Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking back at my career realistically, I have to acknowledge that the major phase of my gay activism and scholarship lasted from about 1970 to 1990, when the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality appeared.  At the end of this period the ground began to shift, first with the rise of Queer Theory and the LGBT complex, and now with other factors.  The following piece represents a preliminary effort to grapple with this latest set of changes.

It pains me to say this, but I fear that we are all living in the past with regard to sexual diversity as it has come to be refracted in the early 21st century.  The general understanding of these matters is being fundamentally transformed by two factors: intersectionality and the trans perspective.

A)  Intersectionality emphasizes the overlapping, if you will, of minority statuses and experiences.  What does it mean, for example, to be both lesbian and black?  To be undocumented and a drag person?  In this view, racism, heterosexism, nativism and so forth do not operate independently but overlap and combine.  This is a multiculturalist approach. 

Some discussions of intersectionality are quite technical, and I do not pretend to understand them very well myself.  Yet three aspects seem to be salient. 

1.    Anticategorical complexity.  This approach assumes the deconstruction of categorical divisions. It argues that social categories are an arbitrary construction of history and language and that as such they contribute little to understanding the ways in which people experience society. Furthermore the anticategorical approach postulates that, "inequalities are rooted in relationships that are defined by race, class, sexuality, and gender." It follows that the only way to eliminate oppression in society is to eliminate the categories used to section people into differing groups. This analysis claims that society is too complex to be reduced to a set finite categories.  Instead, a holistic approach is needed.

2.    Intercategorical complexity. This approach to intersectionality begins by addressing the fact that inequality exists within society, using this recognition as the basis of its analysis of intersectionality. According to intercategorical complexity, "the concern is with the nature of the relationships among social groups and, importantly, how they are changing." Proponents of this methodology use existing categorical distinctions to document inequality across multiple dimensions and measure its change over time.

3.    Intracategorical complexity.   The intracategorical approach stands at the midpoint between the anticategorical and intercategorical approaches. It recognizes the shortcomings of existing social categories, questioning the way in which they draw boundaries of distinction. Yet, this approach does not completely deny the role of categories as with the anticategorical approach; rather the intracategorical approach recognizes the relevance of social categories to the understanding of the modern social experience. Moreover, it attempts to reconcile these contrasting views by focusing on people who cross the boundaries of constructed categories, in an effort to understand the ways in which the complexity and intersectionality of the human experience unfold.

B) Issues pertaining to trans people are increasingly central.  This concern reflects a sense that identity (to the extent that there is a such a thing) is fluid and changing.  Instead of trying to put people in boxes, we should welcome their efforts to understand themselves in new, complex ways.  This emphasis on fluidity has been expounded by such theorists as Judith Butler and Jasbir Puar.  At  the same time there is a new stress on the need to secure the legal rights of trans people.  Now that
the sodomy laws and DADT are gone, and gay marriage is on the way to full realization, the trans issues loom as the most important ones we face.

 As a gay white man, with a sensibility honed by the gay-liberation struggle of the 1970s, I am not altogether comfortable with these new emphases.  To be frank, some aspects of them seem scary.  But who can deny that the times are a-changin?

The bumper-sticker version of my remarks is this.  In advanced industrial societies, which are also to a significant extent multicultural societies, the idea of homosexuality is obsolete.  We have moved on--at least many find that we have moved on--to a more complex understanding of the issues, one that recognizes the salience of intersectionality and fluidity of sexual orientation.

Ironically, however, there are several large blocs of nations where this not true--where the idea of homosexuality still prevails, though in a negative sense.  I refer to most of the nations in Africa, the Islamic world, and parts of the Caribbean.  Not only do sodomy laws persist in these countries, but homophobia is virulent and increasing.

There is thus a global fault line that separates the seemingly post-homosexual group of advanced industrial societies and others of Western heritage, on the one hand, from the anti-homosexual bloc, on the other.  In this situation are we not obligated to help our brothers and sisters in the rejectionist nations?  Whatever we may now think about these matters, those courageous people still wish to live fulfilling lives based on same-sex love.  And so they should.

PS  A friend remarks that the fault line occurs in the US as well, where same-sex marriage has yet to be secured in 37 states.  Homophobia is rampant, and not just in those "neanderthal" heartland.  Still, the sodomy laws, DADT, and DOMA are gone, so that even in the as-yet unenlightened states we are far from the sorry situation of Iran, or even Russia.


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