Thursday, January 26, 2006

What does it mean to BE gay?

Was Simon Hughes being hypocritical when he recently denied to the Independent that he was gay, only to 'come out' to The Sun (of all papers!) and state: "I am perfectly willing to say that I have had both homosexual and heterosexual relationships in the past"? Is he just 'bisexual' as this Guardian blog comment reports?

On balance, I suspect that his politician's soul got the better of him here and that there is a degree of hypocrisy to what he has said previously and now. HOWEVER, as is typical for the British attitude to sex and sexual activities, I do think that there is not necessarily a contradiction per se in Hughes stating he is "not gay" and admitting to having had homosexual relationships. Is the tag of bisexuality is sufficiently adequate?

In the excellent book Gay New York, writer George Chauncey argues that identification as 'being gay' would have made no sense to those in pre-WWII America, and many men would have engaged in sexual acts with other men without this precluding them from 'being heterosexual' or even restricting them to 'being bisexual'. I don't think that the passing of time should dictate that these problems with 'being' something have been resolved.

Additionally, there is the issue of how, or whether, the status of heterosexuality is implicitly privileged: given that seemingly one gay relationship or act can undermine your full identification as heterosexual, does this suggest that actually homosexuality is the privileged action since it has such an impact on identification? I would argue that the peception of such binaries as heterosexual/homosexual (black/white; male/female) is not so clear-cut: the pairing is not perceived to be of equal status. The homosexual act has the impact that it does on clear identification of heterosexuality not because homosexuality is privileged but precisely because it is perceived as so OTHER, because it taints the security of identifying the privileged group as "pure" / "normal" *. Moreover, the identification of biexuality does not entirely resolve such dichotomies, as is explored in Marjorie Garber's book Vice Versa: bisexuality is "not just another sexual orientation but rather a sexuality that undoes sexual orientation as a category."

* Please note that I do NOT believe that heterosexuality is a state of being that is "pure" / "normal", any more than I would see women as secondary to men, or those of non-white races as secondary to whites.


Neil said...

Good post.

Kerron said...

Do you see men as secondary to women though?


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

When God made man she was only practising...

I'm kidding of course....


SimonHolyHoses said...

There's also the temporal aspect: is it always the case that "be" refers to some permanent state?

I think we're all a bit more complicated than we like to think we are when it comes to most aspects of personality.

Rob said...

I'll leave the deep gender-identity stuff to people like Clare more qualified to comment. But as far as Simon Hughes is concerned I think Quarsan makes a very valid point over on Blairwatch where he points up the hypocrisy of Hughes (whose sexual history at the very least includes same-sex episodes) having apparently obtained his parliamentary seat by means of a pretty openly homophobic campaign against Peter Tatchell.

Rob said...

According to Peter Tatchell the Liberals admitted responsibility for some of the nastier bits of homophobia in the Bermondsey campaign. However, he's now forgiven Simon Hughes and reckons he's the best person to lead the Lib Dems.

Gert said...

Although I dislike the hypocrisy, especially in the context of the byelection, I also feel that when people come up with 'if he lied about his sexuality he's bound to lie about politics' I want to shout No, no,no. Loads of people lie about stuff to do with sex. Doesn't prove anything.

And I want there to be a debate about real acts of immorality rather than just drugs and sex. Why don't the media examine, for example, the ecological footprint of leading politicians?

Anonymous said...

I find it rather bizarre that your discussion of "being gay" focuses exclusively on one's pattern of lifetime sexual conduct as opposed to the prevalent direction of one's sexual attractions. I thought we had started moving beyond that with the Kinsey Report in 1948!

The fact that extreme social pressure and internalized homophobia may have led one to engage in some isolated opposite-sex activities in one's youth--or, in any earlier time, to live a double-life--hardly makes one "bisexual," if one's exclusive or nearly exclusive feelings of sexual attraction are toward members of the same sex. Indeed, I would personally find the imposition of the label "bisexual" an insulting attempt at identity erasure in either situation.

And I couldn't care less about Marjorie Garber's personal agenda to eradicate "gay" as a sexual orientation category. Indeed, I'm fed up with faddish scholarly fetishizing of pan-sexuality. It is not always benignly "post-gay," as it claims, but not infrequently crosses a line into antigay, in my opinion. No, everyone is really not just bisexual and living in self-deception in claiming otherwise.

As for your Simon Hughes, the best empirical evidence that we have--and it is admittedly quite preliminary--suggests that, whatever men may say, very few are truly bisexual. For women, sexuality may be more fluid or less categorical. The very dynamic you describe--of one act of same-sex intimacy alterring one's social categorization--was the very dynamic in which Mr. Hughes apparently had these "homosexual relationships." Since that dynamic and countless other mechanisms of extreme social control puts enormous pressure on men not to have these relationships, I frankly regard it as extraordinary that he would have had them. Put simply, you REALLY have to want it to risk so much injury and stigmatization. To say "I have had heterosexual and homosexual relationships," as though the respective decisions to have those relationships are remotely equivalent socially or psychologically, is absurd. One or a few same-sex acts may genuinely tell us something, because one is very clearly crossing an iron curtain by deciding to fulfill one's desire for those acts despite the extreme pressure not to do so. But the dynamic does not work the same in reverse. It's nothing profound for a closeted gay man to reinforce his false heterosexual bona fides either for himself or for others by engaging in straight sex. There's no Rubicon crossing in that, which is why the fact that many gay men may have isolated opposite-sex experiences in their sexual histories is largely meaningless in terms of sexual identity--whatever Marjorie Garber might want to make of it.

jamiego said...

God, sorry for posting so late on this!

I have to take issue with what some of what anonymous (the previous poster) says. He says of Simon Hughes homosexual activity:
"Put simply, you REALLY have to want it to risk so much injury and stigmatization."

I think in this the poster assumes that social structures (status, stigma, identity, etc.) are like an 'iron cage' through which one must force oneself to go against sexual hegemony, but I disagree. It is quite easy to find oneself in a liminal situation, where identities are neither questioned nor defined and therefore any sexual activity can be indulged on a whim. This is especially the case in a British University, where there is copious booze, music and open-minded youth to be enjoyed.

Certainly, identity can become fixed in a particular context, but only to become fluid again in another. Who I am in a job interview (e.g. supposedly my 'best' or 'ideal' self) is not the same as who I am in the club (my 'true' or 'free' self, perhaps), and who I am on the street is open to definition by who looks at me, who I look at, how I appear and where I'm going. All of this, obviously, applies to sexual and gender identity.

Hmm, heavy sociology, sorry.

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Anonymous said...

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The Liberal Democrats were declared dead in the water by this point. But wait - it
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Another senior Lib Dem vying for the leadership of the battered party, Simon Hughes,
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This month alone, he has denied his homosexuality four times. One of these denials came
during an interview with The Daily Telegraph on January 14. Mr Hughes stated, with regard
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television affairs program Newsnight.

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