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07 March, 2012

Sexuality, Identity, and Category Construction: Part II

Where I End and You Begin.

In my last post, I presented the idea that categories like "gay", "male", "straight", and basically everything else, are not necessarily identical with natural categories, but are instead contingent on a certain roll of history's dice. That makes all kinds of problems for the "born this way" argument, but that argument was always a terrible one. Part II of the post cracks open a couple of categories (because I demand evidence from people, so I prefer to offer examples when I make a claim) and elaborates on why they are utter tosh and should be pretty much be tossed out into the compost like month-old lettuce. (Protip: I'm exaggerating, and I'm probably going to end up making a counterargument. So don't fret too much.)

For me, it's easiest to see both how these categories are false and how they're harmful when we look at gender. (Or you can skip this section and just read this article.) At any given place and era, there tend to be gender-based conventions, but these conventions change over time -- even within the culture of a given group. Pink used to be for little boys, and blue for little girls, in my culture's past, and you probably already know that skirts and long hair have been signals of masculinity at times, while in the culture that surrounds me, there are SO MANY DUDES with short hair. (Guys, what is the deal? Do you like it when people think you're in the military?) Unfortunately, I'm writing from within a culture where, although there have been plenty of different female tropes, I can't talk to the same extent about the great historical varieties in female norms because oppression is kind of a real thing: isn't great how you can be an innocent little girl, a sexy young woman, a mother, and then either wise, controlling, or completely ignored? (Protip #2: It's not that great for everyone.) I exaggerate, but only somewhat: as with men, there are heaps of both positive and negative tropes for women, but I'm less interested in tropes and more in seeing all people treated as complex humans.

Looking at a range of cultures definitely helps to expose the ubiquity of diversity. I'm especially keen to draw attention to the role of knowledgeable women in the various religions and cultures suppressed or consumed by Christianity and other cultural juggernauts with an investment in male power.1 Is it wrong of me to think that crushing knowledge, power, and difference in both rural, property-poor communities and individual knowledgeable or powerful women would have been goals of resource-rich patriarchal organizations like Church and Throne? I'm looking around and asking where the heck those pagans went. Hey Romans, did you see where they went? The Greeks whose culture you appropriated were pagans, right, and the Goths, or maybe the Vand-- wait, Romans? Oh. I guess that's what the Goths were up to.

...So hey, Christianity, you seen any of those pagans around? Oh no, you're too busy being appropriated by the power apparatus of the Roman Empire.

Digressions about gender politics and belief/power complexes aside, it's clear that there have been multiple masculinities and multiple femininities at various times and places, and even variation within a given time and place. No doubt part of that is born of necessity, given that birth control was unsafe or nonexistent in many places and times (making everyone's reproductive equipment of huge social importance -- that stuff could get you into TROUBLE!); now, however, that era is ending. It's clear also that there are in many cultures lines drawn along boundaries that are not binary. Now, take a look out the window and notice how people are socially (and in some cases legally, or violently, or pick-your-poison-ly) punished for not conforming to local gender norms. Look especially at children: childhood bullying, and complacency about bullying, are the soil in which shame-enforced conformity is planted and makes its hideous fungal blossom. How many of the women you know would wear a short skirt with unshaven legs? More than zero, I hope. How many would wear a bikini without thinking about their pubic hair? What do people say about a man who likes to shave his legs when he wears a skirt? How do young boys treat each other when they catch someone enjoying the wrong toys?

Are you noticing the thought control that's happening on the playground? Children are -- but they don't have enough context and experience to know that the bullies aren't right.

We haven't kept all of the medicalized categories from the Victorian era -- where is the Onanist these days, I ask you? -- but what we appear to have kept for long ages is a tendency to create categories, and to essentialize, even in our arguments for legitimacy -- that is, to say "This thing is a definitional (maybe even biologically determined) part of me, and you can't argue with that." In categories like gender, we can see how collections of traits can get lumped together in a single category and treated, perhaps because of this essentializing trend, as a unit (which is how we get problems like effeminate men suffering from homophobia and gay men suffering from misogyny). It's obvious after a little research that any given instance of those collected traits, any given culture's set of gender norms, is at least partially arbitrary, but that doesn't seem to stop the phenomenon. Compare the rhetorical positions that we've seen lately, like the fact that "just a phase" is on the dismissive side and "born this way" is used as a tactic to seek validation. These rhetorical moves expose an underlying assumption: that a trait's being essential to one's personality has a bearing on civil rights; that what is biologically determined is fixed at birth, as the excitement over "gay gene" studies suggests (Protip #3: that's an assumption, not an established fact: genes can express in different ways within a single person as one's situation changes); and that either being fixed/essential, being biologically determined and thus "not my choice", or both of those things together somehow validate a person's right to freedom of association. Given that line of argument, many people might infer that if a difference isn't natural, or if it isn't fixed and essential to a person, that difference is somehow less valid.

What if it is just a phase? What if one wants to get it on in a way that's associated with some existing category, but doesn't think that that category really fits in the long run? (Can you be a man who has sex with men and call yourself straight, or at least, not call yourself queer? What are the consequences of doing that?)

Here's one of my problems with any narrative that relies on the idea that sexual identity is an essential trait, or on the idea that what's natural is somehow more valid than what's chosen. Even if someone uses those tactics to make it safe to live one kind of life, to win validation for a new normative category and step inside the golden circle (c.f. same-sex marriage), those tactics perpetuate exactly the same problem that makes heteronormativity a problem in the first place. I mean, DUH, right, but apparently someone has to point this out to people because God lost the memo where we're supposed to be born knowing everything.2

It seems to me, in light of the experiences I've had thus far, that the root problem behind bullying, behind internalized psychological trauma, behind so much of the strife and questioning and pain that many of us experience while we try to fit in or to figure out why we can't, isn't the particular norms that our society has enshrined: it's at least in part the fact that there are any normative categories at all. The fact that sexuality is treated as an item of identity rather than as a thing that people can do or not do at their own discretion; the fact that people are creating categories for each other and that we consciously or unthinkingly impose our assumptions about what works for us onto other people; that is, in my opinion, the root of evil that we ought really to be pulling up. There's nothing wrong with the type of relationship that we call "straight"; the problem is that we call it "straight" in contrast to some Other way of life that's bent by comparison. When our understanding of sexuality is built on rigid categories, there will always be some individual experience that falls outside the categories' lines and seem bent out of line by comparison.

Now, coming again to the coda that ended my last post, here's the problem that puts me in a bind. There are so many categories of difference that have existed for ages but whose members have to teach people about their very existence. At least, when there's a category label, people have a way to begin conceptualizing that the difference can exist. And, when one has been pushed to the margins, having that name provides a banner around which to rally. What will be necessary if we want to use labels safely? If not for these labels, would marginalized groups be able to make themselves recognized in the first place?

Should anyone need to?

Put this on hold for now. To Be Continued in "Part III: Where Do We Go From Here?" Expect a parade. 76 bloody trombones.


1: I dare you to track down that citation. I double dog dare you. I dodecadolphin dare you!

2: jk, there's no God.3

3: Of course, that depends on your definitions. More on that later, when I come back to Paul and the appropriative Romans.4

4: That would be a great name for a rock band.

Edited to link to a woman's opinion on tropes about women, because I'm basically a dude, so.

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