Chapter Six Political Identity: Gay and Lesbian Homosexuality
4. Gay and Lesbian Homosexuality Identity
Homosexuality today expressed in a gay and lesbian identity may possibly be viewed as another type of homosexuality. Just as the others are historically and culturally specific so is the modern gay and lesbian. Being a gay and lesbian is not a unitary construct that is culturally transcendent across all societies today. A gay and lesbian is a social political identity limited to modern western cultures, although this gay and lesbian identity is gradually being expressed and adopted in other parts of the world.
The search for a theory of gay identity originated among gay Left intellectuals. Starting from an ethnic model of history that at first assumed an already existing identity or social group, they eventually discovered that homosexuals were historically constructed subjects (Escoffier, Jeffrey. American Homo Community and Perversity, p.62)
We should employ cross-cultural and historical evidence not only to chart changing attitudes but to challenge the very concept of a single trans-historical notion of homosexuality. In different cultures (and at different historical moments or conjunctures within the same culture) very different meanings are given to same-sex activity both by society at large and by the individual participants. The physical acts might be similar, but the social construction of meanings around them are profoundly different. The social integration of forms of pedagogic homosexual relations in ancient Greece have no continuity with contemporary notions of homosexual identity. To put it another way, the various possibilities of what Hocquenghem calls homosexual desire, or what more neutrally might be termed homosexual behaviors, which seem from historical evidence to be a permanent and ineradicable aspect of human sexual possibilities, are variously constructed in different cultures as an aspect of wider gender and sexual regulation. If this is the case, it is pointless discussing questions such as, what are the origins of homosexual oppression, or what is the nature of the homosexual taboo, as if there was a single, causative factor. The crucial question must be: what are the conditions for the emergence of this particular form of regulation of sexual behavior in this particular society? (Weeks, Against Nature, p. 15-16)
Transcending all these issues of lifestyle was the potent question of the gay identity itself. The gay identity is no more a product of nature than any other sexual identity. It has developed through a complex history of definitions and self-definition, and what recent histories of homosexuality have clearly revealed is that there is no necessary connection between sexual practices and sexual identity. (Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, p. 50)
The idea of a gay and lesbian identity sexual identity has been formulated over the last two decades. Historically it is the product of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, which, itself, grew out of the Black civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the fifties and sixties. Like ethnic identities, sexual identity assigns individuals to membership in a group, the gay lesbian community. Although sexual identity has become a group identity, its historical antecedents can be traced to the nineteen-century notion that homosexual men and women, each representative of a newly discovered biological specimen, represented a third sex. Homosexuality, which had been conceived primarily as an act was thereby transformed into an actor. (De Cecco, 1990b). Once actors had been created it was possible to assign them a group identity. Once a person became a member of a group, particularly one that has been stigmatized and marginal, identity as an individual was easily subsumed under group identity. (De Cecco and Parker, The Biology of Homosexuality: Sexual Orientation or Sexual Preference, p. 22-23 in Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual, Preference, editors De Cecco and Parker)
The configuring of the meaning of homosexuality by its advocates into a lifestyle alternative or minority status, and the movement of lesbians and gay men into the social center parallels the transformation of the social role of the African-Americans and women during the same period. (Seidman, Embattled Eros, p.148-149)
On the one hand, lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in the USA over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what the civil rights movement had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and culture institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag. Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share - the anchor of minority rights claim – is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethiniclessentialist politic,clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain (Gamson, Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?, p.516)
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 DEmilio, 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 edited by Duggan & Hunter, Sex Wars)
It isn’t at all obvious why a gay rights movement should ever have arisen in the United States in the first place. And it’s profoundly puzzling why that movement should have become far and away the most powerful such political formation in the world. Same gender sexual acts have been commonplace throughout history and across cultures. Today, to speak with surety about a matter for which there is absolutely no statistical evidence, more adolescent male butts are being penetrated in the Arab world, Latin American, North Africa and Southeast Asia then in the west.
But the notion of a gay identity rarely accompanies such sexual acts, nor do political movements arise to make demands in the name of that identity. It’s still almost entirely in the Western world that the genders of ones partner is considered a prime marker of personality and among Western nations it is the United States - a country otherwise considered a bastion of conservatism - that the strongest political movement has arisen centered around that identity.
We’ve only begun to analyze why, and to date can say little more then that certain significant pre-requisites developed in this country, and to some degree everywhere in the western world, that weren’t present, or hadn’t achieved the necessary critical mass, elsewhere. Among such factors were the weakening of the traditional religious link between sexuality and procreation (one which had made non-procreative same gender desire an automatic candidate for denunciation as unnatural). Secondly the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the United States, and the West in general, in the nineteen century weakened the material (and moral) authority of the nuclear family, and allowed mavericks to escape into welcome anonymity of city life, where they could choose a previously unacceptable lifestyle of singleness and nonconformity without constantly worrying about parental or village busybodies pouncing on them. (Duberman, Left Out, p. 414 - 415.)
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 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. (DEmilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity, p. 473-474 in The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader by Henry Abelove, Michele Aine Barale and David M. Halperin)
There is a wealth of cross-cultural evidence that point to the existence of numerous patterns of homosexuality varying in origins, subjective states and manifest behaviors. But the paramenters of the discussion are still best framed as Who one is, a homosexual or What one does, homosexuality. The support for the latter is the strongest.
Descriptions of the Greeks, the berdaches, and the Sambia should make us a little unsure about our categories homosexual and heterosexual -least, they should make us think more carefully about what we mean by these words. But if we are a little confused about categories, perhaps we can agree on a few simple facts about human sexuality: (1) same-sex eroticism has existed for thousands of years in vastly different times cultures; (2) in some cultures, same-sex eroticism was accepted as normal aspect of human sexuality, practiced by nearly all individuals some of the time; and (3) in nearly every culture that has been examined in any detail, a few individuals seem to experience a compelling and abiding sexual orientation toward their own sex. (Mondimore, A Natural History of Homosexuality, p.20)
The reality is that this gay identity a pattern of essentially exclusive male homosexuality familiar to us which has been exceedingly rare or unknown in cultures that required or expected all males to engage in homosexual activity. So, I would argue this gay identity should be seen not as a type of homosexuality, but rather as a social movement, a political cause, a new form of gender identity, and a life-style. Therefore, the psychosocial conditions of being gay today must be understood in their own place and historical time.
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 individuals’ 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, Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual, Preference p.21)
Being gay cannot be seen as being a monolithic and an invariant identity label culturally valid for ancient and medieval societies. As has been repeatedly stated, historically and culturally the pattern was for heterosexuality, marriage, and procreation. Although there have been cases, which are exceptions to the norm, instances of adult same sex behavior, are almost always tolerated, but looked down upon with disapproval.
Certainly the gay movement is specialized somewhat to class and urban social formations, and it must be seen from the perspective of the decontextualization of sex. Only by disengaging sexuality from the traditions of family, reproduction, and parenthood was the evolution of the gay movement a social and historical likeihood. (Herdt, 1987b). (Herdt, Developmental Discontuntinuties and Sexual Orientation Across Cultures, p. 224 in Homosexuality/Heterosexuality Concepts of Sexual Orientation edited by McWhirter, Sanders, and Reinisch)
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.
We begin with the premise that there exists an evident distinction between (1) homosexual feelings, (2) homosexual behavior, and (3) the homosexual role. The argument presented here is that homosexual feelings play a minor part in becoming gay, which is chiefly is the result of adopting the homosexual 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)
The gay myth is responsible for the creation of the gay community, which is an assemblage, not of people who share the same sexual orientation (they don’t), but of those who have adopted the gay role. Underlying the many facets of gay life is an overriding concern with the gay role. The conversation and behavior of gay-identified individual reveals that what distinguishes them from others is not their sexual identity but their identity, their consciousness of being a people set apart. And what sets them apart is their joint commitment to a role created by a society solely for the purposes of controlling and isolating behaviors. (DuBay, Gay Identity The Self Under Ban, p.2-3)
Gay people there are, and some are indeed different, but it is not their sexuality that makes them different. Their real differences, as significant as they may be, are now submerged in the emphasis of the gay myth on sexual difference. If anything, it is their sexuality that they have most in common with all humans. We can end this introduction with one more appeal added to countless others, an appeal almost totally ignored by the academic and medical establishments: Gayness, unlike the medical term homosexuality, has nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation. It concerns a wide range of divergent behaviors that set some people apart from others in their appearance, gender behavior, emotional sensibilities, intellectual powers, and their perspective of the world. (DuBay, Gay Identity The Self Under Ban, p.12)
Even today in our "modern western culture", being and acting gay is a developmental discontinuity in our society. Heterosexuality still continues to be the norm. A "gay identity" began evolving within large population centers in the late nineteenth century. In the United States there was rapid growth as the result of the coming together of large groups of men to fight in World War Two. These men from rural and small town America began knowing "others just like themselves". It has been more recent, since the 1960s that there has been the emergence of the individuals who do not marry, but accept the idea of being single and gay. Before this time most individuals would be married and their homosexuality was expressed in sexual acts with members of the same sex. Perhaps the largest milestone in the emergence of a modern "gay identity" took place on June 12, 1969, in New York City at a gay bar called Stonewall Inn. This was an act of resistance, a riot by drag queens mourning the death of Judy Garland. It was a group of effeminate men, wearing women’s clothes resisting police authority, during a raid on the gay bar. This event is often linked with the beginning of the gay liberation movement.
After the 1969 Stonewall riots, a homosexual emancipation movement emerged. This movement, called gay liberation, resulted from a clash of two cultures and two generations-the homosexual subculture of the 1950 and 1960s and the New Left counterculture of 1960s youth. Ideologically, the camp sensibility of the 1950s and early 1960s had served as a strategy of containment; it has balanced its scorn for the principle of consistency with a bitter consciousness of oppression in a framework that offered no vision of historical change. The gay liberationists, who had rarely had much appreciation for traditional gay life, proposed a radical cultural revolution. Instead of protecting the right to privacy, gay liberation radicals insisted on coming out- the public disclosure of one’s homosexuality- which then became the centerpiece of gay political strategy. (Escoffier, American Homo Community and Perversity, p.58)
Stonewall was an act of resistance to police authority by multiracial drag queens mourning the death of Judy Garland, long divinized by gays. Therefore Stonewall had a cultural meaning beyond the political: it was a pagan insurrection by the reborn transvestite priests of Cybele. (Paglia, Vamps and Tramps, p. 67)
A second important event allowing for the idea of a gay identity was the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder. In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders.
It was the militant organization of homosexuals, not any scientific breakthrough, that led to the removal of homosexuality from the list of diseases of the American Psychiatric Association in 1974. (Weeks, Sexuality, p.85)
The decision of the American Psychiatric Association to delete homosexuality from its published list of sexual disorders in 1973 was scarcely a cool, scientific decision. It was a response to a political campaign fueled by the belief that its original inclusion as a disorder was a reflection of an oppressive politico-medical definition of homosexuality as a problem. (Weeks, Jeffery. Sexuality and Its Discontents Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, p. 213)
Why was it decided at this specific point in time that homosexuality was not pathological after being listed as one for 23 years? For certain it was not a decision based upon new scientific evidence, for there was very little to support homosexuality. It was as a result of a three-year social/political campaign by gay activists, pro-gay psychiatrists and gay psychiatrists, not as a result of valid scientific studies. Rather the activities were public disturbances, rallies, protests, and social/political pressure from others outside of the APA upon the APA. There also was a sincere belief held by liberal-minded and compassionate psychiatrists that listing homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder supported and reinforced prejudice against homosexuals. Removal of the term from the diagnostic manual was viewed as a humane, progressive act. A third influencing factor was an acceptance of new criteria to define psychiatric conditions. Only those disorders that caused a patient to suffer or that resulted in adjustment problems were thought to be appropriate for inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Adding to the push for removal was an acknowledgment of the extraordinary resistance of homosexuality to psychiatric intervention, for overcoming homosexuality. Some passions and prejudices were involved with this decision as well. In actuality this action was taken with such unconventional speed that normal channels for consideration of the issues were circumvented. This was a time period of great social upheaval and change, civil rights for blacks, the Vietnam war, and of course, the sexual revolution. Though the Board of Trustees voted 13 to 0, a referendum sent to 25,000 APA members only 25 % responded, and of these only 58% favored removing homosexuality from the list of disorders. Follow up surveys of the members of the APA continued to show that many members consider homosexuality to be pathological and a disorder. Also, APA members report that the problems of homosexuals had more to do with their inner conflicts then with stigmatization by society at large. It is not what is now termed homophobia. Ronald Bayer in his book, Homosexuality and the American Psychiatry: The Politics of Diagnosis covers in depth the removal of homosexuality by the APA from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders.
This action taken in the APA had dramatic consequences on psychosexual life according to Charles Socarides in a article published in The Journal of Psychohistory, Sexual Politics and Scientific Logic: The Issue of Homosexuality. He described a movement within the American Psychiatric Association in which through social/political activism resulted in a two-phase radicalization of a main pillar of psychosocial life. The first phase was the erosion of heterosexuality as the single acceptable sexual pattern in our culture. This was followed by the second phase being the raising of homosexuality to the level of an alternative life. As a result, homosexuality became an acceptable psychosocial institution alongside heterosexuality as the prevailing norm of behavior.
In essence, this movement within the American Psychiatric Association has accomplished what every other society, with rare exceptions, would have trembled to tamper with, a revision of the basic code and concept of life and biology: that men and women normally mate with the opposite sex and not with each other. (Socarides, Sexual Politics and Scientific Logic: The Issue of Homosexuality, p. 321)
More recent events have shown interesting perspectives. There has been the formation of NARTH, National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality in 1992 that was in response to the growing threat of scientific censorship. In May of 2001 Dr. Robert L Spitzer reported a study that homosexuality may sometimes be changeable. Dr Spitzer was the psychiatrist who headed the APA committee that led to the 1973 removal of homosexuality from the APA’s list of disorders. These events coincide with a growing influential movement of people who have overcome homosexuality, and are usually self-identify as ex-gay.
Another aspect of the development of sexual orientation and identity which would seem to require investigation is the reduction of the percentage of men and women engaging in homosexual behavior with age. A significant percentage of the medical students and male twins investigated by McConaghy and colleagues (1987, 1994) reported that they were not currently aware of homosexual feelings they experienced in adolescence indicating homosexual feelings diminished or disappear with age in a proportion of the population. (McConaghy, Unresolved Issues in Scientific Sexology, p. 300)
There are individuals who overcome homosexuality and they do so in multiple ways. But what is of great interest are those individuals who choose to continue to self-identify as gay or lesbian but have as their objects of sexual activity members of the opposite sex. The following are examples of such people who have made public declarations. JoAnn Loulan was a prominent lesbian activist in the seventies and eighties who met and fell in love with a man in the late nineties, and even appeared on a 20/20 television episode in 1998. Jan Clausen also a lesbian activist writes in two of her books Beyond Gay or Straight, Apples and Oranges of a sexual relationship with a man. This latter book is autobiographical. She began a long-term monogamous relationship with a man in 1987. In England Russell T. Davies wrote Queer as Folk and also wrote for British TV the show Bob and Rose airing in September 2001. This second show is about a gay man who falls in love with a woman and has a sexual relationship with her. This series was based on a friend of Davies’, Thomas, who was well known in the Manchester, England gay scene. Bert Archer who identifies as a gay male in his book, The End of Gay (and the Death of Heterosexuality), writes of his sexual relationship with a woman. He also gives examples of other gay men who have similar experiences.
Of most interest is the actual result of this latest attempt beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s to define homosexuality as a one size fits all type of homosexuality, a gay and lesbian identity. What was at first an attempt to see two sexual identities, heterosexual and homosexual has been a birth of multiple sexual identities. It is a fracturing of a one single sexual identity, homosexual into multiple sexual identities and heterosexuality.
What these examples illustrate is that homosexual and heterosexual are socially constructed categories. There are no objective definitions of these words; there is no Golden Dictionary in the Sky that contains the real definitions. These are words, categories we made up. (Muehlenhard, Categories and Sexualities, p. 102-103)
Although the radicalised movement of self-affirming lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgendered people and others proclaimed the desire to end the homosexual and indeed the heterosexual (Altman 1071/1993) - that is to get rid of redundant and oppressive categorisations - the reality was different. Since the early 1970s, there has been considerable growth of distinctive sexual communities, and of what have been called quasi-ethnic lesbian and gay identities, and the proliferation of other distinctive sexual identities from bisexual to sado-masochistic, and many other subdivisions (Epstein 1990). Difference has apparently triumphed over convergence, identity or similarity. The rise of queer politics from the late 1980s can be seen as both a product of and a challenge to these developments, rejecting narrow identity politics in favor of a more transgressive erotic warfare. (Warner 1993; Seidman 1997) - while at the same time, ironically, creating a new, post-identity identity of queer. (Weeks, Heaphy and Donovan, Same Sex Intimacies Families of Choice and Other Life Experiments, p.14)
Yet perhaps the most enabling breakthrough in the study of premodern sexualities over the last decade has been precisely the rejection of easy equations between sexual practice and individual identity. In the wake of Foucault’s famous dictum-The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species (1990, 43)-scholars have recently brought to light a vast array of homoerotic discourses in the premodern West that were neither filtered nor constrained by modern sexual identity categories. In the words of David Halperin, Before the scientific construction of sexuality as a supposedly positive, distinct, and constitutive features of individual human beings . . . Certain kinds of sexual acts could be individually evaluated and categorized (1990, 26). While gay and lesbian history in the 1970s and early 1980s aimed primarily at either identifying, the last decade has seen the focus shift to erotic acts, pleasures, and desires, to homoeroticism itself as a pervasive and diverse cultural phenomenon rather than the closeted practice of a homosexual minority (see Hunt, 1994). (Fradenburg and Lavezzo editors. Premodern Sexualities, p.243-244)
On the one hand, lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in the USA over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what the civil rights movement had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and culture institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag. Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share - the anchor of minority status and minority rights claim – is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethiniclessentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain. (Gamson, Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? p. 516 in Sexualities: Critical Concepts in Sociology Volume II editor Ken Plummer)
That Way. That Sort. The whole modern gay movement, form the mid- to late-Mattachine-style homophilia to Gay is Good, to Queer Nation and OutRage! to Ellen, Queer as Folk and beyond, has been a struggle first to define, than to justify and/or celebrate and/or revel in, than to normalize what was still thought of by many as being That Way. And there have been wild successes, genuine victories resulting in real progress being made in very short spans of time in thinking and acting on sexuality and human relationships. But there’s a forgotten, ignored, or perhaps never acknowledged baby in the bathwater the Movement’s been sumping: the possibility of a sexual attraction that is neither or exclusively based on anatomy nor especially relevant to your sense of self. It’s an idea that the lesbian communities have been dealing with for some time, something about which they have a lot to teach the rest of us. (Archer, The End of Gay and the death of heterosexuality, p.17-18)
Such was the heady agenda of gay liberation. By the mid-1970s, however, it was evident that the agenda encouraging people to come out and be proud of being gay – was not working. Reports of casualties gay related suicides and beatings, illnesses and death from alcohol and drug use were not declining. The mortality rate of gay people dying from hepatitis was staggering: 5,000 a year according to some accounts. New infectious diseases were appearing, including devastating internal parasites that added to the already alarming incidences of other sexually transmitted diseases.
Worse, gay people did not seem to be coalescing into the productive lifestyle envisioned by the early leaders of the movement. Where was Whitman’s vision of a land where men, women, children would join in a continuous celebration of life and the body electric? What we saw instead was an escalating spread of promiscuity, prostitution, and pornography. Our liberated community was rapidly becoming an exploited community. Gay society founded itself with less and less to be proud of. The march of gay rights seemed to slow down, and with the arrival of AIDS, was stopped dead in its tracks. (DuBay, Gay Identity The Self Under Ban, p.131)
In short, the gay lifestyle - if such a chaos can, after all, legitimately be called a lifestyle - it just doesn’t work: it doesn’t serve the two functions for which all social framework evolve: to constrain people’s natural impulses to behave badly and to meet their natural needs. While it’s impossible to provide an exhaustive analytic list of all the root causes and aggravants of this failure, we can asseverate at least some of the major causes. Many have been dissected, above, as elements of the Ten Misbehaviors; it only remains to discuss the failure of the gay community to provide a viable alternative to the heterosexual family. (Kirk and Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of the Gays in the 90s, p.363)
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