You cannot learn, through common sense, how things are: you can only discover where they fit into the existing scheme of things.
Hebdige, D. Subculture, the Meaning of Style
“There is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture. Men without culture would not be the clever savages of Golding’s Lord of the Flies thrown back upon the cruel wisdom of their animal instinct; nor would they be nature’s noblemen of enlightenment primitivism or even as classical anthropological theory would imply, intrinsically talented apes who had somehow failed to find themselves. They would be unworkable monstrosities with very few useful instincts, fewer recognisable sentiments and no intellect: mental basket cases”.
Taking this as a starting statement, throughout this essay on gay identity I will try to explore the issues related to identity, and how much of it depends on nature or nurture. When talking about gay identity, we look at how gays are perceived by society, and how they themselves construct their own identity, but we need to bear in mind that they are part of society, which means that the process of constructing identity is not so ‘mechanical’.
Some of the questions I will try to answer are: are we born gay or lesbian? Is there a difference between performing homosexual activities and being ‘gay’? If there is, to what extent does society influence our gay identity? Or shall we say homosexual identity? Moving beyond this, how do we cope with including in our identity not only our sexuality, but also differences in gender, class, ethnicity, and age?
There is a couple of important definitions we need to give before moving on. We will be talking here of social constructs and individual and group identity within a society. Society is “clear in two main senses: as our most general term for the body of institutions and relationships within which a relatively large group of people live; and as our most abstract term for the condition in which such institutions and relationships are formed.” Identity therefore builds up in a determinate cultural environment where culture, according to Williams, is seen as a “particular way of life which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning, but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour. The analysis of culture, from such a definition, is the clarification of the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life, a particular culture.”
Having said this, let us now list the four main theoretical approaches to the debate.
First, the positive/negative approach, based on binary oppositions. This approach, that tries to establish what positive and negative images are, is highly criticised by many because of its (obvious) strictness. As Richard Dyer (being also very critical) explains, the positive/negative approach focuses, in terms of our understanding of gender, sexuality and identity, on ‘the other’ against which we define ourselves. ‘The other’ is often at the same time disturbing and attractive, e.g. the butch lesbian, the effeminate gay man – the ‘queen’. “Critics of the positive/negative images approach have suggested that most definitions of what constitutes a ‘positive’ image would restrict the lesbian and gay representation as much as so-called ‘negative’, stereotypical do, by encouraging bland, saintly, desexualised mainstream figures who might as well be heterosexual.” And definitely, I would briefly add as an example, the very negative campaign on AIDS did not help towards a positive construction of gay identity.
Another approach is the socio-anthropological, which studies the relationship between identity and society using anthropological conceptions.
Third, essentialism assumes that there is some kind of essential likeness or universal quality that characterises a social group. The opposite to essentialism would imply a move from the identity of politics to politics of identity: one gay man could not speak for all, in that all gay men are different. At last, social constructionism, “the view that biological attributes only come to have a meaning within historical and social formations.”
I will now go into more detail, and review the different approaches through the analysis of the thoughts on gay identity by some of the most eminent theorists in the field.
Hebdige gives a great account of the relationship between subcultural groups (and whether gay are one is still open to debate) and society, in his Subculture, The Meaning of Style. He starts his analysis by considering a tube of vaseline, and looking into its symbolic dimension. That simple (and multi-use) substance makes of Jean Genet the “archetype of the ‘unnatural’ deviant, again exemplifies the practice of resistance through style.” Objects like this can free individuals, but at the same time be ‘tokens of a self-imposed exile’. But is this exile imposed by the mainstream or is it really self-imposed? The answer lies probably in both, since both at the same time signs are expressions of both impotence and power, as we will have the chance to see soon in more detail.
As for now, the important concept that we need to bear in mind is that if gay identity is a social construct, we all participate in it, being all part of the same society. We all take up symbols and give them certain meanings, and we become ‘different’ when the meanings we give to those symbols are not shared by the majority and, in this case, heterosexual society. Nearly always, symbols and styles are taken up from the heterosexual society (e.g. skinheads) to help a sense of homology, of group (i.e. gays) but at the same time to differentiate within the more general group itself (working therefore the same way it works for subcultures).
It is often a case of constructing identity as resistance towards oppression, against dominant social discourses (to use the great Foucaultian term), expression of hegemony that tends to be naturalised. This is the way individuals and groups construct, negotiate and defend their identity, against a mainstream set of values super-imposed: “starting from the premise that ‘myth is a type of speech’, Barthes set out in Mythologies to examine the normally hidden set of rules, codes and conventions through which meanings particular to specific social groups (i.e. those in power) are rendered universal and ‘given’ for the whole of society.”
Still with the purpose of contextualising these debates and theories, let us have a look at the very interesting account of gay identity within the historical lines of capitalism and the birth of a free market, of great importance when considering later on the issue of the ‘pink pound’, that John D’Emilio offers in his essay Capitalism and Gay Identity. What D’Emilio argues upon is the difference, as we mentioned earlier, between homosexual behaviour and gay identity: “I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history […]. Their emergence is associated with the relations of capitalism; it has been the historical development of capitalism – more specifically, its free labour system – that has allowed large numbers of men and women in the late 20th century to call themselves gay, to see themselves as part of a community of similar men and women, and to organise politically on the basis of that identity.”
The major turning point that meant a revaluation in a way of heterosexuality was the change in the values and importance surrounding the nuclear family (although still in quite a contradictory way in capitalist society), and therefore personal life relationships. “Homosexual behaviour is different from homosexual identity. There was, quite simply, no ‘social space’ in the colonial system of production that allowed men and women to be gay. […] There were certain homosexual acts – sodomy among men, ‘lewdness’ among women – in which individuals engaged, but family was so pervasive that colonial society lacked even the category of homosexual or lesbian to describe a person”, and I believe worth adding, many societies still do (let us think of Middle-Eastern societies, with the example of Turkey, where homosexual acts are ‘ordinary’, but there is no term, and even more, no conception, of an homosexual identity).
Medical (both pathological and psychological) studies, that nowadays see the attempt of discovering a ‘gay gene’, constituted an important step into the debate on sexual identity. It is a common say that as soon as something is studied, and therefore given a certain importance, it becomes problematic and ‘real’. This say is often true. “Doctors developed theories about homosexuality, describing it as a condition, something that was inherent in a person, a part of his or her ‘nature’. These theories did not represent scientific breakthroughs, elucidations of previously undiscovered areas of knowledge; rather, they were an ideological response to a new way of organising one’s personal life.
The popularisation of the medical model, in turn, affected the consciousness of the women and men who experienced homosexual desire, so that they came to define themselves through their erotic life.” We see here a great influence played by certain social sciences in constructing identity, while in theory analysing it. But when can we say a gay identity started existing? The process started around the 1940s. Those were the years when the Gay Liberation Movements began, but also when homosexuals started being represented (in a very arguable way) by the media. This is a very important point, in that the issue of representation in the media is fundamental towards an understanding of the process of constructing identity.
To this purpose, let us look at a ‘media manifestation’ I believe of great interest. For 15 years, London has been having a growingly important Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Now, this could mean an improvement in personal freedom and diverse social expression. At the same time though, I believe it necessary to be very critical about the purpose and spirit with which manifestations of ‘gayness’ like this one take place.
In fact, just by going through the introduction in the programme written by the Festival Programmers, one could be very suspicious. Identity, in what should be a celebration of ‘diversity’, seems very much constructed: certain sponsors, of all sorts, individuate us as rich consumers; then it is suggested we go and see a movie, where finally (…) after “years we’ve been moaning about the lack of lesbian features and now lesbians are cropping up everywhere you look!”, then some deals have been made with sponsoring bars and clubs, where we are warmly advised, privileged, to go and drink the night away.
You go to bed and think: God, what a good real gay I have been today! What I am trying to say here is that whereas the purpose of these films would be to truly represent the diversification of identities, they very often at the same time they construct it… Obviously, this does not only apply to the gay community, but as a matter of fact, gay men and lesbians are more likely to be ‘boxed’, on the basis of their self-and-social identity due to their sexuality.
The second major time juncture was the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York; at that time, “a massive, grass-roots liberation movement could form almost over night precisely because communities of lesbians and gay men existed. Although gay community was a precondition for a mass movement, the oppression of lesbian and gay men was the force that propelled the movement into existence.”
Moving on with our debate, Durkheim argued that the individual was a product of society (not that society was a product of individuals). His point was that the modern understanding of individuality (and thus, the self understanding of humans in modern society) was a product of that particular culture, so highly interwoven with capitalism: “in industrial society, with its high degree of specialisation, individualism occurs because people live distinctive lives with distinctive experiences. Their values and attitudes can then diverge.” Identity is therefore seen as a product of economic system.
Mead talks about self constructed identity through its relations with the other: “the ‘I’ then becomes self conscious only in so far as it can imagine how it is seen by others, […] and therefore depends upon the others it encounters.” This line of thought is fundamental to the symbolic interactionist approach in sociology.
Freud’s legacy in discussing identity is still enormous, even with, it can be argued, his pretty strict distinction between ‘normality’ and ‘perversion’: “identity rests on the child’s assimilation of external persons.” Through repression, psychoanalysis says, the child might develop ‘perverse’ behaviour in his later life that might cause him/her neurotic illness.
Althusser gives another fundamental contribution to the study of identity as a social construct. A structuralist Marxist, Althusser sees the subject as a product of ideological state apparatuses (ISA), extremely compelling, and from which it is nearly impossible to break free; and he describes them as working through a process of interpellation. “Interpellation works like this: through ISAs we understand our world and thereby ourselves. In fact, we can only understand ourselves as subjects in the world through the mediation of ISAs like education, religion, the family, and the legal system. Althusser argued that subjects do not create ISAs: quite the opposite. In fact, ISAs interpellate us or call us into being, literally by giving us names, constructing family relationships and so on, even as they make self evident the fact of having a name, or an aunt, or a legal system that has the power to establish both of those facts.”
This is where the importance of Foucault comes in, in trying to break free of the ISAs, through ‘reverse discourse’. Foucault insists that what society considers ‘natural’ is actually the product of historical forces (as Alan Sinfield, among the many, also points out in his essay Identity and Subculture). He “turns to the problem of the construction of the self (especially in relation to sexuality) through its positioning within discourses.” Recognising that identity is not merely self-constructed, but depends upon some other, opens up the theoretical space for marginal or oppressed groups to “challenge and re-negotiate the identities that have been forced upon them in the process of domination. Ethnic identities, gay and lesbian identities and female identities are thus brought into a process of political change.”
What we are coming at is the very important notion that identity is not a simple definable word. It is a discourse, a flow. Discourses on identity if they need to be talked about, if identity needs expression happen mainly through language, and language can be very, very restrictive. Lacan argues that “the unconscious is structured like language. In effect, this is to argue that the self (or more properly the subject), is positioned by language, which is to say that it is positioned as always repressing its own lack of unity.” This point is of extreme importance, in that it stresses the role of language: in fact, would we even be able to think of identity without language?
Would identity even exist without language? Would we exist as individuals without the fundamental of verbal expression? “What is the issue, briefly, is the overall ‘discursive fact’, the way in which sex is ‘put into discourse’”.
Going back to Genet, in the light of Foucault’s theories, we find that Genet “is a key figure here, one of whose relationship with gay culture has never been comfortable and whose work rejects the notion of a gay identity. He associated himself with an underworld of outsiders, where homosexual acts are just one expression of a wider unconventional culture.” Through ‘reverse discourse’ “Genet’s stance is linked to gay culture’ reclamation of oppressive symbols like the pink triangle.”
Now, something that I would like to draw our attention on is the fact that it can be argued that most gay people, up until now, would actually be proud of walking down a street showing off a pink triangle (let us think of the yearly gay pride manifestations). So, does this make Genet non-gay, the fact that he does not seem to share a communal identity with many others who practice homosexual sex? “If the legacy of queer has taught us anything at all, it is surely that there are many ways of expressing a gay identity, that one’s man negative image might be another man’s limp-wristed, poodle-worshipping, wise-cracking, knife-wielding special creation.”
Through this brief theoretical account, we can point out that the notion common to nearly all the theorist on the subject that gay identity is born as resistance towards oppression. ‘Camp’, an attitude often (very limitatively) associated to gay men, could be therefore seen, as “a survival mechanism in a hostile environment. Camp answers heterosexual disapproval through a strategy of defensive offensiveness, incarnating the homophobe’s worst fears.”
The same said for camp can be applied to drag. Drag can make a great statement: gender is just a social conditioning! To this regard I would like to introduce the concept of ‘performativity’, first introduced by Judith Butler in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Butler argues that we perform our ethnicity, gender, identity: “performativity is something everyone does in order to inhabit a gendered identity, without which one cannot be a meaningful subject.” This view is anti-essentialist, in that it affirms that there is no biological inner-core to our being, that there is no real essence once that we unwrap language, the clothes we wear, our culture. In ‘camp’ Butler sees a possibility of a ‘reverse discourse’.
The peculiarity of drag is that from a ‘subversive’ or al least rebellious way of life it became commercial enterprise, a commodified form of entertainment. People look at drag queens nowadays and see ‘gay identity’, an identity, once more, commodified and sold to us. This is valid in general for many of the objects that gays take up and make meaningful according to their ‘group identity’: they will soon be commodified and commercialised. Often now it is the case that it is the commercial capitalist system that sets the trend, that proposes objects and brands targeted to a gay consumership.
I was in Freedom a few days ago, a gay bar in Soho. The music that was played consisted in Britney Spears, Spice Girls, Steps, etc. Is that gay music? Is that what gay people are supposed to listen to, in order to be gay? Is it still possible to be gay, to have ‘gay identity’ even if we do not like that music? Or are we maybe something else, which the word ‘gay’ in its definition of identity does not include? What is for sure is that behind every single illusion of a shared identity there is a great deal of marketing and advertising; that the attention the media give to gays (always in a love/hate kind of way) is not accidental; what is for sure is that ‘gay’ is becoming a business. If lifestyles can therefore be so easily marketed, created and sold to us by the mainstream (let us think of ‘gay window advertising’ as a naturalised capitalist development), can they carry the original meaning, the meaning that might have motivated the Stonewall rioters?
This seems to be the way things are going for gay identity: “style as resistance becomes commodifiable as chic when it leaves the political realm and enters the fashion world.” Still, once these identity-giving trends are set, do gay people have a choice? On this point, I firmly agree with Danae Clark, when she argues that “within the context of consumerism and the historical weight of heterosexist advertising techniques, ‘choice’ is regulated in determined ways. For example, gay window advertising appropriates lesbian cultural style, incorporates its features into commodified representations, and offers it back to lesbian consumers in a packaged form cleansed of identity politics.”
We are coming here to a (sad) conclusion that nowadays more and more gay identity is very much a social construct, to which both gay people and heterosexuals seem to contribute, because of various possible reasons. Sure it is the ‘ideology’ in a capitalist system plays a major role. Nowadays, some argue, no more ‘gay is good!’, but rather “gay is goods. […] The Great Gay (Shopping) List is the gay community.” This is like saying that gay people gain their identity by shopping down Old Compton Street in London, where, pockets loaded of Pink Pounds, they can buy, piece by piece, a ‘shared’ identity. “The consumption of the appropriate gay items comes to constitute the gay identity, and so gayness, in its commodified, standardised form, simply becomes a marketing demographic”, and therefore being a social construct.
We are now coming to the conclusion of our debate. Wrapping up, I would like to draw the attention of the reader to a thoughtful consideration: we need to be careful, when talking about identity, not to generalise too much. Who or what gives us, gay men or lesbians, straight or bisexuals, to describe and criticise what ‘we’ are? That ‘we’ can turn out to be pretty meaningless (as Probyn strongly points out): “ ‘I’ have no idea who ‘we’ are.” I find Cohen’s account on gay identity very refreshing, in that, like Simpson does, it is not partisan or trying to be omniexplicatory in a strenuous defence of our ‘goodness’ (“what is this thing called ‘gay’?, without ending up mouthing the banal and meaningless platitude ‘It’s good’”) .
Something that I definitely do agree on is the fact that too often homosexual identity is defined and happily shared on the basis of a common homosexual desire (taking up here on D’Emilio’s point). The risks we run are great, from within the gay community and from the outside, of being actually suffocated by that identity gay men and lesbians so desperately try to form and defend. “By predicating ‘our’ affinity upon the assertion of a ‘common’ sexuality, we tacitly agree to leave unexplored any ‘internal’ contradictions which undermine the coherence we desire from the imagined certainty of an unassailable commonality or of incontestable sexuality.”
We have seen how great the influence of society is in constructing identity, among the many in Foucault’s idea that “systems of power such as the family or the legal system produce subjects, not vice versa.” Last, we have seen the other side of the story, where, “according to the (for once with good cause) celebrated gay critic Leo Bersani, ‘gay men and lesbians have nearly disappeared into their awareness of how they have been constructed as gay men and lesbians… having de-gayed themselves, gays melt into the culture they like to think themselves as undermining.”
Simpson, M. (1996) Anti-Gay. London, Cassell;
Hebdige, D. (1979) Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London, Routledge;
Alexander/ Seidman (1990) Culture and Society. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press Medhurst, A. (1997) Lesbian and Gay Studies; a Critical Introduction. London, Cassell;
Abelove, H. (1993) The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. London, Routledge;
McQuail, D. (1983) Mass Communication Theory. London, Sage;
Fuss, D. (1991) Inside/Out. London, Routledge;
Williams, R. (1976) Keywords. London, Fontana Press;
Andrew, E. & Sedgwick, P. (1999) Key concepts in cultural theory. London, Routledge.
Programme of the 15th London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
Issues of Lesbian and Gay Representation. LCPDT, 1988.