Homosexuality as a Political Identity
“Not all societies have a culture of sexual identity. In truth, the notion that individuals define themselves by their sexual desire or behavior is a rather exceptional social occurrence.” (Pennington and Sojika, The Revolt Against Sexual Identity, p. 81 in The Social Construction of Sexuality by Steven Seidman)
“In the 1990s, a new queer lesbian and gay emerged. The queer challenged the hetero-homosexual binary and a culture organized around separate, bounded sexual identities. Queer argue that the very notion of separate gender and sexual identities creates unnecessary divisions and inequalities. These identities serve to control us by demanding that we confirm to constraining norms of masculinity or femininity or being straight or gay. In this regard, queers challenge the aim of a movement bent on normalizing a homosexual identity. Such a movement, they argue, reinforces a culture of sexual and gender division and regulation.” (Pennington and Sojika, The Revolt Against Sexual Identity, p. 85-86 in The Social Construction of Sexuality by Steven Seidman)
“No matter how much identities provide an anchor for us and a basis for group formation, they control us, tell us how to be, and force us to repudiate aspects of ourselves.” (Pennington and Sojika, The Revolt Against Sexual Identity, p. 86 in The Social Construction of Sexuality by Steven Seidman)
Homosexuality today expressed in a gay and lesbian identity may possibly be viewed as another model of homosexuality. Just as the others are historically and culturally specific so is the modern gay and lesbian. Being a gay and lesbian is not a unitary construct that is culturally transcendent across all societies today. A gay and lesbian is a social political identity limited to modern western cultures, although this gay and lesbian identity is gradually being expressed and adopted in other parts of the world. In this article it is the United States that is the specific emphasis. There may be references and quotes refereeing to other English speaking countries. But as seen in the above quotes there are already modern day challenges to a gay and lesbian political identity.
“Historical and anthropological research has shown that homosexual persons (i.e. people who occupy a social position or role as homosexuals) do not exist in many societies, whereas homosexual behavior occurs virtually in every society. Therefore we must distinguish between homosexual behavior and homosexual identity. One term refers to one’s sexual activity per se (whether casual or regular); the other word defines homosexuality as a social role, with its emotional and sexual components.”(Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity, p.37)
“The search for a theory of gay identity originated among gay Left intellectuals. Starting from an “ethnic model” of history that at first assumed an already existing identity or social group, they eventually discovered that homosexuals were historically constructed subjects.” (Escoffier, Jeffrey. American Homo Community and Perversity, p.62)
“We should employ cross-cultural and historical evidence not only to chart changing attitudes but to challenge the very concept of a single trans-historical notion of homosexuality. In different cultures (and at different historical moments or conjunctures within the same culture) very different meanings are given to same-sex activity both by society at large and by the individual participants. The physical acts might be similar, but the social construction of meanings around them are profoundly different. The social integration of forms of pedagogic homosexual relations in ancient Greece have no continuity with contemporary notions of homosexual identity. To put it another way, the various possibilities of what Hocquenghem calls homosexual desire, or what more neutrally might be termed homosexual behaviors, which seem from historical evidence to be a permanent and ineradicable aspect of human sexual possibilities, are variously constructed in different cultures as an aspect of wider gender and sexual regulation. If this is the case, it is pointless discussing questions such as, what are the origins of homosexual oppression, or what is the nature of the homosexual taboo, as if there was a single, causative factor. The crucial question must be: what are the conditions for the emergence of this particular form of regulation of sexual behavior in this particular society?” (Weeks, Against Nature, p. 15-16)
“Transcending all these issues of lifestyle was the potent question of the gay identity itself. The gay identity is no more a product of nature than any other sexual identity. It has developed through a complex history of definitions and self-definition, and what recent histories of homosexuality have clearly revealed is that there is no necessary connection between sexual practices and sexual identity.” (Weeks, Sexuality and Its Discontents Meanings, Myths and Modern Sexualities, p. 50)
“The idea of a gay and lesbian identity sexual identity has been formulated over the last two decades. Historically it is the product of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, which, itself, grew out of the Black civil rights and women’s liberation movements of the fifties and sixties. Like ethnic identities, sexual identity assigns individuals to membership in a group, the gay lesbian community. Although sexual identity has become a group identity, its historical antecedents can be traced to the nineteen-century notion that homosexual men and women, each representative of a newly discovered biological specimen, represented a “third sex”. Homosexuality, which had been conceived primarily as an act was thereby transformed into an actor. (De Cecco, 1990b). Once actors had been created it was possible to assign them a group identity. Once a person became a member of a group, particularly one that has been stigmatized and marginal, identity as an individual was easily subsumed under group identity.” (De Cecco and Parker, “The Biology of Homosexuality: Sexual Orientation or Sexual Preference,” p. 22-23 in Sex, Cells, and Same-Sex Desire: The Biology of Sexual, Preference, editors De Cecco and Parker)
“The configuring of the meaning of homosexuality by its advocates into a lifestyle alternative or minority status, and the movement of lesbians and gay men into the social center parallels the transformation of the social role of the African-Americans and women during the same period.” (Seidman, Embattled Eros, p.148-149)
“On the one hand, lesbians and gay men have made themselves an effective force in the USA over the past several decades largely by giving themselves what the civil rights movement had: a public collective identity. Gay and lesbian social movements have built a quasi-ethnicity, complete with its own political and culture institutions, festivals, neighborhoods, even its own flag. Underlying that ethnicity is typically the notion that what gays and lesbians share – the anchor of minority rights claim – is the same fixed, natural essence, a self with same-sex desires. The shared oppression, these movements have forcefully claimed, is denial of the freedoms and opportunities to actualize this self. In this ethiniclessentialist politic, clear categories of collective identity are necessary for successful resistance and political gain.” (Gamson, “Must Identity Movements Self-Destruct?”, p.516)
“Lesbian and gay historians have asked questions about the origins of gay liberation and lesbian feminism, and have come up with some surprising answers. Rather than finding a silent, oppressed, gay minority in all times and all places, historians have discovered that gay identity is a recent, Western, historical construction. Jeffrey Weeks, Jonathan Katz and Lillian Faderman, for example have traced the emergence of lesbian and gay identity in the late nineteenth century. Similarly John D’Emilio, Allan Berube and the Buffalo Oral History Project have described how this identity laid the basis for organized political activity in the years following World War II.
The work of lesbian and gay historians has also demonstrated that human sexuality is not a natural, timeless “given”, but is historically shaped and politically regulated.” (Duggan, “History’s Gay Ghetto: The Contradictions of Growth in Lesbian and Gay History,” p.151-152 in Sex Wars edited by Duggan & Hunter, Sex Wars)
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