Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lesbian Envy

Staring out the window of the coffee shop on Piedmont avenue in Oakland, I can’t help but notice the prevalence of what seems to me to be the predominant cultural group in a town known for its diversity: lesbians. They flood the sidewalks, walking purposefully or browsing casually, carrying book bags and wheeling baby carriages, drinking coffee, laughing, hugging and holding hands.

The lesbians are easy to spot, because they are the most stylish women on the street. Their clothes fit well, move comfortably over their bodies as they walk. Their haircuts are jaunty and well-kept-up and purposely asymmetrical. Their sneakers are ironic. Everyone admires their good looks as they pass by.

Or maybe it’s just me. I’m always jealous of the lesbians, especially the couples, in a way that I am not jealous of the many equivalent heterosexual couples passing by. When I see a man and a woman pushing a stroller down the street, I think, He’s restless, she’s bored, they love the baby but are also stressed out by him. I know logically that the lesbian couples must face the same realities and challenges of couplehood and parenthood. But somehow I imagine that, because these relationships do not represent the societal norm, that they aren’t subject to the same monotonies and ruts that typify heterosexual relationships. You don’t just wake up one day and find that you’ve fallen into a lesbian relationship: This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! No, a lesbian relationship is a conscious choice, and therefore it must always be well-thought-out and worthwhile.

I’ve always been jealous of lesbians. From my perspective, their sexuality seems so straightforward, because they are constantly in the position of having to assert it. If they want women to know they are available as partners, they must dress or behave in ways that communicate their sexual preference. If they want their coworkers to stop trying to set them up with annoying guys from the office, they can say, “Thanks, but I’m a lesbian.” If men want to date them, they can confidently say, “Sorry, I’m a lesbian.” I can only imagine how simple and satisfying that must be.

In contrast, while I’ve only dated men, I have a very hard time identifying myself as a heterosexual. I suppose I probably am one, mostly, but I don’t think I’m a very good one. I don’t find myself attracted to men very often, perhaps once a year or so. It takes me a lot of effort to get interested in men or decide I’d like to be in a relationship with one of them.

I imagine that if I were a lesbian, I would never be ambivalent about who I was attracted to, because it would be part of my declared identity: I am attracted to women, damn it! And I imagine that, since their sexuality is so central to their identity, lesbians get to exist in a permanent state of adolescent-style girl-craziness. Which many of them do, at least amongst my friends. But of course I’m only noticing the ones who are like that, because they are vocal about their lustiness, whereas I don’t tend to notice the ones who, like me, barely date, though I know one or two of those types of lesbians as well. But when I am sitting in the coffee shop envying the cute dykey women in their funky sneakers, I imagine that they are all accomplished daters, female Casanovas, confident ladies’ ladies.

If just the fact of being a lesbian isn’t affirming enough, there is a wide palate of lesbian subcategories to choose from. One young friend of mine used to fret over this decision for hours: “What kind of butch am I?” she would agonize, thumbing through a book about radical gender identity that was ten years older than she was. “Am I a stone butch? Or am I more of a soft butch?”

“I think I’m more like a stone butch,” she would speculate, “because everyone thinks I'm a boy. But the book says that stone butches don’t take their clothes off or let anyone do anything sexual to them. That’s definitely not me.” Finally, she read about a type of butch who was highly masculine but didn’t mind taking her clothes off or receiving sexual pleasure, and she happily took that on as her identity.

My friend Charlotte also describes herself as a butch (I presume her love of girly hobbies such as fashioning arm warmers out of tube socks or making clever little zines to entertain her friends would characterize her as a soft butch). She styles herself like a 1950s sitcom husband, with button-up shirts and sweater vests and a trim haircut that emphasizes her square jaw line. Charlotte’s girlfriend calls herself a femme. She likes to wear low-cut dresses, stiletto heels, and fancy lingerie.

The two of them often talk about butch/femme dynamics. They have one story where a carful of seemingly heterosexual young women gawk in envy as Charlotte walks around the car to open the door for her lady. Presumably, they have never experienced such an act of chivalry from the men that they have dated. In fact, those women might not even want their boyfriends to open the door for them, because it would suggest that, as women, they are helpless. But when both partners are women, then the traditional masculine and feminine courtship behaviors are a matter of choice, voluntary and arbitrary roles in a game of gender that everyone can agree is socially constructed. The roles that seem so limiting and obtrusive when they are imposed by nature, or tradition masquerading as nature, are suddenly creative and inspiring.

My friend Luke has a similar jealousy of gay men. He is an unwavering heterosexual, but he credits the development of his sexual persona to inspiration he found from gay men, especially the fictional characters on the television show Queer as Folk.

“The men on that show are so confident about their sexuality,” he would tell me. He was particularly inspired by the central character, a promiscuous playboy. “He has no reservations about going after whoever he wants. He’s completely self-assured and entitled. I used to watch that show and think to myself, that’s how I want to be.”

Functioning in a heterosexual world, Luke had always felt conflicted about pursuing women. He felt crass and objectifying for his tendency to want to have commitment-free sex with most of the women he encountered.

In contrast, the men on Queer as Folk never needed to worry about belittling or demeaning another gender. Since they were all men, they were all socially and biologically equals. There was no reason for remorse or ambivalence for objectifying someone who had an equal capacity for objectifying you right back.

Luke asked his gay roommate whether being a gay man was really the wild smorgasbord of anonymous sex that the TV show depicted.

The roommate nodded sagely. “It’s crazier than that,” he said. “It’s crazier than you could imagine. Think about it. We’re talking about sex that only involves two guys. Of course it is.”

When Luke told me the story years later, his eyes became wistful. “Can you imagine?” he asked. “Two people who could both appreciate the pleasure of anonymous sex, without it having to mean something?”

While our aims are different, ultimately Luke and I fantasize about the same thing: a sexual identity that is clear-cut, unproblematic, well-defined. Heterosexuals don’t get to define themselves by their sexuality; or at least, it is seen as uncouth to do so after the age of about nineteen. Our sexuality is the assumed norm, and we never feel the need to say, “As I heterosexual, I feel…” or “Perhaps it’s my heterosexuality that makes me perceive the world in this way.” And so we muck around in a hazy swamp of what is supposed to be normal, and therefore does not need to be examined, discussed, or defined.

Our envy is born of privilege. Just as Anglo-Saxon Americans avoid the stigma of being ethnic, but also the benefits and pleasures of having a recognized ethnicity—so heterosexuals, whose sexuality is supported by every American institution from marriage to taxation to health insurance to death, miss out on the pleasure of having to construct an identity around a renegade sexuality. What we give up in self-knowledge, we gain in the blissful pleasure of never really having to think about it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Totalizing Systems

You might believe that God rules the universe, that every action occurs according to God’s will, that all decisions can be judged according to whether or not they comply with God’s prescribed set of morals, as described in the Bible.

You might believe that nothing exists outside of your own mind, that only your own thoughts are known to you, that everything else is an illusion created by your own psyche. Or you may believe that it is impossible to know for certain whether anything beside your own mind exists; and therefore, you will treat everything outside your own mind as though it does not exist, just to be safe.

You might believe that the laws of physics determine every action in the universe, including your actions, movements, thoughts. If you decide to jump off a bridge, it is because of electric signals in your brain set into motion at the time of your conception. If your psychiatrist convinces you not to jump off the bridge, her words, the thoughts that gave rise to them, your thoughts and actions in response to her words were all effects of the physical interactions of particles in your brains and bodies and in the universe around you, and all of this was determined at the beginning of time and cannot be changed any more than we can change the force of gravity.

When I was in college, I discovered a totalizing system that saved me from being stuck with the B grades that seemed to be my perpetual fate in my chosen major, English. When I started studying English, I wasn’t sure exactly how the graduate students who graded my essays wanted me to analyze works of literature. I would try to make causal arguments about the characters’ actions, or discuss the psychological distinctions between two characters. My graders were never impressed; they didn’t agree with my premises or the conclusions I was drawing from them.

Then I discovered a field of study that I was really, really good at: linguistics. And I figured out that the study of language could be applied readily to analyzing literature, because literature is nothing but language. I discovered that a whole tradition of structuralist and post-structuralist literary critics agreed with me, approaching literary texts as an assemblage of words and sentences, descriptions and metaphors, not as hypothetical worlds populated by imaginary people.

This strategy of interpretation became my doctrine, and it saved me from all the inane disagreements about character motivation that I had had with my graduate student instructors. Characters had no motivations, because the characters did not exist. No one could argue with this fact. One professor, my senior thesis advisor, would actually shoot me a guilty, apologetic look every time she made a statement like, “Hardy implies that Tess of the D’Urbervilles was raped, but a lot of readers think she really wanted to have sex with Alec.” She did not need to voice her acknowledgment aloud: Tess of the D’Ubervilles doesn’t want anything, except in the sense that Thomas Hardy’s narrator says that she wants it—she is nothing but a collection of words and descriptions, not a real person who can act in defiance of the author who created the illusion that she exists.

This approach to literary analysis seemed to be objection-proof. I wrote an essay about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past that compared the similes used in the first half of the giant novel (comparisons to concrete objects) to those used in the second half (comparisons to abstract ideas). I invented some explanation of what this change meant, relating it to the novel’s themes of self-doubt and self-acceptance. I wrote this essay during the five hours before it was due; I was taking the class pass-fail, so my grade didn’t really matter.

I got an A, and some gushing commentary from my graduate student reader about what a solid analysis I had achieved. I knew why my grade was high: there was no easy way to argue against my analysis. I had carefully documented examples of similes from beginning to end; and who would want to bother going back into that giant tome to verify that the pattern I had identified was correct? By focusing on purely linguistic elements, which are the only factual truths about literature, I made myself invincible as a literary critic. Everything I wrote in college from this point on got a grade of A or even A+, all focusing on language-based truths that were impractical or impossible to refute.

I liked this newfound power—the power to wield a system that I had mastery of, one that impressed and confounded my professors, one that could be used equally on any text, because, ultimately, they were all cut from the same cloth, just a bunch of language.

By the time I got to graduate school, this way of thinking had gotten pretty old. Of course the characters didn’t really have motivations. Of course they didn’t have histories, families, futures, identities. But I was ready to write about those things again, anyway, illusory though they were, because they comprise the meaning of literature, and it occurred to me that I did not want to spend the rest of my career ignoring the point of what I was analyzing just to be invulnerable to criticism.

The idea that literature is nothing more than language was the first and last totalizing theory that I ever subscribed to. It isn’t a theory that applies to everything in the entire universe, as a true totalizing theory would. But it applied universally to every work of literature—in fact, to every written or spoken text.

Since the time I gave up my own theory, I have found myself on the wrong side of a number of others. One semester, I had a student who used to come to my office hours every few weeks to debate with me about Christianity, which he was a strong believer in; in fact, he was training to be a minister. I normally wouldn’t engage in religious debates with anyone, much less my student, but he was a strong and interesting debater and I liked hearing what he had to say.

“My moral system is absolute,” he would say to me. “I believe morality comes from God, so I can always defend my values and beliefs. If you believe that your morals are defined by your society, you have to accept that other societies have different morals. How are you going to tell them that it’s wrong to commit murder?”

He was right, of course: it is a messy process to make any moral argument when morality is relative. Your argument is likely to contradict itself at times, or end up anchoring itself in absolutes (“it is wrong to cause suffering”) that cannot be proven any more than my student can prove that God doesn’t want us to murder people. This is the nice thing about totalizing systems; they’re tidy and consistent and avoid hypocrisy.

The issue of absolute versus relative morality arises whenever we discuss conservative and liberal politics in my English classes. Conservatives know what they believe, and state it outright: We are for big-business. We are against abortion. We believe America is the greatest country on earth, and we support traditional American values.

Liberals tend not to state concrete beliefs, but rather systematic principles: We might not agree with what you say, but we will defend your right to say it. We are pro-choice (not pro-abortion). We believe it is important to respect other people’s beliefs.

Predictably, the conservative position is internally consistent, while the liberal one is conflicted. How can we justify respecting other people’s religions and cultures, except when they fundamentally disagree with our own values? Theocracy is okay; preventing women from getting an education is not okay. Communism is okay; suppressing the free speech of your opponents is not okay. Of course, in these cases, the values that are violated are part of what we call human rights, values we hold so sacred that we don’t even see them as values but self-evident morals. Which I believe we should, but I can’t explain that belief through recourse to any absolute morality. If someone asks me why I hold those values to be self-evident, I will ultimately have to respond that I just do. And that, of course, is a horrible basis for an argument.

If we wish to avoid such messiness, we must believe all sorts of counterintuitive things that will make consistency out of a messy world: that there is a god who cares deeply about our dietary habits and who we have sex with; that America is the greatest country on earth; that all of our actions and thoughts can be predicted by the laws of physics. These beliefs are orderly, and once we have embraced them, we will never be lost, illogical, confused, or frightened again.