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Gayness and Meaning, Part 1 5 April 2006

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Queer Theory, Sexuality.

Religious and ethnic communities raise their own children and pass on communal meanings, knowledge, and practices to their offspring. Gay men and women come from all of these communities, and emerge with the cultures of their parents. Their sexual desires and potential relationships are necessarily refracted through the perceptions of homosexuality they receive from their parent's communities and from the dominant culture (hidden ethnicity) of the society at large.

Pic 1: A 1952 meeting of the Mattachine Society (Harry Hay, the founder, is to the far left); this was right before the organization was taken over by conservative men who, in the context of McCarthyist America, were afraid of the backlash of society against such a "homophile" organization.

If an individual's general sexual desires fall within the norms of his/her culture of origin, s/he will enact their sexuality as a matter of course, or what I would call habitually or unconsciously. Humans learn the meanings of all the aspects of sexuality—ranging from the desire itself to sexual acts and from relationships to representations of sex in media—in interaction with their social environments and each other. If an individual's desires deviate from the norms, s/he effectively "trips" on those desires, bringing them into consciousness, such that s/he must deal with them directly. Many choices are open to the individual, depending on the context, ranging from repression to full and open expression. The individual is put in the position of having to make meaning for an experienced desire that cuts against the culture of origin. In the United States, depending on the sub-culture of origin, an individual with same-sex desires can construct meanings of homosexuality that are at worst deeply homophobic and at best probably indifferent. But once the same-sex desires are brought into consciousness and not repressed, the individual must figure out form him- or herself what that desire will mean, how they will behave, how they will express their gender, how they will form relationships, what kinds of representations of sex and gender they want to consume. Most importantly, the individual will have to re-value his or her sexuality, usually counter to their culture of origin.

Pic 2: A page from Vector magazine from the summer of 1966, when the hippies first took over Golden Gate Park; gay men in San Francisco looked toward the counter-culture as a possible model for constructing their own public sexualities.

Historically and anthropologically, nearly every society has a "homosexual role" for individuals with desires toward the same sex, usually one each for men and women (in some cultures the roles preceded the desires, and individuals would be chosen to fulfill the homosexual role, regardless of their desires). Where such roles exist, they may span from criminal and mentally ill, to gifted shaman (in many cultures, women aren't/weren't considered to even be capable of sex, so there was no "homosexual role" necessary in that context for a woman). The individual may accept the particular homosexual role of their culture, or continue to "trip," if the assigned role doesn't fit with the confluence of their desires, especially the confluence of desires for sex objects and acts, desires for kinds of relationships, desires for a certain gender expression, and a desire for social and cultural statuses within the society.

Pic 3: An illustration from Gay Sunshine, ca. 1970: "Rising Up Gay: The Struggle to Live and Love"

Americans with same-sex desires have only been working to construct egalitarian and public homosexualities since the mid-1920s. My research of 1960s San Francisco suggests that the best possible way for gay men and women to construct meaningful lives (to make sense of their desires, their sexualities, their genders, and their relationships) is in interaction with other gay men and women. Many queer scholars are fond of repeating the mantra that "homosexuality is socially constructed." Without dipping into the etiological debate (the cause of same-sex desire), I would argue that "social construction" is a material, literal process of interaction, and that the best possible situation is for gay men and women to have the social context within which to "socially construct" the meanings of their homosexualities. The beauty of the gay community is its diversity and the incredible tension within it: This is evidence of the ongoing process of individuals and groups identifying with each other and creating meaningful lives.

Pic 4: One of many Gay-Ins in Golden Gate park in the early 1970s; many gay men and women refused to confine their sexuality and relationships to private organizations, bars, and house parties, opting instead for out and public displays of their sexual selves.

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