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Transcending Sexual Identity

News & Features | October 6, 2014

On June 28, 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village, demanding that everyone line up and show identification cards. Those who were cross-dressing were to be arrested; it was a time when homosexual acts were illegal in every state except Illinois. Police raids on gay establishments were routine. The patrons refused to be arrested. A crowd grew outside. As the police arrested a lesbian woman struggling to escape, she turned to the bystanders and shouted, “Why don’t you do something?” This plea was the spark of the Stonewall Riots—perhaps the single most important event in the gay liberation movement and the modern fight for LGBT rights in the US. For the next few days, riots and protests persisted. Garbage cans, bottles, bricks, and rocks were thrown at Stonewall Inn, which was occupied and boarded by the police. “Gay power!” became a rallying cry. The modern battle for the rights of sexual minorities was catapulted into the headlines.

Despite setbacks, continued homophobia, trans*phobia, and acts of violence against sexual and gender minorities, important victories have been achieved. Today, pride parades commemorate the Stonewall Uprising in large cities each year across the United States. Same-sex marriage is now legal in 19 states. In 2012, President Obama became the first president to publicly support the legalization of same-sex marriage. Laverne Cox, most famous for her role in Orange in the New Black, became the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy and appeared on the cover of Time magazine that same year.
From a historical perspective, such political battles are a completely novel phenomenon. Never before has sexuality—or, more specifically, sexual identity—been a political issue until the past century and a half. In the West, identitarian politics—political battles that center around rights for certain identities: religious, racial, ethnic, class, or sexual—have shaped the trajectory of our ideas about human rights. During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the right to choose religious identity became the most important and destructive political battle of its day. In the 1700s and 1800s, economic class, specifically the oppression of the working and poor classes, became the focal point of political revolutions. Battles for equal rights for all races and ethnicities have proliferated around the world, especially since the end of the old European colonial order. Now, the battle for acceptance of sexual identities—gay, lesbian, trans*, bisexual, etc.—has gained its place as one of the most important battlefields for human rights.

Given the novelty of these battles over the rights for sexual minorities, we must ask how, historically, our categories of sexuality were constructed in the first place. Lee Edelman, a Fletcher Professor of English Literature and a central figure in the rethinking of queer theory today, emphasizes that our categories of sexuality are not universal or evident ways of constructing identity. “Sexuality is no more transhistorical than race is,” Prof. Edelman explains. The Greeks, for example, did not think in terms of “heterosexual” versus “homosexual;” such categories of sexual orientation simply did not exist for them. Instead, the categories that mattered for the Greeks were not related to gender or sexuality but rather to power dynamics: dominant versus submissive. Hence, the Greeks understood and accepted sexual relations with boys as an act that didn’t define the individual as “hetero” or “homosexual” but as dominant. The imperative that Prof. Edelman says queer theory forces us to consider, then, is to “think about discourse—language—as the vehicle through which sexuality is constructed.” Given our defining categories of sexuality today—gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, etc.—it’s important to ask how the question of who we are became linked to our sexuality.

In order to answer this question, it’s necessary to consider French thinker Michel Foucault, a central figure in queer theory who is famous for proclaiming that sexuality is a discursive construct. It only emerged in the 19th century—which is not to say that gay or lesbian or bisexual acts did not exist before this time. Rather, what emerged in the 19th century was the idea that our sexual desires reveal something fundamental about who we are. What used to be an act became an identity. Before the 19th century, for example, sodomy was an act prohibited by law, but those who committed sodomy were not defined by this act. During the 1800s, though, such individuals came to be defined as “homosexuals.”

“The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to be a type of life, a life form, and morphology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions,” Foucault writes in The History of Sexuality. “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” The distinction that Foucault draws is subtle but important. Sex stopped being just something that one did. Now, it reveals something much more wide-ranging: truth about your sexuality and, ultimately, yourself. Foucault concludes, “In the space of a few centuries, a certain inclination has led us to direct the question of what we are, to sex.”

The task that Foucault—and much of queer theory today—incites is to ask how these categories were formed and what limitations they create. Foucault emphasizes that the discourse of sexuality was created between techniques of knowledge and strategies of power. The term “homosexual,” for instance, originated as a medical term to describe a pathology: an abnormality in an otherwise “healthy” individual. Even “heterosexual” defined a pathological condition, as it defined people who had sex for purposes other than procreation. It was part of a strategy to control the healthy reproduction of populations—and hence, understand and “cure” those with abnormal sexualities—that our current categorization of sexualities emerged. Prof. Lee Edelman emphasizes the connection between the discourse of sexuality and regimes of power: “For Foucault, the discourse of sexuality was the discourse of power.”

Through this lens, an innate danger lurking beneath such identitarian politics becomes clear: to fight political battles for such identities is to accept the categories imposed on individuals throughout the course of history. “A gay liberation movement presupposes that there is a gay to be liberated,” Prof. Edelman says, emphasizing that such a movement is not liberation at all. “That’s simply accepting the identitarian category constructed by the regime of power.” Foucault echoed the same sentiments: “If identity becomes the problem of sexual existence, and if people think that they have to ‘uncover’ their ‘own identity,’ and that their identity has to become the law, the principle, the code of their existence, if the perennial question they ask is ‘Does this thing conform to my identity?’ then, I think, they will turn back to a kind of ethics very close to the old heterosexual virility.”

It is important to note, however, that none of these queer theorists negate the importance of political battles over LGBTQ rights. Although the term “homosexual” used to denote a pathological abnormality, today, thanks to the gay rights movement, the term’s meaning has transformed into a point of pride. Professor Kris Manjapra, an intellectual historian, agrees that such political battles are essential. “When you’re not reflected in the law or you’re systematically erased in the law, that has a depleting effect on one’s sense of self. At a very material level, I think that these struggles for the rights for sexual minorities are really important struggles.” Shannon Weber, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies agrees, arguing that “having same-sex marriage would make a more just society in terms of visibility and in terms of youth growing up and seeing models of queerness in the public sphere.”

The historical critique of our categories of sexual identity does not invalidate current or past political struggles. What it makes clear, though, is that political victories cannot be the end goal. “I don’t think about it as achieving a list of tangible rights and then our work is done,” explains Nino Testa, stating the role of the LGBT Center at Tufts. “What we’re doing here at the LGBT Center, and the work that’s being done in queer spaces all over the world, is thinking about transforming cultural understandings of gender and sexuality, and that has to do very much with rethinking the stability of these identity categories.”

What always needs to be the focal point of such struggles is not a particular identity, but rather the status of whoever is disenfranchised within a collective—i.e., the queer. “Queer is whatever is repudiated from the vantage point of normativity,” Prof. Edelman explains. There was a point in history when gays were queer—and in many places they still are—but what we’re seeing now, Prof. Edelman continues, is a process of “the absorption or the incorporation of gayness into dominant cultural authority and thus as part of the structure that works to stigmatize and cast out the queer.”
To move past the identitarian politics that might replicate the same marginalizing dangers that gays experienced at the time of the Stonewall Riots requires the courage to be willing to do away with one’s investments in one’s identities and see the collateral damage such categorizations can create. Put differently, it requires the willingness to be queer. For Prof. Manjapra, queerness is a conscious political orientation—one that always looks beyond the present to the horizon. “To be queer means to be attentive to the way that gender, race, sexuality, and class are being performed and inscribed in the ways that we interact in the world and to seek to critique the ways that we are engaging with those discourses,” says Prof. Manjapra.

What’s at stake in this discussion is far broader than a rethinking of sexual identities. It is to face the ways that certain modes of selfhood—whether racial, religious, class, or sexual—are constructed, the way that the real inequalities that are institutionalized based on such identities, and the work that needs to be done in order to dismantle those ways of understanding that make structural inequalities and differences inevitable. Queer theory is not just about sexual minorities. It’s about moving past identities that have been imposed upon us throughout history and acknowledging whoever is marginalized and made invisible.

True progress can only be achieved once we begin to discover the aspects of ourselves that are queer. “The problem with identity politics can only be addressed insofar as one starts, as Michael Jackson would say, with the man in the mirror,” Prof. Edelman urges, “and insofar as one is willing to see what the consequences are of doing away with one’s investments with identity, and trying to recognize the aspects of oneself that are cast out as queer, that are repudiated as disgusting, that are intolerable.” This discussion isn’t only important for the LGBT community. This is a discussion that’s relevant for all citizens of the Western world—whether straight or gay or trans* or everything in between—precisely because sexuality has become much more than something we do. It’s become part of who we are.