Writing forces us to sift through our thoughts in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. It pushes us to find the weak links in our logic, and leads us to reconsider positions we’d previously held with some confidence. If no one ever reads anything I write here, it’ll still be worth it. After all, I’m probably the chief beneficiary of this effort. So, it’s in that spirit that I’m writing this post, which is something of a further reflection on last week’s post.
After publishing last Friday’s post on what it means to me to be gay, I began to have doubts. I began to wonder whether “gay” is really the right word to capture what I wanted to say. In a certain sense, I think it isn’t. The term “queer” likely provides a more accurate description of how I’m trying to describe myself. Prior to the 1990s, we generally used the term “gay” to refer to people who experienced persistent (primary) and exclusive sexual attractions to members of the same sex. By contrast, we used the term “straight” to refer to people who experienced persistent and exclusive sexual attractions to members of the opposite sex. And “bisexual” referred to people who fell somewhere in between. We largely owe this one-dimensional approach to sexuality to Alfred Kinsey.
But by the 1990s, we largely came to reject Kinsey’s model as inadequate. Key reasons for its inadequacy include the following. First, it fails to account for the fact that many people experience no persistent sexual attractions to members of either sex. Many are asexuals, who experience no sexual attractions at all. Others are demisexuals, who experience non-persistent (secondary) sexual attractions, which tend to arise as fleeting responses to certain emotional or romantic attractions. Second, it fails to account for the role that non-sexual attractions play within a social setting. Sexual attractions rarely operate alone within the context of a social interaction. Emotional and romantic attractions also play key roles in determining whether sexual attractions ripen into certain desires. Third, it fails to account for the social scripts that govern how we perceive, interpret, and act on various attractions. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we live in a world of limited social possibilities. People act toward things based on the meaning they ascribe to those things. And those meanings arise out of social interactions with others in society. Thus, within a given culture, a limited number of social scripts emerge with which people can align themselves. Therefore, it’s difficult to analyze sexual attractions in any meaningful sense without giving weight to the social scripts through which people have learned to perceive, interpret, and act on those attractions. This is especially true when a particular script, such as the heterosexual script (described in the previous post), has come to monopolize the social space in which people move.
Therefore, starting in the 1990s, scholars rallied around the term “queer” to describe those who, for one reason or another, struggle to conform to the heterosexual script. The term “queer” caught on in scholarly circles…and nowhere else. In the popular culture, it went nowhere. In recent years, the notions embodied by that term have finally made their way back into the popular culture, but under a different name: heteroflexibility. In some ways, this new term encompasses many of the same notions as “queer,” but without appearing to pose as much of a challenge to the heterosexual script. After all, given a choice between “normal” and “queer,” most people would choose the former. Being “queer” just doesn’t sound like a very good thing to be. But “heteroflexible” contains none of that negative freight. After all, who would ever want to be “heterorigid”?
If I had to choose a term to describe myself, I’d probably go with “queer.” But outside of certain academic circles, that term seems to cause more confusion than it should. And “heteroflexible” is too novel a term to know precisely what it means. So, I went with “gay” because that’s the term that most non-heterosexual people use to describe themselves in our culture. I also wanted to make it clear that “gay” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But I’ve reconsidered the wisdom of that choice. Even if those things that motivated my original choice are true (and they are), identifying as gay still places one within a world of limited social possibilities. That’s because the term “gay” also describes those social scripts that are most antithetical to the heterosexual script. So, in describing myself as gay, I can’t help but claim a social identity whose script includes some measure of express opposition to heterosexuality. And, in doing so, identifying as gay tends to lend undue credibility to heterosexuality. And that’s the beauty of a term like “heteroflexible”: It simultaneously makes peace with heterosexuality, even as it mocks it behind its back. And that’s probably a lot closer to the cultural space I inhabit.
I tend to think that heterosexuality gets a lot of things right. In the aggregate, it provides an efficient starting point for ordering society. But it should only be a starting point. And just because it’s efficient in the aggregate doesn’t mean that it’s efficient in every individual instance. Thus, the chief problem with the heterosexual script lies less with its utility and more with the rigid way in which we often apply it. In an ideal world, we would go back and undo the mess that Freud has bestowed upon us. But, as long as we’re living east of Eden, we really can’t go home again. So, the best course is to take the Freudian mess that’s become ours, and work to build more flexibility into it. That’s what I hope to explore here.
I considered renaming my blog “The Heteroflexible Calvinist,” but figured that that sounded a bit too trite. So, at the risk of using a term that Millennials won’t understand, I’ve just gone with “The Queer Calvinist.” In a world of limited possibilities, this seems like the best option.