Gay identity is just a passing social phenomenon.
Lesbian and gay identity is doomed. Like every other expression of human culture, homosexuality hasn’t always existed in the form we now know it, and won’t last forever.
Our modern western forms of gay identity, behaviour and subculture first began emerging ~hree centuries ago in the European cities of Amsterdam, London, Florence and Paris The idea that queers are a distinct class of people and ax’e fundamentally different from straights is much more recent; originating primarily from the normative theories of nineteenth century psychology.
Just as the contemporary configurations of homosexual identity came into being at a certain moment in social development, one day they will also fade away. So will heterosexual identity, as we currently understand it.
The labels gay and straight are cultural inventions, devised to police sexual desire. They function to sustain heterosexual superiority, and to marginalise the queer alternative.
In a future more enlightened epoch, when homophobia is vanquished, the differences between hetero and homo will lose their significance. In the absence of straight supremacism and privilege, the need (and desire) to differentiate between the two orientations would decline rapidly.
The present separate, exclusive sexualities of straight and gay may eventually be supplanted by a more inclusive, polymorphous sexuality, where the boundaries between hetero and homo become merged and blurred. Once one sexuality is no longer valued over another it seems more likely that many more men and women will be inclined to experience both opposite-sex and same-sex relationships (perhaps not for their entire lives, but certainly for significant periods). Most people will stop defining themselves as straight or gay, and the gender of a person’s sexual partner will cease to determine the social validity (or illegitimacy) of their carnal and affectional feelings.
What makes this future sexual transformation possible is the fact that sexuality is like any other cultural artefact. Influenced by social values and expectations, it changes from era to era. Different socio-economic circumstances and moral climates affect the way eroticism is expressed (or repressed). Sexual relationships that are acceptable in one century may not be so in others, as we know from the demise of the child brides that were once commonplace in medieval England. Manifestations of sexuality can also vary enormously between different cultures. The homosexuality of present-day western societies is, for example, quite unlike the homosexuality of ancient Greece and imperial China.
The forms of queer desire we see around us today have not existed since time immemorial. They are culturally-specific and historically-evolving. This can be seen in the gradual emergence of gay relationships between adults of equal social status since 1700.
Previously, most same-sex attachments had been between an older and younger person, often involving elements of a teacher-pupil relationship (as in the Athens of antiquity). Or they tended to be between a powerful public figure and a person of inferior, dependent social standing (such as between Alexander the Great and the eunuch Bagoas). The historical emergence of homosexual relationships on a more egalitarian plane begs the question: if homosexuality has not always been like it is today, surely it can just as easily change again in the future?
Another fairly recent development is the way people who are erotically attracted to others of the same sex now define themselves in terms of their sexuality. This embracing of a gay identity had its beginning in 18th century Europe, where urban migration and social persecution created the conditions for the emrgence of a gay sub-culture.
Prior to that time, no one described themselves according to their sexual preferences. There were only homosexual acts, not homosexual people. Indeed, the words homosexual and heterosexual were not coined until the mid-nineteenth century (largely as a way of medicalising the perceived ‘social menace’ of same-sex desire, with a view to ‘curing’ it). Thus the notion of ‘the homosexual’ as a distinct category of person, separate from ‘the heterosexual’, has not been around forever.
Just as there was once a time in the past when homosexuals did not exist (only people who had sex with others of the same gender), perhaps there will also come a moment in the future when the word homosexual will stop being the definition of a type of person and solely function to describe a form of behaviour. In other words, ‘the homosexual’ will cease to exist (as will ‘the heterosexual’).
This abolition of sexual categorisation destroys the social basis for homophobia. Without differentiation and polarity, there can be no conflict. The dissolution of hetero and homo orientations and identities is thus the precondition for any genuine, lasting queer emancipation.
Peter Tatchell is the author of Safer Sexy – The Guide To Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions).
Published as “Just cases of mistaken identity” Tribune 07/14 August 1998