Same Sex Marriage and the Prevailing Myths of Sexuality

Does the “something” about Miriam” tell us something about us?

(Originally published on http://www.indymedia.ie)

With the Irish referendum on same sex marriage due Friday I thought it was time to blog on the societal components of the issue, or more accurately the perceptions of sexuality that underlie the issue (despite misleading efforts to make it all about surrogacy). The gay pride movement’s attempts to bolster their position through defining their sexuality as something purely biological – a Lady Gaga ‘born this way’ essentialism – is both misguided and misinforming. It hasn’t succeeded in overwhelming the logic of many unsympathetic factions. If anything it seems to bear an implied ‘we can’t be held accountable for our inadequacies’ about it. Its also a type of reasoning not too far removed from that which underlies racism or Nazism: a belief in people with inferior biologies and subhumans of non Aryan blood-stock. It is of little coincidence that one of the NO campaigners has spoken of ‘homosexuals’ as biologically disadvantaged in not being able to pass on their genes.

Personally I think a more apt approach to all human behavioural patterns should incorporate a little from column A and a little from column B – nature and nurture; the innate and the socially conditioned – with the societal dimension playing a huge role in disguising just how default bisexuality is or alternatively how there is no default. There are plenty of grounds to back up these assertions. Take some ancient Greek societies for example. Same sex relations among males was commonplace with the more problematic interpretations being about the significance of sex-positions as opposed to gender (the more active role was reserved for the man of higher status). Move forward to today and you’ll find plenty of documentary evidence highlighting how widespread homosexuality is in US prisons. However, this is often defined as sex among straight men or so-called ‘situational homosexuality’ – the Tony Soprano “pass”. I have my doubts however. If anything this sort of context allows men a certain legitimacy to both think of men sexually and act on it. Is it wrong of me to think that if there was absolutely no sexual attraction that they’d be more easily satiated by their hands?

So if this is the case then why is heterosexuality or at least the self-identification as heterosexual in the ascendancy? Well I suggest several reasons to do with societal power as it pertains to Western society. From a male perspective affection between men has not often been synonymous with masculinity and the ideal of being a ‘man’; additionally norms stemming from the religious obsession with marriage and reproductive functionality linger on. Even despite increasing secularization of Irish society such norms can be potently enduring. Monogamy for example was very much a religious invention, which coloured in the guise of contemporary romance, still remains a sacrosanct part of everyday reality. These kinds of societal hierarchies can have very powerful censoring effects: even by ourselves upon ourselves in regard to how we think and what we think about.

A mischievous prank that I used to play in school on my male classmates, demonstrates the subtlety with which such power operates. It involved asking them to identify their hottest celebrity. Once named I would then ask them to imagine an exact double of the woman all kitted out in provocative dress and sitting on their lap, grinding against their thighs. “Would you shift [slang kiss] her?” “Yes of course” they’d say. Then I follow “and what if she turns around to you and says I used to be a man, and you knew she wasn’t lying”. Invariably they all said no, defending the rejection with an uncomfortable “ah but you’d know then”. While at the time this was merely blaggardish humour luring friends into positions of discomfort, now I see it as a marker of the subtly ingrained oppression of the norms of masculinity and heteronormativity.

But then how come some men are openly alert to their desires for other men? Well I can only conjecture that either it is a part of a curious and resistant character which draws some men to understand better and act upon their sexual desires and/or it is a heavier weighting of the nurture/nature relationship towards a sexual biologism of same sex attraction that was just too strong for some to stay living under the suffocating tarpaulin of heterosexuality.

Either way it is hardly a good enough excuse to continue labelling, defining and inadvertently belittling a complex human being to their sexual preferences. After all hierarchies cannot exist without relations of difference – the divisions necessary in order to extol one object, idea or way of life over another – and in this case the ‘normal’ heterosexual over the innately ‘deviant’ Other. The subtleties of this are apparent in how we never hear of anyone being referred to as ‘a heterosexual’ but still are likely to hear people speak of ‘a homosexual’ or to distinguish between same-named colleagues by attaching the descriptor of ‘gay’ as in ‘gay John’ or by attaching to the noun of ‘lesbian’ as in ‘Ann the lesbian’. Therefore, while celebrating difference can have some noble dimensions to it, on the matter of sexuality it would have perhaps been preferable for the pride movement to have pushed for non-difference by pointing out just how flimsy the foundations of heteronormativity actual are.

The psycho-analyst Lacan’s view on arousal may be of some help here. Lacan criticized how psychoanalysis has unnecessarily divided the sexual world according to genitalia. However no person can ever be attracted to an entire gender, no being is attracted to all men or all women and therefore the idea of homo or heterosexuality is a nonsense. Instead the unconscious object of arousal can be the specific aspect of a specific person whether that be a part of the body, a voice or even a mind, regardless of what sexual identity one perceives oneself as.

Following that line of thinking lets take another route which is a step up from the either/or of sexual division but yet continues to maintain the sexual categories. Kinsey’s continuum views human sexuality as falling along a scale where rarely do people fit neatly into archetypal sexualities of homosexual and heterosexual but instead often lean some way in both directions. Some find themselves positioned closer to the heterosexual pole and some towards the homosexual pole. However this is a continuum which needs re-examining under the light of social and cultural historical relations. How many middle-class white Americans, from Kinsey’s time, were positioned on the heterosexual side of the scale with their sexual identity and experiences insulated from other ethnicities? Would breaching these borders have given life to different leanings? What if the entirety of gendered fashions were inverted? What if we lived in a society where a man’s gait, gestures, posture, dress, hairstyle, facial and bodily treatments were oriented towards the sparkly, figure-hugging sexualization that so often features in contemporary structures of femininity and women’s fashion? And what if female fashions were oriented towards a certain posturing and loose-fitting, ruggedness, or short-haired neatness as is general of the groomed male of today?

This is not an impossibility. When one looks at the mass of research into gendering it becomes quickly evident how much social construction and the ‘doing’ of gender goes into maintaining these gendered fictions. With such an inversion how would one find oneself positioned on the continuum? If in doubt think back to the aforementioned thought experiment of my school days or even that greater experiment that was the movie “The Crying Game”. The arbitrariness of culture, born out of historical circumstances, hints at the ‘what-if’ of possibilities were the balances of societal powers to sway and contort. Could our own societal circumstances, transformed radically, alter how we perceive our own sexuality? So perhaps its time to drop Lady Gaga essentialisms and the discriminating biologisms of difference and instead help to convince the rest of society of the possibilities beyond the tarpaulin.

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