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Sometimes A Queer Notion

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Apr 11, 2011
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Are we liberating ourselves with the panoply of sexual identities, or tying ourselves into knots?
Are we liberating ourselves with the panoply of sexual identities, or tying ourselves into knots?  

Two new biographies in the past few weeks have sent shockwaves through the gay and straight communities alike. The gays are thrilled because both titles indicate some variety of intense same-sex relationships were part of their subjects’ highly public and historic lives. The straight community--part of it, anyway--takes umbrage at the very suggestion that towering figures such as these could be "tarred" or "slandered" with any hint of homosexual behavior or sentiment.

One of the new biographies, Great Soul, by Pulitzer Prize-wnning author Joseph Lelyveld alleges that Mohandas Gandhi--venerated as a sort of non-Christian saint, held up as an icon of peace and a model of non-violent political resistance--was passionately in love (chastely or, perhaps, otherwise) with a German muscle man.

The other new biography--an extensively researched volume on the life of Malcolm Little, a.k.a. Malcolm X, written by the late Columbia professor of African American studies Manning Marable and titled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention--flatly declares that the fierce rights advocate had a sexual relationship with another man, and a white man at that.

The whole thing smacks a little bit of the furor a few years ago that saw gay equality advocates (or, if you like, "homosexualists") claiming Abraham Lincoln as one of their own because of documents Larry Kramer claimed to have in his possession, including a diary in which another man, Joshua Speed, purportedly claims to have slept in the same bed as the future president (not unusual in the days of no-such-thing-as-central-heating) and allegedly describes Lincoln kissing and hugging him.

We hear admonishments from time to time that "gay" and "straight," as we understand the concepts today, simply did not exist before the 20th century. But what if "straight" and "gay" are not such simple concepts even now?

An awful lot of "straight" men get it on with other guys. They even have their own acronym now: MSM--not "gay" or "bi," but "men who have sex with men." They identify as straight, but in fact have sex--at least part of the time--with same-sex partners. They’re not snobby, limp-wristed academics and cultural elites, either. They’re working class, and belong to racial and ethnic minorities as often as not.

I recently interviewed Dr. Loren A. Olson, author of the book Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a combination of memoir and self-help book addressing issues around emerging from the closet in mid-life. Dr. Olson told me that men he had spoken with might identify as straight while having sex for a number of reasons--to retain heterosexual privilege, or because they truly love their wives even though they find sex with women unfulfilling, or because they have absorbed stereotypical images of gay men as being effeminate, weak, flamboyant, and shrill--qualities these men know they do not share, and do not wish to be associated with.

The result? A "down low" culture in which purportedly heterosexual men seek out erotic encounters with others of the same gender.

"They have clandestine sex in public venues, and it’s sleazy and dirty and everything else," Olson told me. "In many ways, that’s the image they have of what it’s like to be gay. Or on the other hand, they see the most flamboyant gay people and think that’s what it is. There’s a real reluctance on the part of those man to identify as gay. They are often offended if you say that they are gay."

That fits with aggregate news stories I have written here at EDGE about police raids on parks and other public spaces where men cruise for sex--raids that have netted dozens of men, most of whom say they are straight and who have wives waiting for them back at home.

It would seem that the question is altogether more complicated than either GLBT equality advocates care to advertise, or anti-gay extremists want to admit.

Trying to categorize people according to sexuality seems a bit like trying to sculpt with fog.

Or is it simpler? Could it be the case that sexuality does not lend itself to square pegs or round boxes or Kinsey scales, and is not meant to? Could sexuality be more amorphous and individual than we care to acknowledge, with our tendency to label, list, define, and generalize?

I’m not saying that’s truly the case; I’m just asking the question. It seems likely to me, because trying to categorize people according to sexuality seems a bit like trying to sculpt with fog. A shape discerned at one point in one’s life might well shift into some very different shape later on.

Perhaps sex isn’t so much the point, in any case. I’ve known more than a few gay / bi men who describe pleasurable relationships with women, but who end up with men. One friend has two life partners, a husband and a wife; neither relationship is legal, but both are important ongoing parts of his life. He lives with his husband, and maintains a close emotional--but not sexual--relationship with his wife.

Another friend has a deeply satisfying romantic and emotional attachment to his legally married husband, but no sexual interest in him--indeed, he says his sexual interest in women has resurged in recent years.

Then there’s the young gay man of my acquaintance who absolutely loves sex with women. And the slightly older friend whose Facebook profile once listed him as being both "Interested in Men" and "Interested in Women." They’ve both ended up with men, I can’t help but to notice. Still, I’ve certainly heard it said enough times that "everyone is bisexual" to wonder if it might not be true.

On the other hand, this amorphous sexual plasticity does not seem to be universal. Another close friend describes himself as a "Kinsey Six," meaning that he has absolutely no sexual attraction to or interest in the opposite sex, and probably could not physically function if he found himself in a sexual situation with a woman. The way he talks about this--his certainty, his unwavering consistency in his feelings--reminds me of nothing so much as another close friend, a heterosexual man, who sits comfortably and entirely on the other end of the scale.

If the past had no grasp of what we now reference as "straight" and "gay," will the future, similarly, forget all about such words and the divisions they have imposed on our society? Will it turn out to be the case that "straight" and "gay" are not universal truths after all, but a passing fancy? Or will it some day be the case that no one gives a fiddler’s fig about who might be sleeping with whom? (Human nature being what it is, I rather doubt that will ever really be the case: People are far too jealous and avid, too sexually possessive, ever to grant true general license. But maybe we’ll one day stop wasting so much time worrying about the genders of those involved in other people’s relationships.)

Ah, but the future, like sexuality, is shrouded in fog, and who can say how things will turn out--especially if we try to mould the always-swirling mists of social and psychological perception? To torment this poor metaphor even further, could it be the case that the sexual identities--and their attendant ideologies--that have precipitated from the fog of sex will, in the heat of more rational daylight, evaporate once again and leave scant trace behind?

Better that than to see the current explosion of terminology and sexual identities continue on ad infinitum--gay, straight, bi, pansexual, asexual, genderqueer, gender-blind, so many terms that if our words for sexuality keep pace with our political correctness and love of acronyms, we’ll use every letter in the alphabet trying to come up with an all-inclusive reference for our community: LGBTQMNLOP. Shedding all those sexual partitions might allow the conversation to go back to a simple, two-letter term: "us."

In one of her comedy routines, Margaret Cho talked about the vagaries of sexual identity. "Am I straight? Am I gay? Finally I realized," the comedian said, "I’m just slutty."

That may not be the ideal conclusion to arrive at... or maybe it is... but it’s probably much closer to a universal truth of human sexuality than any moralistic screed or equality-focused agenda.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network’s Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association’s Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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