Last Saturday I posted my latest article at Wheat & Tares: The shortsighted wrongheadedness of LGBT activism. I will admit I was trying to draw people in with such a provocative title (…after all, what do most people mean when they try to say LGBT activism is wrongheaded?) when really I was coming at the topic with a quite different (yet I believe, still controversial) criticism…namely that of queer theoretical critiques of the tendency for many LGBT activists to adopt strategic essentialism in their campaigning.
To summarize, from other social theoretical fields are derived certain problems with “essentializing” certain concepts. E.g., what is a woman? Is a woman a construct or is there something essential to a woman? What is blackness? Is there something “essential” to delineate whether someone is black or not?
There are theorists in each case who work hard to establish that these concepts are constructed…and so the constructs can be deconstructed as well. And yet, in some LGBT activism, you hear arguments that people just are that way. In other words, some people are essentially gay (and there is a gay essence for some people to either have or not have anyway).
And that’s kinda where I was going there.
(And I’ll have to admit that I have Alan from MSP to thank for even introducing me to this way of thinking…although I’m sure he’ll point out that I’ve done a terrible job understanding it.)
Anyway, one issue of the deconstruction problem is that it seems oftentimes unintuitive. How can one undo gender, for example? It seems like even if one finds out certain exceptions and problems, the exceptions prove certain rules.
In the case of orientation, it does seem that, yes, some people are straight, and some people are gay, and some people are bi, etc., It seems that there are men and women for all of this to happen.
That’s why the New York Times article My Ex-Gay Friend was really interesting to me.
See, it wasn’t just the idea that someone could change his or her sexuality. (There are issues with the research about that. What does it mean to be ex-gay? Does it mean to be straight? Does it mean to have no feelings of sexual attraction at all? Does it simply mean to have a kind of celibacy where one’s feelings are kept under ‘control’?) It wasn’t even really that Glatze went from one polar extreme to another. (I see a lot of people doing that in a lot of contexts…to the extent that I can really believe that polar opposites are actually similar to each other than they might expect.)
Rather, it was the details about his history, some of his methods, and the light it cast (in some respects) on the constructionist/essentialist concepts.
Very early on, the writer of the New York Times article writes something interesting:
While I was busy trying to secure a boyfriend, [Michael] was busy contemplating queer theory, marching in gay rights rallies and urging young people to celebrate (not just accept) their same-sex attractions.
The way my W&T article was framed, it portrayed many LGBT activists as just wanting acceptance (for the gay persons) or tolerance (from non-gay people surrounding). But a queer theoretical argument would argue for celebration, in a way.
The article has another quote that really kind of touches on the same issue:
It all sounded very much like the Michael I knew at XY, a young man who was fascinated by queer theory — namely, the idea that sexual and gender identities are culturally constructed rather than biologically fixed — and who dreamed of a world without labels like “straight” and “gay,” which he deemed restrictive and designed to “segment and persecute,” as he argued in a 1998 issue of XY. Though he conceded back then that it was important “to stay unified under a ‘Gay’ political umbrella” until equality for gays and lesbians had been achieved, Michael preferred to label himself queer.
As Ben and I reminisced, I couldn’t help wondering if Michael’s new philosophy might, in a strange way, be a logical extension of what he believed back then — that “gay” is a limiting category and that sexual identities can change. Ben nodded. “A radical queer activist and a fundamentalist Christian aren’t always as different as they might seem,” he said, adding that they’re ideologues who can railroad over nuance and claim a monopoly on the truth.
That second paragraph, with the author’s wondering, was what really intrigued me about the article. To a certain point, yes, if one takes a view of sexuality as cultural constructed, then categorizing oneself in one identity or another is limiting.
…and yet, I was faced again with the problem of the intuitiveness of essentialism. For all the cultural construction, it doesn’t seem like one can just step out of the culture. It seems that one’s feelings of attraction are deeper within than culture. (Then again, I have some things to say about that from a race perspective [I know too many people who innocently say, “I’m just not attracted to black people” as if such a racial valuation of attractiveness is essential and immutable as well], but that’s another topic.) So, even if we want to find sexual orientation constructed, does that mean we will start feeling differently about our attractions?
A previous part of the article struck me here:
When [Michael] did feel an erotic pull toward another man, he said he tried to “sit with it and unpack it,” a technique he learned during a stint at a Buddhist retreat, where he went after leaving San Francisco. (Michael, who meditated regularly for a couple of years, said he was asked to leave the community for “talking too much about the Bible.”) “I observed it instead of just acting on it, and I began to see it as an aspect of my own brokenness, not as my identity,” he said. “The more I did that, the less I felt the desire,” he went on, adding that he has never undergone reparative therapy or attended an ex-gay ministry.
It seems to me that Buddhism is somewhat popular with a lot of secular types of people (at least, around the secular ex- and not-quite-believing Mormon circles I hang out around [which is admittedly not that representative of a sample])…and I’ve looked a little bit at some Buddhist ideas…and I’ve been somewhat put off.
I talk a lot about authenticity here and elsewhere. I like to believe that certain feelings one may have are a roadmap to what he or she ought to be doing. My ideas of autheticity are centered around, I suppose, a certain individual essentialism. My dispositions to a certain subject are deepseated, and I can’t so easily consciously change them.
…and yet, from a Buddhist perspective, such things are anatta/anatman, or “not self.” While my ego wants to cling to these things — and have “me” identify with these things as if they are me — but with training and practice, I could theoretically come to see all of these things as being “not me,” and thus let them pass away. And, at least theoretically, through this process I would be liberated from the suffering related to false consciousness.
To hear of someone like Glatze doing that with his own sexual orientation is a bit jarring to me, and yet, I still can’t help but feel like it is an idea that would be quite attractive in deconstructing social constructs. On the one hand, I want to imagine that sexual orientation ties in with one’s “most authentic self,” but this other New York Times article points out the difficulties with this.
These things swirl around ideas of free will and choice. John G-W wrote a bit about these things with respect to the same NY Times article.