Sexual Identity

Jaime Hovey. Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Volume 4. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007.

Sexual identity can refer to either sexual orientation or gender identity. Sexual orientation, the first and more common meaning of the term, assumes that a person’s sexual practices define that person in a crucial way. The definition of sexual identity as gender identity is used predominantly by medical practitioners to describe a person’s gender, regardless of that person’s sexual practices. Under the first definition if a woman who desires other women interprets her sexual activities as lesbian and identifies herself with that label, she has a sexual identity as a lesbian. Under the second definition she may prefer sex with other women, but if she identifies herself as a woman, her sexual identity is female.

Sexual Orientation as Identity

Sexual identity as sexual orientation assumes that something crucial is known about an individual if one knows his or her sexual practices. The historian Michel Foucault argued that this conflation of sexual activity and social character began taking shape in the nineteenth century. In that era sexual identity was an effect of the “persecution of the peripheral sexualities” (Foucault 1990, p. 42) that occurred when both medical and legal institutions began to attempt to understand and control individual sexual behavior. Before that time sodomy was a category of forbidden sexual acts that did not confer an identity on a particular person, though individuals could be punished severely for engaging in them. However, with the rise of sexual science in medicine and psychoanalysis, the homosexual, as with the heterosexual, became a species of person with a history, a body, and a psychology particular to his or her type.

Initially, sexual orientation as identity was a product of certain kinds of labeling practices. It was a result of categorizing people into groups and subgroups for the purpose of creating knowledge, discipline, and control. However, the same labels that the medical, religious, or legal authorities could use to characterize and control individuals by means of their sexual practices also proved useful to the people they attempted to label. The category of homosexual, for example, helped those with same-sex desires understand themselves as a group of people who shared particular sexual tastes. When Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) wrote about sexual inversion and Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) wrote about intermediate sexes—both terms were used to label homosexuality and cross-gender behaviors—many people recognized themselves for the first time and wrote letters thanking those men for providing the public with these sexual categories.

Foucault argued that this phenomenon in which sexual classification is both regulatory and limiting on the one hand and generative and empowering on the other illustrates how modern attempts to exercise control over people by producing knowledge categories about their sexual behavior end up producing and proliferating those categories. A man who reads about homosexuality and recognizes his desires as homosexual comes to view himself as a homosexual and is free to find other homosexuals. Those homosexuals can embrace the category of the homosexual as one descriptive of their identities and are free to publicize that knowledge and use it as a tool for social and political organizing. Because this category makes people intelligible to themselves and others, more and more people may come to believe that they share many characteristics with other homosexuals in their group. Thus, what begins as an attempt to monitor subversive behaviors can end up reproducing and spreading them, and the regulatory category of homosexuality can proliferate homosexuality rather than contain it.

Homosexuality and Heterosexuality

Heterosexuality is a case in point. Heterosexuality initially was defined as a category of perversion in which someone desired persons of the opposite sex to an abnormal degree. However, as sexual desire between men and women became more acceptable in the 1920s, heterosexuality began to appear as the opposite sexual category to homosexuality. By the 1930s heterosexuality was synonymous with normal sexuality and heterosexuality was a positive category mentioned in popular songs and plays. In contemporary times free heterosexual expression no longer is seen as subversive, in large part because attitudes about sexual passion and sex outside marriage changed dramatically after the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is important to remember that identifying as a heterosexual once would have been considered daring and risqué, especially for women, but that this identification eventually helped popularize heterosexuality as an intelligible sexual identity.

Sexual identity and gender identity have been confused with each other since the birth of sexology in the nineteenth century. Sexual practices appropriate to masculinity or femininity helped doctors gauge whether a person was conventional and normal according to the standards of the day. Little girls were and still are encouraged to identify with and emulate the normative gender category girl, which emphasizes, among other things, femininity and the adoption of female behavioral norms such as playing with dolls. Girls and women are encouraged to cultivate the sexual identity that is appropriate to that gender category, which is heterosexual attraction to males. Similarly, boys are encouraged to identify with or emulate the normative gender category boy, which emphasizes masculinity and the adoption of male behavioral norms such as playing with toy cars. Boys and men are encouraged to cultivate the sexual identity that is appropriate to this gender category, which is heterosexual attraction to females.

When gender and sexuality do not accord with these norms, subjects traditionally have been viewed as deviant or abnormal. Popular stereotypes have equated gender deviance with sexual deviance. Male effeminacy is thought to indicate homosexuality, and female masculinity indicates lesbianism, with the assumption that feminine women and masculine men are heterosexual. However, gender does not necessarily indicate sexuality, nor does sexuality indicate gender; quite often gender and sexuality have little to do with each other. A feminine woman may desire other women, and a masculine woman may desire men. Similarly, a masculine man may desire other men, and an effeminate man may desire women.

The Role of Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis has participated in the conflation of sexual and gender identities by insisting that gender and sexual identities are related and that those identities are achieved through a process of identification. Identification can involve emulation or imagining one’s self in ideal terms, but the relationship between identity and identification is murky. Does identification produce identity, or does identity produce identification? One must identify with a gender to have it, but what determines that gesture? What about subjects who identify with a quirky or non-normative gender?

Psychologists Sigmund Freud (1989 [1933]) and Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) viewed identification and disidentification with certain gender and sexual norms as being central to subject formation. Freud saw little boys learning to disidentify with their mothers and identify with their fathers through a complex interplay of gender and sexuality norms that he termed the castration complex. According to this theory boys see that girls, including their mothers, are castrated and read this as a form of punishment meted out by fathers. According to Freud boys then will obey their fathers, identify with their fathers in their masculine gender expression, and be sexually attracted to women as their fathers are. Girls also realize that they are castrated, blame their mothers for letting it happen, and decide to desire their fathers instead of their mothers. They may disidentify with the mother as the boy does, but eventually they will have to be something like her to win the father’s love or get a man like the father to love them.

Lacan viewed identification in the mirror stage as the mechanism that gives a child the illusion of mastery and control of the body, an illusion that projects the child into the future by giving it an ideal toward which to strive. The child may experience itself as dependent and incoherent, but it sees itself in the mirror and imagines itself as a whole, coherent, masterful being. It identifies with its mirror image and strives to become the powerful being it imagines is reflected in that image. Likewise, it imagines someone watching it and strives to be a kind of ideal for that imagined person to see.

Queer theorists such as Judith Butler (1990) have argued that a type of identification known as melancholic incorporation may be a process in gender and sexual identity formation. Butler’s notion of melancholic incorporation is taken from Freud’s observation in the essay “Mourning and Melancholia” (1963 [1917]), that jilted lovers may incorporate aspects of the person they have lost into their own personalities, thus retaining them. Butler extends Freud’s account of incorporation to explain same-sex identification and desire, arguing that gender is itself a melancholic identification in which the same-sex parent, whom one is not allowed to desire and who thus is lost as a love object, is internalized. In this case the gender of the same-sex parent is internalized but not that parent’s supposedly heterosexual sexuality.

Both Freud and Lacan imagined sexuality and gender identification lining up together, with heterosexuality indicating normative gender identification and identity and homosexuality indicating abnormal or cross-gender identification and identity. However, identification and disidentification can produce subjects who are masculine, feminine, heterosexual, or homosexual. It can produce subjects who emulate norms and subjects who reject them in order to emulate something else. Identification plays a crucial role in the politics of sexual identity because subjects may rally around certain identity categories that they then assume constitute them as a group, reject categories they feel are inadequate, or combine those actions.

Identity Politics

The assumption that a common sexual or gender identity leads to political similarities in a group is called identity politics. Identity politics is an alliance politics that insists that membership in oppressed groups leads to common political interests and goals. Thus, lesbians might imagine that other lesbians share their political agenda because they all have a marginalized sexual desire for women and can be discriminated against for demonstrating that desire. Gay men might assume that lesbians share their politics because they are all homosexual. Identity politics is not limited to sexuality and gender but also can apply to race, class, ethnicity, religion, and other categories. Black men might assume that black women share their political views because all of them are oppressed by racism; poor people might assume that common politics arise out of shared economic oppression; feminists might assume commonality with all sorts of women because of shared gender discrimination.

In addition, individual identity groups might forge solidarity in cross-identity alliances: Lesbians and gay men who oppose mainstream politics might form alliances with Latinas, who in turn might forge alliances with black men, who might organize with white factory workers opposed to illegal immigration, and so on. The strength of identity politics is its sense of group cohesion, which offers the possibility of political solidarity between and among other similarly constituted groups.

The downside of identity politics is its erasure of distinctions and differences and its tendency to confer the status of activism on identity. White lesbians may assume that sexual discrimination and homophobia are the main issues lesbians should organize around, but lesbians of color may view racism as the chief obstacle they face and be angered by the way white lesbian politics erases their concerns. Poor women who have had to work and never had the choice to stay home may object to the insistence by middle-class feminists that working outside the home is desirable. Lesbians may feel that gay men ignore sexism; gay men may feel that lesbians do not understand life under the threat of HIV/AIDS.

In the early 1990s coming out was considered a political act to such an extent that many people came to consider being gay or lesbian as being equivalent to political activism. Looking gay, buying from gay-friendly companies, and sponsoring gay events meant that everything was political, and that nothing was. Gay activism declined in the wake of the AIDS crisis, in large part because of the complacency of this type of identity politics.

Sexual Identity and the Law

However, some gay activists moved into the legal system, challenging laws that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual identity. The U.S. military considers homosexuality incompatible with military service and routinely discharges servicemen and servicewomen if they are outed or reveal themselves to be gay. One goal of contemporary activists is to overturn this policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve without fear of persecution. In many states sodomy, which is defined as sex other than heterosexual coitus in the missionary position, is illegal, but sodomy laws are enforced mainly against homosexuals. Thus, a sexual act is linked to a sexual identity, and this sexual identity makes gays and lesbians vulnerable to persecution. The specificity of sexual identity persecution under state sodomy laws was revealed in the case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the court determined that it was unjust to specify a certain group of people, in this case homosexuals, as the group specifically prohibited from engaging in sodomy.

Lesbian or gay sexual identity still is used by private agencies and some states to turn down gay men and lesbians as foster parents, deny them adoption rights, deny them domestic partner benefits and pensions, and deny them employment, promotions, and housing. Slowly, these forms of discrimination are being challenged in courts around the country.

One frontier of legal reform concerns the definition of sexual identity as gender identity. Transgender individuals are winning the right to have their gender legally changed from the one assigned them at birth, though this legal change usually depends on the subject having undergone hormone therapy and a sex-change operation. Other legal issues at the forefront of gender activism include gender presentation in the workplace, such as whether gender conformity in clothes and makeup is enforceable under office dress codes or whether such enforcement constitutes gender discrimination.

Recent work on gender identity has questioned the prevailing view of gender as a binary or dimorphic category. There may be five or more naturally occurring sexes, ranging from genetic females with XX chromosomes with typically female gonads and genitalia, to genetic females who appear to have male genitalia, to female-appearing people with male XY chromosomes, to people with varying chromosomal makeups, (including XX, XY, and XXY) who may have both male and female gonads, to genetic XY males with typically male genitalia. Various kinds of hormone baths in the womb can transform external genitalia in developing fetuses as well, further complicating the assignment of gender as sexual identity at birth. Many of these subjects identify as inter-sex and have dedicated themselves to changing social, legal, and medical notions of gender as including only male or female. This reflects a larger tendency in queer activism to expand sexual and gender categories in order to encourage sexual and gender diversity of all kinds.