Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 June 2007

A Case Against Essentialism

The more I study queer theory, the more I dislike notions of essentialism when it comes to gay and lesbian identity. I was listening to a discussion yesterday on Talk of the Nation and they were talking about the "biology of gaydar". The guest discussed the "fact" that left-handed people are 50% more likely to be gay or lesbian, that the whorl on top of a person's head has been statisticized in gay men and the direction of the whorl has been shown to coincide with homosexuality—I can't remember whether the supposedly gay direction was clockwise or counter-clockwise. He also said that scientists now believe that homosexuality develops in utero, that the causes of homosexuality are some combination of both nature and culture.

But I don't even understand why anyone is interested in this question other than some kind of homophobic notion of origins. If there is a gay gene and homosexuality is caused by some kind of genetic variation from normal heterosexuality, then homosexuality selectively removed from all culture, right? We can get rid of the gay gene. Why else look for it? But problems exist with the other argument, too. If homosexuality is learned behavior, somehow caused through culture, then homosexuality becomes a kind of choice or training. If it is a choice, then it doesn't need to be made by gay people and they can choose heteronormativity instead. If it is caused by inculturation or training of some sort, then homophobic (i.e. most) parents can modify their own behavior and train their children to be heteronormative. The worse part of the culture argument—it seems to me—is a notion of blame: it's the mother's fault (a Freudian explanation), it's the homosexual's fault, it's the gay community's fault, it's the fault of gay parents, it's the fault of society at large (the Falwell explanation).

But all of this essentialist talk effaces the history of homosexuality on the ground. Foucault tells us that homosexuality is a construction of the nineteenth century, hardly something that can be essentialized biologically. Indeed, heterosexuality only came into being in the nineteenth century. Further, if homosexuality is genetic then it must be a) transcultural, b) transnational, and c) transhistorical, none of which are possible. Studies of this kind also ignore the entire notion of the closet (a twentieth century construction), whereby people can hide (and also declare) their homosexuality. Like the old adage "99% of men masturbate and the other 1% are lying", we can't come anywhere near a comprehensive study of gayness or lesbianness when such a thing as the closet exists. People are not honest about their sexual habits, proclivities and desires (nor should they be).

The very definition of "gay" is a nebulous thing. Are gay people only attracted to people of the same sex? What if they were at one time attracted to someone of the opposite sex? Does that make them only partly gay? What about "straight" people? Shouild a heterosexual person who has at one time experienced desire for someone of her own sex be classified only as partly straight? Is there such a thing as pure straight or pure gay? What do these definitions give us? People are different from one another. The gender of a person's sexual object choice (itself something fluid, even in a single person) is just one form of difference between people. We need to embrace notions of difference and lose notions of gay essentialism. I don't understand what purpose they serve.