The Heterosexual / Homosexual Binary: Past, Present, and Future

Sasha Roseneil. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Much of the most important work in lesbian and gay studies over the past thirty years has cast its gaze backwards in time, to document, analyse and theorize the history of sexuality. Indeed, without the groundbreaking historical work of Lillian Faderman (1981), Michel Foucault (1981), Guy Hocquenghem (1978), Jonathan Katz (1976), Carol Smith-Rosenberg (1975), and Jeffrey Weeks (1977, 1981), there would be no lesbian and gay studies. Their contributions, along with many others, have shaped our understanding of the origins of the categories of the ‘homosexual’ and the ‘lesbian,’ and of the changing ways in which same-sex sex, relationship and affections have been constructed, lived and spoken of within conditions of modernity. More recently, queer theory has developed new ways of thinking which shift our attention from the historically situated homosexual, lesbian or gay subject, towards a consideration of the ways in which the homosexual/ heterosexual binary itself has been constituted. This chapter draws on both of these bodies of literature, bringing the former into dialogue with the latter. I use each of them as a springboard for a discussion of the ways in which the organization of sexuality around a homosexual/heterosexual binary has changed over time, looking back at the past century, and also thinking about transformations which are currently underway, and offering some speculations about the future.

At the turn of the twenty-first century we are living through a period of intense and profound social change, characterized by many social theorists as a shift from modernity to postmodernity. Sociologists theorizing on both modernity and postmodernity have focused largely on change in the areas of work and production, in relations between nation-states, and in the political sphere, and to a lesser extent, in family life and gender relations; the study of the reorganization of erotic relations has, with a few notable exceptions, not been on the mainstream agenda. While, as this volume indicates, lesbian and gay studies is now a well-established field of academic inquiry, it has yet to really impact upon that which is designated as ‘social theory.’ Lesbians and gay men and their social movements have begun to appear as characters in the social worlds described by some mainstream social theorists—Anthony Giddens (1992), and Manuel Castells (1997), for example—but the radical implications of lesbian and gay theory and queer theory have not yet been embraced by those who do the broad-brush theorizing of social change. In this respect, lesbian and gay theory is in a similar position to feminist and gender theory and critical race and post-colonial theory, all of which continue to exist on the margins of social theory.

Writing as a sociologist, one of my aims in this chapter is to offer a map of the significant changes which, I believe, constitute a shift from a modern sexual regime towards a postmodern one. My focus is on processes of postmodernization in the field of sexuality, and I emphasize that these are transformations in train, which co-exist, often in tension, with more modern formations of sexuality. While my focus is on the organization of the sexual, this cannot be understood outside wider analyses of social relations, particularly the organization of ‘cathexis,’ or intimacy—emotionally charged affective relations which are not necessarily sexual—and, of course, gender relations. I will not attempt a definition which circumscribes the ‘proper domain’ of sexuality, because what is important about relations of sexuality is that they permeate, sometimes indeed saturate, the entire social formation. Some of what I discuss can be considered under the rubric of change within the sphere, and in cultural meanings, of ‘family,’ but my frame of reference fundamentally crosscuts the public/private divide, and is concerned also with shifts in non-familial and public forms of sociality.

The chapter is divided into two main sections. In the first, I offer a brief outline of recent developments in queer theory, which I suggest provide an important theoretical framework for lesbian and gay studies to think about the organization of sexuality. However, I also point to a number of limitations to queer theory, as it has developed thus far, from a sociological perspective. The second part of the chapter then traces some of the most important changes which have taken place in the realm of sexuality during the twentieth century. I discuss the emergence of modern sexual identities, and shifts in the relationship between ‘the homosexual’ and ‘the heterosexual,’ as categories, identities and ways of life during this period. I then go on to explore what I conceptualize as the ‘queer tendencies’ which characterize the postmodernization of relations of sexuality which is underway—somewhat unevenly—across the western world. These queer tendencies constitute significant destabilizations of the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and raise some important questions for and about the future of lesbian and gay studies.

Queer Theory and the Heterosexual/Homosexual Binary

An understanding of virtually any aspect of modern Western culture must be, not merely incomplete, but damaged in its central substance to the degree that it does not incorporate a critical analysis of modern homo/heterosexual definition. (Sedgwick, 1991: 1)

It was against the backdrop of AIDS and the American New Right’s virulently anti-homosexual politics of the 1980s, and from within increasingly large, diverse and reflexive lesbian and gay communities, that a new strand of thinking about sexuality emerged within the humanities in the 1990s: queer theory. Drawing on post-structuralism, particularly the work of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and on Lacanian psychoanalysis, and emerging out of and in dialogue with feminist theory, this rather amorphous body of work shares a critique of the minoritizing epistemology which has underpinned both the majority of academic thinking about homosexuality and the dominant politics within gay men’s communities. In the words of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her now canonical Epistemology of the Closet, this minoritizing view sees ‘homo/ heterosexual definition … as an issue of active importance primarily for a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority,’ rather than ‘seeing it … as an issue of continuing determining importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities’ (Sedgwick, 1991: 1). Thus, one of queer theory’s foundational claims, as expressed by Sedgwick and quoted above -that an understanding of sexuality, and in particular, of the homo/heterosexual binary, must be central to any analysis of modern western culture—stakes a claim for the knowledge produced from the terrain of queer theory way beyond its immediate audience.

Queer theory identifies the heterosexual/ homosexual binary, and its related opposition, ‘inside/outside’ (Fuss, 1991), as a central organizing principle of modern society and culture, and takes this binary as its key problematic and political target. Right from the outset, in one of its earliest texts, Diana Fuss’s edited collection Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories queer theory ‘call[s] into question the stability and ineradicability of the hetero/homosexual hierarchy, suggesting that new (and old) sexual possibilities are no longer thinkable in terms of a simple inside/outside dialectic’ (Fuss, 1991: 1). In common with other post-structuralist understandings of the exclusionary and regulatory nature of binary identity categories, queer theory rejects the idea of a unified homosexual identity, and sees the construction of sexual identities around the hierarchically structured binary opposition of hetero/homosexual as inherently unstable. The fracturing and tensions within the category of homosexuality and the fluidities and non-fixity of various homosexualities are thus foregrounded. Differences between the multifarious, and multiple, sexual, gender, ethnic, political and stylistic identifications of those within the ‘queer community’—lipstick lesbians, butches, femmes, FTMs, s/m-ers, switch-hitters, muscle marys, opera queens, bisexuals, transsexuals, the transgendered, those who identify as Black, Asian, Irish, Jewish, Latino …—become theoretically important. Equally, heterosexuality is also problematized and is rendered as much less monolithic and unassailable than earlier (feminist and sociological) theory has tended to regard it, and the construction and maintenance of heterosexuality through acts of exclusion vis-à-vis homosexuality are placed on the agenda to be studied.

Initially queer theory developed within the humanities largely without reference to the thirty years of research and theorizing about sexuality that has taken place within sociology, despite the clear (and unacknowledged) parallels between the social constructionist understandings of sexuality in the two fields. This has led to some unfounded assumptions of novelty, an overly textual orientation, an underdeveloped concept of the social, and a lack of engagement with ‘real’ material, everyday life and social practices and processes in queer theory, of which social scientists might rightly be critical. However, there is much that is exciting and important in queer theory for those interested in thinking about the social organization of sexuality. Its interrogation of sexual identity categories, and its enactment of a shift in focus from the margins, on the homosexual, to a focus on the constitution of the homo/heterosexual binary represent important developments in the theorization of sexuality. As Arlene Stein and Ken Plummer (1996) argue in their important article advocating ‘a more queer sociology,’ a queer sociology would bring queer theory’s interrogation of identity categories into dialogue with a sociological concern to theorize and historicize social change in the field of sexuality. It would, they propose, see relations of sexuality and cathexis as central dynamic forces within society, focusing attention on the homo/heterosexual binary and on heteronormativity—on studying the ‘centre,’ the ‘inside,’ as well as the margins, and the ‘outside.’ Stein and Plummer also suggest that a queer sociology can learn from the importance queer theory places on culture. In a postmodern world characterized by ‘economies of signs’ (Lash and Urry, 1994) and by the increasing aestheticization of everyday life, queer theory’s attention to the sphere of the cultural needs to be combined with an analysis of social practices, processes and lived experience.

Thus far queer theorists, true to their post-structuralist roots, have tended to favour analyses of structural and discursive regulation over attention to the resistance and creative agency of human actors in the area of sexuality. Drawing on a Foucauldian paradigm in which subjectification—the production of human subjects—is understood as an essentially negative process of subjection, there has been a sociologically weak theorization of agency at the heart of queer theory. Queer theorists have largely been concerned with analysing the cultural texts and processes through which the hetero/homosexual binary is produced and reproduced, with how heterosexuality is continuously re-naturalized and re-prioritized, and with how heteronormativity operates as a mode of regulation of identities and cultural and social possibilities. It has also tended to direct its gaze backwards in time, failing to remark upon and engage with contemporary social change. It has barely begun to explore how the hetero/homosexual binary and its hierarchical power relations might be undergoing challenge and transformation in the contemporary world. In contrast, a queer sociology, I would suggest, should seek to transcend the limitations of a post-structuralist ontology, reaching for a compromise between post-structuralism and humanism which enables the theorization of human agency within historical, social and cultural contexts. It would have a keen eye for tendencies towards social change, for shifts, movement and destabilization in established relations of sexuality and cathexis.

So, one of the most important implications of queer theory is that much more than ‘adding in’ the study of lesbians and gay men is necessary. Doing this—making sure that we consider how to research across sexual differences—is just the starting point; we must take seriously non-normative sexualities, and must allow lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and all those whose lives transgress heteronormative assumptions a place in our analyses. There is a tendency among liberal-minded scholars, in the wake of the challenges of the new social movements, to speak of the importance of attention to ‘difference,’ and in recent years sexuality has been added to the list of differences which it is considered necessary to include, alongside gender, race/ethnicity, and, sometimes, disability. The problem with this is that ‘differences’ are different from each other, and sexual differences have their own specific difficulties of definition and identification. Differences of sexuality are not always visible, indeed, as Sedgwick (1991) points out, there is an ‘epistemology of the closet,’ based on secrecy and outings, in twentieth-century culture, which constitutes a particular form of domination, unlike others. This means that the act of speaking of differences of sexuality is vital, but we must be aware that pinning them down and delineating membership of sexual categories is impossible; sexuality is often ambiguous, identifications are fluctuating, strategically performed, yet sometimes also ascribed.

Changing Relations of Sexuality

The Modern Regime

It is now widely accepted by historians of sexuality that the idea of the existence of ‘the homosexual’ as a category of person distinct from ‘the heterosexual’ was born in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the start of the twentieth century there was in widespread circulation a proliferation of medical, legal, literary and psychological discourses for which the hetero/ homosexual binary was axiomatic. So it was that there came into existence

a world-mapping by which every person, just as he or she was necessarily assignable to a male or female gender, was now considered necessarily assignable as well to a homo- or a hetero-sexuality, a binarized identity that was full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence. (Sedgwick, 1991: 2)

In this ‘world-mapping’ marital heterosexuality occupied the centre, constructed as normal, natural and desirable, with homosexuality as the marginal, perverse, unnatural other, subject to a range of different legal, medical and social sanctions and forms of regulation.

From the 1910s onwards sexologists began to develop an ideal of the married heterosexual couple bound together by sexual intimacy rather than just economic and social necessity. This model of heterorelationality came to replace the nineteenth-century ‘separate spheres’ ideology which had underpinned the Victorian family and which had allowed, and even encouraged, strong, sometimes passionate, homo-relational ties of love and friendship. Particular emphasis was placed on persuading women of the importance of fulfilling their emotional and sexual desires through their marital relationship. By the 1950s the idea of ‘the primarily sexual nature of conjugality’ (Weeks, 1985: 27) was firmly entrenched throughout the western world, and the confluence of sexuality and cathexis within the marital heterosexual relationship became established, supported by a panopoly of cultural forms ranging from Hollywood cinema to women’s magazines, as well as by social, legal and political institutions and their policies. Not least among these, of course, was the post-war welfare state, which assumed as its subject the married, heterosexual man and his family.

Under the conditions of the post-war sexual and cathectic regime of hegemonic marital heterosexuality, non-normative relations of sexuality and cathexis were lived at the margins. Steven, Barry and Seidman (1996) and Adam (1995) suggest that although the 1950s are widely perceived to have been conservative, the seeds of the sexual rebellions of the 1960s were sown by the geographical mobility, prosperity and social liberalization which followed the war, and they point to the emergence of homophile organizations, which began, very tentatively, to claim a public voice for homosexuals, and to the cultural interventions of rock music and the beatniks, which offered a challenge to dominant sexual mores. In 1957 Britain saw the publication of the Wolfenden Report advocating homosexual law reform some 10 years before the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized sex between men over 21 in private. While the ‘sexual revolution’ of the 1960s is easily and often overstated, the emergence of the women’s liberation movement, lesbian feminism, and gay liberation politics from the New Left, and the growth of visible subcultures of lesbians and gay men in the metropolises began to expand the public space of the non-heterosexual margins. The Stonewall riot of 1969, when ‘drag queens, dykes, street people and bar boys’ responded to a police raid on a Greenwich Village gay bar ‘first with jeers and high camp, and then with a hail of coins, paving stones, and parking meters’ (Adam, 1995: 81) was an epiphanic moment; it marked the beginnings of the gay liberation movement. Gay liberation ideas and activism spread rapidly around the United States, and around the Anglophone world, to Britain and Australia. At its core was the desire ‘to free the homosexual in everyone,’ to overthrow compulsory heterosexuality and thus eventually, the boundaries between the homosexual and the heterosexual (Adam, 1995: 84). The radical demands of gay liberation (which were to be echoed in the queer politics of the 1990s) faded by the mid-1970s, giving way to a more assimilationist politics demanding equal rights and protection for lesbians and gay men as a minority group, and the 1970s and 1980s saw the growth of self-confident lesbian and gay communities with their own institutions and traditions. Developing in parallel to gay liberation were the politics of lesbian feminism, practised in the everyday lives of many thousands of women across the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia. Lesbian feminism offered women a positive lesbian identity within a close-knit community of women with its own newsletters, publishing houses, book stores, self-help and support groups, food co-ops, social groups, theatre troupes, video collectives and writing groups. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, which decimated the population of gay men in the global gay cities, called forth new forms of political activism and self-help welfare organization, and ultimately, at a collective level, strengthened the ties of commu-nality and sociality among those who survived.

One of the traditions of lesbian and gay life that took off in the 1970s, post-Stonewall, was the ‘coming out story.’ Plummer’s (1995) discussion of the telling of sexual stories identifies the coming out story as an archetypal modernist tale, featuring a linear progression from a period of suffering to the crucial moment of self-discovery, and ending with a satisfactory resolution in the form of the achievement of a secure identity as lesbian or gay amidst a supportive community. But while the notion of ‘coming out’ is firmly rooted in the ‘epistemology of the closet’ and the modern hetero/homosexual binary, the situation in the late twentieth century in which many millions of people around the world have ‘come out’ (including an ever increasing number of public figures), and have made their sexual and cathectic relationships with members of their own sex highly visible, has actually served to create the context for the postmodernization of the regime of sexuality and cathexis. As Seidman et al. (1999) argue, for many lesbians and gay men today homosexuality has been so normalized that they are effectively ‘beyond the closet.’ The ‘inside/outside’ metaphor has started to lose its saliency.

The Post-modernization of Sexuality

In contrast to classic sociological narratives of the development of modernity, there is some attention given to questions of sexuality within the body of literature which seeks to theorize the post (or late) modern social condition. This work suggests that there is underway a shift in relations of cathexis. In the context of a wider argument about the undoing of patriarchalism, Castells (1997) suggests that the patriarchal family is under intense challenge, and that lesbian, gay and feminists movements around the world are the key to understanding this challenge. Giddens’s (1992) argument about the ‘transformation of intimacy’ and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim’s (1995) and Beck-Gernsheim’s (1999) work on the changing meanings and practices of love and family relationships posit the idea that in the contemporary world processes of individualization and de-traditionalization and increased self-reflexivity are opening up new possibilities and expectations in heterosexual relationships. With a (rather cursory) nod in the direction of feminist scholarship and activism, their work recognizes the significance of the shifts in gender relations consequent particularly on the changed consciousness and identities that women have developed in the wake of the women’s liberation movement.

Giddens considers the transformation of intimacy which he sees as currently in train to be of ‘great, and generalizable, importance’ (1992: 2). He charts the changes in the nature of marriage which are constituted by the emergence of the ‘pure relationship,’ a relationship of sexual and emotional equality between men and women, and links this with the development of ‘plastic sexuality,’ which is freed from ‘the needs of reproduction’ (1991: 2). He identifies lesbians and gay men as ‘pioneers’ in the pure relationship and plastic sexuality, and hence at the forefront of processes of individualization and de-traditionalization.

While there are undoubtedly criticisms to be made of this body of work (e.g. Jamieson, 1998), this literature offers important insights into, or at least raises questions about, contemporary social change. But I now wish to extend this analysis to consider the constitution of the sexual more generally. Giddens’s rather throwaway remark that lesbians and gay men are forging new paths for heterosexuals as well as for themselves is developed by Weeks, Donovan and Heaphy who suggest that ‘one of the most remarkable features of domestic change over recent years is … the emergence of common patterns in both homosexual and heterosexual ways of life as a result of these long-term shifts in relationship patterns’ (1999: 85). In other words, changes in the organization of intimacy are impacting upon the wider organization of sexuality.

It is my argument that we are currently witnessing a significant destabilization of the hetero/homosexual binary. The hierarchical relationship between the two sides of the binary, and its mapping onto an inside/ out opposition is undergoing intense challenge, and the normativity and naturalness of both heterosexuality and heterorelationality have come into question. In addition to the yearning for a ‘pure relationship’ which is increasingly shared by those on either side of the hetero/homosexual binary, there are, I would suggest, a number of ‘queer tendencies’ at work, and play, in the postmodern world. I choose to speak of ‘tendencies’ to suggest the still provisional nature of these social changes, and with the existence of countervailing tendencies in mind.

Queer Auto-Critique

Anyone with a brain could see categories breaking down, assumptions rupturing, clear-cut identities going the way of the Berlin Wall. Hence the ‘pomosexual,’ who, like the queer s/he closely resembles, may not be tied to a single sexual identity, may not be content to reside within a category measurable by social scientists or acknowledged by … rainbow-festooned gays … Pomosexuality lives in the space in which all other non-binary forms of sexual and gender identity reside—a boundary-free zone in which fences are crossed for the fun of it, or simply because some of us can’t be fenced in. (Queen and Schimel, 1997: 23)

The first of these ‘queer tendencies’ is that which is underway within lesbian and gay communities themselves: the tendency to engage in auto-critique at both the individual and collective level which is producing a fracturing of modern homosexual/lesbian/ gay identities. As the sheer size and scale of the public spaces which are identified as lesbian and/or gay have expanded exponentially in the past three decades, and the number of those living their lives in relation to these spaces has soared, the policing of identity boundaries has become more difficult; there are, literally, more spaces for difference. ‘Queer theory’ may be an elite academic practice, but queer theorizing and praxis—the thinking through and enactment of the de-essentializing of lesbian and gay identities—are everyday activities for many within and on the margins of contemporary lesbian and gay worlds. Recent years have seen an upsurge of discussion within the public forums and private spaces of lesbian and gay communities about a range of issues which challenge the assumed coherence and constituency of lesbian and gay communities and the fixity of sexual identities and practices. A ‘critical community’ has developed within the wider lesbian and gay community, in which new ideas about sexuality, gender, embodiment and identity are being created. Many of the members of this critical community are cultural producers and public intellectuals whose ideas and interventions are circulated in journals, newspapers, exhibitions, installations, ‘zines, on the Internet, and through performance. Political groups—such as Transexual Menace and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (Wilchins, 1997)—and activists, writers, performance and visual artists, such as Kate Bornstein, Pat Califia, Leslie Feinberg, Del Lagrace, and Joan Nestle have opened up spaces for re-thinking the relationship between gender, embodiment and sexual desire. Bisexuality, butch and femme, transsex, transgender, and cross-dressing are on the agenda; lesbians having sex with men, and gay men having sex with women are openly discussed, as the regulatory power of modern lesbian and gay identities crumbles. It is the era of ‘post-gay’ (Sinfield, 1996), or ‘anti-gay’ (Simpson, 1996), of queer, postmodern stories ‘in the making, which shun unities and uniformities; reject naturalism and determinacies; seek out immanences and ironies; and ultimately find pastiche, complexities and shifting perspectives’ (Plummer, 1995: 133).

The Decentring of Heterorelations

Much has been written in recent years about the meaning of the dramatic rise in divorce rates over the past thirty years, about the increase in the number of births outside marriage (and to a lesser extent outside any lasting heterosexual relationship—births to mothers who are ‘single by choice’), about the rise in the proportion of children being brought up by a lone parent, about the growing proportion of households that are composed of one person, and the rising proportion of women who are not having children. However, this commentary has tended to focus on the meaning of these changes in terms of gender relations and the family; it has not addressed their implications with respect to the established organization of sexuality. This is surprising because it seems to me that these changes speak of a significant decentring of heterorelations, as the heterosexual couple, and particularly the married, co-resident heterosexual couple with children, no longer occupies the centre-ground of western societies, and cannot be taken for granted as the basic unit in society. Processes of individualization and detraditionalization are releasing individuals from traditional heterosexual scripts and from the patterns of heterorelationality which accompany them. During the last four decades of the twentieth century, the proportion of people living in ‘traditional’ family households comprising a heterosexual couple with children has fallen significantly, so that by 2000, only 23% of households in the UK were ‘traditional’ families (Social Trends, 2001). Broadly similar patterns are observable across Europe, North America and Australia.

Postmodern living arrangements are diverse, fluid and unresolved, constantly chosen and re-chosen, and heterorelations are no longer as hegemonic as once they were. It could be said that we are experiencing the ‘queering of the family’ (Stacey, 1996), as meanings of family undergo radical challenge, and more and more kinship groups have to come to terms with the diverse sexual practices and living arrangements chosen by their own family members. At the start of the twenty-first century there can be few families which do not include at least some members who diverge from traditional, normative heterorelational practice, whether as divorcees, unmarried mothers and fathers, singles, lesbians, gay men or bisexuals.

This social decentring of heterorelations finds its expression and reflection in popular culture. Consider, for example, the television programmes, particularly the dramas and sitcoms, which have achieved particular popularity recently in Britain, the United States and Australia: Friends, This Life, Absolutely Fabulous, Ellen, Frasier, Grace Under Fire, Seinfeld, Men Behaving Badly, Will and Grace. All of these television programmes are fundamentally post-heterorelational in their thematic concerns and narrative drive. Unlike the generation of situation comedies that preceded them, which were almost exclusively focused on co-resident, heterosexual families, these programmes are concerned with the embededness of friends in daily life. They offer images of the warmth and affection provided by networks of friends in an age of insecure and/or transitory sexual relationships; friends, in the words of the theme song to the show, ‘are there for you,’ in the bustling big city life of the postmodern world, in which individuals have to carve out lives for themselves.

And in popular music, the enormous success of the Spice Girls can be read as an example of the cultural decentring of heterorelations among a teen and pre-teenage female audience which, from the 1950s onwards, has directed the emotional and erotic energy of its fandom towards male popstars and boy bands. The Spice Girls have not just offered their fans a range of models of contemporary femininity with which to identify, which includes one—Sporty—that clearly draws on lesbian street style, but also, more radically and uniquely they have captured a generation of girls’ passion outside the framework of heterorelationality and heterosexuality. The question ‘who is your favourite Spice Girl?,’ is as much about which Spice Girl is desired, as about which one is identified with. Moreover, the Spice Girls’ ‘philosophy’ of ‘girl power’ is a reworking of basic feminist principles about the importance of female friendship, seeking to inspire girls to respect and value themselves and their girl-friends, mothers, and sisters, and challenging the cultural prioritization of masculinity and male needs and desires. It is certainly no accident that each concert in the 1998 Spice-World Tour included in it a cover of Annie Lennox’s ‘Sisters are Doing it For Themselves’ and ended with a rendition of the gay anthem first popularized by Sister Sledge, ‘We are Family.’

The Emergence of Hetero-Reflexivity

Another facet of the destabilization of the homo/heterosexual binary is that heterosexuality is increasingly a conscious state which has to be produced, self-monitored, thought about, and, for some, defended, in relation to its other, in a way that was not necessary when heteronormativity was more secure and lesbian and gay alternatives were less visible and self-confident. It used to be that it was homosexuality that had to be produced and thought-out, with heterosexuality the unreflexive inside that did not have to consider its position. But in recent years, from ‘backlash’ anxieties about political correctness and the ‘threatened’ position of the white, heterosexual male and his normal family, as exemplified in Section 28 of the Local Government Act in the UK, and the Defense of Marriage Act in the United States, which has explicitly named marriage as a heterosexual institution, to the ever growing number of personal ads placed in newspapers by heterosexuals forced to name themselves as such, heterosexuality has become de-naturalized and reflexive. Anecdotally, there appears to have been a dramatic growth in the number of students who think of themselves as heterosexual taking lesbian and gay studies courses in US universities, suggesting, perhaps, a growth of self-conscious thinking about non-normative sexualities among those who would previously have practised their heterosexuality unreflexively. Even women’s magazines, once the arch-promoters of a naturalized, normative heterosexuality, are now, occasionally, encouraging their readers to engage in the reflexive consideration of their sexual desires by means of the self-administered questionnaire, which at the end, when scores are added up, refuses to locate readers in clearly demarcated sexual identity categories, but rather valorizes self-awareness and sexual openness.

The Cultural Valorizing of the Queer

If, as exhorted by queer theory, we take seriously the cultural in our attempts to understand shifts in relations of sexuality, contemporary developments in popular culture become significant indicators of the zeitgeist. It would be sociologically naïve to assume that changes in popular culture necessarily give rise to or reflect transformations in people’s everyday beliefs and practices, or to assume that people always behave in consistent ways (so that liking Ellen Degeneres, Julian Clary, or Graham Norton also constitutes a rejection of homophobia); but I would like to propose that the ideas and images of the sexual which permeate our everyday world through popular culture are of considerable importance in framing the cultural imaginaries within which people lead their lives and construct their identities and relationships. It is my suggestion that there is underway, particularly in Britain, a queering of popular culture, a valorizing of the sexually ambiguous, and of that which transgresses rigid boundaries of gender. While sexual and gender ambiguity are not new, the contemporary desire to confuse and transgress the hetero/homosexual binary is of a different order from that of the 1970’s and early 1980’s culturally elite avant-garde that was exemplified by David Bowie, Patti Smith, Marc Bolan, Bay Searge and the ‘New Romantics.’ Whereas the gender-benders of this earlier period had something of a freak-show about them, and were a safe distance from their fans, whose normality was reconstituted in contrast with the stars’ allowable excesses, the contemporary cultural valorizing of the queer is far more participatory and closer to everyday life. This can be seen in three areas of popular culture: dance culture, fashion magazines and television.

Dance culture is one of the most significant cultural movements in Britain of recent years. As it moved from underground raves into the mainstream, clubbing has become a leisure pursuit for millions of young people, and the fashions, imagery and ideals of dance culture have become the fashions, imagery and ideals of a generation (as the category of ‘youth’ expands both upwards and downwards, this is a large generation). Dance culture has its roots in the house music born in black gay clubs in New York, Chicago and Detroit, in which boundaries of sexuality developed a fluidity, and to which men and women of a range of sexual and gender identifications were welcomed. Travelling across the Atlantic, via Ibiza, in tandem with the drug Ecstasy, house music spawned a new era of night-clubbing in Britain in the 1990s. Pharmacologically energized and ‘loved up,’ what mattered in the early house music clubs was the warmth and intensity of the sociality between those in the club. In Britain, as in the USA, the clubs where new dance music is tested and hits break, the clubs which lead fashion in music, clothing and attitude, have in recent years been queer clubs: not exclusively gay, but emerging from a gay/lesbian community and identity, usually established and run by gay or lesbian promoters, and destabilizing sexual identity categories by welcoming anyone with a queer enough attitude. It is not sexual identity or sexual practice that matters in gaining admission to the coolest clubs, but rather a way of thinking and an attitude of openness and fluidity: those seeking admission to Vague in Leeds, for instance, being required by the transsexual ‘door whore’ to kiss anyone she demanded. The ideals of celebrating diversity and granting respect are often spelt out on club flyers, on posters, banners inside the club, and by bouncers on the door. ‘Queer’ has become, in British popular culture, an attitude and a stance which rocks the hetero/ homosexual binary, and is one to which a generation aspires.

Further evidence of the aspirational status of the queer is to be found in advertising in a range of media, and in editorial imagery in fashion magazines. Over the past decade there has been an upsurge in the presentation of queer imagery in the mainstream media, in which sexual and gender ambiguity is foregrounded through the use of non-conventionally gendered and non-hetero-sexually positioned models and through playful cross-dressing, and homo-erotic desire is regularly explicitly represented or more subtly implied. A large number of companies which clearly wish to be perceived as at the cutting edge of fashion have run advertising campaigns in magazines, on television and free postcards, which are decidedly queer—promoting the fashion houses Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Versace, alcoholic drinks such as Black Bush Whiskey and Kronenberg 1664, toiletries (Impulse deodorant), electronic goods and services (On Digital, BT Cellnet, Siemens mobile telephones, mail2web email), airlines (Aer Lingus), furniture (Habitat) and cars (Rover 200) through adverts which play with same-sex sexual possibilities and challenge the heteronormative gaze and its expectations. Some of the images and messages in these advertisements are more open to a range of possible readings than others, but in most the attribution of a positive value to non-heterosexually coded bodies, desires and lifestyles is clearly presented to the viewer. In the context of much greater public discussion of lesbian and gay experiences and the appearance of lesbian and gay characters in soap operas and dramas in British television, the present moment is one in which readings which recognize the non-heteronormativity of the images in these campaigns are more available than ever before.

Finally, television has also in recent years brought a queer sensibility into millions of living rooms. In sharp contrast to the tradition of laughing at homosexual men’s gender performances in classic British comedies such as Are You Being Served?, and Carry On films, I would identify All Rise for Julian Clary as marking a significant moment in the sexual history of British televisual culture. Broadcast at prime time on Saturday night on BBC1, All Rise enacts a queer reversal of traditional anti-gay humour, and directs attention to the humour inherent in the heterosexuality and traditional renditions of masculinity of the audience. Julian Clary, a highly politicized, ‘out’ gay man, makes constant, extremely sexually explicit, reference to his own homosexuality, but the show revolves equally around laughing at, and pointing out the absurdity of, normal heterosexual masculinity, particularly that of the police and the military. Clary plays the role of judge and adjudicates according to his own set of queer, camp values on a range of matters brought to him by the audience. Thus the privileging of heteronormative behaviour is reversed and the queer valorized.

A pessimistic critique of the tendencies which I identify as the cultural valorizing of the queer would see them as evidence of the extension of commodity culture into previously uncommodified subcultures, and of the ability of capitalism to colonize and utilize lesbian and gay identities in its relentless search for profit, exploiting their otherness while maintaining mainstream heterosexual positionality. While there is undoubtedly purchase in this analysis, it is my opinion that such an argument neglects the recontextualizations that are possible within commodity culture, and fails to see how capital might be running to catch up with transformations which are already underway in the ways in which sexuality is lived and imagined. It is surely interesting that at this historical moment queer has become trendy, not just in relatively closed metropolitan networks, but in mainstream popular culture, and in the context of a history of the minoritizing of the non-heterosexual, and of the cultural shame associated with homosexuality, this represents a shift of considerable sociological interest and is worthy of further attention.

Futures …

In this chapter I have taken up the challenge posed by lesbian and gay studies to historicize sexuality, and I have traced some of the shifts in the organization of sexuality which have taken place over the past century. In arguing that we are currently experiencing the postmodernization of relations of sexuality, I propose that at the start of the new millennium we are witnessing a number of queer tendencies in social and cultural life, which together constitute a significant cultural challenge to heteronormativity. These queer tendencies question the normativity and naturalness of heterosexuality, re-configure the hierarchical inside/outside relationship between homosexuality and heterosexuality, and destabilize the binary opposition between the two categories. It is undoubtedly the case that these queer tendencies are impacting upon the general population unevenly, and a future agenda for research should therefore include detailed empirical, ethnographic studies which can explore the extent to which new sexualities are in creation both within and beyond the cosmopolitan centres of the western world. It would be worth investigating, for instance, the extent to which the cultural valorizing of the queer has moved beyond the younger generation that has the sub-cultural capital to partake of cool subcultures, given that the changes that start in ‘cultural trend-setting areas’ (Castells, 1997: 237) generally emanate outwards to permeate the wider culture. It is my hypothesis that there is more than a queer avant-garde at work here, and that the queer tendencies that I have identified are of a profound and general societal significance. Reflexive heterosexual identities are becoming increasingly widespread, and all over the western world heterorelations have a significantly less sure hold on the general population, across the generations.

It might be thought that the argument of this chapter grants too great a significance to the transitory, ephemeral world of popular culture, and that its overall tone is overly optimistic. I would readily acknowledge that there are, of course, countervailing tendencies, in the form of various expressions of sexual and gender fundamentalism, which are particularly strong in the United States, but which have also recently been seen in the United Kingdom in public debates about the repeal of Section 28. Homophobia continues to exist, particularly in schools, and violence against lesbians and gay men remains a serious problem. Moreover, lesbians and gay men do not appear ready to collectively cede their hard-won sexual identities, and many are firm believers in their difference (variously conceived as cultural, biological, psychological and/or genetic) from heterosexuals. When boundaries are transgressed and identities unsettled, the impulse to deploy border guards is strong, and lesbian and gay communities continue to expend much time and energy seeking to stabilize and ground themselves in defensible space. But it is not my argument that we have moved into a post-lesbian and gay era, and nor am I positing a straightforward narrative of sexual liberation, revolution or the final demise of homophobia.

So, where does this leave lesbian and gay studies, if the very categories on which the field is founded are being destabilized? Is there a future for a field if the subjects who study and the objects they study no longer quite inhabit the identities that the field invokes? There have been several terminological responses to the challenges posed by queer auto-critique: to extend its remit, reconfiguring it as ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender studies,’ to relabel it ‘queer studies,’ or simply, and perhaps consciously post-the-homosexual/heterosexual-binary, ‘sexuality studies.’ Certainly, I would endorse moves such as these which acknowledge that the terrain of the sexual is constantly shifting. I would also hope that a future agenda for research would involve the interrogation of the new borders and divisions, the new normativities, exclusions and marginalizations which are in creation in the ever changing configuration of the realm of the sexual.