are the slimy in-between places where earth and water meet and mix.
They are edges, ecotones, places of vast diversity. They stink with
the sharp, sulphurous smell of life’s beginning. Light transforms
into life. Every tablespoon of water contains millions of organisms:
phytoplankton, zooplankton, bacteria. Wetlands stabilize soil and
clean water. They are vital habitat. The history of European
settlement in North America is a history of the devastation and
elimination of wetlands. Estuaries were buried, and dredged to create
harbours. Bogs were drained, marshes were filled, and swamps were
turned into farms and suburbs. The fur trade eliminated millions of
acres of beaver-built wetlands. Water was diverted, dammed, ditched,
and captured for irrigation, sanitation and electric power.
The European adventurers hated slime. Jean-Paul Sartre
describes it thus: “Slime is the agony of water. It presents itself
as a phenomenon in the process of becoming; it does not have the
permanence within change that water has. . . .
Nothing testifies more clearly to its ambiguous character as a
‘substance between two states’ than the slowness with which the
slimy melts into itself.”
White, Western man wants clear edges and sharp delineations between land
and water, differences as obvious as those between Christian and
Savage, man and nature. Where native North American cultures hone
capacities for kinship and transformation, European psychic and social
organization relies on the difference and distance between self and
other, male and female, human and animal, us and them. When one state
melts into another, what might not be destabilized by the stink and
slime of intense diversity?
The repression of diversity is the hallmark of western culture.
And yet the West, with its characteristic racism, sexism, imperialism
and exploitation of nature, is the birthplace of homosexuality.
Inasmuch as homosexuality is a constellation of meanings with an
historically-specific resonance, the genesis of its social
construction is embedded in Western culture and Judeo-Christian
tradition. While same-sex sexuality exists everywhere, throughout
nature and around the world, the possibility of being queer –
of having a soul and a life shaped by homosexuality –
began in Europe and bloomed in America. The concept of homosexuality
is still irrelevant in a few far corners of the world, where family
life is compulsory. In countries and cultures where men and women meet
to enjoy the delights of same-sex sexuality, and then must return to
the responsibilities of marriage and family life, homosexuality does
not assume the fabulous meanings it has in Western culture. In
countries and cultures where same-sex sexuality is an aspect of the
shaman’s identity, or is a universally-practiced initiatory rite,
there are other constellations of meanings than when same-sex sexual
relationships are named and stigmatized as homosexual.
Looking at the historical development of homosexual identity in
Europe from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, Rudi Bleys
charts the shift from describing a “ubiquitous, ever-luring
sodomitical sin” to an effeminate and sexually passive minority. By
the mid-18th century sodomy “was increasingly perceived as a
characteristic of someone else, as something alien to oneself, in sum,
as a sign of difference within the boundaries of Europe.”
The homosexual takes shape from this sodomite, as the despised other inside
the dream of white western man.
Historically, the construction of homosexuality intersected
with the construction of racialized others. European adventurers
refused conversation with non-western lifeways, economies, sex-gender
systems and forms of government. Instead, the ‘savage’ was
conjured. The same pattern of repudiation and differentiation that
created homosexuality served to create race and whiteness. Even the
same metaphors were used. Savages were naked and brutish.
Characterized as effeminate or hyper-masculine, savages had a
propensity for same-sex passions. The death of millions of Native
Americans from diseases brought –
at times deliberately – by Europeans was attributed to divine retribution for the sin of
Two Lovers, miniature
painting, Persia 1630
Stuart Hall writes, “Racism, of course, operates by
constructing impassable symbolic boundaries between racially
constituted categories, and its typically binary system of
representation constantly marks and attempts to fix and naturalize the
difference between belongingness and otherness.”[v]
The racialized other is marked and fixed over there, in the Third
World, or the ghetto, at the margin. Yet homosexuality exists –
not only as an aspect of the savage’s pathologized sexuality, but
inside the boundaries of whiteness. Homosexuality is the slime inside
white racial identity – an undifferentiated element with an ambiguous character that slides
between states, “a phenomena in the process of becoming” (Sartre).
The white body is a body of knowledge –
history, memory and discursive practices that claim entitlement
through the differentiation of self from other, subject from object,
insider from outsider. Ruth Frankenberg observes that the white self
does not pre-exist the production of others. It is constituted in the
process of constructing a range of bounded others, relegated to
service, ghettos, reservations and distant corners of the world.
Homosexuality interrupts and destabilizes whiteness. Like the slime
and stink of a marshy wetland underlying a coastal city, the despised
other flows just beneath the surface of a badly-constituted self.
The psychological and social processes of domination, disavowal
and wounding create the self-other binary that white western man lives
inside of. Moving to control and objectify every living thing, he
achieves a false differentiation that sees only polarity and
opposition where there is mutuality and interdependence. He aspires to
achieve his fictive identity by denying, betraying and inflicting
violence on every part of self and world that cannot be called both
masculine and white. Homosexuality undermines him. Lewis Gordon
explores the metaphors. “Consider a white man. Being pure Presence,
he is equated with manliness in toto. The manly, or masculine,
is in fact a figure of denial, a being who attempts to close all its
holes and become pure, sealed flesh in search of holes. From the
perspective of such a being, all holes are elsewhere; he doesn’t
even have an anus. . . .”[vi]
Yet there are homosexual men, beside or inside him, who open to the
pleasures of penetration. There are homosexual women who won’t play
the hole to his phallus. Homosexuality forms an integral –
and yet always denied –
part of white Western history and consciousness, in a world that is
dominated by its power and violence.
Homosexuality persists in the space
between self and other, inside the tension, out along the
distances. Lesbian and gay people occupy this slimy place of change
and becoming. We may find here an opportunity to destabilize race and
gender systems. But the capacity of homosexuality to change and
challenge the self-other binary is constrained by the image of
homosexuals as a biologically-constituted minority.
Minority status absolves the majority of the capacity for
homosexuality. It contains the contagion, obviates the lure, and
obscures the content of gay identity. Rudi Bleys notes that 19th
century discourse applies the minority model only to depictions of
white western homosexuality. When describing other cultures, same-sex
sexuality is considered a “characterizing trait” and an obvious
sign of a people’s lower status on the evolutionary scale.
“Presenting indigenous homosexuality as a ‘minority trait’ . . .
would acquit a majority, which went against the imperatives of
Minority status allows white gays and lesbians to be abject others
only with regard to their sexual orientation, while they assume the
privileges and perils of whiteness in other aspects of their lives.
19th C “anthropological” photo of two Taureq
women. (This photo inspired Matisse’s sculpture, Two
Negresses (1908). Matisse created this sculpture and many other
lesbian images during a period in which Gertrude Stein became his
friend and patron.)
contemporary gay civil rights movement claims that homosexuality is a
natural deviation from normal life –
no more threatening to the general culture than cheese. Lesbian and
gay people can abjure the power of their difference, and make a claim
to legitimacy –
based on the certain fact that same-sex sexuality is the natural
preference of a biologically-constituted minority. They thereby ensure
that, as a minority, they always only stay marginal to the majority
sexuality and its culture. Queer activists and scholars show that gay
is not, or at least not only, a fixed minority identity that we either
are or are not. Being queer means using the transgressive capacities
of homosexuality to query the cultural, economic and social processes
by which any minority is constituted.
Jamake Highwater condemns the “self-defeating process of
that turns homosexuals into people “who cannot transgress, but must
await permission to step over the line.” He writes, “It is this
normalization of homosexuality that turns outcasts into clones of
those who made them outcasts in the first place.”[ix]
He urges us to use the power of our difference. Alienation and marginalization
are not just difficulties to overcome. They are great adventures. They
are instruments of analysis. We learn to scrutinize and contest
boundaries, to mine them for pleasures and open them to possibilities.
Homosexuality opens up the space
between self and other, male and female, us and them. Queer
leads to deep resources and dangerous meanings.
Homosexuality may be the one good thing Western history and
culture has proposed. It calls us to write a new history and make a
new culture that includes the many
variegated histories of same-sex passions. In every corner of the
world, people are responding to the lure and taking up the promise of
International Gay and Lesbian Association has 350 member groups on all
five continents. South
Africa and Ecuador are the first –
and only –
countries to offer constitutional protection to gays and lesbians.[x]
Queer is a way of
being so flexible and fluid, it gathers indigenous homosexualities
into an international movement.
Being queer can function as a radical critique of colonial
morals. Homosexuality constitutes a transgression of sex roles and
family expectations. It is a joyful form of resistance to tyranny. We
are called in a multitude of ways to love and to life that will
destabilize the regime of power and difference, the disavowal and
wounding, that white racial supremacy has naturalized. ▼
Sartre, 1969, ( 607). This passage was first brought to my
attention by Lewis Gordon, 1995, (126). My thinking here owes much
to Gordon and his use of Sartre.
Stuart Hall, 1989, (445).
Lewis Gordon, 1995 (127).
Rudi Bleys, 1993, (192).
Jamake Highwater, 1997, (216).
See Baird and Rahim, 2000.