TURING: What is a gay (wo)man?
After a two-week hiatus, Turing returns to take the patriarchal, heterosexist societies of the world – and that’s most, if not all of humanity – to task.
There is an old New York joke that self-identified critical theorists often like to quote.
‘You’re a terrorist? Thank God. I understood Meg to say you were a theorist.’
The patient reader need not worry – this column is not a careful dissection of Queer Theory, nor is your columnist a student of the arts, specifically literary theory.
But, as Turing enters a new personal and professional phase in his life, there is a compelling personal need to explain why he bothers with this column in the first place, and for a news website that specifically targets the so-called ‘gay community’.
Primary though this purpose may seem, the outcome is not remotely as selfish as one might imagine. Quite the contrary.
It was a colleague’s birthday last week – a straight (whatever that means) woman who wanted to have fun with her friends, of course, in a renowned gay bar.
Most of us, including your columnist, despite his dislike for bars and clubs in general, responded positively.
Four men, out of six, self-identified as ‘straight’ refused firmly, if politely, on the grounds that they’re not gay, and wouldn’t want to go to a ‘bar full of gay men’ (note the absence of gay women).
Your columnist, compelled to retort, did so with equal firmness, that perhaps all men self-identified as gay should boycott non-gay bars completely just to make ourselves understood – that living in a heterosexist, patriarchal, and mostly conservative world is quite often too depressive for words, and that rhetoric such as theirs will not in anyway make our lives any easier.
‘No, we don’t need your approval to be gay. And since you seem to be afraid of us, and won’t come to a place identified as ‘gay’ because it’s ‘full’ of gay people, it’s probably best if we stayed out of the non-gay bars as well, as they’re ‘full’ of straight men.’
Indeed, Turing has endured far too long the heteronormative discussion of women as a sexual commodity in every public place and occasion from formal dinners and theatres to parks and tourist hotspots, and in private conversations among heterosexual males, who think, rather falsely (biologically at least), that they run the world.
After the initial outburst, the shock of hearing such quaint nonsense from fellow colleagues of whom your columnist believed otherwise, there was a lot to think about, particularly about constructing a personal identity based, at least in part, on sexuality. Is it justified in the first place?
This is where the remarks about critical theory come to the fore.
The French philosopher, Michel Foucault, argued that the very idea of ‘sex’, an umbrella term that seems to encompass everything from animal biology and sexual practices to cultural identification and sexual orientation, is a cultural and a historical construct.
The post-structuralist expanded this principle to show how the very activities that seek to control ‘power’ often end up creating the very ‘power’ that needs to be controlled.
But that is not relevant here.
What is relevant is that he cited homosexuality as a principal example — he pointed out that ‘the homosexual’ as a type (almost like a ‘species’, he said) was created only in the nineteenth century, although sexual acts between members of the same sex have been prevalent as long as records exist, and have been stigmatised and suppressed through the ages.
‘He has sex with men’ then metamorphosed into ‘He is a homosexual’, in effect, creating an identity often solely on one’s sexual orientation.
Despite well-meaning interventions, the notion of individual identity on the basis of sexuality has become quite well established, at least in the West.
(Turing wonders whether Mr. Ahmadinejad has actually read Foucault, which could in principle explain why he said there are no ‘homosexuals’ in Iran. Oh well…)
Some very well-meaning intellectuals are very upset about this, and understandably so.
There is something bewitching about the thought of reducing a person merely to his (or her) sexuality, and Turing shares this discomfort.
That said, your columnist, after some thought, thinks that, despite some of the negative consequences that must be weeded out, the whole idea of ‘the gay community’, not as a means for label, but as a historical and social construct, is largely beneficial.
The principal reason has been mentioned above. As a reactionary construct against a deeply heteronormative, patriarchal society where the will of the statistical majority dictates social law, the notion of, and the consequences effected by, the ‘gay community’ has been rather successful.
The world has moved fast from the point when anything outside heterosexual vaginal intercourse was almost universally condemned and persecuted, and if any thing, the ‘gay community’ in the West has been largely, if not entirely, responsible.
One point is worth reiterating. Turing does not advocate a label or the construction of an identity purely on the basis of sexual orientation.
If so, your columnist would have chosen to use ‘homosexual’ in the same sense that Foucault described it.
Rather, the very word ‘gay’ is an embodiment of the things that have come to symbolise the distinct sub-culture associated with it.
This, of course, has its own unique problems. For one, the word ‘gay'(or their synonyms) is still used pejoratively in most countries outside Western Europe, and even in Britain, a significant proportion of insensitive teens and the media personalities they worship are using the word to that extent. Yes, Chris Moyles should have been sacked.
Two, it has encouraged the growth of a multitude of stereotypes, both within and outside the gay community.
Such stereotypes are, more often than not, negatively perceived.
And three, the very identity constructed to challenge heteronormativity is often used to stigmatise and discriminate against self-identified members of the community.
The last two of these points have been addressed in works of art, with remarkable success, through what is now often called ‘Queer Theory’.
The solution to these problems, at least in the short-term, is not to get rid of the notion of gay community.
Despite its meagre deficiencies, it has brought together a sub-culture that has been oppressed, stigmatised, and tortured by heterosexist male-dominant societies, uncomfortable with anything that they view as remotely ‘feminine’, and gave them the means and the motives to fight back.
Rather, it helps to look at these problems individually, and often enough, they’re not problems at all, but another manifestation of the oppressive nature of human society.
While your columnist sympathises with the argument that negative stereotype of any nature must be opposed at all costs, stereotypes per se are not harmful.
Besides, any stereotype is a social construct, and if an individual chooses to associate himself or herself with that stereotype, provided it doesn’t harm anyone else, he or she is free to do so.
Society has no business interfering with individual choice, and it is incumbent on a civilised society to respect that choice.
Second, it is equally incumbent upon the civilised society to challenge all distinctions that tend to stigmatise and isolate.
This can be achieved best through education and spreading awareness; and in societies where homosexuality is still not tolerated (if not punished), this still remains the best way to move forward.
Bickering about stereotypes, it seems to Turing, will more do more harm than good.
That said, even in countries like Iran, the very notion of the ‘gay community’ and a gay individual, despite its ability to further such discriminations, will only serve the community in the long term, providing a visibility that an otherwise accurate representation would not necessarily create.
Finally, your columnist knows how supportive the notion of belonging to a community can be in a country where homosexuality is still a punishable criminal offence.
While challenging patriarchal heterosexism, fighting negative representations and stereotypes, and spreading awareness among the public, it is always worthwhile to shout “We’re here; we’re queer; get used to it” at the prejudiced majority.
The umbrella notion of a ‘gay identity’ is probably the best method to do that.