Queer Theory

Our theme of the month is Pluralism. Two weeks ago I mentioned the Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity to help us think about how we might move beyond our tendency to minimize cultural difference, better appreciate how deep culture goes, and open ourselves to learning how to better adapt to different cultural contexts. Last week, in our Zoom service, we did some history as a subversive activity, looking at how the white landowners in the 17th century invented the American tradition of racism, and how that legacy affects and infects everything.

Understanding these matters helps us live out and live into our value, pluralism. It’s a value that Unitarian Universalists are considering codifying in our Association’s bylaws, with language that says:
“We celebrate that we are all sacred beings, diverse in culture, experience, and theology. We covenant to learn from one another in our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”
Today, we turn to pluralism of sexual orientations and gender identity.

In our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, we always confront two huge mysteries: ourselves, and other people. Whatever your sexual orientation or gender identity, just because you are or have that orientation and that identity, doesn’t mean you understand it. We remain mysteries to ourselves. And other people are also mysteries to us. We can’t clear up these mysteries, but we can help them seem manageable – we can acquire some helpful conceptual tools. So I propose today to lead you on a journey – a tour through a landscape of ideas and concepts. Our starting point is that last sentence from our description of Pluralism: “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” That’s our starting point. It’s also our ending point. What we will find is that we are led back to where we started – our covenant to “embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.”

T.S. Eliot said:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
And that’s what this exploration will be. We’ll arrive where we started – only, we might know the place a bit better.

Concept Number One: Ignore It – Or Try To.

According to this concept, the thing to do with sexuality that may be different from your own is ignore it. What consenting people do in private is irrelevant – it has nothing to do with our shared life. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Since sexual orientation has nothing to do with character, reliability, competence, trustworthiness – has nothing to do with whether a person has inherent worth and dignity, it should just be ignored. Let’s dispense with labels like lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and treat all people as just people.

In race relations, this attitude was called being – or trying to be – color-blind. Similarly, we might be, or try to be, sexual orientation blind, or gender identity blind. But then we get to:

Concept Number Two: Honoring Identity

The problem with concept number one is that people want to be seen and honored, acknowledged and respected for all of who they are. During the four years in the early 90s that I was a professor of philosophy at Fisk University – a school with a predominantly African American student body – I saw every day how important African American identity was to my students. Certainly, they wanted to be respected – and they wanted to be respected AS African American -- respected as what they were. They didn’t want white people pretending to be unable to see color.

We like to be recognized for who we are. We don’t want our identity to be socially erased. We want to be proud of who we are, not told that a key part of our experience is meaningless. Similarly, many LGBTQ folk want to be recognized and accepted for all of who they are.

We are all entitled to equal concern and respect. But we don’t have to pretend that we’re all the same. We want to be recognized for who we are.

Color-blindness, or gender-blindness, or sexual-orientation-blindness, tries, with varying degrees of earnestness, to pretend that we are all the same. This pretense has the effect of projecting the majority’s norms. That’s how color-, gender-, or sexual-orientation-"blindness" plays out. Pretending that there’s no difference between black and white is basically tantamount to pretending that we are all white. Color-blindness allows the norms and assumptions of white culture to hold unchallenged sway. In the same way, sexual-orientation-blindness amounts to projecting heteronormativity.

Now we start getting into areas that are going to be for many of us a bit more challenging. You see, while many in the LGBTQ community worked hard for recognition of same-sex marriage, not all LGBQ folk have unalloyed enthusiasm for the spread of acceptance of same-sex marriage. Marriage itself is heteronormative, they point out. Marriage takes the heterosexual model as the norm: you have one partner, you live together and run a household together, for life – or at least starting out with the intention that it be for life. But maybe that model should be challenged rather than pursued. Some queer theorists criticize the traditional family as a deeply problematic institution that ought to challenged and called into question.

Concept Number Three: Identity -- and Everything -- Are Shifting Cultural Constructs

Some queer theorists also challenge the very idea of identity. Concept one was, "let’s ignore it." Concept two was, "let’s recognize identity as a way to respect who a person is." Now we get to concept three: identity is a problematic notion.

Starting with gender, let us acknowledge that the clear black-and-white categories “male” and “female” aren’t really so clear. Some people are born intersex, where the biological sex cannot be clearly classified as either male or female. The practice of forcibly resolving the ambiguity, forcing the child into one box or the other, sometimes using surgery to help resolve the ambiguity on one side or the other, has been harmful and traumatic.

Let us learn to accept ambiguity. In fact, suggest some queer theorists, more gender ambiguity might be good for us all. We might all dress and style ourselves in ways designed to make it harder instead of easier for others to categorize our gender at a glance. I remember years ago if I saw someone – like, at the mall -- and I couldn’t immediately tell if they were a woman or a man, I wanted to know, and I’d keep stealing glances to see if I could ascertain the person’s gender. I’ve learned to be more comfortable with not needing to know.

Sexuality is culturally constructed – and culture is constantly shifting. Cultural studies professor Nikki Sullivan writes in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory (2003):
“Sexuality is not natural, but rather, is discursively constructed. Moreover, sexuality…is constructed, experienced, and understood in culturally and historically specific ways. Thus, we could say that there can be no true or correct account of heterosexuality, of homosexuality, of bisexuality....Contemporary views of particular relationships and practices are not necessarily any more enlightened or any less symptomatic of the times than those held by previous generations.” (1)
Queer theorist David Halperin describes three very different cultures in which sexual contact between older men and boys has been acceptable: the ancient Greeks, some Native American tribes, and New Guinea tribesmen. He asks: Is this the same sexuality? Such contact has some superficial similarities, including acceptability, in all three cultures, yet the social contexts and meanings of that contact was so varied, the cultural understanding of what was going on so diverse, that we can’t call it the same sexuality.

The brilliant French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, pioneered new ways to think about and understand ourselves. Foucault is a founding figure for a number of kinds of study, including queer theory. His three volume History of Sexuality revealed how sexuality has been culturally constructed in Western civilization. In Britain, and much of Europe, prior to the 1880s, Foucault points out, “sodomy” meant any form of sexuality that did not have procreation as its aim. Using birth control counted as sodomy – and penalties against sodomy were severe.

Analysis of the time reveals that the laws were directed against acts, not against a particular type of person. There was no understanding of sexual orientation as an identity – any more than we have an understanding of adulterer as an identity -- or, say, “person who parks in a no parking zone.”

It wasn’t until the later 1800s that
“particular acts came to be seen as an expression of an individual’s psyche, or as evidence of inclinations of a certain type of subject.” (Sullivan 3)
Certain forms of sexuality moved from being seen as horrible acts to which anyone might succumb, to being seen as the expression of a particular type of person. As Sigmund Freud expressed and magnified the new way of thinking, sex was at the root of everything about us. Thus, “the homosexual” became a personage – a life form, characterized as a certain type of degenerate whose entire character, everything about him, was corrupted by his sexuality.

Such a viewpoint hardly seems to us like progress. Yet, as traumatic and disastrous as that cultural phase was for many, it paved the way for our later attitudes. Once we saw sexual orientation as an identity – subject to treatment rather than to criminal or moral judgment -- the ground was laid for the next step. Only then could culture move to seeing that identity as not harming anyone else.

From there to: not harming themselves either. And then: to being tolerated, to being accepted, to being welcomed, to being celebrated as a worthy and beautiful part of the diverse spectrum of human expression. That’s a huge change – a series of huge changes – all within the last 130 years or so.

The field of queer theory, then, examining the vastly different ways that sexuality manifests and is understood in different cultures and times, raises for us the possibility that our cultural changes in the last 130 years might not be a matter of finally seeing the truth that has been there all along. Rather, they might be a matter of the contingent, accidental evolution of concepts – evolving in ways outside of anyone’s explicit control or intention, yet not dictated by something called "objective reality" either.

The evolution metaphor here is apt. In species evolution, the objective environment establishes conditions in which many species will fail – will never appear or will quickly die out – yet the objective environment does not guide and direct evolution toward one true species. Rather, the objective environment is one in which increasingly diverse species emerge and find ways to be successful. By analogy, we might say that the reality of our biology establishes conditions in which some concepts of sexuality would never appear or would quickly die out – yet biological reality does not guide or direct our understanding toward the one truth. Rather, the array of possible ways of thinking about sexuality, while constrained by facts of biology, remains as infinite as the array of possible species.

(Are you having a hard time wrapping your mind around how it can be constrained, yet still infinite? Look, suppose I tell you to pick a number. Then I say it has to be a prime number. Your choice is now constrained: the number has to be a whole number, a positive integer, and prime. But there are an infinite number of prime numbers. So: constrained, and still infinite.)

Biology gives us some constraints – but the possibilities for cultural constructions of what to do with those constraints are infinite.

OK. Where are we? Let’s review. First level: forget about labels, categories. Just love people. Second level: it’s not so simple. People want to be recognized and respected for who they are. We have an identity as a man or a woman – or as nonbinary. We have an identity as a person of color, or not. And we have an identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or straight. My identity in these areas is not relevant to my rights, not relevant to whether or not I may be oppressed or discriminated against, not relevant to my claim to equal concern and respect. My identity IS relevant to my sense of who I am, and I want my society to recognize and honor and respect who I am. A "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy requires me to hide who I am. (Actually, it doesn’t require straight white men like me to hide who we are because under white heteronormativity my particular identity happens to be the one that is assumed rather than hidden – which is why recognizing and respecting alternative identities matters.)

Then comes a third level: the notion of identity itself is challenged. Not only are the categories fuzzy and unreliable, with people falling along continua rather than into one neat box or another, but the continua themselves are contingent social constructs subject to deconstruction and reconstruction into something different. Sexuality is plastic, and the ways we make meaning of it are even more plastic. Which brings us to:

Making Peace With Ambiguity

It’s confusing, it’s changing, we can’t really get a handle on the right way to think about it – because any way to think about it is one more temporary product of culture and language and power. No matter how enlightened our attitudes may be, no matter how up we are on LGBTQ literature, the latest books on gender and transgender biology, psychology, and experience – no matter how conversant we are in heteronormative critique – it’ll all be different in 50 years, if not sooner. And your currently enlightened attitude will seem to people then benighted.

Queer theory helps us let go of our assumptions and not replace them with new ones. Queer theory itself is not so much a "theory," as an understanding that no theory can be the one right theory. Queer theory helps us resist the temptation to resolve ambiguity, for in that space of ambiguity, we come back to where we started: simply embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.

Tell me what’s important to you. It might be your sexual identity, your gender identity, your racial identity, or it might not be. Tell, or don’t tell. It's up to you. And I might ask, or not ask – though keeping up, amid the constantly shifting cultural landscape, with what questions are inappropriate is part of the ongoing task. If I do ask, you can answer, or not answer, or say it’s not important to you, or tell me that you really just don’t know. This is how “We embrace our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect.” It requires the courage to stand in ambiguity and shine a warm embracing light. There may once have been good reasons for wanting to resolve the ambiguities of sex and sexuality. It may have even felt unbearable "not to know" -- and know instantly -- who was and who was not "automatically" in the category of potential mates for reproduction. With a little practice, though, we can be comfortable not knowing.

Our journey through queer theory has led us back to “arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” What we know about this place now is just how indefinite and undefined everything is. Embracing our differences and commonalities with Love, curiosity, and respect requires neither a rejection of, nor an insistence on, any notion of identity. What it does require is courage: the courage to take each ambiguous moment as it is; the courage to love each ambiguous person, however he or she or ze presents.

May it be so. Amen.

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