National Chi Nan University, Taiwan
Transnational gay identities exist in a variety of contacts and exchanges crossing national, cultural and linguistic boundaries. This is the “gay global village,” or the homosexual subculture that has emerged over the past forty decades as a transnational, political, cultural, and social phenomenon. The asymmetry of this identity reveals that gay subjectivity is not a byproduct of western hegemony since gay identities exist in diverse settings alongside the scaffolding of identity politics that may or may not operate under the aegis of western liberalism. The animus of this research is to illustrate the continuum that gays and lesbians have traversed in their quest for recognition, tolerance and rights, and to show that they are now on the cusp of a future ‘state of becoming’ as theorized by Michel Foucault. A secondary goal of this research is to provide an overview of gay studies and to explore the relationship of globalization to gay empowerment, revisiting certain milestones in the history of the gay and lesbian movement. It is understood that the recognition of a “gay global village” does not indicate an end to homophobia, but it is hoped that this work will assist in the further valorization of a joyful global gay identity.
Keywords: transnational; queer, cultural imperialism, hegemony, nexus, post-modern, sexual dualism, gay empowerment, gay rhetoric, sexual colonialism, sexual identity formation, homosexual subjectivity
“To be gay is to be in a state of becoming.” (Foucault, 1982)
Gay culture is basking in the sunlight of modernity. If modernity is all about change then the post-modern context has, in pertinent ways, largely benefited gay identity. Tradition is giving way to change everywhere people gather today. There can be no better example of this than the growing acceptance of gay marriage. As societies experience this tremendous change and traditions fade, people are beginning to show increased tolerance of alternative lifestyles. Cultures that once looked with opprobrium upon same-sex attraction are now granting, even if only begrudgingly, inclusion within the general polity. Although the terrain of sexual politics at the dawn of the new millennium is just as complex and contested a domain as it has ever been, change has furthered understanding and acceptance of gay identities (Porter, Hall, 1995).
The transnational nexus of gay culture, dubbed the “gay global village” represents a long and twisting trajectory of advancement away from viewing homosexuality as a “diagnosis” and towards viewing it as a “community” (White, 1988 p. 183). The struggle for inclusion with the dominant culture is culminating in a time of extraordinary possibility for gays and lesbians.
The state of dislocation
How can we begin to understand modern culture if, as Ernest Lacau (1990) states, modern societies have no center and no great articulating principle at their core? If post-modernity has brought us to what he calls a “dislocation” which causes us to experience life without a single unifying cause, could this condition be interpreted as useful or positive for gays and lesbians?
The nexus of transnational gay identities and the existence of the global gay culture suggest that gays, lesbians and trans-gendered people have first-hand experience with dislocation. They have deeply personal experiences with dislocating identities because they have had to survive in a world that has, until only very recently, decried their sexual orientation as abnormal. Gays and lesbians have had to develop their identity and culture surreptitiously in the shadows of the dominant heterosexual culture; in less enlightened times, gays lived their lives hiding ‘in the closet’ and often passed for heterosexuals, although throughout the centuries gays and lesbians have played the game of ‘in and out’ according to the prevailing mood of the dominant culture they reside in.
Louis Crompton, writing in Homosexuality and Civilization, makes the case that the concept of same-sex orientation or identity is not uniquely modern. He writes that Aristophanes expressed it frankly in the Symposium, and the Romans used it in a limited sense in their concepts of the “sinaedus” (faggot), who was a distinct kind of person. He argues that the history of civilization reveals how differently homosexuals have been perceived and judged at different times in different cultures (Compton, 2003).
Yet behind these varied and conflicting views was a commonality. Whatever the vocabulary, two elements are present – the sexual fact and the possibility of human love and devotion. For many centuries in Europe, homosexuality was conceived principally as certain kinds of sexual acts. This was because it was viewed theologically and in the light of the legal system this theology spawned – that is, as a sin and a capital crime. But we must not be complicit in this dehumanization. These “sodomites” were human beings with whom the modern gay man may claim brotherhood and the modern lesbian recognize as sisters (Compton, p. xiv).
Contemporary gay culture has a strong link to the struggles in its past, but it owes much to the post-modern conditions of flux and flow that globalization has wrought. The borders of all nation states, save a very few, are permeated by what Zygman Bauman calls “liquid modernity” (Bauman, 2001). Most cultures of the world are now feeling the repeated pounding of the waves of global capital, media and electronic information upon their shores. This brings change to all cultures wherever they are situated. The cresting of the waves of change have altered history; and although history has not yet met its ‘end’ a la Francis Fukuyama’s famous postulation, some things are indeed seeing their final days (Fukuyama, 1986).
Mary McIntosh in her 1961 article, “The Homosexual Role” further explored the point that historical and anthropological evidence reveals that homosexual acts and orientations are understood in different ways across time and place. McIntosh suggested that the homosexual should be seen as playing a social role rather than as having a condition. She stated that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ were not polarized categories.
…..given the immense diversity in people who experience same-sex desire (and in the practices they enjoy) ….. the important thing to study is not some biological dysfunction which they all shared but how the social creation of “homosexuality”, as a stigmatized identity, maintains heterosexual norms and institutions – keeping the bulk of society pure (Woodward, 1997; McIntosh, 1981/1968, p. 32).
Could globalization be altering homophobia? Might this be a change in attitudes that gays and lesbians could never have imagined in former eras? This remains to be seen, but one can certainly see that change has allowed gays and lesbians greater visibility than ever before and one ‘ending’ that few in the gay and lesbian community will lament is the demise of hetero-normative and patriarchal traditions demanding that gays be invisible.
The state of expansion
As information and finance circle the globe and as the influence of the nation state fades, the awareness of gay identities is expanding exponentially. As the cultural and political connections of gay and lesbians expand worldwide, the need for academic scrutiny also expands. Grewal and Kaplan, writing in Global Identities: Theorizing Transnational Studies of Sexuality, agree that modernity has caused a shift from the local to the global and they equate this shift to the rise of capitalism.
Just as goods and people come to circulate in new ways, so too identities emerge and come into specific relations of circulation and expansion (Gewal, Kaplan, 2001, p. 663).
They posit that within the contemporary framework of globalization sexual identities are no different from other identities in that they are “imbued with power relations.” They suggest that the politically progressive study of sexuality that emerged in the twentieth century as a result of identity politics and social movements has ‘gone global’ but they caution us to carefully scrutinize the correlation between culture and globalization.
In many works on globalization, the “global” is seen either as a homogenizing influence or as a neo-colonial movement of ideas and capital from West to non-West. Debates on the nature of global identities have suggested the inadequacy of understanding globalization simply through political economy or through theories of “Western” cultural imperialism and have pushed us to probe further the relationship between globalization and culture (Grewal, Kaplan; 2001; p. 663).
The scholarship of queer theory, which has emerged as a variant in studies of sexual identity, is also now international. Making their case for the need of a more careful critique of sexual identities alongside modernity Grewal and Kaplan suggest that the “globalization of sexual identities” and identity politics in the twentieth century advanced alongside the rise of ethnic and postcolonial studies and the growing emphasis on diaspora in American studies. They see the term ‘transnational’ as “getting to the specifics of sexualities in post-modernity” (Grewal, Kaplan, 2001).
They suggest that in order to explore the nature of sexual identity in the current phase of globalization we ought to clarify what we mean by ‘transnational’ since the term is now ubiquitous in academic circles. They identify primary ways in which the term does a particular kind of work in the U.S. academy. The first use that they identify is that it circulates widely as a description of migration in the present time.
This point is echoed in research by Carl Stychin whose analysis of gay migration in ‘A Stranger to its Laws: Sovereign Bodies, Global Sexualities, and Transnational Citizens’ shows that mobility has been a powerful dimension in the construction of the lesbian and gay subject. He writes that while movement across national borders has historically produced anxieties within the nation state, these “have been articulated to highly sexualized discourses deployed in part in order to control and curtail mobility, not only of sexual dissidents, but of a wide range of people” (Stychin, 2000).
The second use of the word transnational identified by Grewal and Kaplan is to signal the “demise or irrelevance” of the nation-state in the current phase of globalization. The suggestion is that cultures, in a world grown increasingly borderless, are more relevant than nations and that “identities are linked to cultures more than to nations or to the institutions of the nation-state” (Grewal and Kaplan, p. 665). They write that the predominance of the “borderless world” argument might allow the concept of transnational to disconnect from the postcolonial state because it “erases political economy as well as new forms of governmentality.”
The writers question if the rise of identity studies coincides with the phenomenon of globalization and whether or not the interest in identity studies can be attributed in part to the shifts in culture that appear to be a-historical. They aver that ‘transnational’ signals what has been called the “NGOization of social movements” (p. 666).
Our point is that sexual subjects are produced not just by the politics of identity or social movements but by the links between various institutions that accompany these social movements. Furthermore, we need to probe these connections and circuits to see how identities are upheld or made possible by institutions linked to the state (Grewal, Kaplan, p. 672).
Academy’s Three Disciplinary Divides
They suggest that it is problematic that in much work on sexual identities the state seldom has a hand in “enabling” these identities. In their view, most discussions of the state seldom focus on gay resistance to state-sanctioned heterosexism. They also argue for connecting questions of trans-nationalism to the feminist study of sexuality. They call for a closer scrutiny of the way in which sexuality has been studied and cite that many scholars working on sexuality have begun to identity how separate spheres of study have arisen as a result of the disciplinary divides in the U.S. academy. They identify three divides in academy:
The first divide is the separation of sexuality from the study of race, class, nation, religion, and so on.
We have to turn to the rise of biomedicine and the emergence of eugenics, gynecology, endocrinology, genetics, and psychology to understand fully the social and political stakes in viewing sexuality as distance from race, class, nation, and other factors in modernity. Gender and sexual difference have become understood as attributes of bodies unmarked in any other way, despite copious evidence that all of these modern identities are interconnected. The binary gender model is so pervasive and universalized that it has become naturalized. In most queer studies in the United States, destabilization of gender binarism seems to remain in the zone of gender permutation or diversity rather than including considerations of histories of political economies and forms of governmentality (p. 667).
Grewal and Kaplan state that they are not arguing that cultural specificity leads to complete difference. They say that their purpose is to “add to this model of cultural difference as a consideration of power, history, and analyses of contact and change” (p. 667). For example, they suggest that if we can argue that historical analysis shows us that concepts of gender difference in medieval China were quite different from those in medieval Islamic cultures, then we can “begin to understand that the legacies of these traditions with attendant identities and practices produce new kinds of subjects in the present moment” (p. 667).
They also suggest that in the study of sexuality in a transnational framework, we need “a mapping of different medical traditions, concepts of the body, scientific discourses, and last but not least, political economies of the family” (p. 667).
The second instance of separated spheres of study examined by the writers is the demarcation of international area studies from American studies. They cite Tani E. Barlow’s argument that the study of international areas was “implicated in the production of Cold War cultural and political knowledge about other cultures and nations” (Barlow, 1993). They believe that the consequence of these divisions has been that “comparative work in international area studies and American studies remains bound by the nation state” (p. 668). They say that the “changing nature of migrations, global flows of media, and capital demand a different notion of transdiciplinary scholarship” (p. 669).
How does the institutional divide between international area studies and American studies affect contemporary studies of sexuality? The academic study of sexuality that can be linked to the emergence of gay and lesbian politics of identity and new queer formations has focused on U.S. and European examples, with the primary emphasis on white, middle-class life (p. 669).
Thus, they affirm that a divide exists between a sexuality-based queer culture or identity and one that is based on race or class or ethnicity. They characterized the third divide as the “tradition-modernity” split. They note that nationalistic bias is geopolitics that contributes to this binary formation in the United States and Europe where these cultures are “figured as modern and thus as the sites of progressive social movements, while other parts of the world are presumed to be traditional, especially in regard to sexuality” (p. 669).
If any countries or nations depart from this model, it is because they are interpellated by “primitivism.” In general, the United States and Europe come to be seen as unified sites of “freedom” and “democratic choice” over and against locations characterized by oppression” (p. 669).
The writers believe that we should not think of sexual subjects as “purely oppositional” or always resistant to the dominant hetero-normative institutions. They affirm that universalized models of resistance with “idealized tropes” or the politics of identity “obscure rather than elucidate the terrain of subjectivity in post-modernity” (p. 670).
They conclude by making a call for more interdisciplinary work within the U.S. academy in the fields of global and transnational studies and within the fields of sexuality, gender, women’s, ethnic, and cultural studies. This interdisciplinary work will enable us to understand global identities at the present time and to examine “complicities as well as resistances in order to create the possibility of critique and change” (p. 675).
Achieving a greater awareness of these complicities and resistances to global identities will certainly require astute critique. This change is already upon us. Change and critique, flux and flow, this is a mantra for our times; it appears as a recurring theme in the study of transnational gay identity. The most salient point about post-modern reality can’t be denied -- everything is in a state of flux and flow; life’s only constant is change. Modernity has brought change to the far-flung corners of the globe once secluded by space and time but now, if lucky, connecting them to the network of global capital. There are few spaces left today in the world that have not been altered by the sped- up-pace of change that is connecting and transforming all societies.
Indeed, if we are ever going to unravel the power relations of sexual identities or if scholarship and academic dialogue is going to effectively contribute to the construction of a bridge from academic theory to the recognition of cultural history, we need what Foucault called a “correlation between fields of knowledge, types of normativity, and forms of subjectivity in a particular culture” (Foucault, 1986).
This has, of course, been a slow social process of assimilation and integration occurring over many decades. The writer Michel Bronski suggests in his analysis of the interactions of gay subculture with the patriarchal heterosexuality of America, that the interaction of a sub or counter culture with the rest of society is a complex, political process. He states that the overriding presumptions of the dominant culture affect the alternative culture by limiting it, restricting it, and restraining it, but the subculture always finds ways to respond to this repression.
It hides, recreates itself, takes secret or coded forms, and regroups to survive. The existence of an alternative homosexual culture also affects prevailing cultural norms (Bronski, 1984, p. 3).
Gone is that repressive American way of life for gays and lesbians that Bronski describes as being portrayed by the mass media in the 1950s and 1960s as “white, middle class, and decidedly heterosexual.
In America, there were no people of color, no poor, and most certainly no gay people. This lie of American social life was accepted and reinforced by books, movies, magazines, and television. The real social framework of America had roots in diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic, gender, and class identified groups, but who is accepted or excluded from the prevailing ideology – and why – is subject of many variables (Bronski, 1984, p. 3).
Bronski, explains that the integration of the gay counter culture with the dominant culture in the U.S.A. was an ongoing, secret, process dating back 100 years but that one signal event, the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, established a homosexual militancy and identity in the public imagination that was “startling and deeply threatening.”
The Stonewall riots produced not only a movement which demanded complete civil rights for gay people, but also a social network which spread the once clandestine world of gay culture. No longer dependent upon a secretive underground of the assimilation of gay sensibility into mainstream culture, gay people built their own cultural resources. Publishing houses, record companies, theatre groups, community-based newspapers, and magazines. All this meant the distribution of gay culture was in the hands of gay people. For the first time, the gay community gained control over its portrayal and self-image. This power was an important element in the coalescing of a political and cultural community which functioned autonomously, without interference from the outside (Bronski, 1984, pg. 202).
Bronski looks at the gay liberation movement and concludes that its presence in the culture has demanded not only that the left broaden its definition of “political” but also that the very structure of sexual desire itself be examined. He adds that this has not been without a struggle (p. 203).
Because homosexuality cuts across lines of class and race, the gay community has had to approach these divisions non-traditionally and creatively. Gay liberation, by politicizing sexuality, cut through many obstacles which often presented themselves to a political critique, such as “ranking of oppressions” among race, gender, and class. While some members of the gay community are not oppressed by their gender, race, or class, all are oppressed by the orientation of their sexual desire (p. 203).
Bronski affirms that gay liberation goes to the heart of all that separates us. He believes that North American culture puts a lot of energy into separating people’s feelings from their ideas and their lives.
We have denied the connections between our minds and our bodies in the realms of work, politics, culture, and sometimes even in the realm of sexual activity itself. When the denial has ceased, when those connections are made, people’s politics, feelings, experiences, and lives will be whole and their capacity for expanding their lives will be increased (p. 213).
The state of transformation
Whether or not globalization is truly melding the mind and the heart is open to debate but few could deny that it has brought on an explosion in gay and lesbian commercial visibility. What seems clear is that there is a complex relationship of contemporary homosexual subjectivity to capitalism and commodification (Champagne, 2008).
Champagne ponders the veracity of a gay global rhetoric placing it alongside the scrutiny of current theorization, but also cautions us not to think of ‘transnational’ a synonym for Anglo-American but briefly reiterates a familiar narrative – that of the white, middleclass Western homosexual male straying from the repressive conditions of his homeland in search of “both self and other” citing the examples of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin, Paul Monette in Greece, Andre Gide in Algeria, and E.M. Forster in Alexandria. Champaign says that this list of privileged Western gay men dabbling in the overseas gay tourist trade “reminds us of the role imperialism and tourism have played in the articulation of a so-called global gay rhetoric” (Champagne, 2008).
Champagne avers that if there indeed is a transnational gay rhetoric that it must be theorized alongside global capitalism. He suggests that this line of exploration raises a “complex relationship of modern gay culture to capitalism,” further theorizing that gay subjects have a vexing relationship to capitalism.
…while capitalism is one of the preconditions of a modern gay identity, it also works to “manage” that identity in its own interests, and often in opposition to those of real human beings” (Champagne, 2008).
Champagne cites John D’Emilo’s watershed “Capitalism and Gay Identity” which also associates the emergence of gay and lesbian subjects with the historical development of capitalism and the free-labor system, stating that this has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late twentieth century to call themselves gay (D’Emilio, 1992).
D’Emilo postulates that capitalism’s continuing expansion has been accompanied by an expansion of free labor system and a diminishing of the importance of the family as an economic unit. He also suggests that as the institution of wage-labor has spread, some subjects have been capable of freeing themselves from economic dependency on the family, and have been able to set up alternative kinds of households. He concludes that over time the family has gradually lost its status as a unit of production.
In divesting the (family) household of its economic independence and fostering separation of sexuality from procreation, capitalism has created conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex. It has made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on sexual identity (D’Emilio, p.7).
Theorist Nicola Field, writing about the polarization of gay politics in Over the Rainbow, Money, Class and Homophobia, says that gay commercial viability exploded in the 1990s. The pink pound and dollar gained increasing credibility and influence in the marketplace in urban centers in the U.S.A., Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia with a new generation of magazines, books, bars, cafes, shops, and clubs coming onto the scene to cater to an up-market clientele (Field, 1995).
She writes that a “designer gay lifestyle and an off-the-peg social identity” was on sale. London had outstripped Amsterdam and Berlin to become the gay capital of Europe, offering a “dazzling array of nightlife venues as well as clutches of sophisticated cafes to while away the hours between bouts of shopping and personal beautification” (Field, p. 1).
For liberal journalists and program makers, ‘gay’ is a fashion item, bringing with it a touch of sophistication and street credibility. It seems anyone – from police officers to Shakespearean actors – is coming out of the closet and into the public eye (Field, p. 1).
Field questions if the investment by the greater society into the pink economy really means gay oppression is falling away.
Meanwhile, however, ‘family values’ are on the rise and morality is gaining ascendancy. The rise of the ultra-right fascist organizations, unchecked by states or governments, is precipitating an atmosphere of terror amongst gays and black people. Violent homophobic attacks are on the increase. Lesbians and gays are still losing custody of their children because their sexuality is regarded as making them ‘unfit’ parents. (Field, p. 1).
Field laments the increasing commercialization of gay life believing that it leads to the promotion of the idea of ‘us and them’ and fosters the notion of a gay community held together by a shared sexuality regardless of differing class interests and varying social relationships. She believes that this shared sexuality has “developed into a cultural code for shared consumer taste” as well as a “predilection for certain forms of art, décor, clothing, food, and drink” (Field, p. 37).
This concept of separateness has a two-fold political repercussion. First, it means that here is a clear-cut gay market demarcation, ever-ready for penetration by a business class (made up of gay or straight individuals) wishing to capture the pink market. Second, it has led to a straightening and reduction of the vision of gay liberation into a lukewarm set of meager sing-issue demands which reflect the every few common interests of a fictional cross-class ‘community’. (Field, p. 37).
Field suggests that what often passes for a gay lifestyle “is in fact a distilled replica of traditional middle-class lifestyle” (Field, p. 37).
The penetration of the gay lifestyle by the business class and the punch of the pink pound is further represented by the emergence of Sydney as the gay capital of the South Pacific and its importance to lesbian and gay tourism due to the growth and development of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras has grown into a three-week international cultural festival that is estimated to have generated some AU $99 million (U.S. $55 million) in 1998 (Markwell, 2002).
Markwell suggests that while Mardi Gras may be a uniquely Australian version of what elsewhere are ‘gay pride parades’ it is now “inextricably framed within a global gay and lesbian tourism industry that demands spectacle, consumption of experience, and that requires considerable corporate sponsorship” (Altmen, 1997; Markwell, p. 85). Anyone doubting the heavy duty impact of gay commerce could be characterized as having a serious case of denial, considering the stir that was caused on Wall Street in 2004 when the San-Francisco-based Internet company, PlanetOut, marked a “cultural milestone” by becoming the first gay directed business to trade its stock on a public exchange (Leff, 2004). PlanetOut, a business operating several gay and lesbian-themed Web sites, made an initial public stock offering of 4.65 million shares on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The shares gained 16% on the first day of trading.
Walter Schubert, a stockbroker who founded Gay Financial Network, says that while businesses catering to gay clientele have appeared on the Australian Stock Exchange and smaller markets, PlanetOut “broke new ground by meeting the requirements for longevity and stability to get listed on Nasdaq” (Leff, 2004). It was reported that PlanetOut stated in its prospectus filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it hoped to raise $39 million through the Initial Public Offering (IPO) and use this money to bolster traffic at its Web portals, raise the number of its subscribers using its fee-based service for personal ads, and expanding into more countries.
PlanetOut made its debut on the Microsoft Network in 1995 and since then has sought to become the flagship of the gay global village (Lewis, 1995). The business was launched when Out magazine did a survey indicating that lesbians and gay men are more likely than the general public to use personal computers, modems and on-line services at home. PlanetOut was envisioned as both a potentially powerful global marketing force and as a gathering point for millions of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transvestites and others who may be reluctant to associate openly in public. (Lewis, 1995)
In an interview with the New York Times, Hugh Dubberly, creative director at Netscape Communications Corporation, said that meeting and chatting electronically with gay men and lesbians on American Online gave him the courage to discuss his homosexuality publicly. Mr. Dubberly, a former head of Apple Computer Inc. said that it was something that would have previously been unthinkable for him.
If I had relied on more traditional ways of meeting people, like going to bars, or going to meetings of various organizations, or picking up gay publications, it never would have happened (Lewis, 1995).
Lewis reports that there are no undisputed measures of the gay market however, according to Russel Siegelman, general manager of Microsoft Network, “the gay community has always been one of the most active groups on line.” He writes that in an average month in 1995 40,000 individuals spent a total of more than 100,000 connected to the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum on America Online Inc., which was the first major service to create a forum for gays and lesbians.
A state of integration
It is nothing less than remarkable that the gay movement has managed to transform itself over the past two decades from an environment of death and shame in the era of AIDS to the global marketing force that it is today. Prowess with global capital is one aspect of gay identity in the global economy but some scholars question whether sexual and gender identity are the solid platforms that they are thought to be. In an examination of queer theory and a review of identity categories employing academic “constructionist” thinking, Joshua Gamson, calls for a closer look at identity boundaries in Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct? A Queer Dilemma. He arguesthat queerness in its most distinctive forms “shakes the ground on which gay and lesbian politics has been built.” He states that the fixed identity categories of “gay” and “lesbian” and “sexual minority” or even “gay community” are both the basis of political power and of oppression. (p. 390)
It builds on central difficulties of identity-based organizing: the instability of identities both individual and collective, their made-up yet necessary character. It exaggerates and explodes these troubles, haphazardly attempting to build a politics from the rubble of deconstructed collective categories (Gramson, p. 390).
Gramson points to the debate in the gay and lesbian politics over the use of the term “queer” and to the viability and political usefulness of sexual identity. He concedes that, on one hand, gay men and lesbians have made themselves an effective force in the U.S.A. by giving themselves what civil rights movements had: a public collective identity.
Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and cultural 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 the minority rights claims – is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is the denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethnic/essentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain (Gamson, p. 391).
The constructionist view does not see sexual identity as natural or “intrapsychic” but as a historical and social product.
It is socially produced binaries (gay/straight/, man/woman) that are the basis of oppression; fluid, unstable experiences of self become fixed primarily in the service of social control. Disrupting those categories, refusing rather than embracing ethnic minority status, is the key to liberation. In the deconstructionist politic, clear collective categories are an obstacle to resistance and change (Gamson, p. 391).
Gramson writes that the challenge for analysts is not to “determine which position is accurate, but to cope with the fact that both logics makes sense,” (p. 391) He states that queerness highlights the dilemma shared by other identity movements which is that fixed identity categories are “both the basis for oppression and the basis for political power” (Gramson, p. 391).
He wonders what happens to identity-based social movements if identities are more unstable, fluid and constructed than movements have tended to assume. He ponders the question if sociopolitical struggles articulated through identity eventually undermine themselves.
Gramson argues for a more developed theory of collective identity formation citing how social movement researchers have only recently begun treating collective identity construction as an important and problematic movement activity and a significant subject of study (Gramson, p. 392). He points to models of collective identity that conceptualize it as “a continual process of re-composition rather than a given,” or as a “dynamic, emergent aspect of collective action” (Schlesinger 1987:237; Gramson 392).
Gramson defines collective identity as a “status” or a “set of attitudes, commitments, and rules for behavior – that those who assume the identity can be expected to subscribe to,” (p. 392) and says that the ultimate challenge for the gay and lesbian community is “not just the questioning of the content of collective identities, but the questioning of the unity, stability, viability, and political utility of sexual identities – even as they are use and assumed” (p. 397).
At their most basic, queer controversies and battles over identity and naming (who I am, who we are). Which words capture us and when do words fail us? Words, and the “us” they name, seem to be in critical flux (Gramson, 397).
He sees the construction of gays and lesbians into a single community united by “fixed erotic fates” as the process of simplifying complex internal differences and complex sexual identities (p. 400) and he characterizes deconstructive strategies as “deaf and blind to the concrete and violent institutional forums to which the most logical answer is resistance in and through a particular collective identity” (p. 400).
Gramson calls for a novel way of understanding and evaluating social movements – one in which collective identity is both pillaged and deployed. He believes this implies the necessity to reconnect a critique of identity to the embodied political forces that make collective identity necessary and meaningful, and also to reconnect a critique of regulatory institutions to the less tangible categories of meaning that maintain and reproduce them. (p. 402)
A state of becoming
In a deeply personal speech entitled Gay Identity After Foucault (L’identite gay pres Foucault) delivered on the eve of Europride ’98 at the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris, David Halperin spoke of the trans-formative potential in gay and lesbian life and urged contemporary gays and lesbians to reflect on the meaning of their identity, but also cautioned that this reflection could take one to an impasse for gay identity has “long since become entirely and impossibly paradoxical.”
Halperin sees gay identity as both politically indispensable and politically catastrophic. He describes it as “absolutely necessary, essential and crucial” because it is perennially threatened by denial, refusal, suppression, and “invisibilization”.
And so it is always and everywhere important to insist on gay identity at all costs, to claim it and affirm it, over and over again, precisely because it is continually treated as something shameful, deviant, pathological, and out of place. But gay identity is also dangerous, even treacherous. It is an identity which must be ceaselessly resisted and rejected, precisely because it normalizes and polices sexuality, because it functions to contain sexual and social difference, both in heteronormative culture at large and in lesbian and gay culture in particular. It is a politically catastrophic identity insofar as it enables society serenely to manage sexual diversity and in fact to stabilize and consolidate heterosexual identity itself (which would be a much more fluid, unstable, and insecure entity without gay identity to shore it up (Halperin, D., 1997,no page number).
Halperin conjectures that one of the most distinctive dimensions of gay culture has been its constant self-criticism and reevaluation of what it means to be gay. In this sense, gay identity has always been a critical identity, never taken for granted for very long, always interrogated, and constantly contested by gay people themselves.
He states the France’s most distinguished example of this tradition of gay auto-critique is found in the work of Michel Foucault. It is evident in Foucault’s published work on the history of sexuality, but more evident, he suggests, in Foucault’s interviews with the gay press. Speaking to Jean Le Bitoux in 1978, Foucault suggested taking a step back:
…. a kind of step back which does not mean a retreat, but means rather a chance to address the situation in more general terms. We’ll need to ask ourselves, ‘What, really, is this notion of sexuality?” Because, even it is has enable us to fight, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also carry with it a number of dangers. There is an entire psychologism of sexuality, an entire biologism of sexuality, and therefore an entire stranglehold that can be exerted on this sexuality by doctors, by psychologists, by various agencies of normalization. Shouldn’t we then champion against this medico-biologic-naturalist notion of sexuality some alternate possibility? The right to pleasure, for example (Halperin, D., 1997,no page number)?
Halperin points out that Foucault made it clear that the point of critiquing gay identity was not to disqualify it, or to do away with sexual labels altogether, or to advocate some avant-garde suspension of all sexual meaning and all sexual categories.
“Rather the point of critiquing gay identity was to open the way to the formation new multiplicities of gay identities which the insistence on a singular, already established and defined gay identity served to impede.”
Halperin writes that Foucault told the members of the Gai pied in 1981 that “homosexuality is a historic opportunity to open up new relational and affective potentialities (virtualities).” He states that Foucault saw homosexuality as a strategically situated marginal position from which it might be possible to glimpse and to devise new ways of relating to oneself and to others. “To be gay is to be in a state of becoming,” Foucault explained in 1982.
“The point is not to be homosexual but to keep working persistently at being gay … to place oneself in a dimension where the sexual choices one makes are present and have their effects on the ensemble of our life. … These sexual choices ought to be at the same time creators of ways of life. To be gay signifies that these choices diffuse themselves across the entire life; it is also a certain manner of refusing the modes of life offered; it is to make a sexual choice into the impetus for a change of existence (Halperin, D., 1997,no page number).
Halperin interprets this as meaning that that homosexuality is not a psychological condition that we discover but a way of being that we practice in order to “redefine the meaning of who we are and what we do – and in order to make ourselves and our world more gay.” (Haperin, 1998)
Halperin states that Foucault’s stress on being instead of becoming helps us to recognize the purpose and the point of gay resistance to gay identity. He sees Foucault’s critique as prevention against gay identification as becoming an obstacle to the formation of new identities, new modes of existence, and new cultural forms. The ultimate effect of Foucault’s intervention, states Halperin, is to “warn us against accepting gay identity as a thing, already in existence, and to urge us to see it as something desirable that remains to be created and recreated, a placeholder for a future identity still to be constructed.”
Has everyone now experiencing the gay global village reached Foucault’s state of becoming, which we could say is the apex point in the continuum of gay subjectivity? A cross-cultural anthropology -- which this work does not purport to be -- would likely show that this is not true for everyone; all identities within the transnational gay nexus, are at different stages of development and at different levels of awareness, just as are all identities falling within the parameters of hetero-normative experience. Not everyone inhabiting the gay global village experiences the same level of tolerance and freedom. Economic status and class have a lot to do with one’s level of freedom and the freedom to “come out” and self-identify as gay is predicted on a number of material factors, including a certain amount of economic independence. (Champagne, 2008)
As queer theory continues to develop its scrutiny of the relationship between subjectivity, politics and capitalism, and as non-normative sexualities move further into progressive politics and within popular discourse in general, those inhabiting the gay global village will undoubtedly waver between utopian dreams and pragmatic realities, but the evidence of their sexual identity formation is unlikely to see a huge reversal.
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