As a Mormon alumnus of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, two recent events happened to coincide on my Facebook wall, flooding my feed with passionate rhetoric about sexuality and gender normativity: 1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) has been the target of much vitriol because of their policy change that explicitly declares members of same-sex marriages to be apostates. Journalists happily report on the thousands of Mormons who have resigned from the church in protest of this policy change. 2. Landon Patterson, the first transgender (from male to female) homecoming queen from a school in Kansas City, spoke at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is being heralded for these cliché, but culturally resonant words: “Be You. Life is too short, and you’ve just got to embrace who you are.”
Here’s my beef: Issues of sexuality and culturally normative practices are complex, but the rhetoric around them is simplistic. Simplistic and passionate. There is nothing wrong with passion or simplicity per se; the problem is that the rhetoric does not correspond with the complexity of the issue itself. Every pro-gay marriage argument made on my newsfeed basically boils down to this: If you feel attracted to members of the same sex, you are gay. If you are gay, you should be entitled to have a homosexual marriage. Anyone who disagrees is either uninformed or prejudiced.
Yet these simple (and passionate) declarations are built on numerous assumptions, which have not been satisfactorily substantiated in my opinion. Let’s examine for a moment the first claim of my Facebook friends: If you feel attracted to members of the same sex, you are gay. This is connected to Landon’s celebrated words, “Be You…you’ve just got to embrace who you are.” Implied, of course, is that sexuality is an inherent, unchangeable, and essential part of “who you are.” For the purposes of this blog post, I do not intend to parse the literature on the genetics, biology, psychology, and sociology related to sexuality and gender. We should acknowledge, though, that there seems to be some evidence suggesting that there is a genetic/biological component to sexual orientation. But even if we accept this premise, it does not necessarily follow that it is an essential part of who you are.
I am by no means convinced that sexual orientation is purely a matter of genetics: it strains the imagination to think that one’s sexual psychology and other “nurture” aspects play no role at all—but let us suppose sexual orientation to be 100% genetics. It would then be parallel to skin color (an “immutable characteristic,” in the parlance of the courts). This is, of course, why race is a characteristic that is specifically protected in our laws (especially given the history of race relations in the USA). However while we cannot control the color of skin we are born with, what it means to have that color of skin is socially constructed. Our culture has created a means of categorizing people by their skin color, but the real spectrum of skin tones does not divide neatly into those categories. For example, someone might be categorized as black in one context and not in another. Similarly, the lived experience of being categorized as black varies with the cultural context. To be black in inner-city America is different from being black in America’s suburbia, or the European Union, or Brazil. So whether or not individuals will identify or be identified as black depends on their cultural situation. All this simply goes to show that while skin color is inherent and genetic, race is socially constructed, and as such cannot be an essential part of one’s self. It is something we step into, or possibly are pushed into.
If in the debate about marriage equality, we are to consider sexuality as parallel to race (a common rhetorical move), we would have to conclude that there are both inherent and cultural aspects to “being gay.” Even assuming that sexual orientation is inherent, sexuality is a social construct. In allowing for this distinction, we create space for someone who might, for example, feel attracted to members of the same sex, and not identify as gay because, as I’ve explained, to feel attracted to members of the same sex (sexual orientation) does not necessarily equate with being gay (sexuality). That shift from feeling to being involves stepping into a social construct, which individuals may or may not want to do. In other words, what it means to “embrace who you are” might not always entail aligning your behavior and identity with a particular sexual orientation. More specifically, the idea of “coming out” may not always be so much an uncovering of an essential part of the self, as it is a “stepping into” a particular identity.
Our culture seems to have conflated the characteristic and the construct and, in so doing, has essentialized sexuality. (For those of you have been reading the blog for a while, Brian makes a related argument here.) This conflation/essentialization makes the rhetoric simpler and more powerful. It’s easier to shout, “Let love win” than it is to shout, “Heteronormativity alienates a group of people that identify with particular characteristics, and who therefore deserve special legal protections.” Although there are undoubtedly queer theorists and gay rights thinkers who have nuanced perspectives of the assumptions and arguments underlying their movement, for the majority of the populace (including most of the individuals posting on Facebook) they go unexamined. Most simply accept the slogans, and passionately agitate in their favor, indignant of any disagreement, and, I fear, ignorant of the all but the most superficial arguments. Although this represents a resounding PR victory for the Human Rights Campaign, it is not a victory for American public discourse.
I will leave the second claim for now (“If you are gay, you should be entitled to have a homosexual marriage”), but I think it can be similarly deconstructed. Given the previous discussion, it should be obvious that the third claim (“Anyone who disagrees is either uninformed or prejudiced”) is simplistic. A more accurate and sensible wording might be something like, “Anyone who disagrees may not share one of these foundational assumptions.” But I guess that doesn’t really capture the passion.