist again. It is an invention of the human mind. As Carole S. Vance has suggested, the most important organ in humans is located between the ears. (Vance 1984). (Weeks, Sexuality, p.6)
But if identity, and sexual difference, are precarious at the level of the unconscious, they are also in large part a fiction at the level of social and cultural life. This is, I know, a controversial statement, and one that many lesbian and gay activists would bitterly challenge. The search for a gay gene, or special type of homosexual brain, or whatever, which is frequently welcomed by self-appointed gay spokespeople, attest to a constant wish to find an explanation rooted in nature for homosexual difference. As I have already indicated, Altman rejects such fantasies, and anticipating Foucault and other writers arguments for the historical shaping of the homo-heter distinction. This is not to deny the value of constructing lesbian and gay identities as an essential way of combating discrimination, and negotiating the hazards of every day life. Such identities are, in words I have used elsewhere, a necessary fictions. But fictions, they are, nonetheless. (Altman, Homosexual: Oppression or Liberation, p.13)
It is the myth of gay identity, the belief that homosexuals are a different kind of people.
Gay identity is one of the great working myths of our age. Even though it is based on the ideas of gender and sex that have more to do with folklore than science, it occupies a central position in the beliefs and principles that govern our behaviors. It is a significant element of our social organization of gender and sexuality. The myth holds us all in thrall, not just those who have adopted the gay role. . . .
Being gay is always a matter of self-definition. No matter what your sexual proclivities or experience, you are not gay until you decide you are. (DuBay, Gay Identity The Self Under Ban, p.1-2)
Lesbian and gay historians have asked questions about the origins of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, and have come up with some surprising answers. Rather than finding a silent, oppressed, gay minority in all times and all places, historians have discovered that gay identity is a recent, Western, historical construction. Jeffrey Weeks, Jonathan Katz and Lillian Faderman, for example have traced the emergence of lesbian and gay identity in the late nineteenth century. Similarly John D Emilio, Allan Berube and the Buffalo Oral History Project have described how this identity laid the basis for organized political activity in the years following World War II.
The work of lesbian and gay historians has also demonstrated that human sexuality is not a natural, timeless given, but is historically shaped and politically regulated. (Duggan, History’s Gay Ghetto: The Contradictions of Growth in Lesbian and Gay History, p.151-152 in Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture edited by Duggan & Hunter)
Psychological theory, which should be employed to describe only individual mental, emotional, and behavioral aspects of homosexuality, has been employed for building models of personal development that purport to mark the steps in an individual’s progression toward a mature and egosyntonic gay or lesbian identity. The embracing and disclosing of such an identity, however, is best understood as a political phenomenon occurring in a historical period during which identity politics has become a become a consuming occupation. (De Cecco and Parker, The Biology of Homosexuality: Sexual Orientation or Sexual Preference, p. 20 in Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual, Preference, editors De Cecco and Parker)
I have argued that lesbian and gay identity and communities are historically created, the result of a process of capitalist development that has spanned many generations. A corollary of this argument is that we are not a fixed social minority composed for all time of a certain percentage of the population. There are more of us than one hundred years ago, more of us than forty years ago. And there may very well be more gay men and lesbians in the future. Claims made by gays and nongays that sexual orientation is fixed at an early age, that large numbers of visible gay men and lesbians in society, the media, and the schools will have no influence on the sexual identities of the young, are wrong. Capitalism has created the material conditions for homosexual desire to express itself as a central component of some individuals’ lives; now, our political movements are changing consciousness, creating the ideological conditions that make it easier for people to make that choice. (D Emilio, Making Trouble Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University, p.12)
Homosexuality, on the other hand, is a far more complex protean identity. It is rare that people are confused about their race or gender, but anyone can be a homosexual or engage in homosexual behavior. (Bronski, The pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom, p. 13)
For well over a century homosexualists have dreamed that the invention of the homosexual as a person would ultimately detoxicate homosexual behavior and win a place of equality alongside heterosexual behavior. (De Ceeo, Confusing the Actor With the Act: Muddled Notions About Homosexuality, p. 411)
After reading what self-identified gays and lesbians have written one can therefore understand it best in the following way. Who one is, a homosexual or What one does homosexuality. The support is strongest for the latter. Why is it discrimination or a rights issue if is about one’s behavior.