Sunday, June 26, 2011

Something other, something different

Apologies for my extended absence here and elsewhere on the internet--moving plus a delayed Time Warner hookup means I've been reliant on an erratic stolen wireless connection.

Patchy as my internet access has been, I did follow the news from the New York state senate pretty much as it was breaking on Friday night. I'm very glad that my adopted home state has legalized gay marriage, and I do think it's an important step in the fight for gay and lesbian equality. However, I share some of the ambivalence that other people have expressed about turning marriage into the default standard for "loving, committed relationship." Let me be clear: I'm a big believer in marriage, and although I understand that some people can't get over the icky feelings that the patriarchal model of marriage produces in them, I don't personally believe that marriage is limited to or compromised by that model.

Nevertheless, though I want all my gay friends who want to get married to be able to do so, I don't totally love the way that gay marriage has gotten marketed as "gay people are exactly like you and me! they want exactly the same things that you want (or are supposed to want)! They're good consumers and citizens, and if only we allowed them to marry they wouldn't have to go to those scary nightclubs or wear weird clothes and stuff."

The flurry of news stories surrounding marriage equality has also made me brood more on the cover story from last week's NYT Magazine about the psychotherapeutic treatment of gay people who don't want to be gay. According to this story, an increasing number of mental health professionals--including those who are themselves openly and happily gay--are attempting methods of treatment for closeted patients that are not necessarily aimed at making those patients embrace and affirm their true gay selves. As one therapist notes, it's not always true that life would be happier or get better for them if they came out. When confronted with a deeply religious man who's attracted to other men, but who is married to and loves a woman, has children, and is utterly convinced homosexuality is wrong, their approach is basically to figure out how the patient sees himself: his orientation might indeed be homosexual while his identity is heterosexual. The therapist's job is to help him lessen the conflict between those two things so that he's able both to be honest with himself and others--and to lead more or less the (heterosexual) life he wants to lead.

I suppose one way of reading that story in light of New York's legalization of gay marriage is to see it only as evidence that we haven't come far enough yet: some day no one will be closeted, because even a conservative, religious kid who likes boys will be able to attend a theologically traditional church, meet another conservative boy there, and get married and have kids and coach little league and serve on the PTA.

I actually think the above scenario will eventually mostly come to pass (the most interesting chapter of the fight for gay equality will surely be the one that unfolds in the Bible Belt), but that's not my primary reading of the Times magazine article or why I've been brooding over it. I find the plight of the gays-who-don't-want-to-be-gays sad, but not because I think they're just deceiving themselves or that there's a direct line from gay liberation to self-actualization for men like those profiled in the story. (No female patients were profiled, nor was it suggested that conservative, religious lesbians confront the same problems--or even that they exist. There's probably more to say about that omission or assumption.)

What interests me about the article is the way it dramatizes the experience of identity conflict. Basically, what do you do when who you are doesn't make sense? What happens when two or more intensely-held aspects of your identity seem to be in conflict with one another? That may not be a universal problem, but it's not just a gay one or just a religious one. I've talked before about my fascination with personal experiences that don't seem tellable because they exist outside the normative categories of description or defy narrative logic. And though the gays-who-don't-want-to-be-gays might seem to be the exact opposite of the gays and lesbians who are so comfortable in their sexual identity that they don't want to get married, and who resist the enfolding or smothering of gay culture into the dominant culture, the two groups have at least this in common: they want something other, something different, and to be whom they imagine themselves to be--even when there's not an obvious or explicable path for them to follow or when that life comes at great personal cost.

We talk a lot in this country about going our own way and doing our own thing and having the "courage" to be different. But normalcy is hard, too, and the people who are different don't always look it. Being a functioning member of society without being a liar or a hypocrite is everyone's work, but there's no single path to that end. The men in the article have found a way that works for them, at least for now. Isn't that as much as any of us can hope for?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Another set of women omitted from that article is the women married to the men who are sexually attracted to men but want a heterosexual lifestyle. I suppose they have similar religious motivations for marrying such men---when they know that's what they're doing---but their lives also strike me as deeply sad.

I know some people would say that view is a symptom of an overly sexualized outlook on the world. Or something like that.

Susan said...

Maybe it's because I've spent today reading and writing about James I and early modern same sex desire and practice, but I think it's also interesting the way we have narrowed the possibilities. You are this or that. This box or that box. Maybe the categories should not be about desire. If I'm going to trash James I, it's for hte way he treated Anne of Denmark, but that was not an inevitable outcome of his preference for young men.

I haven't read the article, but I'm also moved (and saddened) by people whose commitment to something they believe in pushes them to live a life where they do not pursue their desires. But I wonder if there are people for whom such a marriage *is* satisfying: it might include affection, respect, and not much sex. My hunch is that there are women for whom this is not seen as a bad thing.

I suppose the thing is, an ethical or religious commitment acknowledges that your behavior is constrained by something other than your desires. Most of us (I assume) do not routinely steal, murder, or rape, for instance; we do things for our students; etc etc etc. For some people, those constraints are about sexual behavior.

Flavia said...

Dame Eleanor and Susan:

Yes, I think the identity-based-on-desire is part of what's nagging at me, too. (And Susan: we should talk sometime about James!) I don't not think that sexual identity is or can be a defining, or even THE defining aspect of a person's sense of self. But it's certainly not true that everyone who has a minority identity (whether it be sexual, religious, racial, political, etc.) defines him or herself through that affiliation--or that they're closeted, in denial, or self-hating if they don't.

I'm really compelled by idea that even in the 21st century, and even post-Foucault, it might be possible for at least some people to be like the Early Moderns: homosexual in practice but not in identity (but also without being exactly on the downlow, if by that we mean actively deceiving the ones they love). I'm not sure I believe it is possible, but I'm interested in entertaining the idea.

And yeah, I think the article (and the phenomenon) is probably as much about gender as it is about homosexuality; maybe more so. There are a lot of stories out there about the heterosexual women who love and marry functionally gay men or transmen. But I've never heard a story about the reverse.