In 1980, fisting was depicted in a major studio release for the first, and perhaps last time in history. This was in Cruising, and yet, gays had been protesting the production of this extraordinary document. Who wanted to see another gay psycho killer embracing his dark side? Cruising began the era in which representation became not just a legitimate battlefield for gay activists, but the most important. We needed more images, and we needed positive images; we had a right to have models to base our personalities on, just like straight people.
The same year Cruising was released, Günter Dörner, announced his discovery of the cause of homosexuality. His colleague Ingeborg Ward had been stuffing pregnant rats in plastic tubes and exposing them to bright lights. When they gave birth to males, she castrated the baby rats and gave them estrogen and progesterone. These rats then allowed themselves to be mounted by "stud" rats. Dörner thought Ingeborg’s ability to turn boy rats into bottoms suggested that "stress" during pregnancy was the cause of human homosexuality. The stud rats’ transformation into homosexual tops, however, for the castrated, feminized children of torture victims had no application to human sexual roles. This is a worldview diametrically opposed to that of Cruising. All director William Friedkin had to do to turn undercover cop Al Pacino into a bottom was set him loose in a seamy underworld of gay men.
These two models of identity illustrate the terms of a debate that sputtered throughout the twentieth century: is homosexuality biologically determined, or is it the result of environmental pressures—bad mommies, strobe-lit bars, and seductive recruiters? The nature/nurture debate continues to serve as a focus in a variety of arguments about how to organize queer identity and politics.
In "Reinventing the Male Homosexual: The Rhetoric and Power of the Gay Gene", Robert Alan Brookey takes a wary glance at the emergence of homosexuality as a marker of identity during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Through the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfield and their third sex, a view of homosexuality as biological, psychological, and essential emerged. Despite their intent to use this fundamental difference to argue for tolerance and rights, these views were quickly coopted in attempts to cure and contain what was already understood as disease. These formulas weren’t fundamentally altered by psychoanalysis, and its focus on "nurture", Brookey argues, but were merely incorporated into the program of policing desire.
Identical twins were rounded up and interrogated, and mice, rats, and ferrets were castrated and feminized for the sake of knowledge. Taking a tip from Cruising, one 1991 study (Brand, et al.) introduced its rats to the seductive world of leather and prison rape fantasies: the "stimulus animals" were placed behind a wire screen or tethered with a leather harness. That same year, following the death of his lover, Simon LeVay got the idea to study dead men’s brains for that distinctive gay flair. His "gay brain" report neatly sidestepped causality, for it was left open whether having a different brain might "cause" homosexuality, or if homosexuality might itself "cause" the brain to change. It was also pointed out that the "gay brains" LeVay examined were those of dead, alcoholic, HIV+ men; the straight brains were assumed to be straight, because they didn’t die of AIDS.
Inspired by LeVay’s "gay brain", Dean Hamer concocted an elaborate series of studies of his own. Previously, Hamer had no trouble finding subjects, as he was working with yeast, but "finding the right gay men was going to be harder." He wanted to know about his subjects’ sexual thoughts, fantasies, behaviors, and attitudes, and he wanted to collect blood samples from their relatives. "The first thing I did was to go out and buy some new clothes. I would be spending the first few months out of the lab and on the road." His approach to finding research subjects was remarkably similar to Al Pacino’s method for finding the killer in Cruising. Pacino bought himself a leather jacket, vaguely SS cap, and shades. This choice of drag worked for Pacino. Hamer too found exactly what he was looking for: more self-identified gay males on the maternal lines of gay males than in the population at large.
From Freud’s controlling matrons to Hamer’s maternal genes, boys were made gay by the contaminating femininity of Mom. A recent Time cover story suggested that younger gay brothers result when "a first male fetus triggers an immune reaction in the mother, altering the expression of key gender genes." While Hamer’s shoddy science has never been replicated, the evolutionary path of the "gay gene" remains a source of active fantasy. Once considered "a lingering residue of animalistic bisexuality", recent sociobiology is as likely to view homosexuality as adaptive. That it’s a puzzle that needs to be explained is still taken for granted. Why would nature develop a desire that seems to bias against reproduction? Perhaps the siblings of gays had higher survival rates because of gay people’s tendency to nurture the children of their brothers and sisters. Maybe homosexuality is a result of the "heterosexual frustration" that results when inherently "promiscuous males" demand more sex acts than inherently "selective females" are willing to give. Brookey argues that these theories are almost always "underdetermined", meaning they’re unverifiable and based on scanty evidence. Moreover, the entire debate between nurture and nature only serves to reinforce background assumptions of effeminate pathology.
In his eagerness to find assumptions of pathology, however, Brookey himself sometimes merely accepts the terms of the debate. He quotes a 1993 study on its twin subjects: "As children of 7 or 8 they played a self-invented sex game which they called ‘chase the rabbits.’ Living near a garbage dump, they disrobed completely in a nearby wooded area and exhibited themselves to garbage men unloading their trucks." Some drivers "cooperated in the game" by chasing the nude boys and fondling them. "Each of the twins perceived this as ‘good fun’ and report they enjoyed the ‘game’ until discovered by their mother…." Brookey finds this extraneous information disturbing and "fraught with scatological implications". The place of such anecdotes in a scientific study may be questionable, but his reading highlights the different ways queers sometimes interpret sex. In private, our sexual exploits as children are often celebrated. The more aggressive we were in pursuing our homoerotic goals at 7 or 10 or 15, the more we can read ourselves as budding radicals and adventurers. These twins could just as easily be seen as heroes, "coming out" early. Scientific narratives have functioned in complex ways: sometimes they are pirated by queers themselves and re-read as a source of inspiration.
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The same year Hamer announced his discovery, he was subpoenaed as a witness against Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2. The Colorado Legal Initiatives Project lawyers had decided that innate difference was a sound basis on which to argue their case for gay rights. In "American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism", Nancy Ordover questions both the ethics and effectiveness of that strategy; other CLIP witnesses argued that large clitorises not surgically corrected could turn little girls into lesbians, or stated that some transsexuals have "temporal lobe pathology".
Ordover places her critique of Hamer and LeVay’s science in the context of America’s eugenics movement, and her own guided tour through our history of lobotomies, electroshock therapies, clitorectomies, and bizarre scientific fantasy. For Ordover, Hirschfield’s move toward science as salvation showed that "in desperation, queers have frequently cooperated with their own oppression". This may not be the most complex way to think about the place of his ideas within history—his ideas changed over time, and he did resist his professor’s teaching that pederasts had pointy penises and funnel-shaped anuses. It doesn’t help Hirschfield’s case that he encouraged gay men to have their testicles removed and replaced with those of straight men as a cure. Both he and Ulrichs found a link between "sexual inversion" and an inability to whistle. (However, in one of sexologist Havelock Ellis’s case studies, a male invert insisted he was "perhaps a better whistler than most men.") Similarly, a 1921 study showed that black children were having trouble meeting "western standards"; they couldn’t exhale as much air as white children in a given timeframe. As Ordover says, "American eugenicists, armed with charts, photographs, and even human skulls, were there to provide the visual and mathematical support that rendered racism scientifically valid and politically viable."
Racial and sexual difference have been linked through metaphors and narrative, and similarly pathologized. While "drapetomania", a condition found only in slaves, was characterized by their pathological escape attempts, in the 1930s interracial relationships between both lesbians and straights were attributed to a distorted and misdirected sense of smell. With that logic, a wealthy white woman was convinced to have her adenoids and tonsils removed, as she’d fallen in love with a Puerto Rican. Cesare Lombrosos’s "born criminal" was "prone to violence, promiscuity, pederasty, and tattooing"; homosexuals and Southern European immigrants were frequently described as evolutionary throwbacks. Both racial chaos and sexual perversion were blamed for the fall of Rome, and likewise threatened the newly-born American empire.
Ordover’s history takes us from the Fitter Families Contests and 70,000 sterilizations in the first half of the twentieth century to our modern scientists who are granting fetuses sexual orientations and pushing dangerous birth control methods--Depo-Provera and Norplant--on poor females as a solution to the "cycle of poverty". She reminds us that the impulse to understand human nature is never divorced from the impulse to control it and to change it. Before he zeroed in on fetal stress, insisting that more gay men were born in times of war than times of peace, Günter Dörner had been destroying sections of the brains of rats. He claimed he’d cured them of their homosexuality (he’d castrated them and fed them female hormones) and suggested these brain operations as a possible therapy for gay men. In fact, brain operations were carried out in Germany during the sixties and seventies on homosexual "pedophiles"--men who’d had sex with teenagers. After the operations their sex drives decreased, although their orientations didn’t change. They were able to "control themselves"; some even married and reported heterosexual intercourse, and they became fat.
Like Brookey, Ordover would prefer to opt out of the nature/nurture debate altogether. "The very need to locate a basis of homosexuality invests all causation endeavours with an antigay bias," she says. Alongside the causal hormones, wombs, genes, and germs, Ordover places the woman who filed a lawsuit, claiming she was heterosexual until an electronic bingo board fell on top of her.
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Ordover has little faith in the ability of queers to pirate science for their own uses, dismissing such attempts as a "failed exploitation" with "grave consequences". It is surprising that Ordover never directly addresses some of Simon LeVay’s own more frightening statements in "Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research into Homosexuality".
LeVay is less pessimistic. His own selective history offers a more detailed and more sympathetic account of Ulrichs and Hirschfield. Not surprising; LeVay’s research was also inspired by the idea that a biological essence would be a useful tool in the quest for gay rights. More aware of his critics and more articulate in his own defense than Hamer, LeVay makes some creative, if slightly tortured arguments to support his position. Usually fairly balanced in his historical examinations, and well aware of the trail of testicle transplants and lobotomies that pepper the path of "queer science", the sunny optimism that LeVay carries into his concluding chapters is even more disturbing.
For LeVay, it’s not just OK for people to know the complete genetic make-up of themselves, their fetuses and their minor children, it’s a fundamental right. Although he concedes that once we’ve isolated the gay gene, some women would surely abort their pre-gay children, he imagines a future in which such genetic knowledge could work for the benefit of pre-gays as well. Once we’ve identified a little pre-gay out there in Walnut Creek, or Birmingham, or Des Moines, it seems an army of counselors could be dispatched to ease the family into accepting their child, and helping the child feel normal. The thought of an eleven-year-old facing a huge array of social institutions to ease himself and his family into accepting their genetically determined sex roles is not a nightmare for LeVay. He sees the use of such technology as an obligation; we’ll be bettering the species. "By allowing parents to make these choices, we will introduce a new eugenics--a democratic, ‘do-it-yourself’ eugenics that will circumvent the central evils of the past." He imagines "the genetically underpriveleged", in earlier times deprived of the right to reproduce, now free to decide how underpriveleged they are, and if they want to make "the necessary adjustments in their offspring."
As Ordover documents scrupulously, however, those targeted for eugenics programs in the past were socially underpriveleged, members of classes and nationalities frowned upon by the elites, who projected their own notions of insufficiency onto them. The mechanisms that produce value systems don’t trouble LeVay. If we all like our girls to be skinny, let’s just accept that, and get to work locating the skinny gene. "Democracy has its own evils," LeVay says. "But the keys to successful democracy are education and freedom of speech. So it will be with the new eugenics. No one must understand that more clearly than gay people, who have an urgent and formidable task of persuasion in front of them." For LeVay, free market capitalism is a place of true freedoms, and gays just need to invest in some billboards: A Gay Gene is a Good Gene. Let Your Pre-Gay Live!
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Psychologist Steven Pinker deals with gay issues only peripherally in "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature", but as one of the most widely-read voices defending sociobiology, he serves as an interesting counterpoint to Ordover and Brookey. Pinker lays out his program clearly in his prologue: he is going to be calm, logical, and reasonable as he goes after the extremists he disagrees with. These extremists believe in variations of three great fallacies: the Blank Slate (human beings have no nature and are infinitely malleable), the Noble Savage (people are born good and corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (human consciousness requires some transcendent function to make the gears of consciousness turn.) In Pinker’s history, not only was the twentieth century dominated by these collusive ideas, but academic intellectual life is only now throwing off their yoke. Pinker sees himself and his allies as modern day Galileos, pitted against the evil anti-scientific forces of the new Inquisition.
In fact, Pinker’s tone is easily more strident than Ordover’s, and the smiley face of "reasonableness" he tries to paste over his own aggression only makes it more annoying. His enemies are the Marxists, postmodernists, social constructionists, gender feminists, and deconstructionists who are supposed to have taken over the universities and turned them into fascist mini-states of political correctness. It is a familiar story, but his portrait of fuzzy-headed relativists from humanities departments denouncing all science as equally untrue is complicated by the example of Ordover and Brookey. The work of these two non-scientists involves quite informed and specific critiques of particular science and scientific practice. In contrast, it is the sheer mass of research cited by Pinker—29 pages of references--that is supposed to convince us. Here is the palpable heft of science, proof in itself of "objective truth". That the research uncritically cited includes that of Hamer and LeVay, however, might lead us to pause. If the existence of the "gay brain" Pinker cites is doubtful, what about the "convicted murderer brain" he mentions in the same paragraph? Even if we ignore the way DNA evidence is complicating the correlation between "convicted murderers" and "actual murderers", we might still wonder about the difference in the brains of murderers who don’t get caught.
Pinker works hard to forge his Trilogy of Terrible Ideas into an axis of evil, overstating the inherent links between them, and stretching their boundaries to include anyone he disagrees with. He reserves his most serious venom for the "radical scientists", Stephen Gould and Richard Lewontin. Pinker’s method is to extract a few sentences that he finds mean-spirited or illogical from their vast bodies of work—critiques of IQ tests and twin studies and sociobiology in general--and then act as if he’s demolished their entire worldview. While complaining about their "unfair tactics" and their smearing of sociobiologists with Nazi allusions, Pinker’s tactics include placing these "extreme leftist" critics of sociobiology in the same chapter with the "extreme rightist" critics, leaving us with the nicer liberal Democrat in the middle. Meanwhile, he continually defends his smeared peers by telling us they vote for Democrats or supported progressive causes during the 60s, ignoring the real question of the critiques: whose interests are served by their research?
Pinker argues that nobody is really a "genetic determinist"; everyone acknowledges that genes and environment work together. If "genetic determinism" serves as a straw man for Gould and Lewontin, one of Pinker’s is "social construction". Instead of an argument against the theories involved, he offers us his own exasperation with a list of items that have been declared "socially constructed". Gender, masculinity, serial homicide, white-collar crime, women refugees, Zulu nationalism. Where will it all end? Is everything socially constructed? Unfortunately, the academic landscape probably is littered with theorists who make trite observations about the constructed nature of gender or race. There are also astute analysts who would look with an equally cold eye at the genocidal chimps Pinker wields against the Noble Savage, and the free-loving, matriarchal bonobos that Bert Archer introduces into his case for sexual fluidity. "Socially constructed" doesn’t mean that nothing is real, or that DNA has no effect on behavior; it means that facts are intertwined in a landscape of historical and political relations that affect our interpretations. Pinker takes all that talk of "texts" and "images" too literally, and misreads construction as an extreme "nurture" position.
When Pinker does release his tattered straw men from his clenched, smiling jaw, he is quite capable of illuminating analysis. He’s right that evolutionary explanations for behavior aren’t inherently evil. He’s right that there is nothing inherently liberating in an environmental determinist viewpoint. He’s right to remind us that for many years the scariest evil scientists on the American scene were firmly on the "nurture" side of the debate; B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists certainly taught us that a control queen doesn’t need to mention genes. He is right that explaining behavior doesn’t imply excusing it. He is right that bad ideas have the power to deform our child-rearing practices, our educational programs, and our self-images. He is right that just because the Nazis believed in something—sociobiology or kitsch—that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. And like a constructionist, Pinker is right to discuss "the prevalence of defense mechanisms, self-serving biases, and cognitive dissonance reduction, by which people deceive themselves about their autonomy, wisdom, and integrity"; he just doesn’t apply it to himself.
As if to demonstrate his own fearlessness in the face of Nazi smears, Pinker adopts a modified Nazi position on art. Not only is he critical of postmodern art, which he accuses of being monolithically relativistic, Marxist, and paranoid (!), but of modernism itself. While he never uses the word "degenerate", he thinks that Woolf, Joyce, and Picasso sent us down the wrong path altogether. Their "freakish distortions of shape and color", abstract grids, dribbles, splashes, streams of consciousness, and baffling characters didn’t transform our aesthetics as they intended; they conflict with our innate mental structures. Maybe our past century’s demand for novelty from its artists has led to an increasingly tortured body of work; Pinker’s solution is to return to our universal love of "good stories" and pretty pictures of landscapes.
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In The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality) Bert Archer’s argument is that we’re moving out of the era of "gay" and "straight", and so we should. To make his case for a fluid sexuality "neither primarily or exclusively based on anatomy or especially relevant to a sense of self," he takes us on a roller coaster ride through personal anecdotes, queer history, pop culture, and Clive Barker’s living room. From the boy brothels of 18th century London to Sandra Bernhard, he argues against our limited notions of gender and identity. He likes Freud for his polymorphous perversity, and Foucault for his construction of sex. Hamer and LeVay get another thrashing, along with those scientists who believe that poll results accurately reflect much of anything. While Pinker’s history of ideas involved creating a sequence of binary maps (Utopian and Tragic, Blank Slate and Innate Slate, gender feminism and equity feminism), and placing himself on the most reasonable team, Archer simply chooses his theoretical framework to suit his argument or mood.
Part of his charm lies in his inconsistency. He can sound like a stricter Darwinian adaptationist than Pinker, arguing for a universal human nature and suggesting that "what makes our lives better survives as long as it continues to do so, and when it stops, it begins to die." Like Pinker, he offers a critique of the academic left, and the "misconception that by changing the order of language or the method of representation we could change the order of experience and alter the conditions of social life." But then, in a few paragraphs, he discusses the Western shift from pre-urban communities where people supposedly had no notion of "zoophiliacs", and so less guiltily copulated with pigs, to our Modern Era of introspection.
One of his more interesting sections details the World War II process through which the military screened 18 million recruits as potential sexual psychopaths, rejecting interior decorators, dancers, window dressers and men with "patulous rectums". Archer argues that in the process they helped institute notions of homosexual identity. In his take on Hirschfield and Ulrichs, their essentialist tactics "didn’t work"; like Ordover, he seems to subtly blame them for the Nazi backlash. Again, their later work is ignored: Ulrichs eventually posited a system of 16 sexual natures, and Hirschfield moved from his Third Sex to a world almost entirely in between sexes, with 43,046,721 different types. He’d eventually go so far as to suggest that, like snow flakes, no two sexualities are alike, a position that makes even Archer’s fluid, complexly gendered concept of identity seem tame.
If Archer sometimes over-reaches his facts, it is modified by his impulse to ask more questions than he answers. He’s fond of a model more prevalent in the 60s, when gay liberation was tied to everyone’s sexual freedom. But the idea that a queerer sexuality lurked inside all of us was transformed into 70s separatism. The talk of causes and genes became a way for straights to pretend that same-sex desire mystified them and lived in a parallel universe—but what was in it for us? Perhaps Cruising signaled the death knell for the model of queer sex as a collective possibility. Staring the image of seductive pathology and masculine darkness in the face, gays ran headlong into the arms of the perceived opposite of that model. Not preference, but identity. Unfortunately, Günter Dörner had gotten there first.
A central tension inherent in our present moment is how a culture formed through its relationship to stigma maintains its relevance as that stigma decreases. It is related to Foucault’s paradox, that while "homosexual identity" created a greater policing of sexual behavior, it also provided the tools for organized resistance. Archer’s impulse is to throw identity and stigma out the window together. But in a conversation with horror king Clive Barker, Barker recoils at Archer’s suggestion that it might be good if we could think about sex like we think about food. Barker wants to keep sex scary. His fear of "cloned hermaphrodites who are gently, passionlesssly lusting after one another" echoes Pinker’s question, "Would we really be better off if everyone were like Pat, the androgynous nerd from Saturday night Live?" Maybe their paranoia is less a fear of a lost taboo than a fear of the homogenous and efficient humans promised by eugenic control--as opposed to the fascinating diversity of monsters we’re more likely to get through scientific error and subversion. More to the point is the question of the possible uses for "pathological identity."
Ordover quoted Havelock Ellis: "Pathology is but physiology working under new conditions." Homosexuality had been seen as a stress response to the modern world; we might also read those considered "unfit", "abnormal", or "genetically underpriveleged" as an evolutionary avant garde, the playground of form from which tomorrow’s fabulous new species will emerge. Interpreting all life and sexuality as a fertile and beautiful disease might point us toward tactics other than assimilation and a tepid plea for tolerance. Even now certain fringe elements are abandoning the antiquated "queer" in favor of the sillier and more destabilizing "rabid".
For Archer any word is problematic. He warns us not to replace our actual experiences with concepts and categories, and not to impose arbitrary meanings on our actual pleasures. We must pay careful attention to the stories that we tell; the construction of identities becomes a positive task of expanding possibilities instead of simply mapping out the limits. The ability to re-interpret Cruising or our own childhoods or stories of precocious twins pursuing their rough-trade dates through garbage dumps may be small consolation in the face of a lobotomy. In the face of the Proud corporate flags now waving above our heads, maybe we need another dour hand-wringing over the prison-house of our constructed identities as much as we need another affirmation based on the essence supposedly inscribed in our DNA: like a hole in the head.