National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 31 This Week: What Accounts for Us, Other Than Sex?

The approach I am taking in these chapters is to examine the prospect that there is something unique and defining that underlies the fact that a certain number of us turn out to be homosexual, and not heterosexual. In other words, where does homosexual orientation come from? If it is not from a deficiency, or sheer randomness, then what?

The approach I am taking in these chapters is to examine the prospect that there is something unique and defining that underlies the fact that a certain number of us turn out to be homosexual, and not heterosexual. In other words, where does homosexual orientation come from? If it is not from a deficiency, or sheer randomness, then what?

By “unique,” I don’t mean superior. But gays (shorthand for LGBT people) are different from straight people, and therefore by that obvious fact “unique.” What is at the core of that? If it can be found, wouldn’t that help to define a positive identity for gay people, generally?

So when I suggest that three aspects help to define gay identity – notions of sensibility, alternative perspective and constructive non-conformity – I do not mean that these qualities are unique to gays. On the contrary. But what is unique is gay sensibility, gay alternative perspective and gay constructive non-conformity.

I do not claim to impose an identity onto gays, obviously I couldn’t if I wanted to. But I strive to raise questions and propose hypotheses out of which a more universal sense of gay identity may emerge, if not immediately, perhaps over decades or longer.

At present, that identity is not defined. Society’s definition of “homosexuals” as a class of persons is barely a 150 years old, although there is an abundance of documentation of same-sex relations going back as far as historical records have existed. Up until the word, “homosexual” was first coined in 1859, persons in same-sex relations were defined individually by their behavior, solely, either punished, reviled or in some rare cases, grudgingly tolerated.

“Homosexuals” as a class of persons is a very new concept, emerging with the rise of urban cities and the transport and communication means for their explosive growth during and following the industrial revolution. The notion of a gay “community” became possible for the first time as, in particular, the telephone had the same revolutionary effect on urban culture 100 years ago as the Internet has now.

Means for social outcasts to connect privately by telephone to meet one another, and assemble in designated secret locations led to the formation of tiny urban “communities” of self-identified homosexuals during the 20th century.

While homosexuals had no way to define themselves, other than by their sexual orientation, there were efforts in the early days of the modern era. While “homosexual” was a term imposed by straight society, from within fledgling gay communities efforts at defining what was called a “Uranian” sensibility evolved up until World War I. But then that terrible global massacre wiped out the credibility of anything from the softer age of Art Nouveau, optimism and romanticism before it.

But then, while managing the ebbs and flows of greater and lesser periods of repression and hate, with the emergence of radio and film, gays began to make enormous achievements in the creative arts and other fields, while remaining closeted to all but their most intimate circles of friends.

The socially-mandated duplicity that gays were compelled to internalize as they more visible to the general public via their creative contributions and the emerging mass media, caused them to psychologically bifurcate their creative work from their personal sexual desires. The two, like the double lives they were forced to live, were made to seem unrelated to each other.

Following World War II in the U.S., one of the most remarkable windows of generosity of spirit involving an entire nation unfolded. Having defeated tyrants to the east and to the west, America came out of the war with a new confidence and faith in its own institutions of justice and mercy. Rather than retribution, it greeted the post-war period by founding the United Nations and launching the reconstruction of Japan and Europe. In 1947, Eleanor Roosevelt led the development remarkably progressive and visionary U.N. International Declaration of the Rights of Man.

This context, also shaped by the amazing works of Tennessee Williams, led to the advancement of civil rights. It was in this environment that urban homosexuals began looking at themselves in a new way, as not misfits, ingrates or sinners, but as human beings. By the mid-1960s, a nascent homosexual rights movement became visible.

But a tsunami of drug-infused radical hedonism was unleashed in the same decade from “counterculture” synthetically created by a domestic CIA covert operations, known as Operation MK-ULTRA, that swept up civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, feminist and gay activists in a tide of self-indulgent excess that came to define, in particular, the gay movement of the 1970s.

That led to AIDS, and in the years since gays have still lacked a cogent self-identity apart from this.

In my view it can be found by achieving what was denied us earlier, overcoming the bifurcation of our lives through the integration of our “unique” creative potentials and achievements with the sexual components of our identity.

To be continued.

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