jump to navigation

Gay Spaces, Gay Interaction, Gay Politics 27 June 2011

Posted by Todd in Cultural Critique, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Queer Theory.
comments closed

Earlier today I shared a link with some friends to a blog about a man’s frustration with the presence of so many straight women at Pride events here in San Francisco over the weekend, and sparked quite an argument / discussion. I have spoken about the issue of the necessity of queer spaces for ongoing production of effective meanings of gayness here before (and at length in my book). Here is my brief and admittedly inelegant effort to explain my position.

1) The blog post I linked to earlier is an emotional response after one gay man’s frustrating experience at last night’s Pink Party. I didn’t post it as a rational, scholarly analysis; but as an expression of a very real and very key dynamic that the LGBT community is now dealing with, ironically because of our success as a movement.

2) I spent 8 years of my life studying the social dynamics and the individual experiences of gay men (and to a lesser degree lesbians and transgenders) during a period in American history when they had to fight for over 20 years (before 1972) just for the social power to define their own lives and imbue meaning on their sexual desires, sex acts, affectional attachments, gender expressions, etc., in opposition to a world that saw them as criminals, mentally ill, and sinners, and which perpetrated physical and emotional violence against them regularly. They fought in the face of a dominant culture that did everything possible to suppress that expression. Let me get a bit technical here for a moment:

a) Dominant cultures function hegemonically, which is somewhat redundant, but it’s important: It’s dominating (that is, the master or controlling culture) and hegemonic (it does so through the exercise of power). Normally, this works by establishing its values, assumptions, practices, objects, ideas, symbols, etc., as COMMON SENSE. When someone violates that common sense, they are sanctioned by immediate social consequences (i.e., social control). Hegemonic dominant culture is multilayered and complex and multidirectional, which makes it really hard to talk about, because there are counter-examples and their are resistance movements (of which, the LGBT movement(s) have been one since about the end of World War I in the U.S.). Here, I am talking specifically about heteronormativity, that is, the particular meanings and structures and practices that define appropriate or acceptable sexual desire, sex acts, and affectional bonds–it’s not just that you have to be opposite-sex attracted, but it’s about how, when, with whom, how often, where you have sex, express your gender, reproduce, pair-bond (or not), interact with non-family, define a family, etc. They are experienced as COMMON SENSE by the majority of people who live them unreflexively, and they are enforced through everything from informal social interactions with intimates all the way up to state officials with guns.

b) Given our history in American society—but also considering the way that societies who have positive roles for homosexuals and transgenders treat them—it is clear to me that the most important thing going forward for gay liberation is going to be the ability of us to maintain and keep the ability to define and give meaning to our own lives. There will always be queers who want to lead relatively “normal” lives (marriage, kids, etc.) which is fine. But the key to maintaining freedom is to make sure that the “normal” does not become an enforceable normative. In order for that to happen, my expert opinion is that it is of utmost importance that LGBTs have social spaces where they interact with each other to create those meanings. Details below.

3) Heterosexual allies and supporters of gay rights are key to our success, because they create, as members of the majority, the social freedom to act and be, because we need them to create the critical mass necessary for us to be left alone to live our lives. It requires a certain ability to be self-reflexive to understand that being a supporter 100% does not mean that homosexuals are suddenly not a minority or that the social dynamics are simply going to disappear. They are, simply, what are called “social facts”. Majority-minority relations necessarily lead to power imbalances. Those imbalances only disappear when assimilation is complete, and assimilation is always a loss (although not necessarily a negative loss). I’m not sure that sexual and gender minorities can ever fully assimilate, as the difference itself is by definition a tiny minority in our sexually dimorphous species that doesn’t go away (by contrast, ethnic differences are cultural and can go away completely). Supporters and allies and friends and family will have to understand that there are spaces, contexts, times, issues where queers need to be with each other without them. Any respectful friendship among people of different religions, or ethnicities already knows this. It should be a no-brainer.

To make this a bit more personal, I do not know how to explain this, but even in San Francisco where it is more or less a non-issue to be gay, I physically feel the relief when I walk into a room full of gay men and/or lesbians. Moving into a queer space puts me in the privileged social position, where the space is by for and of me instead of for the (very supportive and friendly) majority. Any minority will describe for you the same dynamic. As always, this is a complex issue and highly differentiated, so I don’t feel safe in ALL queer spaces, and in fact there are queer spaces that feel highly dangerous to me. But I never feel completely safe in straight spaces. Ever (although sometimes I forget where I am and am usually reminded by a student’s eyeroll or a colleague changing the subject mid-conversation).

4) Culture matters. Pay attention for one day at every single moment when normal heterosexuality is enacted around you. Look at the people around you, the things they talk about, how they act, how they interact; look at tv and film; listen to the lyrics of pop tunes on the radio; listen to your pastors or rabbis. Then start digging under the surface: what goes unspoken? when are people disciplined for stepping out of line in their sexual/gender/relational feelings, thoughts, words, gestures, practices? what are the assumptions you and the people around you make about each other and their circumstances and behaviors? Why? What effect do these assumptions have on your behavior and attitudes and feelings and language, etc.?

Because heterosexuality is the Palmolive that we’re constantly soaking in, and because culture is created interactively on the fly through interaction, and because minorities are always swimming in the dominant culture, it is culturally and politically imperative that we maintain queer spaces for ourselves to keep and defend our ability to make our own meanings of who we are and our lives.

5) There are a LOT of gay men and women who want assimilation. Fine with me. The problem isn’t their desire to assimilate (and hell, in many ways, I want a pretty conventional life—I wish I had a husband and a kid or two), the problem is their political power. They tend to be middle-class to professional, mostly white, and politically active. They tend to live the lives they want, and in extreme forms, they are offended and fear the LGBTs who are different or resistant in their relationships or sexual practices or gender presentation or cultural practices. They tend to be either neutral about the loss of queer culture or openly hostile to it. And because they are “acceptable” to the dominant culture, they are often the face and voice of the movement (i.e., HRC). This means that there is a dominant culture within the LGBT movement, and they even without knowing they are doing it can create hostile environments for other queers.

I’m completely supportive of LGBTs who chose to assimilate. I am NOT okay with assimilation itself being normative or forced. I’m not okay with losing the ability to define our own lives, sex, relationships, gender expressions, etc.  In my opinion, the best way to guarantee that queers across the spectrum get to define and create their own lives, queer politics should be aimed at maintaining the social spaces and contexts that enable us and foster the interactions and arguments and struggles WITH EACH OTHER (and NOT with the dominant culture) to create the meanings of our lives. The goal should NOT be merely to create a world where LGBTs who look like average middle class Americans get to live *their* lives. The goal should not be to live in a world where we have relinquished the power to define our own lives as the cost of our equality.

And so I return to the original point—albeit emotionally stated in the friend-of-a-friend’s blog post—when a “gay” event is full of straight people acting with all the presumptions and expectations that life affords them, it is no longer a gay event. And it is drained of its ability to serve its vital function of enabling interaction, cultural production, and meaning formation by, for, and of queers.

Advertisements

“The Homosexuals” (CBS, 1967) 10 February 2010

Posted by Todd in Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Culture, Gender, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

In my book The Meaning of Gay, currently in press (sorry for the shameless plug), I briefly treated the gay male response to this documentary in a section on the media and homosexuality. I had tried several ways to find and watch the documentary in its entirety, but had never been able to find it (although since then, I discovered that the TV library at UC Berkeley has it in its archive). This is a fascinating window back in time when straight America were struggling with a relatively new kind of public homosexuality. The central argument of my book is how the move to publicity and public interaction transformed the meaning of gay and more specifically the meaning of gay-maleness. When you have 45 minutes, watch this little slice in the history of homophobia from CBS 1967. Specifically, you are watching in very stark and shameless terms, the heterosexual order asserting its power to control and contain deviant sexualities through control of the meaning of homosexuality (namely, as a disease, a sin, and a crime). h/t Joe.My.God

Theorizing Sexuality: Vexing and Vexed Categories 25 March 2009

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Biology, Culture, Evolution, Homosexuality, Language, Postmodernity and Postmodernism, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

At the base of the problematic of theorizing any social/cultural phenomenon lies the task of defining the phenomenon in the first place. Definitions by nature are a process of creating useful categories of analysis, categories that draw boundaries in the world of phenomena in order to enable the analysis we desire. Here I’m going to attempt merely to point out the baseline problems of coming up with categories of analysis for a Theory of Sexuality. A warning that this isn’t a polished piece of writing, but meant to be more informal and conversational with other specialists and interested parties.

This discussion arises out of my reading of a book called _Homosexuality and Civilization_, where the author traces a predominantly Western history of same-sex sex, both in terms of socially sanctioned practices and in terms of social repression. Confronting the range of historical meanings of homosexuality (for lack of another word) at the same time as watching the author struggle to maintain his categories of analysis pushed me to think about whether or not there is a Homosexual in the past (not unlike Foucault, I suppose). What I found is that there are interrelated but not coextensive phenomena at play that must be carefully dealt with in order to adequately frame an analysis (or theory) of sexuality.

I.

I begin by laying out some of my basic assumptions about the source of knowledge categories at the meta-level. I’m not trying to be rigorous in my citations as I might in a scholarly article; rather, I’m trying to move through my assumptions so you, the reader, can understand where I begin my consideration of the problem of categories in the theorization of sexuality.

I am firmly anti-foundationalist, but in a Deweyan way, where I would argue that empirically speaking all human categories derive from a group’s interaction with its environment and it’s efforts to understand and in some way control its environment. I purposefully think of this as a group effort, probably because of my social science bent, but also because by definition, the human mind is shaped socially, in interaction with other humans. There simply is no human mind that is constituted in and of itself. My Deweyan orientation becomes more important when I compare what I’m saying against the extreme strands of post-structuralism (e.g., the hard-constructionists of the British sociology of science), who often conclude that all knowledge is self-referential and all symbol systems can only derive meaning from other symbols; and therefore that human knowledge is radically disconnected from the world it seeks to explain and can never be anything but a construct.

ETA: I cannot disagree with this hard-constructionist model more. All knowledge is inextricably linked to a transaction with the environment that produced it. It is, at its core, significantly more than self-referential. Anti-foundationalism in the pragmatic mode means a radical contextualization of knowledge, not a radical disconnection from the world that is known. Now onto language, really the sticking point for post-structuralism (IMO).

I’m more prone to accept the findings of cognitive linguists and neurologists who are finding that language, in the way our brain functions, is not the constituter of thoughts (i.e., is not the stuff of thought) but rather a tool the brain uses to think. When you “hear” yourself htinking with language, what you are experiencing is your brain using language to manage the phenomena it encounters and analyze them.  Language and symbolic representation of the world writ large are not the stuff of the contents of the brain, but rather a tool the brain uses to think about the world it experiences. Language is active and moving, like a hammer; not the thing itself.

Secondly, with Dewey, James, Pierce, and Mead, not to mention a whole raft of cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists(1) of the past 25 years or so, I would insist that knowledge is an emergent property of the brain’s interaction with its environment (including the social environment), so that knowledge can never be separated from the body’s experience of its environment or the collective and social experience mediated through language and interaction in the society. Knowlege and categories are always situated historically, that is, radically contextual; they are always without foundation, that is, without eternal, universal meaning; but they are always connected directly to the group’s experience of its world and are always embodied. (Always remembering that part of the world is the social, symbolic world of the group, including its history, tradition, language, practices, objects, etc.)(2)

II.

The first problem of categorization when theorizing sexuality is deciding how to draw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in the categories in question. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a fraught category, already begging the question of its own usefulness. Is sexuality the bodily, embodied act? is it also the fantasy, the desire? does it include the acts unrealized and only imagined? or is it more than acts at all, including systems of meaning? or is it psychological, the “identity” of an individual and how the individual categorizes herself in terms of her sexuality (which again begs the question of “sexuality”)?

So any category to be used in any field of research includes a relationship of a) the word(s) used to contain the category; b) the phenomena to be included, and by extension, excluded from the category; and c) the social work of building and maintaining the category’s boundaries long enough for the conversation to be useful in lighting our understanding.

The first problem of the word-label is probably obvious. Since the words we use are shared in multiple contexts and have multiple meanings, we can only be sure of their rigorous use if we reiterate the meanings we need, or by coining new words (an often clumsy and opaque solution, but one which appeals to me). Language by its very nature always fails to contain that which it seeks to describe; there are always “leakages” of meaning.

But If “sexuality” is the word, then what phenomena will we include in it? Is it the only category that matters? For me personally, I’m interested in sexual dissent, secret behavior, minority sexual practices; these seem to beg for categories of their own in addition to “sexuality”.(3) As soon as we start deciding what phenomena to include in the categories, we engage in a process of exclusion; categories may also limit our perception, when we accept them as salient and representing something useful in the world. Categories can thereby eliminate from view important facts that might change our understanding. Perhaps there is simply no way to avoid this danger and it must be embraced as part of the process.  But the possible consequences can be dire, leading to the erasure from history or analysis entire experiences or populations, or misapprehending groups or individuals under our gaze.

I will argue here, briefly, that the categories used to analyze sexuality must include both biological, embodied knowledge and social, cultural knowledge.

III.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the very fact that I want to theorize “sexuality” necessarily arises out of my experience in my own place and time in human history, my situatedness in the 21st century, unitedstatesian culture of sexuality, and my gayness. Indeed, “sexuality” itself is a rather new category, at most about 150 years old in Western European thinking (see note (3) below).  Problematically, historical categories do not match our own; that is to say, culturally speaking, that in different times and places, human groups have categorized sexual phenomena in radically different ways. With homosexuality, for example, I have only to go back to just before WWII to find a significantly different world than the one I live in now (noting, of course, that in that sentence I couldn’t have even expressed it without the word “homosexual”).

If pre-contact Hawaiians, for example, had no concept of “sexuality” at all, did they have it? Is it even possible to analyze Hawaiian sexuality if their own culture didn’t have a category to describe it?  Or what about today, where in, say, much of the Muslim-Arabic world, homosexuality is seen as a Western-Christian phenomenon, so when men have sex with men, it’s not homosexual (to them) but something else altogether with completely different contexts and rules governing its meaning and behavior. What then would I even be studying if I tried to analyze “homosexuality” among Saudi men, for example? Or if I go to Taliban controlled Afghanistan (you’ll excuse me for using hot button examples, somewhat glibly, to illustrate), and women are so holy and also so dangerous to the spiritual health of men, they must be hidden, uneducated, and silent, and traded among men who control their very bodies (or at least outwardly so). Is that even “heterosexuality”? Does it make sense to call their marriages “heterosexual” just because they are opposite-sex composed?

Or is there something thin enough, something universal enough that can be laid down as the basis of a category that can be used to analyze across cultures?

IV.

In sociology and anthropology, there is a perennial problem of whether or not we use our current, accepted categories to understand the cultural, social Other, and if so, what effect that has on our ability to understand. If we use our own categories, does that merely reproduce our own cultural biases, our own situated context? In sociology, the idea is that is sometimes put forward that if the researcher can somehow reformulate the categories of analysis, it will increase the intellectual payoff and therefore usefulness of the analysis. By simply reproducing the old categories (e.g., race, class, gender), we reproduce the social phenomena we are studying.

In history, an analogous problem of “presentism” demands that to understand the past you must leave aside your current understandings to simply express what was believed in the past. For historians, the culture of the past can never be known if it is only in terms of the present.

While I’m sympathetic to both critiques, I’m also wary of them. In the sociological critique, I find the idea that new or different categories may better illuminate the phenomena in question; but I also think that asking questions from our own contexts is not only human, but deeply useful. I don’t mean to say that I would advocate using unexamined categories of my own culture; but that using them isn’t necessarily bad, when done so carefully and systematically and perhaps with a detailed explanation of why. So in the case of sexuality, we would need to ask up front why are we even studying what people do with their genitals and/or what they think about what they do with their genitals? Why would such a study matter? What knowledge is gained and why? Or why do I want to use my idea of homosexuality from the 21st century (and academic, I must add) context to understand, say 18th century America or 21st century Saudi Arabia?

I think the historical warning against presentism is extremely useful in establishing the phenomena to be analyzed. This is analogous, to me, to the anthropological warning against ethnocentrism in studying present others. But I think it hamstrings the analysis once you get there. I’m not sure there’s a away not to be presentist or ethnocentric when conducting an analysis of social cultural phenomena that we hope to be useful in some way, beyond the mere curiosity of understanding the other.

So I would argue for a three-part process: 1) a careful work through and definition of the categories to be used (kind of what I’m setting the stage to do here); 2) when gathering the phenomena (data) a strict effort to avoid presentism and ethnocentrism; 3) an analysis that brings what is discovered about the Other into conversation with what the researcher knows and experiences in their context.

V.

To set out where I think a useful and empirically sustainable theory of sexuality should base its categories of analysis, let me give some observations:

1) humans have sex (and also choose not to have sex);
2) they do so for a multitude of reasons;
3) those reasons are always both social/cultural and bodily/biological (ranging from social duty, to “love”, to boredom, to horniness, etc.);
4) humans constantly generate meanings for sex (4);
5) those meanings vary from context to context because they emerge from humans interacting with each other in a complex environment, which they do not control and which constantly changes;
6) there seem to be discernible patterns of sexual behavior over time and across cultures, though these patterns manifest in statistical distributions rather than in trans-cultural universals;
7) humans have sex because they want to, but defining and studying “want to” (i.e., desire) is probably the most difficult aspect of sexuality, because it seems to always bound in the reasons and meaning of sex.

Given the above, I think that the ground of a theory of sexuality must have three interweaving, moving parts of sexuality:

sex Act(s) and behavior [embodied and in some way connecting mind to genitals?]

Desire and affect [embodied, but affect focused]

Meaning [the organization of the acts and the desire within a social-historical context]

Two things to note. First, I do not think that identity is a good or useful way to categorize sexuality (although I do think there’s a history of sexuality as identity to be told).  Identity seems to be one of the possible outcomes of a culture’s efforts to understand or control its sexuality, rather than something that is necessarily attached to sexuality.

Second, from reading extensively about Greece and Roman meanings of sexuality in terms of today’s understanding of homosexuality (not to mention the vexing problem of defining “homosexuality” in today’s world) I think it necessary to insist on a relative independence of the three parts of Act, Desire, and Meaning to understand how the work together.

Acts: although the acts and embodied experience of sex do not exist outside of culture and are always attached to at least one actor’s desire, they can be studied physiologically as things in themselves. If we can think of embodied acts as separate (even if its just an intellectual conceit), we can come to think more clearly about desires and especially meanings.

Desire/Affect: There are layers of desires (always connected to bodies and emerging in cultural, meaning-full contexts) at work in sexuality, that may or may not have a direct correlation to the bodily act, the sensation of sex, or an orgasm. The desires may be social (e.g., for status), psychological (e.g., to affirm an identity), or bodily (e.g., to come). The most difficult to study, mainly because the fleeting affect within an individual rarely leaves a trace to be studied. And because defining “desire” itself can be vexing, from Freud’s “overestimation of the object” to a biological explanation of the function of oxytocin in the brain.

Meaning: Here we have the qualitative difference of acts and desires as they are manifested in social roles, symbolic explanations and representations, sanctions and repressions, etc.

Acts, Desires, and Meanings are all experienced in the Deweyan sense: They are both undergone (that is, passively put upon our senses, as stimulus upon our bodies (sometimes from the brain itself)) and a “doing” or activity (we always act in response to the undergone stimulus, be its origins in our own brains or outside of them). For Dewey, the experience must be always seen in this inseparable nexus of undergoing and doing; it is always both-and; it is always passive reception of what “is” and active reaction to change it.  So for me, sexuality in these three phases, is always a movement through time and place, the emergence of particular genital-desire-meaning formations.

For me, separating sexuality into these three phases allows a much richer analysis of the past. I will discuss some of this in detail in a later post, so I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but let me just illustrate with pederasty of ancient Athens. Much of the debate in historical circles boils down to whether or not homosexuality even exists, because clearly the cultures of sexuality were so different in other times. If in Athens, homosexual contact was allowed [you’ll notice I’m purposefully leaving “homosexual” undefined for the moment] between citizen men as a mentor-mentee relationship; and if citizen men could penetrate any other human legally that did not belong to another citizen; then homosexuality did not exist. [I’m being extremely gestural here to illustrate a point about theory of sexuality, not to make a detailed argument about Athens.]

But if we analyze Athenian sexuality in different terms, we may get another interpretation: separate out the acts in general terms of partner and genital use: e.g., age-differentiated males anal penetration, age-congruent males anal penetration, cross-class anal penetration, etc. Separate out possible desires in that context: e.g., age-congruent same-sex desire, age-differentiated same-sex desire, class-congruent opposite-sex desire, etc. Then separate out the meanings of sex acts and desires: e.g., sanctioned age-differentiated, class-congruent, same-sex desire and anal penetration of younger by older, etc. The historical case of Athens does not prove to us that there weren’t men who desired other adult men in Athens; it can only show us what the culture thought of particular sex acts and how the society organized them. It doesn’t tell us necessarily about the desires of those engaged in a particular act or practice. It tells us how a particular culture in a particular time and with a specific history sought to channel, organize, and control sexual acts and desires. This may seem rather painfully obvious, but in the historical literature and in much of the anthropological literature, the emphasis on difference is so strong and overpowering, that all categories of analysis get reduced to such tightly focused contexts, thereby limiting our perception of the phenomena to the terms of the people who produce them, which has the effect of erasing from view the human experience of having desires that need to be consummated in a given context, possible variations, misapprehension of normatives for empirical realities, and collapsing of possibilities.

Notes:

(1) Following the brilliant critique of evolutionary psychology in Buller’s _Adapting Minds_, I’m referring here to the empirical and provisional work in the field, not the sweeping and highly problematic claims of the more popular Evolutionary Psychologists (Buller distinguishes them by the caps).

(2) I’m stopping this discussion here, but could go on about it. For example, only when we understand language as a tool and knowledge as emergent properties of brains, i.e., the Mind, can we understand empirically how and why knowledge changes over time in useful, adaptive ways. Evolutionary metaphors can be exceptionally helpful when theorizing the flux of knowledge over time in groups.

(3) This is where I really still see the brilliance of Foucault’s analysis in La volonté de savoir (Will to Know (a take on Nietzsche’s Will to Power (volonté de pouvoir, in French)), in the first volume of the _History of Sexuality_, where he traces the Victorian sexological process of an ever more granular categorization of the most miniscule and narrow experiences, feelings, desires, fancies, and behaviors of the genitals. I want to avoid falling into the Victorian pit, but it’s a delicate dance around the edge of the precipice to create useful categories.

(4) I tend to use the word “meaning” in the way that G.H. Mead via Dewey would use it, to indicate not a dictionary definition, but rather the language-symbol combined with an experience of the interconnection of social practice and behavior and affect with a given phenomenon. So the meaning of “tree” isn’t its place on the biological typography, but rather it is the symbol “tree” in conjunction with the lived-experience of treeness in a social context by the individual experiencer and in interaction with the cultural group giving “treeness” its meaning.

Mormon Homophobia, part 3891 27 July 2007

Posted by Todd in Commentary, Gender, Homosexuality, Mormonism/LDS Church, Sexuality.
comments closed

According to the Deseret News, the Mormon church has released a new pamphlet about so-called “same-gender attraction.” The church’s choice of awkward phrasing notwithstanding, the pamphlet rehashes the standard anti-gay but cloaked in love language as usual. The argument is thus (see if you can follow along):

1) you cannot achieve salvation unless you have an “eternal family” which requires a heterosexual marriage

2) god may never tell us why some people have strong “same-gender attraction”, but we know it’s bad, so don’t ever give in to it

3) if you live a good life (i.e., and never have gay sex), god will reward you in the next life

4) our bodies are sacred, therefore we must only have sex in a monogamous (the irony still escapes the church’s PR machine) heterosexual marriages

5) sexual desire does not justify acting on the behavior, which is immoral. Sex is evil. I mean sacred. Yes, sex is sacred. Don’t do it. It’s immoral.

6) giving in to “same-gender attraction” gives only an illusion of happiness; real happiness comes from self-control (read: denial and deprivation); the urge for “same-gender physical contact” will diminish when real emotional needs are met (because sexual contact is not a real need).

7) if you have a strong testimony of the Gospel (mormonspeak for witness or knowledge), then you will not act on your “same-gender attraction”

8 ) so you see, the Mormon church treats all its members the same, because heterosexuals aren’t allowed to have sex until they’re married either! God really does love us all!

9) if you are “same-gender attracted,” you should stop worrying about it, because it’s beyond your control at the moment; instead you should focus on things that matter, like working for the Mormon church or reading your scriptures or serving the needy

10) grow a good garden: you see, this is an analogy, where our lives are like a garden; if we grow good things, we’ll have a good garden; so it is with our lives. If you are “same-gender attracted”, then you should dive into church service and cultivate friendships with people who do not “flaunt” their homosexuality, but keep it hidden away in shame. If you meet people who are openly homosexual, run from them, er, dig them out of your garden. Homosexuals are like weeds in your garden.

11) Just to be safe, do not under any circumstances develop a close friendship with someone of the same-gender, because Satan will tempt you to make it sexual, and nothing could be worse than having sex with someone of the same-gender whom you love

12) pornography is bad. child molestation is bad.

13) remember, if you suffer from “same-gender attraction,” as long as you never act on it or openly display it or flaunt it like a homosexual weed, you can be a full member of the church! See! We love you! Our geriatric Fuhrer has told us so in bland and banal terms in a great and spacious building during our world wide conference wherein we say the same bland and banal platitudes vetted by our Department of Information Clensing and broadcast throughout all the world because god gave us technology so that we could spread. See? God loves you despite your same-gender attraction!

14) As you struggle to live a lie by remaining in the Mormon closet, be sure not to burden other people with your pain and depression and problems, least of all your priesthood leaders. Instead, it is your own responsibility to suffer in silence alone with the Lord. We love you!

15) God has his arms open to all his children, even to weeds like you. Our Geriatric Fuhrer has even said that we sympathize with you, you so-called homosexual!I don’t even have the strength to comment.

It’s so exhausting to read this drivel and to even begin to contemplate the effects this is having on young gay people around the world in the Mormon church. How can they not see the horrible emotional and psychological damage this does to people who have done nothing wrong. I’m not posting the link to the pamphlet because I don’t want to be linked to the church’s website, but you can follow the link from the Deseret News article.

Combatting the Anti-Gay Agenda 28 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Sexuality.
comments closed

Many parents of gays and lesbians, or friends, or even the closeted queer him- or herself might be inundated with bad information, or more accurately, with falsehoods about homosexuality and gay life. The quasi-religious anti-gay machine has deftly spread its propaganda for more than 35 years now, and in some quarters of American society, it is still the dominant cultural view of homosexuality. This is not only bad for gay men and women around the country still locked in the ongoing battle for equality before the law, but also for gay folks who live in those contexts that lead them to self-loathing, shame and rage, not to mention their friends, family, co-workers, clergy, etc., who often unintentionally reinforce the self-hatred.

Through a rather circuitous route that started at Joe.My.God, I stumbled upon at the Box Turtle Bulletin, a group whose mission it is to fight the misinformation about homosexuality spread by anti-gay groups such as Focus on the Family, Eagle Forum, Heritage Foundation, etc.

In its mission statement, BTB lists these groups as those it wants to serve:

  1. Those who are questioning their sexuality and are concerned about some of the misinformation that they are hearing.
  2. Those who are friends or relatives of someone who is gay or lesbian, and are seeking accurate and reliable information about the issues facing them.
  3. Those who support equal rights for gays and lesbians and seek accurate, reliable information on which to base their arguments.
  4. Those who oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians, but wish to avoid the pitfalls of the massive misinformation coming from all sides of the issues – from gay-rights opponents as well as gay-rights advocates.

If not only the battle for political equality for gays and lesbians interest you, but also the damaging effects of anti-gay rhetoric on the individual psyches of gays and lesbians, BTB is an amazing resource. I ended up spending about an hour perusing the site and found some amazing articles. Here were the two I found the most intriguing so far: Are Gays a Threat to Our Children? and the only mildly tongue-in-cheek but crammed with good argument The Heterosexual Agenda.

Most recently, the BTB has been covering the ex-ex-gay (i.e., formerly ex-gay, now just gay) conference in Irvine this week, which coincides with the Exodus Freedom Conference (i.e., Exodus International’s ex-gay “ministries”) just down the street. Of especial interest, for those who didn’t hear, three former leaders of Exodus International have issued public apologies for their actions, which they now see as having done great harm. The L.A. Times story is here, and BTB’s videos of the apologies are here.

Homosexuality Is a Spandrel 20 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Evolution, Homosexuality, Science.
comments closed

There’s a great redux of the research about the differences between gay and straight people in last week’s New York Magazine, “The Science of Gaydar.” It seems that the differences are actually mounting the more we study these things, and the evidence is just piling on that homosexuality is biological. Of course, in my own experience, I already knew this, as I don’t remember ever not being gay (although as a child, I didn’t have a language or a way to understand how I was different, I just knew that during kissing tag, I really wanted to kiss Trent, not Jenny.)

Anyway, it’s a great article, if it makes the typical journalistic mistake of simplifying biological issues and misrepresenting others (although only slightly) to create a “controversy.” This article, however, does a good job of just guiding you through the evidence.

The one repeated argument in the article that really irritates me, which I have talked about here, is the idea that homosexuality is maladaptive evolutionarily. Since I’m only an armchair evolutionary biologist (I’m actually a sociologist), I could be misunderstanding things, but there are actually three measures of survivability in a trait: maladaptive, neutral (a “spandrel”), and adaptive. The idea that homosexuality is maladaptive relies on a narrow reading of Richard Dawkins notion of the selfish genes, that it is maladaptive trait because it creates a reproductive dead end for the individual genes. But evolution works population-wide in sexually reproducing species; that is, it’s about the spread of adaptable traits in the population. A maladaptive trait decreases survivability of the species, and in worst case scenarios lead to extinction. In any case, maladaptive traits are selected against. Yet homosexuality appears in all mammal species and most bird species. So there seems to be something else going on.

For a trait to be adaptive, it must increase survivability (and fitness, or differential reproduction) of the species as it spreads through the population. Although the hypotheses are intriguing explaining homosexuality as adaptive (since it appears universally present in human populations), I actually find the evidence to be lacking. It doesn’t appear, with the evidence I’ve seen, to enhance the survivability of the species.

That leaves homosexuality as a spandrel, or an accidental side effect. Because evolution is stochastic, arising out of multiple simultaneous causes, and because traits work in conjunction or interaction with all other traits, the mathematics of determining adaptability require seeing how traits arise from or interact with other traits. Spandrels are unintended consequences of evolution, traits that arise out of other traits. To me, it seems clear that sexual reproduction (with its massive advantage of mixing gene pools) produces the conditions underwhich some individuals can be born with their sexual desires “misdirected” (biologically speaking), but that the advantages of sexual reproduction far outweigh the disadvantages of having some individuals sexually unreproductive. In otherwords, homosexuality seems to me to be an unintended by-product of other mechanisms that are incredibly adaptive. Homosexuality is a spandrel. It is neither maladaptive (it has no negative effects on survivability of the species, or it would have been selected against thousands of years ago; nor is it particularly adaptive. It is, evolutionarily speaking, neutral.

I’m speaking here only of human homosexuality. In other species, I think it could be more easily argued that it is adaptive (for example, bonobos’ pansexuality; dolphins life-long same-sex partnerships). But I think in most species where it exists regularly, it is not maladaptive, or it would have been selected against.

At the end of the day, however, this question only concerns the origins of homosexuality in our evolutionary history. It tells us nothing of the value or meaning of homosexuality.

Is Bisexuality Real? 5 January 2007

Posted by Todd in Biology, Homosexuality, Queer Theory, Sexuality.
comments closed

Well, the short answer is, Of course bisexuality exists. But the category offers some really difficult analytical problems for understanding sexuality, not because there’s anything problematic about bisexuality, but because of the way the category is used analytically.

In her review of the new Norwegian museum exhibit on homosexuality among animals, anthropologist Linda Wolfe makes a key distinction between between behavior and orientation (or between deeds and desire, if you will). [This is a distinction I’ve been insisting on for a while now, even here on this blog.] In a nutshell: desire and deed are not the same thing. This should be obvious, as gay men and women all around the world get married and have children, but are no less gay in terms of their desires; men in prison have sex with (and rape) each other, but are no less heterosexual in terms of their desires for doing so.

I would also add that there are actually two different, if overlapping, desires at play; the desire to reproduce is not the same as the desire to fuck. Gay men and women very often have intense desires to have children, but their orientations make that biologically tricky; and many straight folks don’t want kids, but continue to have strong desires to have sex or a particular sex act.

Although there are definitely people with bisexual desire (someone attracted to both sexes to some degree), I think it is often a red herring in discussions about sexuality, where behavior is taken as direct evidence of desire, either explicitly or implicitly. In reality, because human beings have infinite numbers of reasons for having sex, few of which have anything to do with their orientation, a sexual act may indicate an orientational desire, but any given act isn’t necessarily an indication of orientation at all. Because we don’t know what people are feeling leading up to their sexual acts unless they tell us, we don’t know what desires were actually driving the sex act (which makes the history of sexuality particularly complex and fun).1 When it’s not used with extreme care, the category “bisexual” can conflate desire and deed (as can, unfortunately, the categories “homosexual” and “heterosexual”). But biseuxality has been used both within and without the gay community for years in ways that seek to erase the sexual difference of gay men and women, either by insisting that they actually are or should be bisexual, or that everyone is really bisexual. Such normative statements may work as normatives, but not as descriptions of what real people are thinking, feeling and doing.

Heterosexual interpreters have historically done everything possible to eliminate the presence of homosexuality in any given context; and since the 1960s, some “radical” or “postmodern” or “queer” interpreters have imposed a normative bisexuality onto their subjects (usually from the humanities; but also some scientists and social scientists who fail to recognize the biological underpinnings of sexual desire). Both are problematic. Whether you’re talking about prison sex, closeted married people, frat boys jackin off together, military buddies sharing a prostitute, housewives “comforting” each other, straight guy getting a blow job from a gay guy, etc., there’s a long history of straight and more recently “queer” interpreters dismissing the phenomenon or explaining it away as anything *but* homosexuality.

If the category “bisexual” is to retain any analytical power, it must be employed with more care, distinguishing between bisexual behavior (which is relatively common and most often separate from orientation) and bisexual desire (which is apparently quite rare2 (rarer than homosexuality, which itself is only 4-6% of the population)).

So the most accurate understanding comes from: a) keeping the distinction between desire and deed; and b) being clear about which desires are at play at a given moment (e.g., horniness, reproduction, violence, coersion, love, etc.). The categories “homosexual”, “heterosexual”, and “bisexual” will never account for the diversity of human sexual experience; but they do offer relatively good starting points to talking about human sexuality, if the analysis allows for the incredibly diversity of possible articulations between desires and deeds.

1. This is where one of my big beefs with historian David Halperin lies. He argues, if I may oversimplify, that because we can’t know the desires behind the acts, there were basically no homosexuals in the past. Because the cultures and social structures surrounding the acts were different than they are today, the category homosexual is useless in the past. I would argue that we go back to the original problem: We simply don’t know what people were desiring. Therefore, the more accurate theoretical stance, in my opinion, is that individuals in the past may have had a homosexual orientation as indicated by their actions; but not necessarily so. Given what we don’t know (i.e., what they were feeling and desiring), it is just as problematic to argue that they were not homosexual as it is to argue that they were. And then I would argue that this critique needs to be extended to people having sex with the opposite sex in the past: we don’t know what they were desiring (although for some individuals, evidence can be accrued as to the gender of their primary sexual desires), and so should not be categorized as heterosexual either–but rather we could say that they were likely heterosexual in their orientation, and it expressed it in this particular cultural way and context.

2. There have been some studies that have shown that in an individual’s life time, most everyone will experience a crush or attraction for someone of the sex opposite their primary orientation; but to be consistently attracted to both sexes in general is quite rare.

Holy Sodomophobia, Batmensche! Ultra-Conservative Muslims and Jews Find Common Ground at Last! 7 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, War & Terrorism.
comments closed

In case you haven’t been following the hooplah, last summer, Jerusalem’s World Pride day was canceled because of the brief war in the Lebanon. This fall, Jerusalem’s gay pride organization applied for and received a parade permit for a later Pride Celebration in the capitol city. A few weeks ago, the ulta-conservative, ultra-orthodox wing of the religious in Israel began protesting the upcoming parade and have threatened violence. The police comissioner requested that the parade permit be rescinded (because caving to extreme hatemongers is always the right answer!), but Israel’s human rights minister (I believe that’s his title) said “Absolutely not! This is a democracy and we do not accede to threats of violence” (paraphrased). So yesterday, these conservative wingnut rabbis have–wait for it–but out a $500/per dead body bounty on any gay or lesbian people killed during the parade. But wait, there’s more! The ultra-orthodox, ultra-wingnut branch of muslim clerics in the Palestinian side of the city have called for a day of unrest and violence behind the old wall of the city–wait for it–to pull police and military away from the Pride Parade, in order to facilitate the violence against the gay men and women in the parade on the part of the wingnut ultra-conservative Jews.

Peace in Israel-Palestine: Could it be this easy? Just get them all to hate gays enough to cooperate? Why didn’t we think of this in 1948?

Click here for the latest development.

Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (Review) 6 November 2006

Posted by Todd in Democracy, Democratic Theory, Gay and Lesbian Culture, Gay and Lesbian History, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Law/Courts, Queer Theory, Reviews.
comments closed

[Note: This is actually less a review than me trying to get Yoshino’s arguments straight as I think about their implications.]

As the United States becomes more and more diverse culturally, the questions raised by multiculturalism in the past 50 years become all the more pressing, as we try to rethink what a pluralistic democracy could and should mean for a population of people so widely different from each other. Europe is facing similar dynamics, but their history of immigration and cohesion is so much longer and so much more recent that their experiences are and will continue to be different. But on both sides of the pond, we’re trying to grapple with protecting people’s rights to “be” their cultural identity, while at the same time balancing that with the rights of others. As a gay man, I’m often confronted with these kinds of dilemmas, as I feel the erosion of gay cultural spaces and practices by the encroachment of the dominant culture into gay neighborhoods (for example). For all minorities, the tensions between assimilating (in it’s most basic sense of becoming more like the majority, or mainstream, culture) and remaining or reaffirming one’s difference can be vexing, to say the least.

Kenji Yoshino’s book, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights, locates the problem in a new kind of cultural pressure, where individuals are protecting in being different, but not in acting different. Borrowing the term from the important American social-psychologist Irving Goffman, Yoshino argues that minorities are required to cover their cultural differences in order to maintain their position in the public sphere, keep their jobs, avoid violence, gain social acceptance, or avoid conflict in day-to-day activities. Yoshino uses the gay experience in the 20th century of working toward civil rights as a kind of prototype of the experience of other kinds of minorities who move through the kinds of assimilation required in different phases of acceptance: conversion, passing, and finally covering. Here, the history of gay rights reflects the individual’s process of moving from trying to be something he is not (conversion), to trying to pass (knowing he is gay, but trying to avoid acting in anyway that would give away his hidden status), to covering (being openly gay, but trying to act in ways required by the dominant culture to avoid offending).

Yoshino deftly interweaves history with personal experience with legal decisions and analysis to demonstrate what is problematic in the dominant culture’s attempts to force minorities to assimilate, to become like the “mainstream.” On a personal note, I have to say that Yoshino’s experiences of his sexuality were so parallel to mine as to literally in some places take my breath away. Conversion is basically the idea that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and that gay individuals should (must) convert into heterosexuals (Yoshino rehearses the long and vexing debates in American psychiatry and psychology in this regard; and then completely botches a critique of the biological/medical evidence of homosexuality’s origins). In contemporary America, Yoshino sees the vestiges of conversion in the “no-promo-homo” laws around the country, where you are allowed to be gay in public, but you are not allowed to act gay (whatever that may mean). This distinction has been continually held up by the courts for the past 30 years or so, especially in the work place. Yoshino argues that the revolution of the Gay LIbbers in the early 1970s was to argue that “gay is good,” to argue for the validity of homosexuality per se, rather than to argue for the immutability (the naturalness) of homosexuality, which is where the law resides. Yoshino is basically wrong in the history (ONE magazine was arguing that gay is good in the mid-1950s, and the San Francisco gay community was making similar public arguments 8 years before Stone wall), but that doesn’t detract from the salience of the argument. Regardless, the problem is the continued efforts in the public sphere to force gay men and women to change their behavior to conform to social ‘norms.’

Passing is much more common than conversion now, as we’ve left behind increasingly the notions that an individual can and should try to change into a heterosexual. Passing is like wearing the ‘albatross’ of truth around our gay necks, Yoshino says, a weight that presses against you as you try to move through your life without revealing your secret. Again making basic historical mistakes, but nonetheless making a valid point about passing, Yoshino argues that the internalization of the imperative to be straight causes gay people to despise what they see in the mirror and to try to appear “normal” at all costs. One of my pet peeves about gay history, especially in the popular imagination, is the reliance on Stonewall as a marker. But Yoshino explains, interestingly, that Stonewall is our communal coming out story, the marker of our refusal to convert.

It’s really in Chapter Three that Yoshino hits his stride. Here we see a gay community divided by the issue of covering, where status within the community and vis-a-vis the dominant culture are measured in the ability or desire to cover one’s sexuality. The “normals” (e.g., Andrew Sullivan) are the ‘pro-covering’ crowd, those who want to downplay or eliminate gay cultural difference; and the “queers” (e.g., Michael Warner), those who want to emphasize their differences. Both sides are openly gay, but have a different orientation to assimilation. I appreciated Yoshino’s openness to both arguments as valid decisions within American culture (a stance I myself take in analyzing 1960s gay male culture in my upcoming book on that topic); Yoshino argues ultimately that what matters isn’t an individual gay person’s personal choice regarding covering, but rather the context of their making that decision. Covering becomes bad when it is coerced and not chosen, when it is imposed rather than a personal decision of preference for cultural style.

The problem comes from the structural coercion toward covering. Moving to race and gender covering, Yoshino points to a series of court cases wherein cultural differences are seen as something you “do” and not something you “are”, and because the civil rights tradition in the U.S. has focused on protecting what is immutable in the individual, the courts rule almost always against what you “do”. So a woman who wears cornrows to work (race), or another woman who has a baby (sex), can legally be discriminated against because these are “choices” not immutable qualities of the individual. Yoshino criticizes these court decisions, arguing that the standard is actually wrong: the employer (or state) should have to demonstrate a reasonable explanation of why the individual should cover. In other words, the question isn’t whether or not a person can cover, but whether or not a person should cover in a given context. Again demonstrating his flexibility, Yoshino argues that there may indeed be compelling reasons to require covering (one example he gives is of a muslim woman being required to unveil for government identification photographs), but that often the cases that actually go to court don’t amount to compelling reasons for covering (e.g., why *should* an African American woman be required to take her hair out of cornrows for work? why should a female bartender be required to wear makeup?). With sexual covering, Yoshino also demonstrates an interesting contradiction: Women are required to ‘reverse-cover’, as they are often required to act out the feminine role rather than cover it up; indeed, women in the workplace are often required both to cover their femininity and to enact femininity at the same time, creating a kind of cultural double-bind they cannot escape.

In both the race and the gender chapters, I couldn’t help but recall the arguments I’d recently read by Michael Benn Walters about race and gender inequality. And I also couldn’t help but be horrified by Yoshino’s facile use of ‘race’ as a gloss for something that is unitary and consistent, especially with things like cornrows: He treats such cultural practices as immutable, even as he criticizes the court for requiring immutability for protection. Ultimately, he pulls himself out of those problems by making his argument: That the burden should be on the state to demonstrate a compelling reason to foreclose a cultural practice, rather than on the individual to demonstrate that their practice is immutably part of their identity.

In the last section of the book, Yoshino’s argument becomes the most compelling, as he moves from a problematic analysis of religious freedom (again, I couldn’t help but scream to myself, “But religions are truth claims that must be debated in the public sphere!”) to an analysis of how we might go about protecting against covering demands. In a nutshell, Yoshino argues that we move from a Civil Rights model (which focuses on protection of groups) to a Human Rights model, which universalizes our needs and desires as people living together in American democracy. Interestingly, Yoshino suggests that the more diverse we become in America, the more exhausted we grow of multiculturalism and the more evident our shared humanity. The recent Lawrence v. Texas decision overturning sodomy laws is a prime example: The rationale for the court decision was not that gay men should be protected in their practices as a group, but rather that all individual adults in America should have an expectation of privacy regarding their consensual intimate sexual acts and choices. He also sites Tennessee v. Lane, wherein a wheelchair-bound woman sued the state of Tennessee because she couldn’t get into court buildings and perform her job. The court ruled that all americans have a reasonable expectation of the ability to enter into public buildings, especially courts, and ruled in her favor. This is a universalization of the rights argument, where when an issue of covering or passing comes before the court, the court rules based on human rights of the individual rather than on protected group status.

Most disappointing in Yoshino’s book was the lack of historical depth or accuracy (but to be fair, he’s functioning off of dominant narratives) and too often sliding into a kind of racial and ethnic essentialism that makes me extremely uncomfortable. What I find most hopeful about Yoshino’s formulation is that it allows for the diversity of actual practice, for individuals to chose the cultural afflilations and practices that work for them, allowing for example, both the normals and the queers to exist in the U.S. without either being privileged in the public sphere.

Mormon Homophobia: The Oaks/Wickman “Interview” in Redux 20 August 2006

Posted by Todd in Democratic Theory, Ethics, Gay Rights, Homosexuality, Inequality & Stratification, Mormonism/LDS Church.
comments closed

[Summary of thoughts from Mormon Homophobia: Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.]

After mulling over the arguments presented by Oaks and Wickman, I think they basically boil down to this:

1) You should love homosexuals because they are struggling with a temptation; but you should always make it clear that homosexuality is evil. Your love of them must always be accompanied by stern insistence on their sinful nature. Because God said so.

2) Parents who choose to defend their children have forsaken the Lord. It is acceptable for parents to bar their children from coming home if they are in a homosexual relationship.

3) Homosexuality may or may not be biological, but regardless, it shouldn’t be acted upon.

4) If same-sex marriage were allowed, it would change the definition of marriage, which is bad, really really really bad. Society might crumble and everything! God told us what marriage is, and it isn’t that.

5) Mormons practiced polygamy, but didn’t like it, and were glad when they came to their senses and went back to One-Man-One-Woman marriage. So there’s no contradiction in Mormons being against same-sex marriage.

My responses:

1) Religious beliefs are irrelevant in the public sphere, where in a pluralistic society you must make rational, substantiated arguments demonstrating harm in order to abridge individual rights or to privilege an entire class of people over another (in this case, heterosexuals). You are entitled to religious beliefs and practice, but in the public sphere they are not sufficient justification for enacting law, and other people who disagree are free to respond and critique your beliefs. And so on the whole, this propaganda piece might serve well to help believing members feel better about their own homophobia, and to think they are being ethical and loving without regard to the actual consequences of their behavior, but is irrelevant in a debate in a democratic society with a pluralism of religions. In the end, Oaks and Whitman add nothing new to the debate and instead rehash old and tired arguments that, although powerful among the majority of Americans, hold no rational water.

2) Their appeals to history and tradition are rhetorical and not supported by the any data known to me. In order to make them, they have to pretend that marriage has remained unchanged in any culture for as long as we have recorded history.

3) They make ethical propositions which make sense from within mormonism, but which in fact are deeply harmful to people they purport to love. They divide families and teach people to hate themselves. These kinds of social pressures have been amply demonstrated to be the cause of most of the psychological and emotional adjustment problems experienced by gay men and women prior to “coming out.” They think they are advocating love and compassion, but the consequences of their proposals would be a continuation of the status quo which is deeply harmful to gay men and women in their midst.

4) Finally, they are continually at best disingenuous and at worst outright liars about mormon beliefs and history, as they refuse responsibility for the grossly negligent and unethical practices of the church vis-a-vis homosexuality in the past (e.g., reparative therapy) and they fudge the facts on gay members’ participation in the church (e.g., in missionary service).