Loops of Abstraction: Contextualizing Gay History and Historiography
Gay experiences are having a moment. From the formalization of queer studies within academia, increasing representation within media, and political successes such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, the gay identity has emerged into common public knowledge in the twenty-first century. But what exactly does it mean to be gay? Depending on who is asked, responses will vary in intensity, however it appears uncontentious to assert that gay identity in the twenty-first century is tethered somehow to homosexual desire and activity, and is frequently additionally gendered as male or masculine. Yet even this seemingly tautological definition falls apart when examined more closely. Jane Ward’s investigation of homosexual activity between self-identified straight men found that in several communities—from college fraternities to biker gangs—select performances of homosexual activity are in fact often used specifically to assert and affirm heterosexual identity.
I approach the question of what it means to be gay with an interest in how diverse stakeholders have considered that question. At the level of common knowledge—presuming a heterosexual baseline—gay identity is ambiguously linked to homosexual desire, though not always through a direct causal relationship. I will proceed to refine and redefine my scope four times through a series of loops, moving from this common knowledge to a basic history of gay landmarks, a scholarly history of Harry Hay, and a theoretical history of sexuality itself before a final loop intervening in the politics of what can and should be considered relevant to considerations of gay identity and historiography. Each of these levels I also connect to distinct communities. Where the average heterosexual has little interest in gay history, gay men and gay activists are more invested in representing and re-presenting the historic figures and events of their community, especially considering the historical oppression of the group. Scholars and historians tend to place greater emphasis on a specifically-defined object of analysis, informed by the conventions of their academic discipline. While I abstract unique characterizations of gayness and gay identity at each level, I hold that at every stage, the political stakes tied to that identity claim inform the knowledge produced.
Loop 1: Basic History
Being gay means to combine homosexual activity with a political identity characterized by social oppression.
Social oppression has crafted the production of the common narrative of gay history. The general shape of this narrative begins with homosexuality condemned to an underground scene until the Stonewall Riots brought the political momentum of the civil rights movements of the 1960s to the defense of homosexuals, who found a public advocate in Harvey Milk through the 1970s. AIDS would ravage the community in the 1990s, while the 2000s focused on the debate over whether same-sex marriage would be legalized. Same-sex marriage became the cause célèbre of gay politics, functioning as the locus of debates over the meanings, oppressions, and privileges entailed within gay identity. Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee, and Dean Spade observed that within this discourse, the legalization of same-sex marriage was promoted not only as symbolic of acceptance of queer people within society, but also as the mechanism by which to mitigate their lived oppressions. Access to healthcare, legal residency applications, and kinship status—specifically with regard to hospital visitation and inheritance rights—were all promoted as the stakes of the social acceptance of queer people to be achieved through the performative legalization of same-sex marriage. Brought into public discourse via a number of state initiatives culminating in a 2015 Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, gay rights cemented a public understanding of the gay experience as inextricably linked to an identity as an oppressed social minority.
Film production during this time corroborated this basic historical narrative of the gay experience. The 2008 Oscar-winning biopic Milk brought more explicit attention to the life, activism, and eventual assassination of Harvey Milk, lauded as one of the first openly gay elected officials in American politics. Opening with archival footage of police raids of gay bars, Milk frames Milk’s advocacy in relation to the political stakes of gay rights; gay men were literally fighting for their lives. Film production has also been eager to memorialize the Stonewall Riots as the first major event of the modern gay rights movement. Perhaps most significant of these films was the 2015 Stonewall directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Jon Robin Baitz, which replaced the black trans identity of Marsha P. Johnson to focus instead on a marketable young white male protagonist. While the movie itself flopped under the acknowledgement that gay men have a long history of co-opting the activism and experiences of queer black folk, the 2015 Stonewall in fact proved hugely influential in positioning the Stonewall Riots within American gay history, if ironically. In the wake of the film’s release, lists of films and resources to watch instead of the film flourished, drawing attention back to more historically responsible productions.
Through the narratives established by gay activism and film production, the meaning of the gay identity is inextricable from the history of social oppression experienced on the basis of homosexual desire. However, this history ignores the presence of gay activism prior to Stonewall—particularly that of the Mattachine Society founded by Harry Hay. Hay tremendously complicates narratives for several reasons. With relation to Harvey Milk, Hay both predated and outlived Milk, and he had a tumultuous history of unashamedly controversial activism throughout his long life. However, if readings of Hay are fixed to the specific moment of Mattachine’s foundation in the 1950s, a different historical narrative emerges. As will be analyzed by Daniel Hurewitz, a gay history including Harry Hay in some ways loses the political urgency of the narrative focused on Milk and the Stonewall riots, yet such a narrative also offers unique insights into the implications of the gay identity espoused by Milk, as it was in fact Hay who first dictated the vision of what it would mean to be publically gay.
Loop 2: Scholarly History
Gayness is an ideology of political solidarity among homosexually active men propagated specifically by Harry Hay through the Mattachine Society in the 1950s, fashioned after the racial activism in Los Angeles at the same time.
While the basic history level of analysis is events-driven, scholars engaging in more rigorous historical practice reveal a more interesting net of influences that have worked to determine the shape of mainstream gay identity. In Bohemian Los Angeles: and the Making of Modern Politics, Daniel Hurewitz interrogates how Americans have come to equate sexuality with one's personal, essential authenticity. Hurewitz challenges the very naturalization of this essence, pointing out that "the very notion of a self or an identity—let along an interior self that you can find—are the products of a distinct cultural and intellectual history." Yet if the authentic self is a constructed and modern development, then its epistemological origins must be traceable. Through a comprehensive analysis of the occupants of Edendale (now Echo Park, Los Angeles), Hurewitz is able to then locate the incorporation of sexuality as indicative of personal essence to the first half of the twentieth century. Comparing the biographies of famed female impersonator Julia(n) Eltinge and notorious gay rights activist Harry Hay, Hurewitz observes that the links between sexual activity and personal identity had shifted markedly between Eltinge's prime in the 1920s and 1930s and Hay's debut in the 1950s. He notes, "while both Eltinge and Hay had sexual affairs with men, Eltinge resisted any efforts to suggest that those affairs revealed some fundamental truth about who he was. By contrast, the handful of men that gathered with Harry Hay in 1950 for the initial homosexual rights meeting came to agree that their interpersonal sexual and emotional desires—their lusts and affections for other men—were central to, if not the centerpiece of, their personal identity." As Mattachine was perhaps the first sustained organization of homosexual men as a politically coherent and visible group, this belief by Hay and his companions in the centrality of sexuality to their personal identity would then prove foundational to both outside perceptions and self-perceptions of what it meant to be gay.
Throughout Bohemian Los Angeles, Hurewitz establishes that the gay scenes of 1930s and 1940s Los Angeles were characterized primarily by gay bars and cruising sites, both of which were consistently monitored by police eager to enforce the standards of contemporary moral campaigns. The sexuality of the time was therefore conditioned by the omnipresent threat of police retaliation against homosexual activity, causing considerable feelings of isolation and loneliness. Against this isolation then, Hurewitz notes that Mattachine "aimed to offer "a consensus of principle around which all of our people can rally and from which they can derive a feeling of 'belonging.'" That is, Mattachine would offer a path out of the isolation of experience into the solidarity of community." This idea of belonging—of communal membership—thus brought individual desire to the core of a communal identity. As Hurewitz characterizes, Mattachine desired to facilitate a novel "camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires." Nevertheless, due to Hay's integral participation in the founding meetings of Mattachine, his personal visions of what a public gay identity should look like deeply informed the identity publicized by Mattachine. And for Hay, the harassment homosexually active men endured at the whims of antagonistic police was the top political priority for the new society. The conception of homosexuals as "an oppressed social minority" was thus central to Hay's activism through Mattachine, shaping how those who found the vocabulary to articulate their homosexual identity through Mattachine would view themselves and their compatriots.
Mattachine first formed itself by another name: the CCOE. Before coming out as an organization of homosexuals, the CCOE joined other Los Angeles activist groups in speaking out against police entrapment of Mexican Americans. After Mattachine debuted publically under that name, it then claimed that "the false arrests of homosexuals differed "not one iota" from the trumped-up charges used against Mexican Americans or African Americans throughout the city." However, Hurewitz cautions his readers against viewing Mattachine "simply as a response to the state-led tactics against homosexually active men and women," despite the centrality of the issue of police brutality to Mattachine's enacted activism. Instead, through the scope of Bohemian Los Angeles, Hurewitz shows that Mattachine, having been formed in the hills of Edendale, drew heavily off of its members' local connections to other activist groups in the neighborhood—specifically artists and the regional communist party. Hay himself had been an active Party member, and Hurewitz observes that his influence on the rhetoric of Mattachine in claiming homosexuals as "our people" came directly from concurrent Communist activism on behalf of the "Negro people" and the "Jewish people." Consequently, the local tradition of racial activism in the Los Angeles hills proved integral to how Mattachine would fashion itself as a society meant to promote brotherhood amongst a socially oppressed minority.
Due to this early but visible activism by Mattachine, historians of gay consciousness rightly position Hay as perhaps the first father of the mainstream gay consciousness inherited by homosexuals in the following years and decades. While accounts of homosexual life predating Mattachine exist, historians such as Hurewitz attest that it was characterized by secrecy, in large part due to the militant policing of sexuality throughout the early twentieth century. However, Mattachine's outspoken presence determined what it meant to be openly and publically homosexual, and their specific vision—informed deeply by Harry Hay's leadership—characterized sexuality as a central component of one's personal identity and authenticity. The politics of Harvey Milk addressed in the basic historical level above thus were profoundly informed by Hay's vision.
Loop 3: Theoretical History
The essential sexuality popularized by Harry Hay reflects a point within the wider trajectory of sexuality, as created and normalized at the turn of the twentieth century.
Hurewitz's scope in Bohemian Los Angeles is focused geographically on the city and on the development of an emotion-based politics of identity. Consequently, the history of the development of sexuality itself falls outside the scope of his project. Yet when anchored by the question of what it means to be gay, the history of sexuality becomes crucial for understanding the legacy of Hay as contextualized by Hurewitz. In this third loop of abstraction, I turn from scholarly history to theoretical history, focusing on the histories of sexuality provided by Hanne Blank and Jonathan Ned Katz.
For almost all of its history, homosexuality has been defined as half of a dyad, paired with heterosexuality. With this in mind, Hanne Blank observed scholarship's obsession with documenting homosexuality as ironic given the dearth of research on what in fact constitutes the heterosexual norm against which homosexuality is constructed. Consequently, in the first chapter of her book Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality, Blank traces the full etymology of the term, emphasizing several shifts in meaning. While Karl Maria Kertbeny can claim the first ever usage of “heterosexual” as a term, the first to publish heterosexuality as a term was Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing, in the seminal 1886 work Psychopathia Sexualis. This is of course not to say that sexual behavior was not discussed prior to the late nineteenth century, yet Krafft-Ebing's work is widely acknowledged as responsible for the introduction of a new sexual vocabulary into the public consciousness. Blank notes two motivations in Krafft-Ebing's writings. First of all, in line with prior proto-sexologists and a post-Darwinian interest in taxonomy, "Krafft-Ebing's interests did not really lie with the sexually typical or the heterosexual, but again with the heterodox, the outlier, and the sexual "deviant." Secondly, this interest in deviance was not meant for a popular market—Krafft-Ebing titled the book in Latin and wrote the more scintillating contents also in Latin to discourage voyeuristic readers—but rather with the courts in mind. In the introduction to the first edition of Psychopathia Sexualis, Blank observes that Krafft-Ebing positions his intention in the work as hoping it would be "of aid to the judges and legislators compelled to issue rulings in cases of sexual misconduct." From the very coining of the term then, heterosexuality and homosexuality were implicated in state efforts to regulate sexual behavior through the courts. Rather than being introduced as terms for self-identification, heterosexuality and homosexuality were coined in order to publish sexual deviance, symptomatic of the policing of sexual behavior that would continue through the twentieth century, eventually sparking the creation of Mattachine.
What Blank finds most significant about Krafft-Ebing's work in Psychopathia Sexualis is a grudging concession that the sexual instinct was not limited by the cultural sanctions on legitimate (procreative) sexual activity. Instead, through the encyclopedic documentation of sexual deviance in Psychopathia Sexualis, the sexual instinct came to be understood more popularly as encompassing both reproductive potential and erotic desire. Heterosexuality was initially cast as a pathologic condition, alongside homosexuality as well as newly coined terms such as sadism, masochism, and fetishism, all established as deviations from a purely procreative sexual norm. Krafft-Ebing's "heterosexuality" thus would now likely be cast as nymphomania, as it referred to an excess of erotic desire. The commercial success of Psychopathia Sexualis thus served to bring sexuality overtly into public discourse, with a newfound understanding of erotic desire disarticulated from legitimized procreative sex.
Despite the success of Psychopathia Sexualis, the book was not the sole progenitor of sexuality as a term. Blank observes that a year prior to the English translation of Psychopathia, American James Kiernan had understood the hetero- prefix as meaning both rather than different. Consequently, the first published usage of heterosexual(ity) in English would have corresponded more closely to the modern bisexual(ity). Blank goes on to document continued diversity among various dictionaries regarding the proper referent of heterosexuality—both the 1901 edition of Dorland's Medical Dictionary and the 1923 Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary sided with Kiernan's usage of the term in contrast to Krafft-Ebing's formulation. Nevertheless, it was the Havelock Ellis who in 1915 receives Blank's credit as the first to use heterosexual in the meaning it has carried into the twenty-first century. Per Blank, Ellis used heterosexual as shorthand "for a type of relationship between male/female pairs that simultaneously included the ennobling emotion of love, the potential for procreation, and the experience of erotic pleasure. While no conclusive evidence exists that claims Ellis was personally responsible for the propagation of this definition, the endurance of the characteristics he cites proved integral towards the perceptions of homosexuality—especially the pairing of emotional love and erotic pleasure. The popularity of the ideas of Sigmund Freud helped to fix this understanding of normative sexuality within the American consciousness by World War II. Between the development of these definitions, the influence of Freudian sexual theory, and a re-assertion of traditional gender roles and performance in the wake of World War II, heterosexuality was re-positioned as normative. Homosexuality, however, received no such cultural sanction and remained tied to notions of deviance, and crucially, subject to policing by the state.
While Blank's history of heterosexuality is illuminative regarding homo- and heterosexual ideology via etymology, Jonathan Ned Katz's investigation of the transformation of pre-Victorian sexuality into a modern sexual economy proves integral to destablizing the idea of contemporary sexual consciousness as inherent human nature. Katz notes that between 1820 and 1860, normative manhood and womanhood were not asserted by performances of sexual desire but rather the opposite—by distance from lust, as idealized by a purity advocated within literary and religious texts. Contemporary stigma and taboo surrounding masturbation in this period corroborate this paradigm, which sought to partition erotic desire as antithetical to propriety.
Nevertheless, a massive social shift over the late nineteenth century conspired to couple sex and love as a coherent unit. Katz credits this shift to a multitude of factors, but principally a shift in the family from producer to consumer unit, a new ethos of pleasure, and rise of medical authority with the professionalization of doctors. On the first point, Katz notes that "from being an instrument primarily of work, the human body was integrated into a new economy, and began more commonly to be perceived as a means of consumption and pleasure." Additionally, this new centrality of consumption practice to identity thus also prompted a reimagination of the acceptability of erotic pleasure, leading to the development of "a commoditized culture of pleasure" by the end of the nineteenth century, when Krafft-Ebing was documenting the sexual deviance that would comprise Psychopathia Sexualis. Katz additionally observes that late Victorian medicine—newly established as a legitimate and authoritative field—found doctors eager to normalize sexual activity.
Between Katz and Blank, sexuality itself can be positioned as a phenomenon originating within the radical social changes of the late nineteenth century. Sexuality, both homo- and hetero-, was developed as a vocabulary by which an explosive popularization of sexual practice could be regulated in court. Nevertheless, as cultural changes normalized the pairing of emotional love with erotic desire, the idea of having a sexuality became depathologized and normalized within early twentieth-century attempts for individuals to position themselves as average. Homosexuality may not have been destigmatized directly, and yet it is not the choice of sexual object but rather the choosing of a sexual object that became central to twentieth century U.S. identities. With this history in mind then, the history of Harry Hay and Mattachine articulated by Daniel Hurewitz can be understood more profoundly. Hay's dream of an identity tethered to sexual desire and characterized by social oppression, rather than being visionary, fits cleanly within this narrative history of sexuality. Homosexual activity, characterized as sexual deviance, had been policed by the state consistently throughout the nineteenth century, and yet Hay's conception of the centrality of his sexual essence can be traced as a novel development occurring over the turn of the century.
Loop 4: Relevance Politics
The shape of gay identity in the twentieth century has been profoundly influenced by histories outside of the domain of gender and sexuality.
What emerges from the combined histories of Hurewitz, Blank, and Katz is an understanding that history is rarely determined linearly. Instead, a whole host of factors combine in unanticipated ways to articulate the specific versions of ideas that pass into history. Consequently, in order to fully explore the nuances of an idea, one must sometimes step outside the intuitive disciplinary boundaries of a field. With regards to the history of gay consciousness and identity, I propose in this fourth loop three analyses from outside of gender and sexuality studies that indeed proved profoundly determinative of the shape of gay identity in the twenty first century, mini-loops that each offer surprisingly salient insights towards the question of what it means to be gay.
I begin with Hurewitz's argument that the idea of an interior authentic self that can be found is a modern idea. Hurewitz, already dealing with a project of extensive scope, does not reach beyond the turn of the twentieth century in analyzing the origins of the philosophic self. However, the narrative of classical liberalism credits John Locke with the development of a radically new theory of self-possession, by which an individual possesses their own identity, and by which consequence an individual has the right to then determine that identity. As summarized by Brenna Bhandar, "Locke's theory of consciousness and identity, as elaborated in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, focuses on the ability of man to appropriate (to himself) recollections of his own thoughts and sensations." Through this formulation, Locke rendered man's mental emotional landscape as a form of property. Bhandar additionally observes that property is most often conceptualized through an "ownership model," wherein ownership confers an absolute right to an owner to do as they please with their property. In Locke's time, this radical idea conflicted with territorial claims over man's identity from the church as well as the state. However, as the survival and normalization of Lockean liberalism demonstrates, the idea of self-possession would ingrain itself within the European psyche and canonize itself within regimes of human rights. Returning to Hurewitz's history of Harry Hay then, Lockean self-possession is revealed as the root pre-condition for Hay's belief in an essential interior sexuality that he could claim as his own, inalienable personal authenticity. Therefore, while Locke does not speak to sexuality, and while his works are claimed primarily by philosophy, Lockean self-possession would in fact prove to be deeply determinative for the realization of twentieth-century U.S. identities.
In a second mini-loop, I explore how Hanne Blank's history of state regulation of sexual activity in the Victorian period is complemented handily by Ellen Samuels' metaphor of the fantasies of identification that emerge during the same period. Within her book by the same name, Fantasies of Identification, Samuels observes that "in the mid-nineteenth century a crisis began to emerge within modern nations regarding the identifiability and governability of the individual bodies making up their bodies politic." This crisis emerged in the wake of the industrial revolution and its consequent mass urbanization, prompting radical shifts in the composition of the urban public. As industrial accidents changed an individual's ability status in an instant and the gradual mixing of races through migration patterns rendered an increasingly diverse population, Samuels observes that what she calls "fantasies of identification" emerged in an effort "to definitively identify bodies, to place them in categories delineated by race, gender, or ability status, and then to validate that placement through a verifiable, biological mark of identity." The development of fantasies of identification thus contextualizes Krafft-Ebing's drive to document and classify forms of sexual deviance within a wider Western concern for the legibility and governability of bodies.
Samuels' fantasies of identification also significantly contextualize the motivation for Blank's project in Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality. Blank observes an academic obsession with non-normative sexualities that increasingly seeks legitimacy through claims on the body. Samuels seems to almost directly respond to this observation, noting that "fantasies of identification have never really been about science. They are about culture, about politics, about the rule of law and the unruliness of bodies." Consequently, "rather than science being used to undermine fantasies of identification, the fantasies are increasingly taking over the realms of science." Understood through Samuels' analysis, the search for a gay gene and other markers of sexuality documented by Blank are shown to be fantasies of identification through which cultural views on gay essence—informed by both Lockean self-possession and the outspoken activism of Harry Hay—attempt to legitimize their authority through the language of science.
A third, more direct mini-loop further explores Jonathan Ned Katz's claims on the role of capitalism in shaping the ideology of homosexuality through John D'Emilio's in-depth analysis of the same topic. Where Katz must for reasons of space refer only in passing to "the transformation of the family from producer to consumer unit" as well as a novel relationship between consumers and pleasure, D'Emilio takes a closer focus on the mechanics motivating this moment of social change. Contrasting the social landscapes of colonial and Victorian America, D'Emilio observes that during the prior time, "survival was structured around participation in a nuclear family," due to the necessity of labor required to produce basic needs such as food and clothing prior to the development of local markets. Consequently, regardless of an individual's erotic preferences, economic constraints precluded the imagination of a life removed from heteropatriarchy. By contrast, D'Emilio notes that "by the mid-1800s, capitalism had destroyed the economic self-sufficiency of many families, but not the mutual dependence of the members" through the development and widespread implementation of systems of wage labor and commodification. The effect of this shift was that "the family took on new significance as an affective unit, an institution that produced not goods but emotional satisfaction and happiness." For D'Emilio then, the feelings of romance and desire for kinship claimed as natural by twentieth-century gay consciousness are preconditioned by the social changes wrought by the rise of capitalism over the nineteenth century. D'Emilio does not dispute the presence of homosexual erotic desire over a longer period than century prior to his writing, but he is wary of a gay revisionist approach to history that projects peculiarly twentieth century forms of desire onto past figures with radically distinct subjectivities.
These mini-loops combine to obfuscate the disciplinary boundaries of the history of sexuality, attesting to the complexity of identity as an object of study. In many ways, John Locke, nineteenth-century politics, and the influence of capitalism on family structure hardly seem relevant to the study of twentieth-century sexuality. And yet the study of gender and sexuality has from its first disciplinary moments struggled to establish the relevance politics of the field. Writing in 1994 near the birth of queer theory within the field of women's studies, Judith Butler witnessed a movement that sought to divide and partition the experiences of sex-gender into two fields: women's studies would continue to claim propriety over gender as a social construct, whereas the newly formed lesbian/gay studies would account for sex and sexuality as related to physical bodies. As Butler herself summarizes, this movement sought to claim that "the kind of sex that one is and the kind of sex that one does belong to two separate kinds of analysis: feminist and lesbian/gay, respectively. Taking the side of Natanya Rubin, Butler scoffs at approaches which claim that gender or sex are "only or best understood in the context of" the fields that claim them. Instead, Butler claims that given the oppression experienced by women and queers and queer women, "politically, the costs are too great to choose between feminism, on the one hand, and radical sexual theory, on the other. Indeed, it may be precisely the time [...] for feminism to offer a critique of gender hierarchy that might be incorporated into a radical theory of sex, and for radical sexual theory to challenge and enrich feminism." If then at the most basic levels, the meaning of gay identity is constituted by the experience of social oppression, then attempts to ameliorate the lived experiences of gay-identifying individuals will therefore benefit from coalitional, transdisciplinary thinking.
Being gay is… still complicated.
If anything has been learned through these four loops of abstraction, it is that sexuality is a complicated subject. The answer to what it means to be gay is contingent upon the political stakes held by whomever responds. That the answer can venture so far outside the ostensible topic of sexuality proper attests to the critical density of the term. Yet queer theorists are no strangers to this density, which Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick coins as a "Christmas effect." In the same way that Christmas has come to symbolize an amalgamation of social meanings within a single monolithic term, so too have "family" and "sexual identity" come to presuppose concordance between a wide array of elements that perhaps ought not to be collapsed together. As a sexual identity, Sedgwick would observe that being gay is presumed to entail harmony between one's self-identified biological sex, gender, and orientation; the self-identifications of one's preferred partner along those same axes; the public acceptance of those self-identifications; one's procreative choice; one's preferred sexual acts, erogenous zones, fantasies, and sexual power dynamics; one's role models and one's primary locus of emotional bonds—each of which additionally presupposing other constraints of alignment. In her own life, Sedgwick has observed "an interest in not letting very many of these dimensions line up directly with each other at one time"; her sexual identity thus has not proceeded to dictate an unduly large proportion of her life experiences. Acknowledgement of the density of expectations held of gay identity through Sedgwick’s metaphor of the Christmas effect can prove fruitful towards a freer exploration of identity no matter one’s stakes in claiming gay identity. Intellectually, such disarticulation facilitates more precise insights into the complicated meanings of gay identity, and on a personal level, the same move facilitates greater freedom of identification to the authentic self, regardless of the historical positioning enabling that authentic self to be conceived.
However, if there is one cautionary tale that emerges, it is that gayness and the ever-expanding acronym of LGBTQIA++ is that the increased recognition of sexual identities as constitutive of an individual's personal and inalienable authenticity in fact has also produced an increased discomfort with the idea of fluidity. As Jane Ward questions, “if heterosexuals’ erotic possibilities are broadened by a gay rights movement that celebrates the fluidity of sexual behavior, what about the effect of the movement’s stance on the immutability of sexual orientation?” Ellen Samuels would answer Ward by asserting that sexuality itself has developed into a fantasy of identification, in which one’s sexual performance is expected not only to reflect some facet of their intimate authenticity but also to be traceable to some incontrovertible bodily marker. However, as traced by Hurewitz, neither such legibility nor such causality has always been present through the history of identification and self-identification of the gay identity. What it means to identify as gay in the twenty-first century is informed by a particular collection of influences that inform how gayness is both performed and perceived—gayness is not transcendental. Consequently, as debates over what it means to be gay extend to include lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and other queer identities, there is reason to be cautious of how these categories are constructed. As Judith Butler would attest, rigid lines commit epistemological violence against those who live between, amongst, and beyond the margins. Perhaps, in order to best respect and accommodate those who live in such third spaces of identity, we must cultivate an acceptance of the complexities of the human experience.
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