This is the first part of a two-part essay on the importance of respecting sexual and gender identities. This section stands on its own as analysis of modern identity based in its medical history. The second portion is here.
The Creation of Sexual Identity
While same-gender sexual expression exists across culture and history, and there have typically been terms (such as “sodomy”) used to refer to that expression in western culture, it was not until the late 1800’s that scientists began to think of homosexuality as an innate condition. In other words, homosexuality stopped being a behavior and instead became a person (the “homosexual” or “invert”). This new formulation of queer desire moved into the mainstream slowly, and was not fully adopted until the 1930’s. This wikipedia article gives a brief overview of this history.
It is important to note that the creation of homosexual identity was all mixed up with gender variance. The initial term “invert” actually refers to gender inversion. The most important and telling aspect of this gender inversion was probably same-gender desire, but the conceptualization was still centered around gender. In other words, desiring someone of the same gender would be seen as trying to be the other gender. We are still living with this formulation today in many ways. This is why homophobia is typically mixed up with fear of gender transgression. This is why transgender concerns tend to align politically with LBG concerns. This is why people who are transitioning often have to convince their therapists that they will be heterosexual post-transition – heterosexuality is seen as a primary indicator of normative gender.
Of course, the creation of sexual identity was not a politically neutral act. It was undertaken to put a number of sexuality and gender regulations in place.
First, making sexuality variance a matter of gender variance neatly made sexuality variance disappear. If people were engaging in same-gender love, then if we could think of them as actually the other gender, their same-gender love became opposite-gender love. Remember that at the time, same-gender attraction was not well-confined to specific identities and attributed to biological factors, so there was a real fear that same-gender attraction would spread across the culture. This was a effort to define it away by grounding it in a well-essentialized characteristic (gender), thereby removing the danger. Eventually gender essentialization became sexuality essentialization, and this conflation was no longer needed, though it haunts us to this day.
Second, by confining variant sexuality to specific identities in a small group of (supposedly) easily recognizable people, normative gender and heterosexuality were strengthened. This was in effect a process of sweeping minor variations under the rug through the use of a heavy dichotomy. The occasional fleeting same-gender attraction, that indiscretion in boarding school, minor gender variations, and similar became invisible, partly through closeting, but also through a process of categorization that eliminated any middle ground.
Note that the strong homo/hetero dichotomy, which exists to this day, required the removal of bisexuality as a possibility, because bisexuality tends to blur and problematize the borders of sexuality. It was not until the late 1940’s that Kinsey rediscovered the range of sexuality that had been closed away through the homo/hetero dichotomy. The first known bisexual gatherings sprung up in the late 50’s or early 60’s, somewhat later than the earliest known homophile organizations and the bar culture, both of which arrived in the 20’s. The delay in bisexual organizing was likely because bisexuality from the beginning was not meant to be applied as a descriptor to actual adults, so there was no medical push to diagnose bisexuality.
Third, the creation of non-normative categories for gender and sexuality (aka “Othering”) allowed for advanced regulation of normative gender and sexual expression. Anyone who did not properly adhere to norms could be labelled an invert or homosexual. This was crucial to the maintenance of men’s gendered power, which was experiencing a decline during this time. For example, Faderman describes how boarding-school girl crushes and romantic friendships were driven out of existence by the modern diagnosis of the pathologized lesbian. Both were forms of connection between women that removed the necessity of having men around. Neither has been recovered yet.
Foucault makes the important point that normative sexuality was becoming a measure of health and purity among the middle class, similar to the earlier idea of blood among nobles. This resulted in all sorts of investigation and regulation of sexuality through psychoanalysis, regulation which invariably supported men’s priorities in relationships and in gender expression.
While this regulation was primarily aimed at straight normative middle-class types, a side effect of all this regulation was the creation of our modern categories of perversion, including things like S/M.
Fourth, the power of the medical establishment was greatly expanded. All this regulation required that people be paid to do the regulating. Psychoanalysis grew up with heavy attention to sexuality and gender norms, and eventually morphed into the modern fields of psychology and therapy. While an idea of mental health existed prior to psychoanalysis, sexuality became a powerful crossover point, where regulation and treatment for physical practices could be expanded into mental treatment.
While the early sexologists and psychoanalysts were generally friendly to queer concerns, the creation of sexual identity was an easy opening for heavy pathologization and stigmatization, and by the 1940’s psychoanalysts were regularly embarking on diatribes against homosexuality, blaming it for all kinds of problems. This laid the groundwork for McCarthyism and the homosexual witch hunts of the 50’s.
Modern Sexuality Effects
Looking back at the history of sexual identity gives us pointers into problematic aspects of modern sexuality. These are things that we take for granted, but which become visible as constructions once the historical context is brought into play.
1) Sexuality is diagnosed. Which is to say, the primary way we understand sexual identity is through a process whereby one person diagnoses the sexuality of another. This has been eroded quite a bit by the politics of coming out, but still remains. We tend to value our own judgment of a person’s sexuality over their own judgment of their own sexuality, even though it should be obvious that they would know better.
When a person’s sexuality fits our own ideas of sexual taxonomy, we take them at their word. But if it does not, we question them or their sexuality. We make assumptions and assign sexuality to others instead of waiting for them to tell us. A person’s sexuality always remains open to questioning or judgment, by their friends and family or by the culture at large. Even a person’s heterosexuality is in question these days, with a certain constant danger of tipping into queerness.
In other words, we are still playing doctor. We are all little sexologists, running around frantically diagnosing sexuality in others. And like the sexologists, our diagnoses tend towards the self-serving. If a particular understanding of sexuality aids us personally, we look for it in others. If a person’s sexuality is somehow a challenge to our own self-categorization, we refute or question what they say about themselves. Our culture approaches sexual identity from a position of fundamental insecurity, where our own selves depend on a sexual categorization that we must then project onto others.
This is not just a problem for queer/straight determinations. I find myself doing this all the time in BDSM settings, mentally assigning each person as top or bottom, and getting it wrong a lot. Also, this happens in polyamorous contexts all the time, where one person will decide whether another is “truly” polyamorous or not, based on their own criteria. Or, people will be categorized out of the community other ways, when their behavior is labeled as swinging or polyfuckery.
Of course, gender is also typically diagnosed, usually from secondary sex characteristics. Understanding this makes the sexologists’ conflation of gender and sexuality more clear. Sexuality does not have the same (supposedly) biological attachment points as gender, so if they could make the sexuality problem into a gender problem, then diagnosing sexuality becomes much easier and it becomes something that can be assigned quickly and involuntarily, upon meeting someone, just like gender. In other words, the conflation of sexuality and gender served the purpose of making sexuality easily diagnosable, by attaching it to the gendering process, which is already culturally understood and generally happens without the consent of the person being gendered.
2) We diagnose sexuality based on behavior. The early sexologists considered deviant sexuality to be a secret that must be uncovered, a secret that might be invisible even to the person with the sexuality, but which could be determined by sufficient analysis by an outside observer, preferably a sexologist or other medical authority. So they paid close attention to a person’s habits, their gender presentation, their family relations, and of course their sexual contacts, in addition to looking at their “neuroses” and other bits of mental and emotional state. Rarely did they just ask their patient to identify.
To this day, we rely on behavior over feelings or sense of self when diagnosing sexuality. We assume that a man propositioning other men for sex is gay, over his protests (and apparently ignoring the possibility of bisexuality). We get confused or incredulous when a lesbian tells us she is married to a man. We start whispering about possible gayness when a teenage boy has not had any girlfriends.
Further, we privilege behavior and appearance when creating definitions for sexual identities. “Gay” means “man who has sex with men but not women”. “Bi” means “has sex with men and women”, which tends to erase monogamous bisexuals. Often attraction is included in ideas of sexuality, but attraction tends not to be taken at face value, and people look for proof of attraction. Did they check out that cute guy who just walked by? How can they be that sexuality if they slept with this person? If she’s dating a butch woman, can she still be butch herself?
Because everyone tends to use behavioral definitions, we get into nasty dustups where people using different behavioral definitions start trying to define what others are doing, often over their objections. This is especially bad when two groups with different identities are sharing similar behaviors or other readable signs of identity. These situations are called “border wars”. I first read about these in Halberstam’s Female Masculinity, where she describes a border war between FTMs and butch dykes. This is a gender border war, and one based on appearance as well as behavior, but still shows the danger of relying on relatively shallow criteria for judging gender or sexuality.
While I don’t see a lot of border wars in BDSM, they seem to proliferate in polyamory. I have written up one such here, which can be boiled down to: swingers define swinging as couple-based nonmonogamy, poly people define swinging as recreational sex to distinguish it from polyamory, and then swingers get understandably pissed at poly people.
3) The diagnosis of sexuality and gender is to be performed by straight medical “experts”. This is the problem of authority described in Halperin’s Saint Foucault, where as soon as a person identifies (or is identified) as queer, they paradoxically lose authority to speak on queer matters. Conversely, if a person is known or assumed to be straight, they gain authority when describing queerness.
The advent of coming out was a political victory over this problem of authority. Coming out is the process of speaking one’s own sexuality with authority, irrespective of approval by the medical establishment. Now at least, we usually trust people on their own personal sexuality ahead of any medical authorities. This process of authorization has extended to the creation of identity itself: new sexual and gender identities are generally created within queer community, though those identities tend not to be understood or accepted in the mainstream.
However, while the medicalization of sexuality has been weakened, it is still rare for medical authorities to take community concerns seriously, or to subscribe to community identity structures. CDC surveys still use the word “homosexual”, which means they become less accurate as people identify as “gay” or “lesbian” or “queer” instead. Queers in general are less likely to visit a doctor on a regular basis, presumably due to bad experiences.
Poly people encounter something similar, when they ask for STD tests above and beyond the usual. While getting a full battery of tests yearly or even twice yearly is fairly standard in the community, doctors often balk at doing the tests, and insurers do not cover them. In other words, the medical establishment uses its own diagnosis of risk (which strangely, does not incorporate the issues of a network of lovers) instead of risk assessment by people in the community.
Also, there is this ongoing tug-of-war over identity between medical authorities and queer communities. Most of the relatively recent sexual and gender identities are generally unrecognized by the medical establishment, including genderqueer, pansexual, butch/femme, queersexual, girlfag, and similar. While bisexual is widely recognized, even it is available for dismissal by doctors and scientists. At the same time, medical authorities are creating new identities or reviving obsolete ones, identities which sound more and more ridiculous as community authority takes hold. Often such identities are wildly offensive, like this one.
Another lesson here is that the medicalization of queer sexuality and gender was never meant to be positive for queers, and to this day is not done for our benefit. A solid example of this is the “gay gene” and similar biological research. While some of these researchers are well-meaning, others turn out to be neo-eugenicists looking for ways to eliminate queerness from future generations through selective abortion or other techniques. The overall goals of this research are questionable, and it is not clear how such research would help queer communities.
4) Sexuality and gender are specifically set up to preclude any middle ground. In other words, to preclude the existence of bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.
While the sexologists created the idea of bisexuality, it was only meant to be the logical completion to the homosexual/heterosexual split, and it was never meant to apply to people. Freud spoke of bisexuality quite a bit, but he was referring to the possibility that any one person might become heterosexual or homosexual, and he did not think an adult could be bisexual. During the first half of the 20th century, what we think of bisexuality was really subsumed into homosexuality, as any indication of same-gender love tipped one over into homosexuality, despite any heterosexual experiences. As a result of this blind spot, there were no explicitly bisexual gatherings until the late 1950’s or early 1960’s, and I suspect that there was no or very little bisexual identification prior to the 50’s.
This erasure of bisexuality haunts us to this day. Bisexuality and similar multiple-gender-loving identities are seen as unstable, transient, or simply nonexistent, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This happens because bisexuality was explicitly constructed this way: it was never meant to apply to people, aside from as a vague possibility or a behavioral description. The fact that people are claiming it as an identity is somewhat of a revolution. Still, in this day and age the New York Times can claim that bisexual men do not exist, despite the fact that 1.8% of men in the U.S. age 18-44 identify as bisexual. Clearly, the straight culture wishes that bi men would just disappear, and bi women are only tolerated as long as they are useful for straight men’s fantasies and politics.
The continued efforts to make bisexuality invisible have the purpose of propping up a weakening hetero/homo dichotomy, which in turn helps to maintain a man/woman divide. This second bit is effected both by associating sexuality with gender (which means that bisexuality implies a certain gender transgression) and by maintaining a strong divide between desire for men and desire for women, which many bisexuals would tell you is not all that different after all. This conception of heavily gendered desire shows up elsewhere for bisexuals, in the assumption that bisexuals must be nonmonogamous, because the culture at large cannot conceive that desire for men and desire for women are similar enough that satisfying one can satisfy the other.
Another threat to the gender dichotomy (and thus to men’s power over women) are transgender and genderqueer identities, and intersex people. The medical establishment fights this threat through a whole host of procedures and regulations. Doctors routinely “correct” intersex conditions in newborns, often without even consulting the family or getting their consent. Getting a mastectomy for health reasons is straightforward, but getting a mastectomy simply because you want one is incredibly difficult and generally requires the approval of multiple mental health practitioners. As Julia Serano points out in Whipping Girl, while there has been a medical route for hormones and sex reassignment surgery since the 60’s, the primary purpose of this medical route has been to regulate (in other words, deny) such techniques as much as possible, and to enforce normative gender standards on those who are approved.
5) Sexuality and gender constructions tend to be created by and for straight gender-normative people, in particular men. This typically happens in the service of gendered power (men’s power over women). When queer communities take on identities provided by mainstream and turn them to queer political purposes, it is therefore a revolutionary act. However, these identities carry various problems stemming from the fact that they were created for straight purposes.
Similarly, when queer people make up their own identities, it is again an act of revolution. Notably, these identities are rarely recognized in the mainstream, or only become recognized after decades of activism or when the identity becomes useful for straight people. Bisexuality is a great example of this – the idea of bisexuality was created as part of a project of erasing actual bisexuality. When people started identifying as bisexual, there was no medical support, and to this day you can find doctors who routinely disbelieve patients who say they are bisexual, and there is little targeting of bisexuals’ health concerns. The media (including gay men such as Dan Savage) routinely dismiss bisexuality in men and sexualize or trivialize bisexuality in women.
Identities (whatever their origin) tend to become visible in the culture when it serves the purposes of straight men. Lesbian identity is another example of this: even though the lesbian identity is almost a century old at this point, lesbians are fairly rare on television, and when they do appear they tend to present in a gender-normative way, and in general do not act like lesbians you find in the lesbian community. This happens because lesbians are inconvenient for straight men, for a number of reasons, the prime one being that lesbians (generally) do not want sex with straight men and therefore violate the availability doctrine of heterosexuality. However, at various points in history, the idea of lesbianism has been useful to straight men (mostly to regulate the behavior of women), and at those times lesbians have been very visible in culture. This is how we got the original spread of lesbian identity, and where lesbian pulp novels came from.
6) Sexual and gender identities will be naturalized (essentialized) or artificialized as is convenient to any particular political goal or era.
At the very beginning of the medicalization of sexual identity, there was a tension between the idea that sexuality was inborn and the idea that it could arise from external experience. Freud and the early sexologists considered homosexuality and inversion to be inborn or at least immutable traits, and did not favor conversion therapy. This was a politically expedient attitude: it resolved the concern of the times that non-normative gender and sexuality would spread across the culture. Notably, while we now consider the naturalization of sexuality to be largely pro-queer, at the time it was an important part of the imposition of new identity as part of a project of medicalization and gender control.
This project came to fruition in the 40’s and 50’s. Once the homosexual and lesbian identities had been stabilized, the populations they referred to became targets of repression in a period of cultural conformity. After the war, there was a huge crackdown on queer populations as part of an effort to regain (gender) normalcy, leading up to McCarthyism. Of course, because the identity stabilization was finished, the naturalization of sexuality was no longer needed, and was discarded by the psychoanalysts of the era. Doing so allowed them to open up a new line of attack, where they claimed that homosexuality was a spreading disease that threatened the body politic. This enabled a general crackdown on gender and sexuality nonconformity in the 50’s. These psychoanalysts turned to the project of “curing” queers, one which is still with us today.
The historical confusion around essential versus learned identity is still with us today. Depending on who you ask, sexuality is genetic, or a matter of early hormonal influence, or possibly (according to increasingly wacky-sounding theories) due to distant fathers or overbearing fathers or penis envy. However, at the same time, non-normative sexuality is somehow corrupting, and still a disease, and queers must be kept away from children, and queers are placed or enticed into nasty self-hate programs that are supposed to “cure” them. In other words, sexuality is essentialized when convenient, and artificialized when convenient, rarely to the benefit of queers.
The same goes for gender. While normative genders (like normative sexualities) have largely been spared the inquistion, non-normative genders are seen as inborn, or a matter of sexual fetish, or actually homosexuality, depending on which medical “expert” you ask. At the same time, said genders are somehow dangerous, and must be controlled or made invisible. And of course, physical gender inconsistencies are cause for immediate surgical intervention, despite their naturalness.
Of course, this simultaneous naturalizing and denaturalizing is not limited to conservative elements, but is also replicated in queer activism. Much of the current political gains for gay men and lesbians have been based in a civil rights doctrine that assumes that sexuality is inborn or at least immutable (an approach that notably leaves bisexuality and other intermediate sexualities in the dust). At the same time, queer power analysis has very successfully approached sexuality from a deconstructive viewpoint, laying bare the subtle operations of power around sexuality. In a similar vein, transgender activists are problematizing and subverting gender, alongside transsexual activists (most recently, Serano in Whipping Girl) who are arguing from an essentialist stance.
While I have no problems with taking the identity ambiguities of the mainstream and using them against the mainstream, this particular one has been an unending sort of friction between queer subcultures. Moving forward, we need an identity strategy that supports both mutable and immutable identities, and that retains the strong power analysis tools of deconstruction while still recognizing the fact that many non-normative identities are entirely involuntary. I plan to write more on this in a future post.
In conclusion, sexual and gender identities have a number of current problems that reflect their original conception. While identity politics have been extremely useful and are a great basis for power upheavals, we need to change the way we deal with sexual and gender identity. We need to de-pathologize identity, de-medicalize identity, create and promulgate a consent requirement for identifying others, re-value intermediate sexes, genders, and sexualities according to spectrum or constellation models, overcome the natural versus unnatural identity dichotomy, and (most difficult of all) overturn straight authority on matters of identity. Most of this has already been happening over the last half-century, and the current tendency towards the creation of new identities should be a helpful next step in overcoming the historical problems of identity.