France, c. 1920, photographer unidentified.
“Fags Doom Nations,” the Westboro Baptist Church proclaims in its picketing ministry. Sure enough, “We are Everywhere,” loving across borders and passionately claiming community with multicultural expressions of same-sex love. Just as the world economy gathers all into its grip, more and more people make homosexuality a public choice and guiding aspect of their lives. While free trade agreements and information oligarchies render nations obsolete, the international queer community develops an infrastructure that is strong and visible.
Same-sex passion has always existed, throughout history and throughout nature. Being homosexual is different from this. The public voices and private lives of contemporary queers have no exact historical precedent. We have made homosexual desire into a personal identity and a global community. Queer shapes our lives and our souls.
In the 6th Century B.C. Sappho wrote beautiful and frankly sexual poems addressed to girls and women. But the lovers of this most famous Lesbian were not “lesbians” themselves. Sappho is thought to have run a school where girls were educated before they married. Their lives as wives may have included interludes of same-sex passion. Greek men of the period were expected to pursue sexual attachments to young men. But this “homosexuality” did not typically interfere with gender systems or matrimony. Even an acknowledged predisposition to same-sex attachments did not become an identity or pose an alternative way of life.
Among the Sambian people of New Guinea, boys become men by years of ingesting the semen of older boys and men. At about eight years old, a male child is separated from his mother and the world of women, and his initiation into the fellowship of men begins. Every day until puberty he sucks the cocks of older boys and men. After puberty his cock is sucked by a new group of younger boys. Finally, he becomes manly enough to marry. For awhile he continues to have sex with both his wife and with boys, but once he becomes a father, he is expected to have sex only with his wife.[i]
Sambian homosexuality is a constitutive element in a two-gender system. Because all men enjoy same-sex sexuality, no man can be homosexual. Same-sex passions are confined to predictable parameters – enjoyable, but unremarkable. Only in contemporary capitalist cultures does homosexuality represent as an alternative way of being.
Looking at the various manifestations of same-sex love in other times and places can give colour and texture to contemporary queer identities. But the possibility and promise of homosexuality has never been so thrilling as it is today. Queer passions do not fit into the interstices of the patriarchal family, the two-gender system, and the endless repetition of hereditary privilege. Homosexuality creates an antonym to expected lifeways and historic forms of social organization.
For the possibility of queer identity to flourish, we need something like the material conditions that capitalism provides – wage labour unattached to family and fealty. John D’Emilio argues that there are and will be more and more lesbian and gay people, as capitalism creates a material basis for personal autonomy. He writes, “Only when individuals began to make their living through wage labour [in the second half of the 19th century], instead of as parts of an interdependent family unit, was it possible for homosexual desire to coalesce into a personal identity – an identity based on the ability to remain outside the heterosexual family and to construct a personal life based on attraction to one’s own sex.”[ii]
Capitalism is scary. It rips people from their roots, alienates them from their work, dissolves languages and cultures in a tendency to globalization. It promotes individualism and individuality, as it brings workers into competition with each other. It is always seeking the lowest wage and the highest profit. Capitalism excises the heart and soul of work, family and community. As a system it is devoid of morality and unimpressed with social values. Money is the motive force. These are historic facts. Denunciation is as pointless as celebration. We live inside the capitalist system and cannot escape its consequences.
While acknowledging the pain and destruction caused by the operations of capitalist economy, we can also embrace the possibilities it allows. When an economy operates without particular reference to family, faith, gender and location, it admits the dream of freedom. When traditional lifeways are destroyed, there is a gap where gender fluidity and chosen family become imaginable. The possibilities we develop in queer lives and identities point to these nascent tendencies inside the capitalist system – tendencies that can never be realized without radical social change. Like capital, the queer nation is multicultural and multinational. We hold the whole world in our minds and hearts, even as we suffer the material consequences of globalization and fight against the global hegemony of industrial society. Individual autonomy, chosen family, gender parity and global equality are always-broken promises inside the capitalist system. And right at the heart of contemporary economic practices, homosexuality unfolds as a space in which these promises are pledged.
Others refuse the broken promises inside the capitalist system by embracing beliefs antagonistic to its tendencies – ethnic nationalism, religious fundamentalism, violent homophobia. Such beliefs are nonsensical. They have no material basis. They cannot be challenged or modified by experience. But obvious inauthenticity does not weaken these modes of “thought.” On the contrary, it is an essential part of the charm. Ethnic nationalists, religious fundamentalists and violent homophobes can transcend history and analysis with passion and certainty. They can make a community with a strong sense of belonging simply by hating what they are not. Our murder is at the heart of their identity with one another.[iii]
Queer people are called to an opposite form of community. Instead of a sense of belonging that begins in hatred, ours begins in love. Our community is open instead of closed, healing instead of murderous, freely chosen instead of compulsory, broad and free-wheeling instead of narrow and restricted. Community nurtures us as we build it.
This precious community is just what the democrats would refuse us. Democrats claim to accept the material conditions and social tendencies of capitalism. Yet they deny the great collective forms of being that bring hope to history and give shape to all our lives. They imagine a social body composed of free individuals. Queer people become, in this view, no more than individuals who engage in a variety of queer behaviors, and who otherwise are the same as everyone else. Our private life doesn’t matter, the democrats say. Whether we are gay or not is of no importance to them. They don’t need to hear about it or see it celebrated in the streets.
In certain unattainable conditions, like the absence of homophobia, it may be possible to see ourselves as individuals who are – almost – no different. It is a way to deny our power and erase our threat. Our collective identity as queer people is what lets us witness and practice the possible future inside the present tense. Individual freedom, global consciousness, gender fluidity and chosen family do not exist and cannot come into being without us. Queer community is shaped by history and the economic conditions of contemporary industrial society, yet we are prescient and opposite. Without our cultural identity and sense of belonging, our difference is annihilated. We become what the democrats would have us be – serial individuals, producers, consumers – content to run the machines and eat the unripe fruits of free wage labour. If queer is not the crux of who we are, then we pose no alternative, assert no ideal, and imagine no different world than this.
Democrats want to imagine community as an aggregate of free individuals, as if the inequality and violence of capitalism could be magically transcended. This community will always stay abstract and unattainable – a community that cannot write the songs or empty the bedpans. Our collective identity as queer people is a dynamic alternative. We can accept both singularity and plurality as historically constituted facts. We know our solitude and uniqueness as both a “well of loneliness” and a precious gift. We suffer our collective identity, and it gives us wings.
We cannot step outside the pain of the present into a utopian space where the dream of individual freedom and nourishing community comes true. But we can grasp and craft the possible future that stands opposite inside the present. Being queer, we choose and practice the modes of thought and ways of life that are at once enabled and suppressed by the capitalist system. We are the future that always emerges, only to be distorted and pushed back, by contemporary industrial society. On the way to this possible future, homosexuality is both pathway and vision. Collectively and individually we create a radical new meaning for the world.
[i] Description based on the research of Gilbert H. Herdt in Papua, New Guinea in the 1970’s. Reported in Francis Mondimore, 1996, (16 ff.), and Henning Bech, 1997, (12).
[ii]John D’Emilio, “Capitalism and Gay Identity,” Abelove et.al. (470).
[iii] I am deeply indebted here and elsewhere in the chapters “Dirt,” “Money” and “Family” to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew.