The Homoerotic Divide

I have recently been discussing with friends rather McGreevey was bi or a “gay American.” This has led me to dust off my queer theory cap (with the vain hope that the diploma may, one day, be good for something other than dust)…

This is one of the areas that has always fascinated me: the occluded divide between contemporary labels and universal/timeless taxonomy. Currently we have the three teams (or perhaps four, since some argue that lesbians and gay men are only tenuously aligned).

LGBT studies breaks down into two philosophic camps: contructionist/essentialist, homosexuality as innate and historically contiguous vs, homosexuality as a cultural construct denoting the current, temporal modeling of same-sex desire. Essence vs. artifact,

I personally have developed a theory that holds a historic continuity of desire (same-sex desire in this case) and people throughout history have related themselves to this desire in different ways. the continuity comes out both in the desire itself and in the fact, I would argue, that a certain segment of people always have defined themselves in specific relation to said desire. The referential comportment has taken on different cultural meanings among different peoples and at different times.

The creation of the label “homosexual” did not create the beast, as some key constructionists have argued. Subcultures existed around same-sex desire prior to the 19th taxonomic movements and existed after for decades without any self-referential adoption of the term(s) created by the medical/physiological movements to label them.

Eve Segdwick talks of a homosocial arc spanning fraternal relating to genital contact. Into this arc is inserted the homoerotic divide–the point at which the social becomes the erotic. This divide is mutable and movable depending on culture, circumstance, context etc. Different acts can even mean different things in different contexts. A pat on the butt means one thing in the lockerroom among teammates and quite another on the street among strangers. A prisoner has sex with another prisoner through convenience and is not “gay”; while two men living together in celibacy are…

historically and culturally the two participants in a single sexual act may have different (and ironically contrary) definitions applies to them. At times mthe “top’s” sexual identity has not been brought into question (at most mis-directed normalcy), while the “bottom” is invariably the “dysfunctional, aberrant, criminal, etc.” This is often the social character of the prison example above.

The 1921 report of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee (chaired by FDR) investigation of same-sex subcultures near/involving the Newport Naval Training Station found:

The determining criterion in labeling a man as “straight” (their term) or “queer” was not the extent of his homosexual activity, but the gender role he assumed. The only men who sharply differentiated themselves from other men, labeling themselves saw “queer,” were those who assumed the sexual and other cultural roles ascribed to women… [Christian Brotherhood and Sexual Perversion, George Chauncey, Jr. in Hidden from History]

I like to sit back and watch a fluid, flowing mosaic of overlapping colorful coalesced definitional instances each with its own fleeting taxonomic encrustation.

Despite increases in the openness of our libertine society, we still live with the dichotomy of disclosure and secrecy. And here is the dilemma raised by this mosaic: how does one fit the pleroma into the extremely limited labels available to us. This a territory that one must be extremely careful traversing.

Sedgwick writes in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet:

definitionally, from anyone on any theoretical ground the authority to describe and name their own sexual desire is a terribly consequential seizure. In this century, in which sexuality has been made expressive of the essence of both identity and knowledge, it may represent the most intimate violence possible.

Of course, on a real practical level gay people often do know better. This is a key dilemma and demarcates a dangerous ground that behooves careful navigation. It is only recently that it has been possible for gay people to artfully and eloquently and OPENLY articulate their desire. When we remove this ability from another, we must always very carefully consider our actions. To this though we must acknowledge that, as with other areas of difficulty, our own past experience mean that we may indeed know better. How often has our aside, “oh, he’s a big ol’ queen,” been proved right with time and self-disclosure?