By I.J. Partow
It was in a literature class that I first became familiar with Michel Foucault’s book “The History of Sexuality.” A text in my reader contained an excerpt from the book, a snippet that fascinated me because for the first time it so clearly rocked an aspect of sexuality I had thought immovable. In his writing, Foucault slowly proved that homosexuality is a societal construction that is only about a century old. Homosexuality, he argued, is a series of activities strung under a name.
Foucault wrote, “The notion of ‘sex’ made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensation, pleasures; and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere.”
When homosexuality became a term, it also became something solid, unmoving: an identity that was assigned, an identity that its members struggled with and shaped. Because once a series of activities is identified, there is little room for flexibility. Judith Butler’s 1990 essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” argues critically for the weakness of binaries. Butler, a lesbian, was invited to speak at a conference on homosexuality at Yale.
“The professionalization of gayness requires a certain performance and production of a ‘self’ which is the constituted effect of a discourse that nevertheless claims to ‘represent’ that self as a prior truth,” she wrote. “When I spoke at the conference on homosexuality in 1989, I found myself telling my friends beforehand that I was off to Yale to be a lesbian, which of course didn’t mean that I wasn’t one before.”
If you’re gay, you’re not straight. It’s an obsession with binaries that we keep up in our culture: gay/straight, male/female, in love/not. Yet we have a lot of evidence that binaries are not true to life. Where does polyamory fit in? And what if I have both male and female lovers, not to mention transgendered lovers? And binaries continue to restrict, as Butler so aptly noted:
“Curiously, it is the figure of the closet that produces this expectation, and which guarantees its dissatisfaction. For being ‘out’ always depends to some extent on being ‘in’; it gains its meaning only within that polarity.”
When it comes to human sexuality, people are working furiously to restore a sexual identity that functions on an individual basis. Go back even 50 years and look at Alfred Kinsey’s scale of sliding sexuality. Kinsey’s study registered individuals on a scale that ranged from zero to six, zero being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual. The majority of individuals fell in the gray zone, which shows that it is never as simple as gay or straight.
To me it’s clear that binaries are on their way out. And when I really sit down and think about them, I get excited about the future. If “homosexuality” as a construct is 100 years old and is already in the process of being torn down, what will the standard be like in another 100 years? One can hope for a world with equal rights, at minimum, and maybe a whole lot more experimentation.
It’ll be thrilling to live in a society where sexuality exists in a realm of absolute freedom. Who would I date? Maybe I’d be attracted to more members of my gender because I wouldn’t be asked to identify as straight. Maybe I would just love people, as they are, accepting them wholly in their individuality. Though I’m sure other binaries will rush up to take the place of these, perhaps they will be less damaging. For the time being, I’ll try my best to spot and reshape the black and white tendencies in my life, and wait for the future to unfold.