Comment: What is ‘gay’?

Edmund Broch April 2, 2012
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This piece is not so much an argument as an extension of a thought, albeit articulated aloud. Nor is it my intention to contribute to that questionable piece of postmodern study, the scourge of many a humanities and social sciences department across both sides of the Atlantic, called ‘Queer Theory.’ Rather, a few incidents this past week have set in motion a concatenation of thoughts  in my head, that lead to one simple conclusion, the inevitable abnegation of the word, ‘gay’.

I don’t need to give the readers of this website a crash-course in the history of homosexuality. The distraction-filled online world will serve that purpose. However, we know that same-sex relationships have existed throughout the natural history of animal life. We also know that the term ‘homosexuality’ is a relatively new invention: the first known occurrence was in a German pamphlet in 1869. Similarly, the OED traces the appropriation of the word ‘gay’ to mean ‘homosexual’ only to the 1930s.

Other terms, such as ‘sodomy’, in senses pejorative and neutral, predated the terms ‘gay’ and ‘homosexuality’, and, needless to say, rather than referring to any specific identity, sodomy merely referred to the act of sexual intercourse between members who were not, strictly, of the opposite sex. I will not venture here far enough to ask what ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ mean.

Now, two things have happened this past week which have set in my mind a simple train of thought. First, we had asked our readers whether we should abandon the term ‘gay marriage,’ and just use the term ‘marriage,’ and when referring to the prospect of including same-sex couple in a social institution that is for the most part the reserve of heterosexuals, call it ‘equal marriage.’ Second, in reporting a story from a notorious tabloid, I made the mistake of referring to an alleged sexual assault between members of the same sex (all men) as a ‘gay attack.’ Readers quickly complained, pointing out, rightly, that rape was rape, and assault, assault, be it gay or straight, and many found it offensive to have described the story thus, asking whether we’d describe a man attacking a woman as ‘straight’ rape.

Far be it from me to defend my mistake. I have acknowledged it, the article has been edited, and I take this opportunity to apologise again. That said, having been subject to sexual assaults myself, and yes, it is plural, it did not occur to me that the description I employed had the potential to deeply offend people. The same, in an entirely different manner, goes for the first issue. To say ‘gay marriage’ somehow seemed to many readers an implied subjugation in the eyes of the majority. It made their marriage seem somehow ‘second class’. Marriage is marriage, gay or straight.

This seems to me, along with the very search for marriage equality — I don’t dare say ‘gay marriage’ — to indicate three things: first, a desire for assimilation within the larger structures of society; two, a yearning to see what unites people more than what divides them, and thus to hold equality as the highest ideal for a society; and three, the assertion for freedom of self-definition, and a resistance to external labelling.

All very well. And, personal feelings notwithstanding, rather admirable too. But, let us follow this train of thought to its logical conclusion. Love is love, whether between members of the same sex or otherwise. Why do we need the term ‘gay’ at all? Does it merely indicate the physical act of sex between members of the same sex? No, I hear you say, and I agree, instinctively. But, remove sex out of the equation. What meaning does the word then hold? Would a strong emotional attachment between two men, one of whom finds women sexually attractive, and the other men, qualify?

Ah, I hear you say, sexuality is different from identity. One can be ‘gay’ without sleeping with members of the same sex. Okay, can we attempt to define that identity? It’s tricky, you see. Identity can mean two things that are seemingly contrary. On the one hand, it is what you identify with others as common between you, and on the other, it is what distinguishes you from others, to constitute your (unique?) essence. So, remove that common element out of ‘gay,’ namely the act it implies, and what distinguishes you from those who are ‘not gay’ also begins to dissipate.

So, it is hard for me to see where this desire to exclude the qualifying adjective, i.e., the word ‘gay,’ comes from. As some readers may know, some gay men (and possibly women — wherein I profess my ignorance) have a shameful tendency to describe themselves as ‘straight-acting.’ It infuriates me, and several others. Would any self-respecting straight man describe himself as ‘gay-acting,’ we want to ask. And yet, for many others, it is better to be ‘straight-acting,’ lest one be construed as a stereotype, for all stereotypes are bad, don’t you know. Why would you want to ‘act gay’, they ask. Do heterosexuals ‘act straight’, we want to retort.

It all comes to the same thing, the desire at once to identify and to distinguish oneself, suspended between the magnetic poles of behaviour.

After all, this very site, by its constitution, only concerns itself with issues relating to a select group of citizens or people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Does that deem it ‘second-class’ too? News is news, after all. What is the compass that separates this self-definition from describing marriage between two members of the same sex as ‘gay marriage’, or a sexual assault by one member upon another member of the same sex as ‘gay assault’? Conversely, perhaps it is only too right that we no longer talk about marriage and rape simply and presumptively, but call it ‘straight marriage’ and ‘straight rape.’

Perhaps you don’t find that persuasive. But, if marriage is marriage, and assault is assault, and along the same lines, love is love and sex is sex, whence cometh the need at all for ‘gay’ and ‘straight’? After all, we didn’t have ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ for much of our history. And it certainly would seem that we didn’t care for that distinction (as that unreadable man Foucault said in his convoluted prose) during that time, nor do any other animal species. Then, is this whole business of sexual identity merely a transient ripple upon the grand surface of history? (One may also ask if gender identity might follow suit, which would subsequently render the question of sexuality rather obsolete.)

In other words, is the quest for gay rights merely a quest for the abolition of the very definition of ‘gay’, and its distinction from ‘straight’?

None of which is to say that such a quest is an undesirable end. Identity, which is always a construct and thus an invention, is a means to gather the strength to address social and moral problems that we otherwise would be unable to. But, are we to disrobe ourselves at some fixed point when the need for that identification and distinction dissolves? Is that point ever reachable? Is it even desirable?

More: Equality, Gay, gay marriage

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