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Born This Way? The Social Construction of Gayness

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You’ve misunderstood, Lady Gaga. One is not born gay, one is made that way.

Gayness seems to be everywhere. The ubiquity of gay lingo, the rise of several representations in popular media, the proliferation of digital spaces catering to gay men desiring interaction with the same, are but a few of the manifestations that gayness exists beyond the supposedly secretive veils of silence. People actually talk about it. Such discussions, however, revolve around common sense with each claim founded on several assumptions, biases, and contexts. Several viewpoints also coalesce gayness into an innate identity – that gayness is natural as if one is born with it. The issue on gayness is not a mere liberation from the regulation of societal institutions, where there is the desired freedom to articulate one’s effeminacy or declare publicly one’s love for the same man– admittedly though, these practices of assertion are but tactics that prove basic in championing change.

One must invigorate the sociological imagination –rooted in the everyday and reaches up to the skies of knowledge – in order to encounter a much deeper understanding. While majority of the Western LGBT movement vocalizes their sentiment of hope that “It Gets Better,” one must understand how it got worse to begin with. Such a sojourn shows that gayness is socially constructed.

Before anything else, a caveat: apologies to the other identities in the wider range of non-conforming genders and sexualities. One ought to explore the vast and comprehensive literature on them. This article only discusses gayness in the context of males, as is the focus of the author’s area of study.

What is gayness?

An understanding of gayness first necessitates a discussion on the nuances of sex, sexual orientation, and gender. Often people have misconceptions on gayness using these three concepts.

Sex refers to the biological component of the individual. Those with penises are identified as males while those with vaginas are females. There are other sexes that exist in between the two, such as the case of the intersex where qualities of both biological constitutions are present in the individual. Sexual orientation refers to the attraction of the individual, which can range from heterosexuality or homosexuality – the former pointing to attraction to the opposite sex, while the letter to the same sex. Gender, meanwhile, refers to the over-all expression of identity that falls between masculinity and femininity; that is, being men or women.

Much of the biases in society towards gays come from an upholding of a certain correspondence between sex, sexual orientation, and gender. A male must be a man and must be heterosexual, while a female must be a woman and must be heterosexual. Any aberrance in the connections is sanctioned through societal mechanisms, whether be it in formal or informal apparatuses. For example: an intersex is a cause celebre in medical circles; a transgendered individual is denied recognition in official government documents; a homosexual often carries the brunt of bullying – and so on and forth for the plethora of non-conforming identities.

The case for gayness presents itself as a similar problem. While the label ‘gay’ does not apply to sex, it originally functioned as a slang that pertains to homosexual sexual orientation – or anything ambiguous that lies outside the domains of heterosexuality. Eventually, the term becomes more specific: it involves a male with an attraction to the same sex.

This homosexual desire, however, finds expression in the gender of a person. While gender refers to the relations between men and women, often too that gayness is perceived as a gender. The masculine attributes that constitute a man vanish, now replaced by the ‘gay’ attributes typically characterized by effeminacy and flamboyant interests – now the individual may be male but is gay. This is often the basis of the ‘gaydar’ – an individual’s intuitive feeling if one is gay or not, as he/she detects a semblance of softness or potential flamboyancy in a given person. This is also why statements of “Masyadong bakla ka” emerge from men as means of policing their selves to act in a more masculine way, lest be suspected of being gay. Other analyses even extend the idea of gayness in being a gender. For example, J. Neil Garcia (1996) argues that the bakla figure in the Philippines pertains to gender inversion – a man trapped in a woman’s body – and therefore the “bakla is not homosexual.” The bakla often loosely translated as gay is an identity separate from what gayness purports.

Hence, gayness as a term is malleable, referring to multiple meanings with its continuing evolution. This is therefore an indication of the constant re-appropriation of labels to emerging realities – indeed a process in social construction.

The social construction of gayness

How exactly is gayness socially constructed, if it is not a biological, metaphysical, or essential identity? Perhaps one can gleam at how discourse effectuates the existence of gayness.

Discourse not only involves the language spoken, of how one talks about an object one refers to. It also pertains to the knowledge towering over the common consciousness of the society and how specific forms are constantly perpetuated. Individuals not only engage in discourses; so do institutions and the greater society.

Any knowledge produced is always linked to power relations, that which pave way for the positive production of identities. For Foucault (1978) whose trademark method is that of genealogy, the onset of modernity has with it a heightened demand for administering the growing populations. This led birth to bio politics that involve the control of bodies in society in order to achieve an efficient governmentality to sustain the burgeoning economy. One of its major strategies involves what Foucault terms as the deployments of sexuality of which include the psychiatrization of same sex behavior. The sodomite individual has been studied, with all the aspects of sex, gender, and sexual orientation conflated in an individual. For what has been a set of discrete acts now all exist in an individual as one that exists as an abnormality—indeed the idea of a homosexual is now born, existing in consciousness. Even the term homosexual just emerged from the language of psychiatry in the late 19th century. The project of the creation of the homosexual figure is part and parcel of the need to privilege the figure of the heterosexual couple not only for moral reasons but to promote the reproduction of society because its individual units root itself in the domestic institution.

Such truth games of discursive production that Foucault (1984) refers to are the focus of the later volumes of The History of Sexuality. For example, the Greeks interpret sexuality not in a scientific manner but through a process of art that involves calculation of pleasures. Case in point: pederasty, the process of older men having sexual relations with younger men, is a common practice to develop the virility of the former and as an initiation for the latter. Indeed sexuality is a behavior for them and not a fixed identity. These individuals are not homosexuals just because same sex behavior is present – in the way we interpret them – nor are they bisexuals just because Greek men also have relationships with other women. Homosexuality – or gayness in common parlance – does not exist then because it is only after modernity that it has been spoken of.

While homosexuality is a product of discourses during the emergence of modern society, so is sex discursively produced. Butler (1993) discusses the role of language in shaping identities. That there is the language from the biological and medical field to label the sex of the person upon seeing the genitalia point to the categorization or classification that is at work in society. Such is not a neutral endeavor; often, the sex determines the gender of the person such that all bodies with penises must be men and that all bodies with vaginas must be women. The discourse of sex then has with it the ways in which that individual ought to live the life. It materializes too in the color assigned to the baby – blue for the boy and pink for the girl. How these children are brought up is determined by the utterance of the doctor, “It’s a girl!”

To demonstrate the workings of discourse on sex further, one ought to understand that a doctor could possibly say, “The baby’s a lesbian!” and the baby grows up with what society means by being a lesbian. One could argue that lesbianism is not a matter of biological sex and is inconsequential in birth giving – which is precisely the point of discourse shaping identities. That there needs from biology or the medical field the taxonomy of individual sexes – and only this – involves the production of identities from the viewpoint of such a knowledge system. Language is not a mere regurgitation of facts, but it actively shapes out its subject based on how it understands what it reads. Hence, on the aspect of sex, the social construction begins its work through the power of the biological discourse levied on the individual.

Because sex is always gender, one ought to understand that gender is also socially constructed. Butler’s theory of gender performativity explains how gender is not an essential interiority of a person – that is, it is not natural but is also created by society. Gender is always performed according to Butler – from the stylizations of the self, the general demeanor, the specific behaviors, gender is indeed always an outcome of a perpetual doing. The constitution of being a man or a woman then does not spring from a pre-given entity, but is only pieced up together in hindsight so much that gender is an effect more than a cause. The crucial point, however, lies in that the individual is stripped of any agency. While the individual is the one acting out the gender, what he/she must act out is determined by the norms in society, as determined by the discourses surrounding gender. It is in this light that society names the gendered subject by enabling the individual with what he/she must act out. Any act of deviance from the norms merits disciplining whether through formal or informal processes – such as in the case of gayness where men that demonstrate femininity are sanctioned through bullying or are socialized to be more masculine to fulfill the said ideal.

Hence, discourses, whether through Foucault’s techniques of sexuality or through Butler’s analysis of sex and gender, construct the identity of gayness. To understand the dynamic of discourse in shaping identities, I shall use a parallel example of a phenomenon whose historical emergence happened just recently: the jejemon.

A jejemon is referred to as a person that does not have any educated sensibilities characterized by a demeanor shown in the streets and an interest in tacky wear. No one is born a jejemon, but jejemon exists because it is a disposition that one acquires in society. While it is true that one is socialized to be a jejemon depending on one’s context – typical of a lower class – the idea of a jejemon in itself is discursively produced, by those that do not share the characteristics of jejemons. The production of the jejemon is in itself telling. The iteration of the label for these individuals started with jologs which emerged from the fan club of mass media icon, Jolina Magdangal. Then, by the late 2009, the etymology evolved into the joining together of jeje and mon.Jeje” is or how these individuals craft “hehe” that denotes laughter in digital exchanges. “Mon” refers to monster as rooted in the popular television program, Pokemon. Jejemons then are individuals who exhibit such deplorable characteristics to a certain group of people – deplorable indeed that they seem monster-like. It is also worth noting that the syntax in texting of using a variation of large and small letters were first used by upwardly mobile individuals in the early 2000s when SMS first became readily available. This manner of texting only became deplorable to them when such language was appropriated by the lower class when their purchasing power increased to afford digital communication. Hence, the production of identities through language.

Just like in sex, gender, and sexuality, these individuals are classified based on their actions where a discrete set of behaviors lock them to a certain identity. The positive production of identities then ensues because it is already talked about as such.

Regulations on sexuality also happen because of heteronormativity– a system that privileges sex-conforming and heterosexual genders. It is enshrined in formal structures in society such as the institution of marriage, the gender-specific educational practices, among many others. Regulation also exists in informal structures such as banters when straight men tease each other for being too effeminate, or even bullying on gays for, say, their allegedly annoying voices, among many others.

However, ever since the emergence of a vanguard, mainstream LGBT movement and the subsequent globalization of ideas on the acceptance of gayness, there seems to be a transformation of heteronormativity to homonormativity. Here, certain groups of individuals who identify as gays articulate a normative way of living – effectively enshrining such ideals to the point of excluding other alternative ways of life. There is the hegemonic group of White gays – males, men, and homosexual – that espouse a certain lifestyle that masks it as ideal. For example, the idea that gay men must have flamboyant interests in the arts and a refined taste in fashion attest to the discourse that gay men must be like that. Other claims that indicate how “one is bi now, but gay later” is also an indication of homonormativity that inside every gay man is a loud drag queen. There also exist discreet and closeted gay guys who disdain people who have come out of the closet and are open about their sexuality – such oppressive disposition indeed prizes the enshrinement of man as gender but becomes lax when it comes to homosexual orientation. Such discourses on what a gay man should be are therefore founded on ideas that seek to assert it as better than the others, effectively belittling and marginalizing those that fall beyond that scope.

If discourses shape identities, then how should one act now?

While discourse shapes identities with their corresponding regulations, it is not the same, too, as choosing an identity however one wishes it. Identities are very much situated. One cannot pick a sex, a gender, or a sexual orientation at each spur of the moment, as if these are clothes or objects one can buy at a shopping mall. Other factors also influence identities, such as class, nation, race, among many others. While one is foreclosed by such limitations, identities are also fluid – not because one can change identities at one’s whim, but because identities are not universal. Instead, there are pluralities of identities because of the particularities that depend on the circumstances of the context.

Luis David (1999) writes, “it is not the same thing as ‘letting the differences be’” where instead there must be “a vision of the human world that tolerates ambiguity, accepts divergence and proceeds by way of disjunction must also take an interest in the enhancement and amplification of some of that dissonance through forms of human subjectivity.” In asserting one’s difference, one must also be careful that this valorization not limited to merely identifying with a label in the ever-growing acronym of the LGBTQIP.. and so on and forth. An obsession with labels only permits a deadening and stagnant scenario of practicing identities where there are still inequalities and exclusions happening because one fails to look at why such marginalization happen to begin with. One cannot just fault these to mere ignorance or bigotry – these happen because of particular reasons. The fetish for labels is tantamount, too, to committing an omission of possible modes of resistances because one does not look at the dynamic of identities. Rather, one must look at the forces that pave way for the privileging of a few identities and the exclusion of many others. Only then can there be a nuanced path to genuine change.

As for gayness: one is not born that way. Society gives birth to it.

—–

References:

Butler, J. (1993). Critically Queer. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies , 1, 17-32.

David, L. (1999). The Politics of the Personal in Michel Foucault. Critical Essays on Michel Foucault. (Karlis Racevskis, Ed.) New York: G. K. Hall & Co.

Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault, M. (1984). The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: The Use of Pleasure. (R. Hurley, Trans.) New York: Vintage Books.

Garcia, J. N. (1996). Philippine Gay Culture: The Last Thirty Years: From Binabae to Bakla, Silahis to MSM. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.

 

 

 

 

 

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