Monday, November 08, 2004

Cleaning out my closet

Well, I said I'd been working on it for days, and I wasn't kidding. It's long, it's TMI, and it doesn't make much sense, but I needed to put it somewhere other than my head. So here goes...

I think I may have run into my first huge crisis in reflexivity. For those of you who do not regularly sit through my rambling diatribes on qualitative research methodologies, the reflexive turn in social research developed in reaction to "objective" social science. It called into question this objectivity, and suggested that for a truly accurate picture of social life to be painted, the researcher must reflect on her place in that life.

For class yesterday we read Joshua Gamson's Freaks Talk Back. It's a really fabulous book that looks at how sexual non-conformity is mediated through TV talk shows. The results are complex, which is one of the reason's I really enjoyed it. There's no single overwhelming answer: talk shows are not a universal scourge, nor do they create an urge toward diversity and tolerance in all who watch them. Needless to say, I had a whole lot to talk about when I got to class.

Except I froze.

See, I've gotten used to thinking reflexively in terms of gender when I "do" sociology. This is good, I suppose, as gender is one of the areas in which I (hope to) work. Sexuality presents a a concurrent area of interest, and the one in which my current struggles lie. Over the past ten years, however, my approach to thinking about my own sexual identity, both personally and professionally, has largely been to attempt NOT to think about it.

(A short aside: if you remember, I once spoke vaguely about this in a completely asinine post driven largely by desperate humiliation. Badly. With much purple prose and false hope. Yeah, don't bother clicking that link. It will only make you wince. But at any rate, hopefully this post doesn't really surprise anyone.)

Back briefly to Gamson's book. One of his findings is that acceptance for lesbians and gay men on talk shows often comes at the expense of the "BT." Within the world of the shows, bisexuality is synonymous with promiscuity; transgendered people are lying to those who love them about their "true" (biological) gender. Gay AND straight guests (and hell, Oprah) tell bisexuals they "have to choose." This both binds sexual identity to sexual practice and dictates a particular normative practice, namely the development of a long term, possibly permanent, monogamous romantic relationship.

Now back to class. There were several places in which we discussed GLBT movements where I would have liked to complicate discussion by addressing the implications of these findings. I was stopped, however, by the very thing that made the piece so resonant for me.

When I was sixteen I came out as bisexual. It was hardly a big deal, as most of my friends were tolerant, if not G, L, B, or T themselves. I started going to a GLBT support group and became active in my school's community. I was vocal and brash (yeah, I know, hard to believe), and most importantly, I wasn't dating anyone.

About six months later, I started dating a guy (well, there was a bit more drama involved, but I'm really not going to embarrass myself THAT badly). We dated for a month, then broke up. This gave me massive street cred with my Group, as I immediately started meeting women (and subsequently crashing and burning with women; seriously, the extent to which I have no social skills cannot be overestimated). Eventually, though, we got back together (about two months later, as is The Way of High School), and my welcome within the GLBT community at my school was worn thin, as was his (he identified as bi; they reassigned him "straight but bendable"). There was a pretty clear message sent: you're welcome to experience heterosexual attraction, but you ought not act on it. Bi is fine, so long as its manifestation in action is homosexual. Anything else is just "passing."

So, I never bothered coming out to my father (mom, yes, but that was just an annoyance, never a fearful ordeal). I stopped using the word bisexual, for several reasons: first, the only "authorities" I knew on the subject had deemed me unworthy. Second, once that became so much nonsense to me, the term seemed to come with connotations that didn't fit: I didn't want to date girls and boys at the same time, I didn't want to "choose a side" based on something arbitrary like gender (if you really want to know, I am eye-crinkle-smile-sexual: people who's eyes crinkle and sparkle when they smile totally gut me... if you want to put an arbitrary, impersonal characteristic to my sense of attraction, that works far better than gender). Third, it seemed politically worthless. If I was going to have little or no credibly within GLBT organizations, be generally reviled as a fickle slut in straight society, and still have the social skills of a large boulder, I wasn't going to bother.

Then there was Manhattan, and drama school, and The Bastard. And then there was Duluth, and much culture shock. And I resided in my closet through most of it, especially Duluth. And then I came here, to the U.

My department is not friendly to us fence-sitters, those of us who won't "choose." One of the first and most oft-repeated stories I have heard is that of the woman who married a woman after being engaged to a man. This is described in scandalous tones, with implications of deception, as if she HAD to have been leading him on. It is usually associated with the teller's other, more general negative evaluations of her character, as if it is proof that she can't be trusted. For all we talk about liberal inclusiveness, we do no practice it very well. It certainly brought several "what-ifs" to mind. If I were to start dating a woman, would it be said that I was "driven" to it by a famously unrequited male romantic interest? Would he be thought "lucky" to have "dodged a bullet" when he said no? Or what if they knew that the person I had been thisclose to having something with prior to that was a woman? Would I be seen as trying to "pass" by dating a man? None of these seem unreasonable to expect, given what I've heard.

So here I was, sitting in this class, frozen, thinking, if I try to discuss this part of the book everyone's going to know, the gay people are going to think I'm a poseur, the straight people are going to be disgusted, and my personal life is going to once again be open for speculation throughout the department. Sure, maybe it's my own paranoid prejudice at this point, but it's not without precedent. But this is kind of the sort of work I want to do, and these are the kinds of things I want to discuss, and so it behooves me to get the fuck over it.

And so I come here and rant to you people like a narcissistic freak. Or, as Jon says, to brain dump.


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