“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” – Audre Lorde
Today the phrase “sexual identity” is so common and familiar we barely think about it. A “biological explanation” for homosexuality is considered the “progressive” way to think about non-normative sexuality. But do these phrases and ways of thinking help us to dismantle the master’s house – that is, to smash heteronormativity?
The categories “heterosexual” and “homosexual” are very recent historical inventions. From their origins in medical discourse, we now understand them as eternal facts of nature.
What does this mean? Well, when I suggest to people that there is really no such thing as “homosexuality,” that it was only invented in the late 19th century, they are confused. They say, “Yeah, but it always existed, people just didn’t realise it.”
This is a very subtle but absolutely crucial point: language completely alters the way we think about things and the way we act and how power operates.
(Which is your best fit? Pick ONE and ONLY one!)
So, is it true that same-sex desire was just as common in the past, but we (being post-Enlightenment scientific rational individuals) now know the true name for it? Really, all people in the past could be categorised into our scientifically proven categories of heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual? Can we read back into history and classify Sir Bertrand Warblington as gay and Ethel Moresby as bisexual?
I would say this is ludicrous. Such categories are historically and culturally dependent. They depend on specific constructions of masculinity, femininity, identity, behaviours, meanings, desires, institutions. How then can we simplify sexuality to a three-tiered “universal” system that says all people are innately homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual? To different degrees, certainly (and here people will invoke a “spectrum” model that is just as essentialist) but ultimately classifiable into these three boxes.
One thing that always gets me is when someone will say, “Ah yes, you know he was gay?” And another will reply, “Ohhhhhh!” As if something has been made clear. As if all has been explained. Nothing more needs to be said.
On the other hand, to historicise sexuality is to look at the intimate connections between so many parts of society and culture – gender constructs, gender relations, the economy, the law, how desire was represented, and I could go on forever. To cast a modern essentialist net back into any past era is to miss out on how people actually thought about gender, sex, desire, intimacy. Ancient Greeks would be utterly bewildered if we spoke to them about “an internal set of desires.” For them, sexual behaviour was about social status – so sex between older men and younger boys was not about expressing desire but who had power. Similarly, in the Middle Ages sexual acts between men were just that – acts. They were unnatural and unholy acts, yes, but they didn’t reveal anything about what kind of person you were, they were just temporary aberrations. Believing sexuality is biologically ordained doesn’t let us see the historical contexts in which it functioned, it doesn’t let us question how patriarchy worked in these societies, how gender relations were institutionalised. For example, why has the focus always been on sexual acts between men? Basically, because women’s sexuality hasn’t counted. As soon as we historicise and denaturalise sexuality, the old line that “most people were innately heterosexual and so marriage and family” crumbles before our eyes.
As one example, marriage in 19th century England was an economic imperative for women. Does this mean all of them were exclusively attracted to men? Perhaps they just didn’t want to die.
To historicise sexuality is unsettling, because 21st century Western society depends on a discourse of classifying, categorising, universalising, normalising. David Halperin points out that we think of sexuality now as “a positive, distinct, and constitutive feature of the human personality.” We have this idea that a person’s sexuality will tell us certain things about them. It will tell us about their “personal essence.”
I’m sorry, but I have no choice but to quote my beloved Foucault here. “Is it not with the aim of inciting people to speak of sex that it is made to mirror, at the outer limit of every actual discourse, something akin to a secret whose discovery is imperative, a thing abusively reduced to silence, and at the same time difficult and necessary, dangerous and precious to divulge?”
What he is saying is that this linking of sexuality with “inner essence” makes it into a “secret about the self.” In revealing this secret, the self will be revealed. Saying, “I am attracted to the same sex, deep down” (oh, the heteronormativity!), I have revealed something about myself. I have revealed some fundamental part of my personality, my essence, my soul.
I am in love with Foucault’s comparison of the modern “incitement to discourse” with the mode of confession in Catholicism – that penance meant speaking and examining every part of an act to get some meaning out of it, to get to some “truth” of a person. And his comparison with psychiatric discourse – that extension of the confessional. But anyway.
We see a continuation of exactly the same thing in the modern trope of the closet.
The association between homosexuality and visibility is really interesting. Basically homosexuality cannot be thought of without thinking about visibility. Heterosexuality is never associated with visibility. But the need to “come out” only exists because of heterosexuality. It only exists because we see sexuality as a “truth” about ourselves to be revealed. It’s a double-bind: if you don’t “come out” you may be seen as straight, you may be reproducing heteronormativity, but if you do, you are reproducing a binary, an understanding of sexuality as somehow intimately linked with your identity. If we accept that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” we need to be more radical. The closet and “coming out” is a master’s tool. But don’t get me wrong. I want to put the burden of proof on heterosexuality instead.
As Halperin wisely says, linking sexuality with identity in this way means people “belong to different types or kinds of being by virtue of their sexuality.”
If we can classify people, we can group them, divide them, understand an individual by reference to the group and what we know about the category.
Does this strike you as somewhat reductive? For me, the obsession with seeing through a lens of sexuality is severely restrictive. Of course, it reinforces heterosexuality by naturalising it and turning the focus of attention on non-heterosexuality, so that people who don’t identify as heterosexual find that this is the marker of their identity. So, for example, if a person comes out as gay this is seen as divulging a “truth” about their personality, impacting on all other facets of their personality, so that things they have done, said, not done, not said in the past all become a function of their non-heterosexuality. (“Oh, that explains it!”) Heterosexual-identified people don’t have their sexuality discussed in such a way, except in a way that explains it as “natural.” So a heterosexual-identified person may discuss their partners, desires, attractions, clothing styles, music tastes, holidays, political affiliations, all things to do with their sexuality and all things that have nothing to do with it, without their heterosexuality ever being used as an explanation.
But this sexuality-identity knot also, I think, reduces our experiences of and possibilities for intimacy.
I think the following imagined interior monologue is actually pretty accurate, even if condensed:
“Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have worn these jeans today. They do make me look a bit gay. Oh nah, that’s right, got my Radiohead shirt on. What the hell? Why is that guy checking me out? What is his problem? Wow, very attractive girl. Wow, very attractive guy. Wait, what? Oh, God, what if I’m gay? I might be gay. I have thought about it once or twice…Oh God. Wait, that’s right, I have a girlfriend and I love her. I love footy. Cool.”
Understanding sexuality as “inner essence” or a category of identity means we are constantly policing our subject positions. So, if we have taken on a heterosexual identity, everything that we understand to be contradictory to that identity will scare us or at least make us think twice. Masculinity is much more heavily policed in terms of sexuality than femininity. Heterosexual men have very limited boundaries in terms of intimacy and every form of behaviour, speech and interest that is seen to relate to their sexual identity. I might leave that topic for another day, but it shows how everything is constructed as relating to our sexual identity and how restrictive it is.
What if we went about the world not thinking that our desires, sexual behaviours and relationships were intimately connected to our identities? It would dispel the myth that sexuality is unchangeable and biologically determined.
Firstly, we need to take sexuality down from its pedestal. It is not the most important feature of our identity. Imagine, for example, if we privileged our taste in food as much as we do our sexualities. If we treated it as fixed, as categorical, as biologically-ordained. My relationship with bananas would be problematic.
For a long time I didn’t like bananas. I guess I ate them as a baby, mashed up, but as a child and a teenager I didn’t much care for them. Then, hold on, I began to eat them rapidly and by the treeload when I went overseas. I loved them. I always looked for the freshest at hotels to stow away and eat on the road. Now I don’t really like them again. I’ve had a few bad experiences of overripe bananas. But I guess I’d try another if it looked all right. Maybe in a year’s time I’ll rediscover my taste for them. Nothing to lose, right? To complicate matters I absolutely love banana cake and banana-flavoured things.
But I see no reflection of this on my inner essence, on my identity. I don’t think it’s biologically ordained. It’s a lot to do with the context I find myself in. My taste could change twenty times from now until I die and it wouldn’t worry me. I would not have an identity crisis. So why should the gender of any person I desire define my identity? If I happen to prefer men, why should that taste dictate my feelings about my inner self, my future, my biological makeup? Also, why must our sexuality be dictated by the gender we most desire? There are so many other categories that could define it, such as the kind of affection we most enjoy. But no, heteronormativity has told us that gender is the most important aspect in intimacy, desire and relationships.
I can understand the embrace of the “gay identity” and the development of the Gay Liberation Movement. This was a way to reclaim the discourse that had relegated queer people not only to the margins but to spaces marked by deviance, characterising us as monsters, inherently “unnatural.” It was a way to claim a subject position that had been denied us. This could only be done by linking sexuality intimately with identity. It was empowering to say, “This is who we are.” It explains the radical power of gay pride – and it was radical, and brave, and world-altering.
It also explains why the idea of sexuality as unchanging, non-fluid and static, was taken up. Queer people had to actively claim the margins they had been relegated to. They had to create space within these margins. Moving into the centre – the heteronormative centre of society – would have been a betrayal. To abandon that sense of innate difference would have been a betrayal. This explains the suspicion with which bisexual-identified people are regarded today, by both heterosexual-identified and gay-identified people, and it explains why bisexual erasure happens. Because it is damn confusing for people not to fit into a binary category! Bisexual people are kidding themselves, right? Everyone knows there are only two innate sexualities: homosexual and heterosexual. Bisexual-identified people are seen as “going through a phase” or even more worryingly as a menace to the “stability” of homosexual or heterosexual relationships. We can also see this in the commentary about, say, people who end a heterosexual marriage and then begin a relationship with someone of the same gender. Somehow their marriage was a “sham,” they were “hiding their true identity,” because really all along they were gay. How about no? How about this person actually experiences intimacy and desire apart from from identity, and so their kinship changes over time? While bisexuality is often linked with fluidity though, it still buys into the “sexuality as identity” construction. It does not critique heteronormativity.
I can completely understand the desire to distinguish oneself from the utter unfabulousness of heteronormative society. It was this society, this discursive power, which had (and still does) erased the experiences and selves of non-heterosexual people (but only because the self is bound to sexuality), regulated their movement, bodies, subjectivities, economic opportunities…Need I go on? Reclaiming a marginal identity allows you to reclaim some of this discursive power, and some of this disciplinary power, not least by being able to know who else is “like you.” If you can split the world into gay and straight people, you can establish a kinship. You can better tell who is going to be sympathetic, who will embrace your subjectivity, see you as an “insider,” and who is going to see you as an outsider, and likely be hostile and possibly violent. But in claiming those margins they were also reinstating them.
I will never deny the efficacy of embracing a gay identity. Even though I think today we can do something more radical, I think it is valid and useful and an important choice for many people.
What I want to critique is the idea of sexuality as truth, as a revelation about the self.
To me, this lets straight-identified people off the hook.
It lets heteronormativity off the hook.
Straight-identified people thought they were being pretty persecuted during the Gay Liberation Movement. So much so that some people, fearful their heterosexuality and (most commonly) masculinity were under threat, felt the need to use violence that often resulted in death. What they were doing were policing the boundaries of heteronormativity. This happens today. All you have to do is look at the violence directed towards queer people ; the Gay Panic Defence – or the Homosexual Advance Defence in Australia; the policing of things declared “gay” (these always seem bafflingly arbitrary to me). Straight-identified people think their “institution of marriage” is under threat today. They think “the children” are under threat.
Guess what? This is only a possible argument if heteronormativity remains intact. What if we smash it?
Heternormativity means that the sexuality under question is always queer sexuality. Always. Because heterosexuality is always perceived as natural. That is the basis of heteronormativity. This means that necessarily any form of non-heterosexuality will be “different” and under question.
What does it mean for heterosexuality to be “natural”?
What if we turned everything on its head and put the onus on heterosexuality?
If we abandon the idea that we were “born this way” heterosexuality can no longer hold its smug belief that it is “natural.” If it is not “written into our genes,” things become a lot more complex. I find the search for a “gay gene” ridiculous. It starts with the presumption of a binary gender system, of normal/abnormal desires. The imperative to understand something scientifically is based on a prior confusion regarding something non-normative: “How can people be attracted to the same sex? It’s not natural because they can’t reproduce. We must find the biological reason for this.”
That has a whole lot of heteronormative assumptions I don’t need to point out.
In using biology as the be all and end all, we ignore the huge complexity of social construction. The collapse of genetic and social ways of knowing is crazy in the idea of a “gay gene.” Aside from anything else, biology has no knowledge of the 20th century Western construct of homosexuality. The study of biology itself, while proclaiming itself a mere method of revealing facts, is actually highly influenced by social categories.
Biological essentialism also precludes criticism of heteronormativity, heterosexuality as an institution and its construction for political and patriarchal purposes. The history of the categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality come from what Foucault calls a “will to knowledge.” Western culture gives priority to scientific investigation, which in the “psy” traditions (psychology, psychiatry) has “researched” sexuality in terms of what constitutes “normal sexual desire.” So these categories allow a binary understanding of normal/abnormal, healthy/pathological. Today we might see a binary of common/different, where heterosexuality is understood as common and homosexuality as different. This may seem kinder than a healthy/pathological binary (even though this absolutely still exists in every “enlightened” city in every Western country, among my friends, families and neighbours). But it stems from the same strange “will to knowledge” and is still about categorising people, finding ways to understand their “inner essence.” So we read behaviours, appearances, desires of people as manifesting some unchanging essence deep inside. Foucault talks about how this “will to knowledge” was all about “discovering” the most intimate details of an individual and extrapolating from those details some overarching narrative.
Judith Butler puts it brilliantly: it is “an illusion discursively maintained for the purposes of the regulation of sexuality within the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality. If the ‘cause’ of desire, gesture, and act can be localised within the ‘self’ of the actor, then the political regulations and disciplinary practices which produce that ostensibly coherent gender are effectively displaced from view.”
Viewing sexuality as located inside an individual lets society off the hook.
I think the categories of heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality reiterate notions of commonness and difference. So, in practical terms, they legitimate a degree of exclusion of queer people, because they are “in the minority.” In political terms, it continues to normalise certain experiences of sex, intimacy and desire, while casting others as “different” if not “deviant.” The classification of sexual desire into categories, as Gail Mason points out, reduces and contains human multiplicities (or differences) to a “tight space.” This then dictates behaviour. She says, “once subjects are seen, and see themselves, in a particular light, their choices, decisions and actions are all affected by the parameters of these identity categories. They adapt to the cultural expectations attached to specific identities and restrict their behaviour accordingly.”
Categories construct margins and a centre. Heterosexuality is given the centre. Everything else is shifted to the margins. Categories of homosexuality and bisexuality make the margins easier to understand. This is why I have great respect for the term “queer” because it is slippery, those in the centre can’t get a grip on it. It is fluid and changeable and not supposed to denote anything except anti-heteronormativity. It says “I won’t define anything for you.” It is not a direct signifier, it shifts between spaces and meanings. All it wants to do is break the rules, assume nothing. It is a radical protest against heteronormativity and does not use the master’s tool of an essentialist collapse of sexuality and identity.
What a social constructionist view of sexuality as culturally produced, and therefore fluid and changeable, allows us to do is to say: heterosexism and heteronormativity are not only unjust and exclusionary because they oppress the LGBTQIA minority, but they are false and they are used as a politically expedient discourse. When a florist says to a man buying roses, “So who’s the lucky girl then?” or when a father says to his daughter “We’ll have to chase the boys away from you!” or when shops advertise “His and Hers” whatever it is, it’s not just an example of stupidity and blindness, it’s reproducing an institutionalised and normalised discourse. It simultaneously confirms heterosexual-identified people’s view of their naturalness (subconsciously – because the whole point of normalised discourse is to make itself invisible) and casts queer people as different. Always, people who have been successfully inducted into heterosexuality have their success reinforced. Always, people who find this discourse of heterosexuality limiting and incongruous to their own experiences of desire and intimacy are cast as different. This is heterosexual privilege and it has social, cultural, economic, psychological, epistemological and all other kinds of benefits.
I don’t think a “that’s okay, it’s who you are!” or a “born this way” argument is sufficient because it lets heterosexuality off the hook. Instead of asking people who find this compulsory heterosexuality too much to deal with to “come out,” we should ask that heterosexuality look at itself. It should look at how it has been socially constructed, institutionalised, normalised. Basically, people who identify as heterosexual should “come out.”
Maybe then we will really get somewhere towards understanding the complexity of desire, behaviour, relationality and intimacy. Maybe then we will move away from this discourse of sexuality that dictates what we wear, who we speak to, how we conceive of our futures, who we value most, who we invite to formal events, how we raise our kids. Maybe then we can take each experience and social situation at a time, taking each intimacy on its own terms, rather than seeking out intimacies based on predetermined categories. Because guess what? We were not born into those categories.