Tuesday 27 June 2017

Why no one should be 'gay'

Isaac Newton allegedly once remarked that 'If I have seen further than other men then only because I stood on the shoulders of giants.'

Whilst the sociologist Robert Merton once investigated this as a tenet of scientific progress, nowhere else is it more true than in sexual politics where men and women of the past found the courage to challenge the status quo to allow those that come after them to see further. For me as a gay man the main point of reference are those men who stood up to police repression during the Stonewall riots in 1969. Their spirited refusal to accept the dominant social and cultural standards inspire awe and gratitude in me as it allowed me to say openly who I am. Vaclav Havel (in a different context) called this with living within the truth. And this fight for equality and rights is not over yet as recent headlines about gay people being persecuted in Cheniya and other places demonstrate. Rights to express yourself and live within the truth are still being denied to gay people all over the world, be it in Uganda, where homosexuality is still a criminal offence, or Germany, where discrimination in marriage on grounds of sexuality continues.

Gay pride or gay ghetto?
Yet, we have come a long way and it is perhaps appropriate to look at where we are and where we want to go in those societies that have largely accepted homosexuality.

Partially the fight against discrimination drew strength from a sense of community amongst gay people which furnished them with a conceptual framework of belonging and collective power. It allowed them to articulate a version of society that was based on inclusiveness of marginalised groups and hence latched on to notions of equality before the law, civil rights as well as group rights.

In the process of this fight, this sense of community took on a life of its own and we are now quite comfortable with the notion that there is something like a gay community with a specific gay culture. Challenges to this notion of a comprehensive and coherent gay culture have come from unexpected quarters recently. Transgender campaign groups have pointed at the exclusive nature of such a concept of group culture based on a single sexual identity. This has led to an awkward compromise, reflected in an ever growing string of letters in the acronym of cultural politics of recognition (I lost track after LGBT).

What is less articulated yet probably more fundamental, is to question whether there is indeed something like a gay community based on a gay culture in the first place, or, irreverently, whether or not there should be one.

The question turns on the role of community in promoting and fostering change through mutual support. But its tentacles reach wider, well into the realm of identity politics and group rights. There can be no doubt that conceptualising and formulating a version of gay collective consciousness has been instrumental in pushing for change on the societal level whilst it has also had tranformative power for individuals. Making a choice to belong to a specific community does not only grant you access to support networks, it also liberates you from the idea that you are alone. Collectives undoubtedly have transformative capacity. Yet they can also be oppressive as they set standards of behaviour and define borders of identity with which any group member has to conform if he wants to belong. This is reinforced whenever notions of sub-cultures and group identities become hegemonic not just within the group of members but more widely by the rest of society.

Gay critics of the 'gay culture concept' have pointed this out as soon as mainstream culture started to adopt stereotypical portrayals of gays in movies and TV. Whilst early portrayals of openly gay men were often welcome, a feeling of discomfort with their narrow stereotypical appearances soon mounted. The argument essentially was that cartoonish depictions of gay characters in the media allowed straight audiences to accept homosexuality only because it was considerably different from being straight/normal. Acceptance was grounded in the recognition of, and insistence on, difference.

Empirically this media image of course never had any facts to call upon. Gay men are as diverse as any men in the straight part of society. The critics' point, however, audaciously extended to the collective strategies of culture making within the gay community. Where gays feel the need to go out in their own clubs and segregate themselves from wider society by constructing their own community and marks of belonging, signs of difference are emphasised rather than diminished. Ultimately, groups with sub-cultures to cultivate may spin themselves into a cocoon of collective behaviours that provide comfort but stop challenging society's preconceptions of the group. In other words, what is rebellious becomes orthodox. It's revolutionary potential dissipates and a stale taste of conformism remains.

So we may want to ask ourselves: do we still need to be 'gay' to be gay? Do we still need to declare ourselves as part of an imaginary community with its rules and cultural standards (policed by prominent members of the group's elite) to be able to say that those of us, who do not live a 'gay life style', can stand on the shoulders of the giants who fought for gay rights? I would hope that whatever somebody says about me in twenty years time, it will not be that I was that 'gay' bloke writing a blog. I would not feel empowered but diminished by such an epitaph.

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