Thursday, March 30, 2006

Mind the Gap

Because I teach a class on the history of sexuality, student groups occasionally ask me to give short talks as part of their programming. Usually I am asked to prove to the administration that their group is more than just a random collective of drinking buddies. That’s cool – I don’t mind creating my own version of the “More You Know” in between keggers.

The other night I presented such a talk to a group of eager students (by eager, I mean this group offered free pizza, thus increasing attendance). In my little blurbs, I usually give an overview of the state of the field. I discuss how historians approach ideas about gender and sexuality as socially constructed ideologies. I end by moving away from the theoretical to the day-to-day consequences of those ideologies today. Usually I make a quick comment about the importance of thinking about how our modern assumptions about race and gender inform current debates about gays and lesbians in the U.S. This time around, though, the Q&A prompted a suggestion about the challenges and tribulations facing the future of the queer community.

One student, in an earnest way, asked “GayProf, isn’t this kinda old fashioned? I mean, most young people [by most, he really meant him] don’t want to be thought of as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ anymore. They just want to have sex and relationships with whomever they want, free of labels.” It reminds me of a similar flurry of debate that occurred on Joe.My.God around generational and/or political divides within the queer community.

Keep in mind, I am hardly aged. Granted, living in Texas might have added an extra five or ten years to my appearance, but for the most part I actually think of myself as fairly young. For many (not all) queer folk age 25 and less, though, I could just as easily be 131 rather than 31.

Many in the younger generation see those of us who still find utility in organizing around sexual identity as the fossilized remains of the Reagan era. A significant number of younger queer folk feel ambivalent about sexuality as an identity. We hear more and more often that sexuality is just one element of their lives and therefore does not warrant extra attention. They seem torn between a political consciousness that would improve and protect their rights and a desire to break away from the imposition of sexual categories on their daily lives and choices. They also have taken to heart notions taught by academics (like myself) who offer queer theory as a means to destabilize the hetero/homo divide.

This generation gap, though does not only occur in one direction. Time and time again I hear a constant clamor from “older gay folk” about how easy the younger generation supposedly has it. Believe me, I can fall into this whine myself. After all, it boggles my mind that national chains like Barnes and Noble sell a publication like XY Magazine, which itself is marketed exclusively to young (16-24) queer folk. Though silly and glossy, it’s hard not to see the existence of XY as a type of progress. It’s also understandable to feel a bit cheated that such things didn’t exist and/or didn’t have the national circulation when older queer folk first ventured to have same-sex sex.

Generational splits constantly reappeared throughout the twentieth century. That's hardly new. Few people would disagree that youth and beauty reign supreme in most gay men’s clubs. That, though, is another entry.

The current identity-generation gap within the queer community appears more serious to me. At the heart of this divide is whether it continues to make sense to claim a shared identity based on our sexual activities. This is a greater divide than the political gap between “liberal” and “conservative.” Queer conservatives might have currency in the mainstream media, but they simply do not represent the majority of queer folk. I also already know queer conservatives won't lift a finger for the collective good. Younger queer folk, however, will be the caretakers of both the movement and also (I hope) our elderly asses when we qualify for Social Security.

Young queer folk feel like they could never identify with a shrill old crone like me who seems to want to play "identity politics." Shrill old crones like me, in contrast, feel bitter that young folk didn’t walk to dance clubs in the snow like we did.

There seems to be a tendency among younger queer folk to reject the notion of a unified community. Likewise, older queer folk feel alienated from the younger generation.

Both sides of the generation gap, however, wrongly presume that the revolution has been won. Each group points to surface appearances as evidence that life is easier now for those who want man-on-man or woman-on-woman sex. Thanks to decades of queer activism, my consciousness about my desires is different than previous generations. I had opportunities to read, hear, and see other queer men. Those younger than me have had even more opportunities. The older generation fails to recognize that having a slightly easier time realizing your desires, though, is not freedom. Likewise, the younger generation seems to confuse sexual experimentation (something every generation has done) with overturning exisitng sexual identities.

Despite our best efforts to historicize and undermine the hetero/homo divide, these divisions still play a fundamental role in organizing our society. It seems premature to declare their death as local, state, and federal governments take an increasing interest in regulating our basic sexual practices. For me, it’s too early to claim victory and too early to abandon a sense of community and shared identity. Though I would love to have the postmodern utopia of perfect sexual freedom come to fruition, we still live a society where sexual desires define our identities.

Though socially constructed, we have a connection through our experiences as queer men and women. Putting sexual identities in historical context allows us to see how others have grappled with same-sex desire in hostile contexts, how they embraced a shared vernacular, and how the organized for group solidarity. The current queer community originates from those struggles. It does not exist free of the historical or contemporary discourse.

I also reject the notion that so-called “identity politics” of the 1960s and 1970s somehow destabilized the political Left in this nation. Acknowledging difference (gender, racial, or sexual) does not automatically connote disunity.

There is nothing shameful or backward about joining a coalition based on shared desires and experiences. Whenever we see two men dining together in a small restaurant or smile knowingly at two women jointly pushing a baby carriage, we connect. We know each other and have a common frame of reference. Regardless of the things that currently divide the queer community, we need to adopt the old union slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all!”

22 comments:

Reluctant Nomad said...

Everything you say makes perfect sense and you say it so well! However, do you know that wonderwoman is a fag hag? And do you know what 'Mind the Gap' means to British people, particularly Londoners?

elizabeth said...

Just thought I'd tell you that I like your blog. I'll be back....

GayProf said...

Reluctant Nomad: Do you know that Wonder Woman is a fag hag?

What's wrong with that?


And do you know what 'Mind the Gap' means to British people, particularly Londoners?

I associate it with the Underground. Is there another significance that I am missing?

Elizabeth: Hail, Amazon Sister! Thanks for reading my little bloggy.

Roger Owen Green said...

"Acknowledging difference (gender, racial, or sexual) does not automatically connote disunity." Amen, brother GP.

MEK the Bear said...

Oh, Prof! You set my heart ablaze with such homo fervor!

You're absolutely right about people thinking that we've gained some kind of complete acceptance in society when, hello, aren't we still fighting for the right to marry and adopt children in almost every state? (More so the former than the latter, but you know what I mean).

How does that translate as we've won? The younger generation needs to get active and help us fight for the rights we all deserve!

Dorian said...

I went through a similair "why do we have to have labels" phase when I was in my early 20s. In hindsight, combined with seeing it for myself in other gay men that age now, it strikes me very much as a kind of avoidance mechanism. By denying that identity politics still play a major role in American society, and refusing to understand that heterosexual white people play that game as well, they can ignore the effect the contemporary political climate has on their lives. As if pretending that labels don't matter anymore will magically make labels not matter anymore.
There also seems to be a sense of avoiding having a gay identity outside of sexual situations. They don't want to be part of a community outside of bars and clubs. I see that same logic in a lot of older closeted men as well. "Why be gay at work or school or in the voting booth when no one's sucking your dick in those places?"
Depressingly, it all seems to come back to the self-centeredness and self-involvement of youth and of gay men. And, of course, the self-involvement and self-centeredness of gay youth.

Brian said...

I have never been prouder of OUR community then when the AIDS crisis occured. We organized GMHC to take care of,and educate and inform the community. The majority community was not motivated to engage. ACTUP applied political pressure to the National Centers for Disease Control and the pharmaceutical industry.Many deaths were prevented.We need to unite to provide oppurtunities for our"throw away" youth.Educational access for them,means a future for them.SAGE(Senior Action in a Gay Environment) needs to be expanded to meet the growing needs of baby boomers.We can only affect our live in a positive way,if we cooperate as a united group.

BlackGold said...

Awesome post We have a long way to go and the younger generation needs to get more active regarding gay issues and rights.We are still being beaten over the head daily by the religious right.

Frank said...

I admit that I'm not as politically active as I should be. However, as a "young gay" (23), I would have probably slapped that questioner.

One, his "I mean, most young people [by most, he really meant him] don’t want to be thought of as ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ anymore. They just want to have sex and relationships with whomever they want, free of labels.” is such a cop-out. Except for your hippy bohemian "omnisexuals" or whatnot, most people, young and old, still label THEMSELVES gay or straight. Those who don't are, usually, just gay guys in denial or straight girls trying to turn their frat boyfriends on by being "bisexual."

Two, YOU might not want to label yourself, but society still sure as hell does and doesn't afford the same rights (not to mention, depending on location, social acceptance) to those who are GLBT. Until such time as that happens, there's still a need for "identity politics."

I can sympathize a little with "being gay is only a small part of who I am." To an extent, I feel the same way: I have a lot of other things besides my sexuality that define me. However, who you love and want to have sex with is never truly a "small" part. And, even if it is, it is a huge part of determining how society treats you. You, therefore, have to deal with that, no matter the size of its contribution to your general make-up.

Perspective of Pete said...

I think the future of "the movement" will find its allies when they're compelled to act--I'm reasonably certain this was referred to as the "garbage can" theory applied to homelessness...that things have to get really bad before things swing progressively back.

The trend these days, though...[voluntary and involuntary shudders]...

tornwordo said...

You know how to stir things up don't you? Good teacher, good boy!

I liked dorian's comment. Maybe the whole younger generation is just going through a phase, lol.

Reluctant Nomad said...

Thee's absolutly nothing wrong at all with her being a fag hag! I was merely wondering if you knew of this fact?

Mind the gap: there could well be another significance besides the Underground but that's what I was referring to. So you aren't another yet another insular badly-travelled (is that the opposite of well-travelled?) middle American? :-)

GayProf said...

Reluctant Nomad: Nope, I am very poorly traveled. I just, you know, read from time to time. ;-)

Lyle said...

Both sides of the generation gap, however, wrongly presume that the revolution has been won.

Hm, the way you've phrased it made me think about how younger conservatives seem to look at race nowadays... that because there aren't any "Whites only" drinking fountains and someone like Condelezza Rice can get where she is they conclude everything is all equal for racial minorities and everything else is whining and feeling entitled.

Dorian, I went through such a phase as well, except for me it was more of an asexual phase (ugh, I was probably reading too many Morrisey interviews, since he was playing the same card) with me saying insufferably pompous stuff about how love is just a distraction that keeps people from accomplishing greatness and yadda yadda ad nausem.

I tend to think it's an aspect of the "not being able to separate the sex from homosexuality" issue. I suspect a lot of Americans don't like the idea of being defined by how they have sex and gay men who feel that way go through a phase where they try to look at sex with men as a minor pastime and not something that is a part of who they are. OTOH, I do think that many people do see their romantic partners (past and present) as something that defines who they are.

At least, that's the internal coming out process I went through... realizing that there was a lot more to being gay than the sexual encounters and the pornography. (Do straight people go through a moment where they realize that a long term commitment is about more than having a consistent and constantly-available sexual partner?) The movie Trick was a revelation for me because it was a straight-on romantic comedy that didn't wear any gay issues on its sleeve.

But when it comes to discrimination, is queerness about who we have sex with or who we have relationships with? At the least, I know it's easier to talk about relationships, because straight people don't have to work hard to imagine caring deeply for someone of the same sex (and, therefore, imagining what it'd be like to censor themselves every time they feel like sharing an anecdote about that person out of fear... or what it'd be like to not be able to provide for that person the way their parents provided for each other). Straight people, menwhile get all flustered at trying to imagine what it's like to have sex with someone of the same sex... at which point we start to seem like some strange alien species with whom they couldn't relate.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very interesting post. I've read it several times, absorbing it in degrees ... because I'm slow like that.

Sometimes when I read posts from the big city gay bloggers, I experience a sense of frustrating disconnection, and at the same time a longing to be a part of something I have never experienced. Lately, I've come to realize that even when you are surrounded by all kinds of gay men living out all kinds of life-style choices, you can feel alone, disconnected and unsatisfied.

I live in a tiny town where my opportunity for interaction with other gay men is basically zero. I sometimes have to google some of the expressions and terms used in blogs because I don't understand them. I read various gay bloggers in an attempt to reach out for some sense of community. It helps me feel like I haven't slipped through the gap ...not entirely, anyway.

Cooper

Elizabeth McClung said...

Having just moved from Britian where we were fighting to have a bill passed allowed equal goods and services for gay individuals and having chosen Canada instead of the US because of the avalanche of anti-gay/lesbian bills banning everything from books in libraries to adoption, equal medical services or even access to treatment it is strange to hear (from Texas?) that the battle has been won, our identity is redundant.

Sure being lesbian isn't ALL of who I am, but it is part of who I am and to have that part be accepting equally with equal value in society requires both an internal and external conflict.

Mizez Slocombe said...

Three cheers for you, GayProf. And going further, we need to figure out how we can highlight the opiates of the gay masses that delude gay men of all ages into thinking we don't need identity politics – but without coming off as the prudish, fingerwagging nannies to which we provide reflexively negative responses.

shadowsarahkeebs said...

Thank you for articulating some of my own concerns (though in a different context). Being from a big, liberal city (Toronto), and never having faced sexism personally, I have in the past gotten incredibly frustrated with pre-Gen-X feminists who seemed to be over-reacting to an almost negligible issue. I was also lucky enough to attend schools that were emphatically ethno-culturally diverse and queer-positive. It wasn't until I moved to a smaller city for undergrad that I realized stereotyping and discrimination, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and all that fun stuff were still all over the country, even if they weren't visible in my back yard.

It's surprisingly hard to remember that the struggle for equality and acceptance isn't over, just because I've been lucky enough to escape being targeted.

Question: This active/passive generation gap seems to be arising right now in a lot of formerly activist groups (e.g. immigrant's rights, women's rights, civil liberties). Do you think perhaps it's all the same problem? Something about "the youth today" or the world at large that encourages this type of apathy?

shel said...

great post! when i came out, it is so much different that it is now - although I am glad to see that people don't let sexuality become thier primary self-identifying trait, it saddens me to see that our sense of community is fragmenting while drug use & HIV infection rates are climbing. I just don't feel that the general populace are able to help us, and yet we cannot seem to form the cohesion in our own communities to help ourselves. where do we go from here? is there a post-post-gay?

bryce said...

The main issue I have with constructing one's identity based on sexuality is that it causes people to become less individual and more herd-like. This point was hilariously illustrated when my mother asked me why she saw so many gay men at a Cher concert she went to a few years back. "Gay men like Cher" I said. WTF??

Since when did who you screw dictate what kind of clothes you wear or music you like? Do people come out of the closet a blank slate ready to have Madonna or Melissa Etheridge imprinted on them by the QUEER POWERS THAT BE? I just don't get it.

Some of us are suspicious of marketing aimed at gays. Some of us would rather go to a rock show than a disco. Some of us would rather be identified by our interests, careers and hobbies than by the fact that we have sex with our own gender. Trouble is, these things are not embraced by the mainstream queer movement. The POWERS THAT BE tell us that we are supposed to buy into all of this lifestyle stuff that frankly bores the hell out of me.

I am in my mid 30's, so I cannot be considered among the new queer youth, but I have to say I find it refreshing that your younger students are interested in developing individual identities rather than just falling in with the popular, mainstream modes of queerness. More power to them.

jimbo said...

Bryce: I just have to say that you're hot.

As for queer identity, people with shared commonalities will always gather together like the last dozen or so Cheerios in your bowl. They cluster together in little groups.

GayProf said...

Elizabeth:

Hail, Amazon Sister! Thanks for stopping by my little bloggy. Yeah, it’s hard to believe that even Texas has these issues.

Mizez Slocomb:

without coming off as the prudish, finger-wagging nannies

Wait – What’s wrong with that?

Shadowsarahkeeps:

I think you are right to point out that apathy is really a major issue. It keeps people from voting or reading newspapers. I am not even certain the apathy is really a “generational” thing. It seems to be a problem across gender, race, class, age, and sexuality.

Revolution Now!

Shel:

Don’t even get me started on the smugness that dominates the self-proclaimed “post-gay” folk. That is it’s own entry.

Revolution Now!

Bryce:

I agree with Jimbo: From the picture on your blog, you do seem to be hot. Seriously.

That aside, I think there is a difference between resisting or pushing against stereotypes about queer identities and simply pretending that sexual desire is no longer salient in how we come to understand our identities. We should do the former, but I think it is premature to believe the latter.

I agree with you that we should be very suspicious of marketing to the queer community (which is often designed by non-queer folk). How queerness is presented and commercialized in main-stream culture is often divorced from the reality of our day-to-day lives. It also ignores the greater diversity of people who claim queer identities.

Still, if sexual desire doesn’t play a major part in how you imagine your identity, why note that you sleep with men in the bio of your blog? Though we might wish it were not so, who and what we do in terms of sex still matters. We can push at the boundaries, demand that the image of those desires change, but we just can’t pretend that the discourse doesn’t exist, IMHO.

Jimbo:

I prefer Lucky Charms. I am not saying, I am just saying.