Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Essentially Yours

In an endnote to an article* co-written with her partner of 20 years Nicola Griffith, Kelley Eskridge wrote:
For the record, I don't call myself a lesbian writer. I don't even call myself a lesbian. I live in a committed relationship of nearly twenty years with Nicola, and would crawl on my belly like a reptile to beg her forgiveness for having mad sex with Johnny Depp if I ever got the chance. And yet what's the point of correcting people? No, no, I'm not a lesbian! is defensive at best, and offensive at worst, and I don't feel either way about this part of me.
This sent me back to an interview** with Marge Piercy, conducted by her husband Ira Wood, where Piercy said:
Frequently when I go into a place, because I’m a feminist, people assume I’m a lesbian. I never question that silent assumption. There’s no reason why I shouldn’t be a lesbian if I fell in love with a woman again.
There are interesting similarities in these remarks: the refusal to correct others' misimpressions, for one. But there are differences too: for Piercy, loving a woman makes one a lesbian, at least for the duration, whether or not one has loved or will again love men. For Eskridge, it seems that loving a woman for twenty years doesn't make her a lesbian, because she has loved men before and has never loved another woman.

Well, fine. People should label themselves as they see fit. And it's good to see how different people mean different things by the same word, so one should be alert to that possibility. (Recall, for example, that Thai toms and dees "explicitly reject the English term 'lesbian' largely due to its explicitly sexual associations. 'Lesbian' is understood to refer to two feminine women who are engaging in sex with each other ... [as] a performance for a lascivious male audience.") But I was surprised by Eskridge's note, because in the body of the essay she had written that she's "never cottoned to essentialism. ... I find such things stupid and reductive, and I'm not partial to being reduced" (page 41). And insisting, for example, that one is not a lesbian because one isn't really a lesbian, despite a twenty-year relationship with another woman, is essentialism: she is saying that her nature, her essence, her being, isn't lesbian. There are evidently "real" lesbians in Eskridge's universe, but she's not one of them.

Eskridge's remark caught my attention because not long before, I'd overheard a gay kid complaining about something he saw in his Gender Studies class that "essentialized" all gay men as effeminate. I think he meant "stereotyped," though of course there's some overlap in the concepts. But as he kept repeating "essentialized," I felt a powerful urge to walk over to him and say, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

"Essentialism" is a tricky word, for all that it's bandied about so much. Some people have talked about coming up with a social constructionist understanding of sexual identity, but I think that project is doomed, because identity, saying "I am a ...", is essentialist. Most attempts I've seen to get around that problem mistake social constructionism for social determinism, the belief that we are molded and shaped by our environments (including the cultures/societies into which we're born), with the corollary that our real selves are something other than whatever our upbringing did to us. Sometimes social determinists seem to think that human beings have no nature, we are totally malleable in the hands of our parents and our societies. That's a much-disputed issue, and I'm glad I don't have to try to settle it here. Those who'd like to begin exploring it might start by reading Noam Chomsky's critique of B. F. Skinner in For Reasons of State (Pantheon, 1973), though much of it is available online, and / or Clifford Geertz's essay "Anti-Anti-Relativism", originally published in 1984 and reprinted in Available Light (Princeton, 2000).

But I want to try to stay with social construction / essentialism. It's popular to accuse social constructionists of believing that, for example, being gay is a "choice" rather than something we're born with. Aside from the fact that "born this way" and "choice" are not opposite concepts, social constructionism investigates the ways people try to avoid or deny choice, to believe that their customs are natural, in the blood, in the genes. Even if it could be shown (and so far, it hasn't been) that genes can drive men to engage in sex with other men, or women with other women, we have a complex system of understandings about the meanings of that sexual behavior. For example, is a man who only penetrates other men a "homosexual"? Many cultures would say No, only a man who is penetrated is a "homosexual." In a butch-femme lesbian couple, are they both lesbians or is only the butch the lesbian? The lesbianism of femmes has often been denied, including by lesbians themselves, including butches.

Although identity is essentialist, it isn't always believed to be inborn / genetic / biological. That I'm an American is part of my identity, because by historical accident I was born here. I'm not biologically different from people who aren't Americans. The same can be said for religious identity, political identity, and many other kinds. At the same time, people seem to find it difficult not to essentialize. Even academics, trying to avoid essentializing terms like "homosexual," "gay," or "lesbian" in favor of "same-sex," soon start loading terms like "same-sex" with all the essentializing baggage they're trying to leave behind. They write about "same-sex desires", for example, as though such desires were always erotic, or same-sex relationships or communities, forgetting that monastic orders and the military are same-sex communities. And just recently I read someone referring to "same-sex parents."

I believe all this is mainly a problem when we're trying to communicate with other people about such things. (Which means, a lot of the time.) Go back to Kelley Eskridge. Since she hasn't defined her term, I speculate that for her a lesbian is a woman who never has sex with men, or never wants to. The trouble is that by this definition a good many self-defined lesbians are not lesbians after all, and the same would be true for gay/homosexual men. Take the (in)famous figure of 10% for the proportion of gay people in the population, ascribed to Alfred Kinsey. Kinsey didn't use the word "gay," and 10% is the proportion of men in his research who were more or less exclusively homosexual in their erotic experience for at least three years of their lives. (Only 4% were exclusively homosexual in their erotic experience throughout their lives.) That leaves a lot of wiggle room, and it would seem that according to Kinsey, most "gay" people are significantly bisexual in their actual behavior. The poet Adrienne Rich calls herself lesbian, though she was married to a man in her youth, and has three sons. The poet W. H. Auden, though most of his erotic experience was with males and the central relationship of his adult life was with a male, had numerous sexual relationships with women. Not only are labels like "gay" and "lesbian" not determined by a person's erotic experience, they seem to be largely independent of it. I've often noticed that people deliberately seem to define problematic terms very narrowly so as to exclude themselves, and then they complain that the term is too narrow and excludes them. So now I'm wondering why Eskridge, who is a very intelligent and well-informed person, can be unaware that the term "lesbian", as it's commonly used, does not necessarily exclude her and her experience.

Besides, essentialism isn't a bad thing in itself: it's a tool we use to socially construct. It can't be eliminated, because then social construction would come to a halt. That's the other trouble (besides misunderstanding the concept) with the kid who was upset about essentializing. "Essentializing" isn't, or shouldn't be, a pejorative; it just refers to one way of looking at human society, as incomplete as social construction is. There's a funny bit in one of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City novels where Michael, an older gay man, is shocked that a young lesbian friend doesn't know who Sappho was. "How can you call yourself a dyke?" he asks her. "I don't call myself one," she replies, "I am one. I didn't have to take a course in it, you know." Both have essentializing views of what a lesbian is -- which is another way of saying that they rely on different social constructions. Two sides of the same coin, two poles of the same magnet.

And then Mrs. Madrigal, the series' resident oracle, reminds Michael that, eons before, she'd had to explain to him who Ronald Firbank was.

* "War Machine, Time Machine", in Queer Universes: Sexuality in Science Fiction, ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool University Press, 2008, page 49

** Marge Piercy, Parti-colored Blocks for a Quilt. (Poets on Poetry) University of Michigan Press, 1982, page 313