Sex as Class Construct
“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describe the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” This powerful statement by Adrienne Rich encapsulates my chosen topic which is the intersection of the sex as a social construct: how does ones sexual identity intersect with other aspects of personal and political identities such as class? This essay arose from my own personal and political identities experiences, as well as a recognition that the homosexuals are struggling to attain equal treatment with the rest of humanity. Importantly the essay may shed light on homosexuality as a complex social issue.
Specifically, this essay hoped to answer the question – How does ones sexual identity intersect with other aspects of personal and political identities such as class? Let`s begin with the history of sexuality. It was the philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) who had a profound influence on many contemporary gay and lesbian theorists through his text, The History of Sexuality. Regarding homosexuality in the late 19th century, Foucault (1978/1990) said: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul.
The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species”. (p. 43) Essentially, same-sex relations became a mark of who one was rather than what one did. Society began to define and identify homosexuals by their sexual behaviors. Modern constructionist understandings of gay and lesbian identities are based on scientific studies of sexuality undertaken in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Constructionists believe that “identity is fluid, the effect of social conditioning and available cultural models for understanding oneself” (Jagose, 1996, p. 8).
This position resists essentialist notions of identity as fixed and innate (Jagose). Essentialists view homosexuality and heterosexuality as a historical categories while constructionists maintain that sexuality is defined by particular societies at particular points in history (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007; Sullivan, 2003). In this dissertation, I take a constructionist approach, acknowledging that society and culture have a definite effect on our personal ideas and experiences of sexuality. For instance, the scientific examination of sexuality in the late 1800s dramatically shaped society’s conceptions of homosexual behavior and dentity.
Scientific exploration in the 1800s marked a transition “from a conception of sodomy as a category of forbidden acts defined by secular and religious law to that of the pervert as a kind of person defined by medical and psychiatric expertise” (Kaplan, 1997, p. 115). It was not until the 1950s that the term homosexual became part of the English and American lexicon due to the publication of the Kinsey reports (Halperin, 2000). Alfred Kinsey, a well respected scientist, meticulously categorized the gall wasp into taxonomies (D’Emilio, 1998).
His research in the 1950s included the sexual histories and ehaviors of over 10,000 Caucasian American men and women (Kinsey, Wardell, & Clyde, 1997). Although Kinsey’s methodology has been criticized, his continuum model of sexuality marked one of the first challenges to the heterosexual/homosexual binary (Parker, 2007). In other words, Kinsey’s work questioned the notion that individuals were exclusively heterosexual or homosexual by creating a classification system that placed individuals along a continuum based on their sexual behaviors. In addition to Kinsey, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) influenced modern-day ideas about sexuality.
Freud was one of the first scientists to tie sexuality with psychosocial human development (Edwards & Brooks, 1999). He wrote little about homosexuality, only referring to it as a step on the path to what he defined as normal sexual activity (D’Emilio, 1998; Edwards & Brooks; Highwater, 1997). However, “Freud’s pupils and successors in psychoanalysis placed homosexuality firmly in the sphere of pathology” (D’Emilio, p. 16), and much of the early scientific literature likened it to a disease, defect, and even insanity (D’Emilio). Although homosexuality was removed from the American
Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1973, new categories of dysfunction, such as gender identity disorder, were added (Van Wormer, Wells, & Boes, 2000). Some believe that these additional disorders continue to promote adherence to society’s rigid categories of “normal” gender behavior (Rubin, 1993). Same-sex eroticism has been damned, criminalized, medicalized, regulated, and reformed throughout history (Edwards, 1994). Even today homophobia and heterosexism still exist. Homophobia refers to an irrational fear or hatred of homosexuals, which often eads to discrimination and violent acts (Adams et al. , 2007).
Heterosexism, on the other hand, is “the system of advantage or privilege afforded to heterosexuals in institutional practices, and policies and cultural norms that assume heterosexuality as the only natural sexual identity or expression” (Adams et al. , p. 196). Institutional heterosexism is apparent when gay, lesbian, and queer identified individuals are not offered the rights that heterosexuals enjoy, such as health insurance for partners, marriage, adoption, or hospital visitation.
Since the advent of sexual identity categories in the late 1800s, two beliefs have remained prevalent. First, heterosexuality is normal and natural, and, second, homosexuality is the opposite of heterosexuality. This binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality creates exclusive categories of sexual identity and also places pressure on individuals to identify themselves based on these sexual identity categories (Altman, 1971). With heterosexuality being the privileged norm in our society, gay, lesbian, and queer individuals “have as their task the development of an identity that runs counter to he heterocentric culture in which they are socialized” (Morrow & Messinger, 2006, p. 85).
Furthermore, gay, lesbian, and queer individuals experience compulsory heterosexuality, a term coined by Adrienne Rich (1997) to delineate the penalties faced by those who identify as part of a non-normative sexual identity category. The notion that being straight is correct, normal, and desired in our society certainly affects gay, lesbian, and queer individuals, particularly in their sexual identity development. With the pressure to conform to the heterosexual norm, gays and lesbians ay struggle with their same-sex desires. Individuals may experience isolation, low selfesteem, depression, and anger (Morrow & Messinger, 2006; Savin-Williams & Cohen, 1996, Siker, 2007). These issues may even delay sexual identity development, which can be a lifelong process.
There is some question as to what the process of sexual identity development looks like for gay and lesbian individuals. Although Freud (1905/1953) claimed that homosexuality was just a step in the development of normal heterosexual identity, other scientists provide a gay and lesbian affirmative approach. Of the models hat have been proposed, Vivian Cass’ (1979) model has been the most widely used and adopted. Based on her work with lesbian and gay individuals, she proposed a six-stage model of sexual identity development. The six stages to sexual identity formation are identity confusion, identity comparison, identity tolerance, identity acceptance, identity pride, and identity synthesis. Cass’ model is based on interpersonal congruence theory, “which submits that stability and change in a person’s life are influenced by the congruence or incongruence that exists in his or her interpersonal environment” (Hunter,
Shannon, Knox, & Martin, 1998, p. 58). As individuals move through these stages, they experience interactions between their sexual behaviors, their sexual identity, and their heterosexist and homophobic environment. Furthermore, “identities can change within individuals across situations and times” (Johnson, 2000, p. 258). Related to the notion of sexual identity development is the concept of coming out (of the closet), a process that begins when individuals acknowledge their homosexuality (Buchanan, Dzelme, Harris, & Hecker, 2001).
Rust (2003) explained that: It is the process by which individuals come to recognize that they have romantic or sexual feelings toward members of their own gender, adopt lesbian or gay (or bisexual) identities, and then share these identities with others. Coming out is made necessary by a heterosexist culture in which individuals are presumed heterosexual unless there is evidence to the contrary”. (p. 227) The process of coming out is comprised of many stages, including sexual identity formation, disclosure of sexual orientation to others, sexual expression and sexual behavior, and relationship to the gay community (Morris, 1997).
This progression also includes initial awareness of feeling different, testing and exploring sexuality, accepting sexuality, and integrating sexuality with other aspects of identity (Savin-Williams, 1990). Although it is helpful to think of coming out as developmental, it is a lifelong process that is never complete (Rust; Sedgwick, 1993b). A discussion of contemporary notions of sexual identity development and coming out would not be complete without mentioning queer theory. In the early 1990s, an Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) activist organization, AIDS Coalition to
Unleash Power (ACT-UP), became known as Queer Nation (Blasius, 2001). This marked the beginning of the reclaiming of the term “queer,” which previously had been used as a slur against gay and lesbian individuals (Epstein, 2005). Queer theory “teaches that identity is a cultural construction” (Talburt & Steinberg, 2000, p. 17) and places value in unconventional and non-normative sexual identities. It condemns conventional understandings of sexual binaries, and claims that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not the only ways to think about sexual identity (Blasius; Jagose, 1996). In fact, queer heorists call into question essentialist notions of identity, and instead view sexual identity as “fluid, paradoxical, political, multiple” (Lovaas & Jenkins, 2007, p. 8). Queer theory deconstructs sexual categories, creating a space for many non-normative sexual (and other) identities (Rust, 2003).
In order to maximize the theory’s potential, scholars hesitate to define the term queer, other than to say that it refers to things outside of the norm (Halperin, 2003). Actually, the “vagueness of the term has political advantages” (Kaplan, 1997, p. 6). Queer theory provides a place for multiple identities in multiple ategories, including gender, religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so forth. Moreover, it suggests that “identity categories tend to be instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalizing categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points of a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (Butler, 1993b, p. 208). In effect, queer politics question the notion of a true or essential gay or lesbian identity (Sedgwick, 1993b), and have “the potential to disrupt and challenge the nature of our cultural assumptions about the development of identity, sexuality, and sexual identity” (Edwards Brooks, 1999, p. 54).
The Queer theory “has largely been the creation of academics, mostly feminists and mostly humanities professors” (Seidman, 1996, p. 13). It places value in unconventional or non-normative sexualities and characterizes identity as a cultural construction (Talburt & Steinberg, 2000). Queer theory has been influenced by Foucault, Sedgwick, Butler, Derrida, and others. Foucault and Derrida’s writings have focused on the historical, cultural, and discursive nature of categories, which include sexual identity (Talburt & Steinberg, 2000).
Queer theorists identify Sedgwick’s (1993a) Epistemology of the Closet and Butler’s (1990) Gender Trouble as significant queer works. In Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, Butler (1990, 1993a, 2004) discussed how gender is culturally shaped, performative in nature, and privileges heterosexuality. Further, deconstructing normative categories of gender “legitimates lesbian and gay subjectpositions” (Jagose, 1996, p. 83). In Epistemology of the Closet, Sedgwick questioned the heterosexual/homosexual divide and troubled the notion of the closet.
She explained that modern culture has set up binaries of masculine/feminine, natural/artificial, ame/different, majority/minority, and so forth. Queer theory shapes this study in several ways. First and foremost, it lays a pathway for distinguishing between sexual desire, behavior, and identity, and allows for paradoxes that are present when examining different aspects of identity. For example, several of the participants in this study challenge the idea that one cannot be both gay, lesbian, or queer and Christian. As the concept of queer relates to non-normative identities, participants are, in essence, queering faith as well as sexuality.
Although queer theory has been propelled by academia, the ambiguous nature of the term “queer” makes it a difficult concept to study (Jagose, 1996). Queer studies, though, have become a staple of many college campuses across the nation. Several contemporary scholars use queer theory as a lens for understanding sexuality, music, literature, and society. In fact, queer theory poses “no threat to the monopoly of the established disciplines; on the contrary, queer theory could be incorporated into each of them, and it could then be applied to topics in already established fields” (Halperin, 2003, p. 342).
For example, William Pinar (2003), a professor at Louisiana State University, explained that “it is queer theory that has enabled me to understand that the democratization of American society cannot proceed without a radical restructuring of hegemonic white male subjectivity” (p. 357). Gamson (2000) explained that there are relatively few empirical works based solely on queer theory. Rather, this theory is applied to the theoretical work of reconceptualizing and deconstructing concepts such as sexual identity.
In this study of the experiences of gay, lesbian, and queer individuals with a Christian upbringing, queer heory provided an additional lens with which to view sexual identity development. With more and more individuals identifying as queer, I drew upon queer theory in understanding participants’ identities in our postmodern society. Although the point of queer theory is to disrupt norms, practitioners may find it difficult to incorporate this seemingly vague idea into their work with gays and lesbians. Some gays and lesbians critique queer theory, and one objection “comes from those who cannot accept a once pejorative term as a positive self-description” (Jagose, 1996, p. 103).
Because gay and lesbian individuals have historically fought to legitimate their sexual identities, some believe that queer theory actually diminishes the efficacy of their sexual identity categories (Jagose). On the other hand, those who are proponents of queer theory might argue that the term “queer” is becoming too widely used or fashionable. As the term becomes increasingly in vogue, some believe that it loses its radically non-normative meaning (Jagose). This argument also extends to the widespread academic use of queer theory. In the end “queer’s impact on identity politics has yet to be determined” (Jagose, p. 126).