A little while ago, Neuroskeptic, one of my favourite bloggers, wrote a typically fascinating and well thought out blog post on the issue of national identity. By way of a gently amusing account of world history over the last 150,000 years, he makes the point that national identity is a fiction. The post focuses in part on the issue of English identity, which is certainly problematic – supposedly ‘indigenous’ English people (as Nick Griffin would inaccurately call them) are the product of successive waves of invasion, displacement and gradual assimilation occurring over millennia, which means that, at a biological level, it’s impossible to identify an essential (i.e. essence of) ‘Englishness’ which is different from, say, an essential ‘Frenchness’.
This is not to say that national identity doesn’t have some real-world effects, a point Neuroskeptic acknowledges in a comment on the post. National identity is, for some people, a powerful driver of behaviour, and it can lead some of them into extraordinary actions, such as a willingness to fight to the death in order to maintain a doubly-abstract concept like national honour. Neuroskeptic argues, if I have understood him correctly, that, for all its real-world effects, this sense of national identity is nothing more than an internal, emotional thing. There is certainly some truth in this, but alongside an emotional sense of national identity there’s also the concept of cultural affiliation, which Neuroskeptic doesn’t directly address in his post.
Culture is, of course, notoriously slippery and hard to pin down. For all that, it’s still possible to speak of national cultures, and to have a sense that one is speaking about something that has an exterior reality, even if it is tricky to define, or to measure objectively. If I was unexpectedly snatched out of my flat by some new-fangled teleportation device and dropped in the middle of Paris, I would very quickly be able to recognise that I was in France, rather than the UK, or Germany, or India, or the USA, or Bolivia, or Botswana, or Australia, or China, or – well, you get the picture. Several factors would enable me to come to that conclusion. In some cases the physical appearance of the majority of the people would be different, but even setting that aside, a whole range of other, cultural factors – the architecture, the clothes, the language, and so on – would enable me to identify where I was.
It isn’t accurate to say that the differences I would be able to identify are only concerned with feelings. Although it’s true to say, working from the inside out, that an English person is someone who feels they are English, it’s also possible for an external observer to say that an English person is someone who speaks, behaves, dresses, etc, in the way that English people tend to. This exterior concept of national identity is, as I say, very hard to pin down and to quantify, not least because it is in a constant state of flux and alters radically over time, but that’s not to say that it has no validity. There may be no standardised scale of Britishness, or Americanness, or Frenchness against which to measure a person, but few of us would have much difficulty in establishing within a few minutes which of these cultures a recently-met stranger came from.
It’s for this reason that I dissent in part from Neuroskeptic’s assertion that he could just as legitimately identify himself as an ancient Athenian, or a Native American, as he could identify himself as an Englishman. While I agree that anyone from anywhere (and any time) can identify with any group of people, and so have an interior sense that they belong to that group, it is highly unlikely that an external observer would reach the same conclusion. No matter how much affinity I might happen to feel for the ancient Athenians, no external observer is going to place me as a member of their culture, because the language I speak, the clothes I wear, and the ways I behave (not to mention the time I live in…) all mark me out as a contemporary Briton.
Of course, national identity remains a very imprecise concept, and something of a fiction. The characteristics we would all readily identify as British are not British in any objective sense, and could just as legitimately belong to any other nationality, or to none. We only regard them as British because they have, pretty much randomly, become part of the national culture to which people from Britain have tended to affiliate themselves. The same cannot be said, however, about the sense of personal identity based on sexual orientation, which, in a comment on his main post, Neuroskeptic identifies as similarly fictional, and similarly having no basis in anything beyond personal feelings. I don’t dispute that emotional factors play a big part in sexual identities (I will come onto this in due course), but I don’t think they are the whole story.
To begin with, I think the analogy between national identity and sexual identity is imprecise, mainly because the two phenomena seem to emerge in a different way. National identity is based on nothing more than cultural affiliation – whatever her country of origin, a child raised from birth by and among Britons will typically grow up to be seen by herself, and by others, as British. Sexual identity, on the other hand, is based partly on cultural factors, but also on the underlying sexual orientation, which is not produced by the same process – a child raised by and among heterosexuals does not necessarily grow up to be heterosexual. In its capacity to emerge and persist irrespective of upbringing, and its resistance to conscious attempts to change it, sexual orientation seems fairly unlike national identity, which means that the identity which is based upon it must also be somewhat different.
Neuroskeptic raises the issue of sexual identity because he wants to talk about a reaction some gay people had to a suggestion that, in the future, people might not think of themselves as gay, or bi, or straight because these categories will have been transcended – the sexual behaviours will persist, but the categories themselves will have evaporated. Reporting the words of a third party, Neuroskeptic tells us that some gay people were appalled at the prospect, because they felt such a future would be one in which ‘they’ did not exist. Neuroskeptic goes on to very gently chastise such people for failing to recognise that their sense of identity as a gay person is all about feelings.
This possible future is one that has been envisaged by some sexual rights activists, most especially those who were associated with the attempt to popularise the use of the word queer in place of other words like gay or bi. This was a specific attempt to invent a category that was as broad as possible – anyone who felt that their sexual identity didn’t fit into an ultra-narrow definition of ‘vanilla’ heterosexuality was encouraged to think of themselves as queer – in order that gay people would no longer be an identifiable minority. This movement was based to a large extent on the fear that people who were attracted to their own sex would always be in a minority, and this would leave them perennially vulnerable to prejudice and oppression. I don’t for one second doubt the honourable intentions of the people behind the campaign, but they have always seemed to me to be more than a little naïve, and I think Neuroskeptic may have fallen into a similar trap.
In reality, as a man who is attracted to other men, I am different to men who are attracted to women, and it’s pointless to pretend otherwise. The difference exists because I am attracted to my own sex, rather than the opposite one. The only way that difference could become invisible to me is if I either stopped being attracted to my own sex, or if same-sex attraction became universal amongst all men, and so it ceased to be something that made me different. While the majority of men are attracted to the opposite sex and I am not, I am always going to be conscious of that difference as a difference. I might use other words to describe the difference – as people necessarily did before the invention of words like homosexual – but the sense of difference itself cannot evaporate unless it ceases to be a difference. A future in which no-one thinks of themselves as gay (or an equivalent term) is a future in which either everyone is gay, or no-one is. Can we honestly imagine a world in which there are some people who are attracted to their own sex, and others who are attracted to the opposite sex, but there is no word or concept to articulate the difference? Think of the confusion and embarrassment there would whenever people tried to set up a date…
It has always seemed to me that the aim of the gay rights movement – and, in fact, civil rights movements in general – should not be to try and pretend that there are no differences between people, but to say that the differences we all know exist are very largely irrelevant. Amongst those who choose to have children, men and women have different biological roles in the reproductive process, and it’s pointless to try and pretend otherwise. But outside the narrow confines of reproduction – in every other context and sphere of life – that difference between women and men is entirely irrelevant. In the same way, the difference(s) between gay/bi and straight are relevant when I’m trying to find a boyfriend, and utterly irrelevant in every other context.
At the present moment, the gay identity is one that some of us who are attracted to our own sex tend to insist on fairly dogmatically, in all sorts of contexts.* Many (though by no means all) gay men choose to identify themselves – and make themselves identifiable to others – in cultural ways that have nothing to do with their sexual orientation. So there are ‘gay’ modes of social behaviour, and ‘gay’ haircuts, and ‘gay’ clothes, and ‘gay’ music, and ‘gay’ drinks, and so on. Men who conform to all of these are unusual, but it’s an equally unusual gay man who never subscribes to any of them. I think this is because the present cultural gay identity is one that’s been formed out of oppression. Most of us in the UK will go through life without encountering any official oppression or physical violence, but being gay is still routinely depreciated and belittled, and that sense of being partially excluded by others fosters a powerful desire to create an alternative sense of belonging, to create a cultural identity from which we cannot be excluded because it is our own identity.**
Unlike national identities, the gay identity is not wholly based on a process of cultural affiliation, but also at a level that exists beyond that. A future in which no-one ever thinks of themselves as gay is not impossible, but it would be a future in which same-sex desires have either evaporated altogether, or have become universal. While there is such a thing as same-sex desire, and while it is not shared by everyone, some aspects of the gay identity (and the straight identity, and the bi identity) will persist. The cultural aspects of the identity – the hairstyles, and the clothes, and the music, and so on – may well disappear, but when someone with same-sex desires is thinking about falling in love or having sex they won’t be able to avoid thinking to themselves something along the lines of ‘I am gay’, or ‘I am bi’. The simple knowledge that something like 94% of the people they meet and might be attracted to don’t share those desires cannot help but force them into that recognition.
* – Some straight people insist on their identity just as dogmatically – think of all those people who worry if they’re ‘acting gay’. (They can’t all be secretly gay, surely?)
** – There’s certainly an irony to the fact that a lot of the depreciation and belittlement relates to the cultural identity – ‘that’s so gay’ – rather than the sexual behaviour itself, but I would agree with those who argue that the cultural identity is only singled out for criticism because it is associated with same-sex desire. Appearing to be gay can only be seen as a bad thing if actually being gay is seen as a bad thing.