Friday, February 26, 2010

Same-sex Desire in the New Millennium: Identity, Subversion, Assimilation

Michelangelo_Caravaggio_065Caravaggio, Narcissus.  1594-96, oil on canvas, 43”x36”, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome

Assimilation and Subversion

Recently, on Facebook a friend posted the following quote by Françoise d’Eaubonne (1920-2005), a French feminist who introduced the term ecofeminism in 1974.  d’Eaubonne states, “You say that our task is to integrate homosexuals into society, while I say it is to disintegrate society through homosexuality.” This statement is a profound and thought-provoking criticism of the current strategy of gay assimilation which seems to be the primary goal of the Gay Rights Movement at this historical moment.  First and foremost in this strategy is the fight for marriage equality.  And indeed, if 2 men or 2 women wish to get married, their union should be legally recognized by the state and afforded all the benefits inherent in such a union.  Moreover, the repeal of the United States military policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is also important within the equal rights agenda.  Again, if a gay man or lesbian wants to serve their country in the military it should be their choice without fear of expulsion or harassment and with an honesty and openness about their sexual identity.

But as d’Eaubonne statement implies, what does it mean for men and women who desire the same-sex to be assimilated within mainstream culture and society?  Should the goal of the Gay Rights movement be symmetry?  Or should same-sex desire strive to foster a new social dynamic that could be described as horizontal rather than hierarchical which characterizes the present dominant fiction* under which we all must live and endure?

*The construction of sexual difference and the Phallus/penis (mis)equation occurs in what film theorist Kaja Silverman designates as the dominant fiction in her 1992 book Male Subjectivity at the Margins.  The term “Phallus” is understood here in terms of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The Phallus is not an actual or imagined organ, but rather an unobtainable signifier which generates meaning. Despite the continual imaging of the Phallus/penis equation within culture, no one can really possess the Phallus because the subject is never at one with language, but always symbolically castrated. Traditional masculinity is predicated on the denial of this symbolic castration and the equation of the Phallus with its lesser anatomical stand-in the penis. 

Therefore, the dominant fiction can be understood as a representational system which “functions to arouse in the subject the conventional Oedipal desires and identifications” and continually depicts the Phallus/penis recognition.   Thus, the conventional (or positive) Oedipal scenario of the male subject is structured in terms of identification with the father (with his penis as Phallus) and desire for the mother. Such a model of desire and identification serves to foreground the rigid binary opposition of male and female, to ensure compulsory heterosexuality and to oppress straight women, non-heterosexuals and transsexuals.

Should gays and lesbians, should I as a non-heterosexual, in the words of d’Eaubonne “disintegrate society”, a society defined by the dominant fiction rather than integrate and assimilate into the very society that has long oppressed them/me  with dire consequences both physical, emotional and psychological?

Symmetry, assimilation and integration is for me not the answer for those who practice same-sex desire.  My position in no way disagrees with those gays and lesbians who seek to get legally married, nor those who want to serve openly and with integrity in the United States military.  What troubles me about the goal of symmetry is that it does nothing to restructure or undermine the dominant fiction itself.  In other words, even with assimilation, the binary terms of male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/homosexual, gay/straight will continue to be enforced in which the first term is continually privileged over the second term.

Writing in 1984 Kate Linker in her essay “Representation and Sexuality” states: 

The prevalence of these images (art, advertising etc), their power in prescribing subject positions and their use in constructing identity within the patriarchal order indicate that an exemplary political practice should take as its terrain representation, working to challenge its oppressive structures. However, these discoveries have also revealed the inadequacy of the equal rights or gender equity strategies that informed cultural politics of the seventies. These strategies, based in the elimination of discrimination and in equal access to institutional power, in no way account for the ideological structures of which discrimination is but a symptom…they aim to recover in the direction of complementarity and symmetry, the structured appropriation of women to the order of the same, to the standard of masculine sexuality.  They leave untouched, in this manner, the integrated value system through which female oppression is enacted.

In her essay, Linker is focusing on the struggle for gender equality, but her argument could similarly be applied to the movement for sexual equality.  Symmetry does not account for nor does it undermine the “ideological structures”  (the dominant fiction) which produces the discrimination and oppression of women, non-heterosexuals and transsexuals in the first place.  These are just byproducts of the those very ideological structures and simply solving them with complementarity does not produce real change.

For example, in recent years with the rise of the metrosexuality and the greater visibility of same-sex desire in popular culture, men have become desired objects of the gaze in advertising, art etc. and are no longer just the traditional bearers of the look.  Yet, is this equality?  Does a male pinup account for the centuries of female objecthood? One might look at the way in which advertising that depicts a male object simultaneously recoups this object as a  subject in the end, so that the Phallus/penis equation is resutured and unbroken.  Symmetry does not account for the very structure of representation itself which is based on a privileged male subjectivity that in turn denigrates the feminine, women, homosexuals, lesbians and transsexuals.

Some gay men and lesbians no matter what rights of equality will be gained will be defined by and will still define themselves by this “standard of masculine sexuality”.  For example, the need for many gay men to develop hypermasculine muscular bodies is  in one sense the result of an ideological system in which masculinity is already the favored term within society.   These men seek to transform themselves into a somatic Phallus.  Such a practice exhibits a degree of homophobia and misogyny that propagates a notion of masculinity as natural and biological instead of an authorized construction within the representational system of the dominant fiction.

Identities and Designations

Despite the radical nature of  d’Eaubonne’s position, she deploys an antiquated term, “homosexual”, in order to designate those individuals who practice same-sex desire.  Homosexual is a 19th century medical term that made its first appearance in 1869.  Within this medical model, homosexuality is understood as a disease, as a problem to be fixed and eliminated.  The use of this term also signals the binary heterosexual (which first appeared in 1892)/homosexual in which the first term is coded as normal, positive and phallic in the language of the dominant fiction against the second term which is constituted as abnormal, negative and feminine.

d’Eaubonne’s use of the word  “homosexual” signals how important it is to define ourselves against the definitions of the prevailing ideology.  Homosexual is a historical term/model which has nothing to do with my life or other men like me in the 21st century, although the word is continually used and interchanged with “gay”in the popular media and culture, but they are certainly not equivalent.

“Gay” belongs to another historical moment.  It was used for the first time in 1920 to refer to same-sex desire usually within a subculture context, but continued generally to mean “carefree” and “happy” until the mid-20th century.  At this time, it was also an antonym for “straight” meaning respectable and indicated unmarried or unattached individuals.  Other connotations of frivolousness and showiness in dress led to a connection with camp and effeminacy.  Stonewall_Inn_September_1969_%28Photo_from_New_York_Public_Library%29 These connotations  served in part to redefine the term to indicate same-sex desire.  By the 1960’s and with the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement, gay definitively came to be understood as expressing same-sex desire by those individuals who enjoyed that desire and by the wider culture.  Gay came to mean more than just a male individual who has sex with other men, but constituted an entire (fictive) community with its mores and customs who were now beginning to demand their equality that symbolically began with the Stonewall Riots of 1969.


How we name and define ourselves is vital in our relationship to the dominant fiction.  For me, gay now serves to designate a particular segment of our (fictive) community, namely rich white men who sometimes adhere to the specific corporeal paradigm of the muscle body.  They favor assimilation through marriage equality, the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and so on.  I was never comfortable using this word to identify myself.  I always felt and still feel like the other’s other.  I would often call myself post-gay

scan0005 When I first moved to New York City in 1990 after graduating from college, I felt alienated from the (gay) life I saw and experienced in the city.  It was not until the mid-1990’s that I discovered my own space of same-sex desire in the fin-de-siècle nightlife of clubs like Squeezebox! and Foxy.  These clubs were liminal spaces of rock and roll, punk and New Wave that sought to undermine and subvert the rules of gender and sexuality enacted by the dominant fiction.


At Squeezebox! queer bands and dazzling, awe inspiring drag performers like Mistress Formika, Sherry Vine, Justin Bond and Joey Arias rocked out in an end of the century eroticism, debauchery and revelry. 

Mistress Formika Squeezebox! 7th Anniversary 2001


Sherry Vine Squeezbox! Anniversary 2001


Justin Bond & Lily of the Valley Sing Bowie at Squeezebox

At this end of the millennium club all subjectivities were accepted and celebrated; you didn’t need to remove your shirt, display huge pecs and guns and dance to mindless, endless dance music to have fun, to belong or to be desired.  Squeezebox! was a collage of conversations (G___ and T___), gropes (as you moved through the crowd), sights (cute, punk go-go boys and girls), spectacles (the night Joey Arias embodied Klaus Nomi in tribute to the dead artist), alcohol (Maker’s Mark and club soda), desire, coveting, kissing (random boys) and sexual assignations (S___ with his entire back tattoo and a pierced cock) that will always remain meaningful to me because it was there that I for the first time embodied myself fully and had a fucking fantastic romp every Friday night.

scan0007 So, in the end of the century malaise and decadence of Squeezebox! and Foxy where lewd abandonment and erotic merrymaking took place,  I favored the word “queer” to identify myself.  Culturally and personally,  it was an attempt and a fairly successful one to recoup a word of derision and negativity and instead transform it into one of empowerment and meaning.  But like gay, queer now seems to me to belong to a historical moment of the 1990’s, to my youth, to my graduate school studies, and  to the specific places where I once caroused.

I still from time to time find queer a useful and provocative way to define and describe myself as outside the mainstream.  (Or is that just nostalgia?)  It expresses a way of looking that is not conventional, a way of seeing beyond the surface, a certain critical consciousness in regard to life, society and culture.  My recent post about my tchotchkes of teenage boys on the telephone is a clear example of this understanding.  P1000184 To most people, these figurines are nothing items: cheap kitsch, made in Japan and probably sold in Woolworth’s for 30 cents.  To me they are  perverse artifacts of the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, a queer item that does not correlate with the dominant fiction and in a small way challenges the definitions of masculine and feminine at a time when such terms were even more rigidly characterized than they are today.

Thus, queer, for me, extends  beyond just my sexual orientation, to a certain weltanschauung.  It enables me to be conscious of my other identities as well: white, male, raised in a upper middleclass suburb and overeducated.  This awareness I hope enables me to be respectful of other’s difference in that I never take for granted my whiteness, my class and my gender.

scan0001 Barbara Kruger Untitled 1986


Though I like queer, it still feels to me in the end to belong to an earlier historical point in my life.  In his former blog The Gay Recluse. the writer Matthew Gallaway (His intriguing, debut novel The Metropolis Case is coming out in January 2011.  Look for it!) sought to go beyond gay and queer and proposed rhetorically and polemically a new term for non-heterosexuals: vexed/vext.  He writes:

While many of you may or may not agree, in either case (0f gay and/or queer) we suspect you’d like to challenge us to come up with something better. After all, these terms have many decades of history/study behind them, and it’s possible to envision a day 100,000 years in the future when they might be entirely divorced from the superficial/derogatory meanings from which they originally arose.

Our solution is vexed.

1. irritated; annoyed: vexed at the slow salesclerks.
2. much discussed or disputed: a vexed question.
3. tossed about, as waves.
4 [Proposed as of 2k9]. non-heterosexual…

Seriously, how much more ‘empowering’ and — especially w/r/t definition number three — poetic is ‘vexed’ than any other alternative? It’s basically like saying: ‘Don’t fuck with me/us,’ while maintaining a certain and appropriate degree of intelligence and impatience (but not anger or violence, which we don’t support) for mainstream convention that frankly needs to be a hallmark going forward in any interaction with those str8s who don’t ‘get it.’

I think the meaning of vexed suits me at this particular instant.  There is a lot of shit to be bothered about right now.  In fact, I am beyond annoyed; I am angry.  The lack of health care reform, the continuing economic problems, the ongoing wars, no national marriage equality are all vexing me.

But beyond my anger, I definitely respond to the poetic and poignant definition of vexed as “tossed about, as waves.”  It engages my melancholic German nature.  It gives expression to how I and others under the terror of the dominant fiction are continually “tossed about” and must resist the ruling ideology’s attempts to deny me, to denigrate me, to silence me.  I am vext.

Additionally, “tossed about, as waves” implies a random fluidity of movement and an unfixed position.  To name oneself vexed/vext is to resist the strict categorizing  that is needed by mainstream culture  for it to function and to enact its laws.  This notion relates to the impossibility of the single self or identity no matter how much bourgeois ideology has tried historically and presently to place each of us in a particular category.  Just think of Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis published in 1886.

In contrast, we all have many selves:  our identity with family, our identity at work, our identity with a lover, our identity with a stranger, our identity in the deepest, darkest night.  We are all fragmented, “tossed about, as waves” no matter how much the prevailing culture wishes to constrain us and even at times when it succeeds in this task.

I am vext.


This concept of fragmentation and fluidity could relate, I believe, to the French writer and philosopher Georges Bataille’s concept (0r more accurately anti-concept) of the informe, loosely translated as formlessness.  Bataille writes:

A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks.  Thus, formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form.  What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.  In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape.  All of philosophy has no other goal:  it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat.  On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.

The informe is an anti-concept, a concept with no edge or circumference and thus, it does not purport nor does it have the ability to explain the world, the universe.  The universe as Bataille states does not take form/shape.  It is “nothing and is only formless…something like a spider or spit.”  The informe represents a horizontalization of categories, hierarchies and definitions and therefore, it is a challenge to the dominant fiction.  Formlessness is the “disintegration of society” that d’Eaubonne calls for as the role of same-sex desire rather than integration.  The informe is a revolution.

And how this is ultimately done I am not sure, but a critical and intelligent consciousness is  a good starting point.  But it does mean that while the goal of the mainstream Gay Rights Movement is assimilation, I as queer, as vext must be conscious of and resist (while still being under its control) the perverse system we are meant to  join.  The original pioneers of Gay Liberation, the drag queens, the trannies, the leathermen are being marginalized within the community at best or at worst they are being told to tone it down, so as not to ruin it for the rest of us.  Such actions are shameful.  What is truly needed is an embracing of the informe, of formlessness, in which categories, definitions and hierarchies of desire are shattered and “squashed…like a spider or an earthworm” so that many subjectivities and many desires can exist and live with peace, love, dignity and respect.


  1. There's an interesting post over here at I Blame the Patriarchy ( which touches on similar themes- consumerism and feminism and the illusion of subversion.

    Those Squeezebox! and Foxy invites brought back a lot of memories. I might find a cache of boys with big dicks if I could ever finish unpacking.

    Great post!

  2. Other thoughts:

    1) 'Assimilation' = Will and Grace. Because if you can make it look like you're laughing with people as well as at them, then apparently it makes the stereotypes okay.

    2) I'm reminded of the Jamaican use of vex(v)/vexed(adj) meaning to anger/to be angry.