Making Gay Meanings
In “Making Gay Meanings,” Sedgwick begins by discussing an issue perceived by the author as largely dismissed or unseen in American culture, that of how minority status provides convenient political and social identity. She makes the case that, ironically, assimilation seems to have occurred most easily as those minorities involved have been all the more defined as different. This is a movement or cultural process Sedgwick dates to the African American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and she goes on to note how the same, separatist foundation has served other minority cause since. She asserts that this infusion of separate identities into the mainstream society is what enables the modern, and self-aggrandizing, self-perception of the nation as “diversified” and “multicultural” (Sedgwick 184). She then goes on to observe that this same separatist thinking, based on the ontological aspects of minorities, is seized upon today; those who act out of repressive motives, for example, identify themselves as Christians, and the implication is that the assumed minority status gives weight to their right to speak out. The point Sedgwick makes in this introduction is that important political and social currents are ignored in this process. Returning to the black Civil Rights movement, the author makes this point by noting how, as that movement evolved, it reflected and incorporated a variety of other cultural, social, and political movements, including the anti-war, the drug culture, and the student uprising elements. In short, Sedgwick begins here by noting how the construct of identity has consistently been an obfuscation in understanding the nature of minority movements, if it has been, and remains, a highly convenient one.
The author then relates gay issues to this more universal ideology or treatment, by way of contrast. More exactly, “gay identity” as such is the focus here, and Sedgwick approaches the subject by noting its history in Western culture. Noting that the birth of the modern homosexual identity is typically traced to Foucault’s isolating of it as arising in the 1870s, Sedgwick then discloses her main point: namely, that the establishing of a nominal minority identity to gay men and women in no way accommodates the vast variety of perceptions attached to sexuality itself, as well as to the equally large number of ways in which sexuality is manifested. In the author’s view, modern culture simultaneously insists on identifying gay men and women as “really gay” while it also explores, and admits to, heterosexual identity as being influenced by same-sex desires. As Sedgwick phrases it, sexual desire alone is a powerful and unpredictable element in identity; consequently, modern thinking that persists in placing minority parameters around gay men and women as such are inherently contradictory: “There is now a widespread, yet deeply incoherent Western consensus shared by both antihomophobic and homophobic common sense” (185). It is this dichotomy of perception that Sedgwick’s article addresses.
Upon acknowledging that viewpoints regarding other minorities are likely similarly misaligned, the author then delineates the many factors going to the dichotomy mentioned in regard to gay men and women. Lengthy and comprehensive lists are offered which document both the factors regarding individual concerns in sexuality and those going to societal and cultural perceptions, reactions, and consequences. What sexuality translates to the individual, as Sedgwick notes, relies on the incalculable range of meaning each individual attaches to it: “Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little” (186). This meaning, moreover, goes to virtually every component within the individual’s life, affecting and influencing them on levels emotional, physical, and social. The clear point made in this “list” is that identity based on sexual orientation must first and foremost depend upon an individual’s ways of dealing with sexuality itself. Sedgwick then documents the components within societal assessments of sexual orientation and the field, as noted, is equally dense. These range from basic biological elements of actual gender status of partners to degrees of power enjoyment in relationships, which indicate to society qualities of masculinity and femininity.
This presentation is then used to reinforce the author’s central point, in that the vast complexity of meaning and interpretation linked to all sexuality renders identifying homosexuals as a distinct minority impractical, if not impossible. Sexuality goes beyond “sex” so drastically, and in so many forms, that assigning a minority identity to gay men and women is specious at best. Sedgwick concludes by arguing that the adoption of the “queer” label for the over-all subject is particularly apt, as the word is based on European roots indicating change: “The word ‘queer’ itself means ‘across’” (188). That the word expresses movement and instability, in Sedgwick’s view, renders it suitable in describing a population or movement that cannot be rationally presented in minority terms.
Thinking through Queer Theory
“Thinking through Queer Theory” is the transcript of an address made by Sedgwick at Ochanomizu University, yet the graciousness of the opening address is essentially all that conveys this aspect. The speech is actually a presentation of how the author’s interests and thinking have evolved in regard to Queer Theory, a trajectory that brings it to modern concerns. To begin, Sedgwick remarks upon her general viewpoint in regard to all cultural theory, in that she admits to a deep-seated bias to separatist ideologies of any kind. Assertions of inherent contrasts between groups, she tells her audience, triggers in her a reflex to seek similarities and connections. The author then recounts the experiences in her first studies in feminism, and this is emphasized by the timing; at Cornell University in 1970, women’s studies were radically new. Sedgwick then goes on to cite how emerging feminism created an exciting environment in scholarship in the following years. This in turn leads to her own deviations from feminist subject matter as organically developing from the work itself. As feminism was introducing examinations of gender roles, patriarchy was a subject of interest, and Sedgwick became intrigued by the homosocial elements of Western society. She then marks the important differences between men and women in terms of homosocial relations, or at least as recognized by her. For women, homosocial interaction encompasses a broad range of behaviors which includes the affectionate, or even erotic; for men, homophobia, or disgust with an erotic component, is virtually mandated by established homosocial relations.
This clear difference between the genders fueled further investigation on Sedgwick’s part, chiefly because she resisted the idea that the male form of homosocial structure was inviolable:
“It wasn’t clear that, because most patriarchies structurally include homophobia, therefore patriarchy structurally requires homophobia” (195). The author cites as evidence the culture of the ancient Greeks, wherein there was no dichotomy between ideas of men loving men, and men supporting men. Similarly, Sedgwick points to the example of the Boy Scouts organization going as far as the Supreme Court to maintain a strictly heterosexual staff and membership. For the author, the issue became that of why, in this patriarchy, homophobia was seen as indispensable to the vastly important structure of the homosocial. This in turn brought into question the issue of power perceptions within the patriarchy. As Sedgwick concluded in these studies. “The historically differential shapes of male and female homosociality…will always be articulations and mechanisms of the enduring inequality of power between women and men” (195). She is essentially drawing a line connecting American concepts of the feminine, and consequently also homosexual, as being dangerous to the patriarchal structure, and unable to be accommodated within that patriarchy’s male homosocialization.
Sedgwick then further draws out her research and intent, asserting that her book, Between Men, was a conscious effort to link feminism with the rising gay liberation movement of the 1980s. To that end, she set out to defy two dominant assumptions: that all gay men and women are united in ambitions to break down gender stereotypes, and the converse view that misogyny lies at the heart of male homosexuality. Sedgwick’s perception as conveyed here is that misogyny is present in homophobia, because it both oppresses women and attacks what is seen as feminine in men. Here the author discusses the inherent difficulty in approaching homophobia in any way, in that, as a shifting cultural construct, it is highly subject to being identified with its seeming antithesis, homosexuality. In much modern thinking, for example, the homophobe is seen as repressing homosexual desire, so: “It is not always easy (sometimes barely possible) to distinguish them from each other” (196). Sedgwick’s purpose was to identify relevant links between antihomophobia and feminism, even as the concerns of each by no means mirror one another.
Lastly, the author discusses her next work, Epistemology of the Closet, which moved away from feminism to address issues of power and knowledge in Western culture at the turn of the 20th century, with homo-heterosexual male relationships as the core. In this, Sedgwick employed her inclination to uncover similarities, as she refused to believe that heterosexual and homosexual males ever had distinctly different histories within the same patriarchy.
To support this point, the lists of factors employed in “Making Gay Meanings” are repeated here, if for a somewhat different effect. More exactly, the immense variety of both individual and societal perceptions presents a field in which sexuality cannot be isolated as a determining agent for any ideology, even a patriarchy’s. This is Sedgwick’s main point here, in that the true value of Queer Theory lies in its inability to be narrowed down, even to levels of homosexuality. She briefly discusses modern gay social politics, but the emphasis remains the same. Namely, only in accepting the innate diversification and multiple concerns within Queer Theory can inapplicable approaches be discarded: “’Queer’…refers to a politics that values the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other, crossing all kinds of boundaries” (200). In Sedgwick’s view, this is a process rather than a fixed ideological focus, as it must be when so many components of gender and sexual orientation inevitably intersect.
- Sedgwick, E. K. “Making Gay Meanings” The Weather in Proust. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 183-189. Print.
- Sedgwick, E. K. “Thinking through Queer Theory” The Weather in Proust. Ed. Jonathan Goldberg. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. 190-203. Print.