Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Yes, It's Complicated: Accusations, Performance, Gender, & Sexuality

Maybe it's the weather...maybe it's the Supreme Court...or maybe because it's been on my mind of late what with this letter to the editor and this calling out of a sexist meme.  Yes, it's probably the last two and in general, I regularly have gender, sex, and sexuality on the brain and thus, am inclined to write about this.

So I'm just going to throw it out there.  I'm quite challenged when I hear people accuse others of being gay or being closeted.  It's something I have been witness to at least half a dozen times in the last year.  And it does often come as an accusation of being gay, in the closet, or so repressed, that the (accused) person just doesn't know it.  All of these conversation I have experienced happen not in front of the accused but in conversations to which they are not privy.

When pursued with questioning about why the accusation has been made, no answer involves, "Well, I saw him making out with another male."  (Though that in itself is not necessarily a guarantee of him being gay, keep in mind).  But usually, there is nothing in the accused's behavior that can be defined as "gay"; instead it almost universally points to gender.

I get why people may speculate about the sexual orientations of others.  I certainly look for clues.  I do my best not to assume everyone I meet is necessarily heterosexual.  I constantly have to look for clues or check innate assumptions embedded in typical discussion questions. I recognize that I have to do this because we're still not comfortable enough with the topic to ask or have a respectful way of asking.  But the danger lies in moving from clues to conclusions.  At the end of the day, I don't assign their sexuality; if it's relevant, then I'll try to find a way to invite them to tell me and if I can't find a meaningful way to do that, then I probably don't deserve to know.

So what's my hang up about suspecting or even accusing people of their sexuality?  These are vocalized or text-based conversations; ones that could be overheard or re-read.  And the accusers have most likely had these discussions with others besides just me--the accusations have spread.  The damage of this cuts two ways.  It first cuts in the amplified perception of this person of being questioned about who he or she is.  But it also cuts at the people who hear the accusers make their case.  People like me.  

Gender and sex are often hard for people to understand and to clearly delineate.  I get that but I still am pained when am witness to these occurences.  It's a philosophical and activist issue but also a personal one.  There were various times in my life where I've been openly accused of being gay.  The most absurd (though in truth they were all absurd in some degree--not because of my sexuality, but because how or why the person thought he/she had the right to make such a claim and what he/she was doing with such a declaration) was in either junior or senior year of high school where a female classmate accused me of being gay because I wore shorts all year long.  Apparently wearing shorts year-long has something to do with sexuality--who knew?

One of my favorite movies on gender, sex, and sexuality is Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader (1999).  It's a film I often use or refer to in my courses.  However, there's one challenging scene in the film that throws the rest of the film into question and in some ways, undervalues much of the good the film does.  The scene (below) is the intervention scene, wherein Megan is confronted by her family and friends to be told that she is gay (and needs to go to a de-gayifying program).  Now, I get that Babbit in all likelihood shaped the scene in the context of Megan being so utterly repressed that she is ignorant of her homosexuality.  Yet, I can't help but feel the coercion of that scene in which her non-sexual acts are read as gay and the declaration of her homosexuality lead her to re-form herself as homosexual.  I know how loaded that sounds and I'm sure at least half my readers (friends and strangers alike) just furrowed their eyebrows, if not outright cursed me.  Bare with me!


Megan's gender is called into question--not her sexuality.  She's vegetarian, likes Melissa Etheridge, has vaginal art, and doesn't like making out with her boyfriend (that last point is supposedly the final truth--but bad chemistry between two people--isn't always an issue of sexuality).  This crystallizes er perception by family and friends as "lesbian"--an attraction to other women.  Yet her acts are non-feminine (at best--though barely by any means), not necessarily homosexual.  Megan comes to accept the label forced upon her by  her community and embraces it.  In this way, Babbit's film reads almost like the nefarious "True Directions"--the conversion therapeutic camp that attempt to fix people who are not heteronormative.  In Babbit's rendering of Megan--it's the community's intervention and then her acculturation to that identity by fellow non-heteronormative types that lead her the status of homosexuality--that is, she's cured of her heterosexuality by the training she receives from her nonheterosexual group.  In the end, the perception of her gender comes to codify her sexuality--never entirely divorcing the two (even the title conflicts gender and sexuality).  Again, that's some of the point Babbit is making but it's that sword that cuts both ways again.  It cuts at Megan--because she may be homosexual, but that she never gets to question or explore her gender--without it having to reposition her sexuality (or even consider more than the two options given here or heterosexual or homosexual) limits her (and I do recognize that in the context of a 2 hour film in 1999, some of these topics are much harder to fully flesh out--Babbit does give this some attention with the character of Jan).  It cuts the other way in which audiences reinforce and take with them the fact that gender dictates or is a solid indicator of sexuality.  And that's a challenging and somewhat dangerous idea to pose openly.

So I bring it back to the accusations.  When we declare someone else's sexuality based upon their gender, we do harm to all people.  Beyond the potential effects it has for accuser and the accused (and how the accuser's perception reinterprets the relationship with the accused), the accuser's sharing of his or her suspicions with others perpetuates the elements of gender with sexuality that are already problematic for our culture.  Why?  It informs others of the "right" and "wrong" ways to be as a "man" or "woman," if one is to be associated with a particular sexuality.  When we accuse someone of their sexuality in this context, we speak volumes about the ways in which we expect gender to conform to sexuality.

In Megan's case, it leads a happy ending--which is great.  But I think in many instances, it does harm because it communicates how people should not act to avoid the associated perception.  This happens for two reasons.  The first is that the associative sexuality with gender performance in many contexts is still understood as derogatory if it defies heteronormative expectations.  The second is that people want to be understood and not miscommunicate who they are.  Combined, the failure to create neutral space for gender and sexuality that is nonheteronormative and non-threatening with the desire to clearly communicate who we are, creates caustic side effects.  It's not only that we don't want to miscommunicate who we are but we devalue certain associations--we see them as threatening if we're perceived as such (Listen to the hostility in someone's voice when being labelled as an identity they are not, "I'm not gay!"  Followed by the Seinfeld'esque, "Not that there's anything wrong with that.").  It reinforces the gender and sexual hierarchy.  If we are a culture that cannot divorce gender from sexuality and privilege some genders and sexualities over others, we encourage heterosexual males to be "men"--"real men" and other such questionable ways of conceiving ourselves and others.  We limit our abilities to understand and express ourselves in full.  We perpetuate the perceptions of gender and sex expectations (and expressions) and reinforce some of the more negative results from such associations from gay-bashing to slut-shaming to rape.

Here's what happens in those conversations when the accuser is speculating to a friend--he or she is also communicating what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to present one's gender in conjunction with one' sexuality.  As a person who regularly reflects on his gender and sexuality, I consciously pick up on what this spells out on the ways we are supposed to be--what's appropriate or what will get people talking.  I like to think I've garnered the strength, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and understanding to not let such things affect me--but they most likely do in ways I'm not entirely aware of.  Thus I would imagine that others too who are confidants in such discussions, hearing about an accused are likely to also internalize the unspoken messages about how he or she should be to avoid such accusations.

In writing this post, my purpose is not to scold or condemn those who have done this.  In truth, I would bet in my own history, I have likely done this.  Rather I want to bring an awareness to the nuance within our conversations that we might not entirely realize is there when we talk about gender and sexuality in the presence of others and the ways it effects us directly and indirectly.  If this has provide some means of doing that for you--great!  If I've failed miserably, well--I guess I have more work to do.

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