Sunday, May 08, 2005

Gay Life, Yes?; Gay Lifestyle, No.

Today is Mother's Day, so let me first wish all the mothers and grandmothers, and those who serve as de facto mothers, a Happy Mother's Day. Mothering certainly isn't an easy job these days, but then it never was. I spoke with my mother this morning, and we had a great conversation.

One thing she never talks about in our conversations, thankfully, is "the gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle," though she has become more comfortable speaking about my partner and me, and is, to a greater extent than before, able to discuss LGBT issues. Some straight, and even self-identified gay people (and quite a few gay Websites, as a recent Google search showed) I know, however, do refer to a "gay lifestyle." They tend to speak of it as if it's some fixed, objective thing, though neither I nor anyone I know is living "it." We may consider ourselves "homosexual" or "gay" or "lesbian" or "same-gender-loving" (this is the term I adopted some years ago for political and racial pride reasons), and in fact there are "lifestyle" magazines that appeal to gay and lesbian and sgl people, or in a more limited sense ways of living shared by groups of gay people (people who practice BDSM, people who like to go dancing a lot, etc.), but I think these are qualified meanings of the term. There is no one set "gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle."

When I hear homophobic and heterosexist people use this term, I tend to correct them, and suggest they speak about "gay lives" or "gay people" or be more specific, because I find the term reductive and empty; what in fact is this "gay lifestyle" that far too many people, and especially homophobes and right-wingers, like to bandy about? Or that even too many homosexual people mention so casually? (For example, in February, a Fairfax County (VA) School Board Member denounced the "homosexual lifestyle" as "destructive" as a pretext to injecting his homophobic agenda into the school.) This term, steeped in the most ignorant, reductive stereotypes, has become a major organizing point for the anti-gay right and its allies; denunciations of a "gay agenda" often are based on the foundation of a belief in a "gay lifestyle." But is a "gay lifestyle" as the homophobes suggest something that can be properly categorized or quantified, subjected to a taxonomy and defined? I think not.

Let's accept for the moment the equation of "gay" as "homosexual personhood," which I'll define below. (And in using "gay" I mean lesbian and gay broadly; I knowledge that I am working with the particular European-American, bourgeois model of homosexuality as it developed from the period of the Industrial Revolution, and not speaking more expansively and carefully about the wider historical array of same-sexual practices; and I also acknowledge that there are self-identified homosexuals who utilize other labels for a variety of reasons, including political, ideological, cultural and other ones, as I suggested above with the term "same-gender-loving." I also admit that I am bracketing off transgender issues, which are related but really do deserve a discussion of their own.) Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, 10th edition, describes "lifestyle" as "the typical way of life of an individual, group, or culture." The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "someone's way of living; the things that a person or particular group of people usually do." The Compact Oxford English dictionary says a "lifestyle" is "the way in which one lives." So is there a typical life for gay people in America? Are class, racial, ethnic, gender, and other social categories simply elided in this happy (or as some people like to suppose, unhappy) pursuit? Is there a common or shared way that we all live? What is it that gay people "usually do"? Is it just having sex (or even thinking of having sex) with a person of the same sex or gender, which more than a few people, some of them bi or ambi or polysexual;, some who do so because of the given social context [prison, same-sexual environments, etc.] who don't consider themselves homosexual or gay do; some of them actually homosexual but deluded or afraid or confused; etc., quite frequently? Is regularity or duration a factor?

Does it mean being in a relationship with a person of the same sex, or aspiring to? Living with said person of the same sex? Wanting to marry them, or, following the liberatory models of the 1970s, not? Patronizing gay bars, clubs, or really any gay institutions? Reading or writing or being interesting in literature by or about gays or with a gay subtext or at least semi-homotextual, or perhaps showing some interests in such things as they might be found in the arts in general? Being interested in fashion, gardening, Capri pants, lapdogs, same-sexual porn? Trying to butch it up, or femme it up, or act or perform in some way that differs from what's considered the social norms of behavior in your society? The word "gay" itself is encoded, as I say above, with particular historical and social resonances, and often is viewed normatively as white, middle-class, and male. Is it even possible to construe the lives of homosexual men and women so broadly as to assume they share a common lifestyle? The deeper one probes (!), the more the notion falls apart. And yet people cling to the idea of a "gay lifestyle."

Well, okay, the truth of the matter is, people who talk about a "gay lifestyle" usually are extrapolating from the basic fact of same-sexual practices, meaning same-sex and same-gender sex. Homosexuality for them equals same-sex sex, and the pursuit and practice of same-sex sex constitutes a "lifestyle." (Peggy Noonan, the speechwriter for Ronald Raygun, recently remarked that when a young man she met on the dance floor told her he was gay, she didn't want to know about who he had sex with.) It's an insidious, but commonly held idea that many homosexual people internalize, since it's reflected back to us on a daily basis via the media. A few years ago I tried to spell out on a listserv frequented primarily by LGBT people but open to everyone that we needed to unpack this idea of gay or homosexual personhood--and again, I understand that both terms are historically, socially and politically inflected, and that some people who might consider themselves to be defined in some way by these terms may reject them for a variety of reasons.

But back to the unpacking, as I see it, you could break down homosexual personhood in the following ways. First, there's
  • Sexual orientation, which may or may not be acted on, and which isn't binaristic, but in fact falls along a spectrum. You cannot choose your orientation, despite the claims of anti-gay or ex-gay critics. (This is different from gender orientation.) I would imagine that most people who consider themselves homosexual or gay base it on what they perceive to be their sexual orientation, though it is also the case that some people may claim a homosexual identification for political reasons (as some lesbians, have done, say), and conversely, may deny being homosexual despite the realization that they have a homosexual orientation.
Related to sexual orientation are the following:
  • Sexual identity and identification, which may square directly or vary dramatically from one's sexual orientation, since they depend on a variety of factors, including socialization and social, political and cultural contexts, one's subjective position and self-regard, and so forth. Identities have both subjective and objective aspects, and are fluid, and may not always be publicly performed. Also sexual identity differs from gender identity (though at times they're conflated);
  • Sexual object choice, meaning the sex of the person you sleep with, which may flow or result from sexual orientation, or not, depending upon the circumstances;
  • Sexual practice, which may differ from one's orientation, and may include a unity or variety of chosen sexual objects (by which I mean people), or no activity whatsoever.

Then, there's another aspect that in fact is quite salient:
  • Social performance, which is to say, the ways one performs one's subjectivities and identifications in the world. "Straight-acting" versus "fem" for gay men, or "butch" versus "femme" for lesbians, or queer or gender-fuck or DL, etc., let's say, are all forms of social performance. Such performances are fluid, often contextual and contingent (based on a range of factors, such as socioeconomics, politics and ideology, cultural affiliations, etc.), and may not square at all with sexual or gender orientation. They have subjective and objective dimensions.
Much of this is probably old-hat to many people. But much of the public discourse around gay people, at least in my experience, fails to explore these elements (or other versions of them) with complexity, and in fact speaks of them as if they constitute a coherence. It's especially the case that homophobes who speak of "gay lifestyles" or "homosexual lifestyles" are fusing and confusing and conflating all of these things, creating an essential category, with little regard for the complexity of people's lives, especially people who consider and label themselves "gay" or "homosexual" (or same-gender-loving, two spirit, etc.). Of course if your perspective proceeds from a very delimited heteronormativity, and your aim is to demonize, oppress and repress, you're not going to worry about nuances. "Gay lifestyle" or "homosexual lifestyle" is going to be where you start, and anything and everything you believe falls within that category will fit, whether it does or not.

The truth is that each of the aspects of homosexual personhood I've delineated above provides a nexus for homophobic and heterosexist oppression. In addition to individual or group discriminatory actions (deriding people because they admit to a homosexual orientation, because they appear too effeminate or too butch, etc.), state-sanctioned oppression also can occur based on any of these. For example, despite Lawrence v. Kansas, which decriminalized same-sexual sex (and some sex acts performed by people of differing sexes) across the country, LGBT people across a broad swathe of America lack civil protections against discriminatory statutes or discrimination based on 1) being perceived to have a homosexual orientation; 2) perceived to desire a person of the same sex or gender; 3) for being known to have sex with a person of the same sex or gender (though the sex act itself is no longer grounds for prosecution; 4) being perceived to be "gay" or "homosexual" or something other than what a boss or landlord might deem to be outside the socially sanctioned (community) norm. Many of the discriminatory statues and acts--or the lack of protections against them--and the statutory bases or judgments for them were based on the view of homosexuality, and gay personhood, as being constituted solely as same-sexual sex. Yet as I've said, though same-sexual sex, between consenting adults, is no longer criminal anywhere in the United States, these other aspects of gay personhood remain unprotected from discriminatory laws or discrimination by individuals and groups.

"Gay(ness)" or "homosexual(ity)" is not merely a concept or idea, but has become a socially realized, ontologically valid category around which homosexual people--not all, but many of us--and our allies have organized aspects of our lives. We speak of "gay rights," "gay liberation," "gay pride," "gay marriage," etc., and it is out of such associations that we develop forms of identity, solidarity, and so forth. Yet we also realize how variegated and complex anything labeled as "gay" really is, how complex homosexual personhood is, how problematic even the covering terms "gay" and "homosexual" are. (The gender, racial, ethnic, class, religious, health status, and other kinds of differences that mark LGBT people lead to friction and conflict in and of themselves.) "Gay" has also become a socially realized category around which homophobes and heterosexists can rally. Yet they usually don't want to look at our lives with complexity; a reductive notion of the "gay lifestyle," and what homosexuality is and how we live it often lies at the core of their discriminatory aims and actions, and as such, should be challenged and corrected whenever possible.

Which brings me to note that I'd been working on a post inspired by the recent death of Jack Nichols (May 2, 2005) at age 67. One of the major pioneers in the lesbian and gay civil-rights movement, he was a founder with Frank Kameny in the early 1960s of the Mattachine Society, one of the most important pre-Stonewall gay rights groups, and helped to organize the first lesbian and gay protest at the White House, in 1965, and the first lesbian and gay civil rights demonstrations in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York from 1965 through 1969. (In fact the first one was held on Independence Day 40 years ago, in Philadelphia.) At that moment in history, the federal government would not hire lesbians and gays, and the American Psychological Association (APA) still classified homosexuality as a mental illness. Ultimately, Nichols played a key role in pushing the APA to remove homosexuality from its list of illnesses in 1973. Lastly, he and his partner Lige Clark were the publishers of America's first gay weekly, GAY. In my typing I didn't get beyond linking Nichols's activism to the nascent notion of a gay collectivity, but I hope to write more on this in the future, and also to talk about "queerness" as concept and practice. But not now. Gay life, perhaps, gay lifestyle, no.


  1. I agree with you regarding "gay lifestyle." If I were to say I am offended by "straight lifestyle", it might provide straight people with a taste of the bewilderment and confusion I feel when I hear the same comment about "gay lifestyle." Just what, exactly, are you talking about? The term is an unstickable label whose sole purpose is to save its user from having to say that two men kissing makes them uncomfortable and, sorry to be so crass, they think dick and butt is gross. It saves Christians from having to say "anal intercourse."

    I have a lesser but somewhat similar disdain for the term "sexual orientation" when defined as "the thing about your sexuality which you cannot choose." I think the term is too focused on physiology, the binary male/female, as if your sexuality had to be defined along an orientation between two polar opposites. I feel a person's sexuality is fluid and unique. Perhaps the conformity that has historically held societies and cultures together, and the fear and intimidation used to maintain that conformity, and the reaction against that fear and intimidation, polarizes individuals in the cultures involved.

  2. Derek, you're so right. Doesn't "straight lifestyle" sound odd?

    I agree with you sexual orientation is not binary and *can* be fluid, but I think sometimes people who have issues with homosexuals and homosexuality use this notion as a way of arguing that one's sexuality is a choice. My attempts to break things down aimed to show that yes, you may not ACT upon your orientation, which I think is genetically determined to some degree (I'm going to post about this soon), but if in the psychochemical, physiological interactions that occur inside of you, you happen almost completely to be attracted to men, *that* is not a choice. That is your innate orientation. For some of us, it is not so fixed, for others it is. It's not binary, and sexuality, as the larger complex of all these physiological, psychochemical, psychological, behaviorial elements, IS more than binary.

    Often, though, people don't use *orientation* as the defining trait, but some vague notion of, oh, what they think is "gay," "straight," whatever pops into their heads....