Thursday, August 30, 2007

Standing on Shaky Ground

It's not about the sex, it's about the public lewd behaviour. Sure, whatever. Larry Craig's misdemeanor has driven a lot of talk not just about sexual identities, but the practices of homosexuals.

Andrew at Air Pollution has been critiquing those who would label Senator Craig (as those before him) as being gay. He has also been dissecting the icky factor in reporting this story: bathrooms and cruising. Andrew and I have had a number of discussions about the construction of sexual identities, and for different reasons we have been uneasy with the politics thereof. However, we completely agree that professing sexuality in public has its problems:
Many college students, in my experience, see the development of GLBT identities in a pretty straightforward trajectory: in the nineteenth-century we couldn't speak, now we can. Many of them have, in fact, read Foucault and they understand that identities are historically constituted and change over time. But what is so often missing in these discussions, both on college campus and on the internet, is how the injunction to speak can often be just as limiting as it can be emancipatory. Speaking creates categories, forcing people into them against their will. Obviously Foucault made this point, and it probably does little good for me to say it here in this form, but I think its important to emphasize when this sort of thing happens. The automatic reaction should not be "if only he could have come out of the closet," but rather, "how unfortunate we live in a society where the ability to freely express sexual desires, in all their (consensual) forms, remains a dream."
Indeed the creation of a defined category produces conformity as well. Why should everyone be labeled? Could not Senator Craig simply have sought gratification?

Last semester I assigned André Gide's The Immoralist to some students (a book that I picked with Andrew's assistance). I was myself surprised at one student's reaction: she was unwilling to accept the sexual openness proposed in the book. In her opinion, Michel's unwillingness to come out the closet made him sick, made his wife sick, made the people whom he touched sick. Simply put, his disease was not admitting his true sexuality.

Andrew isn't he only one talking about sexual identities. On the other side of the political spectrum, Marc at Spinning Clio is criticizing a work that purports to find same-sex marriage in the late Middle Ages. Projecting contemporary homosexuality, in particular the desire to marry one's same sex partner, reads too much into the past. In communities where each marriage was scrutinized, would not couples affrèrés meet resistance? Would homosexual men and women seek emotional fulfillment through marriage? Marc hits an important point: deep affection between men need not be manifested sexually.

All these examples show more about how identities are constructed and employed than how sexuality is conceived. So many identities are constructed on the belief of unchangeable, unshakable natures that they become essentialist, bordering on nativism or indigenism. These identities become so confining that they tend to isolate those who employ them. Indeed they are best employed when the identifying group wishes to resist modernization. The danger is that they will not participate in the discussion about modernization, rather it will occur around them as they are immune to it. Or that modernization will disturb the root assumptions upon which identities are based. Among the problems faced by Alsatians under German rule, for example, was how to argue that they were who they were (people shaped by history and tradition) and participate in German politics and global commerce.

The point is best driven home by Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject. By identifying Africans with tribal communities, colonial governments could keep them under traditional tribal justice and traditional tribal authority. Thus they had limited access to European institutions. The African worker, in particular, could not make choices about development and progress. S/he was always a visitor to the modern world, and what s/he experienced could not change African society.

Labeling Senator Craig "gay" potentially constrains him to being a man who cruises for sex in bathrooms--as much as it constrains gay men. It constrains him to live up to an identity that is not as stable as it seems.

(Disclosure: I hate people who fuck in public places. It unnerves me. Sorry, Andrew, I've reported a few couples in various states of passion in the library because, dammit, I have work to do. They were all heterosexual.)

24 Comments:

At 12:44 PM, Blogger John Russell said...

A number of years ago, a very good friend worked for a men's health organization. They very clearly differentiated between gay men and men who had sex with other men; my graduate advisor made the same distinction. Because of this experience, I had assumed that this distinction was rather widespread. I am a little surprised to see that it is not, but as you have noted here, the identity politics complicates the matter greatly.

 
At 4:12 PM, Blogger air said...

In my graduate introduction to LGBTQ studies course, we read an article on the men John refers to (MSM). The skepticism, and outright hostility, was astounding. There's a great deal of investment amongst self-identified gay men to coopt any other men interested in sex with men to their identity. It's quite disturbing, honestly, when an identity category that was supposed to help emancipate GLBT folk has turned into its own modes of oppression.

And and sidenote: I took am not a huge fan of witnessing sex in public places, nor do I myself take part. But it's important to note that more often than not meetings that take place in a public restroom generally get consummated elsewhere. Even in my research on the phenomenon in nineteenth-century France, this was generally the case. Most of the descriptions we have of men arrested, its often exhibitionism and occasionally felatio.

 
At 10:29 AM, Blogger Nathanael said...

AIDS in the late 80s and early 90s did much to reshape the professional understanding of sexuality. Self-reporting prevented the disease from being tracked. I don't think it was just that men and women were ashamed to identify themselves as homosexual. It was also a time when the GLBT community oriented itself toward bourgeois lifestyles (especially with the incorporation of West Hollywood). It also exposed many so-called monogamous individuals of all orientations.

Interesting, as 20-year old in Los Angeles, many of my friends, myself included, voluntarily took HIV tests on a regular basis regardless of our orientation, our current sexual history, or our partners. We took it seriously as an obligation to ourselves and our partners. However, when I moved to New England and asked for a test, it was automatically assumed that either I suspect myself of being infected or that I participated in "risky" behavior. Was I gay? A drug user? Sleeping with someone infected? Sleeping with multiple partners? Etc. I think that the presence of a strong GLBT community affected how we all thought of our sexuality and health, and the same attitude was not present without that community.

 
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