A Crash Course Interview Deconstructing Gender, Sexuality, and Being
(Originally published on May 14, 2019 with The Student Post)
In our current political climate, it can be hard to truly grasp and sit with a concept, as they tend to ricochet through the air among the pathos-fueled rhetoric and visceral reactions. One event occurs, as we are still comprehending the one that occurred just moments before. Instead of delving into meanings and experiences that make the foundations of identity politics, we stick to generalities, among political and or party lines, so to spare the mind, body & soul some energy and exhaustion.
The topics of gender, sexuality and the related variables of so, are forefront in today’s political landscape. As we discuss these innately human issues from a depersonified position, we only de-personify our politics as a whole.
Dr. B Lee Aultman is a lecturer of political science at Purchase College in New York, with concentrations in queer politics, radical organizing and power relations within democratic institutions. Aultman is also the Co-Host of the “Always Already,” a critical theory podcast.
Due to the personal nature of this topic, I really wanted to do the discussion justice by directly tapping into the historically and socially created perceptions, forced onto the queer community, by a heteronormative culture. I decided to make the structure of this interview in a less conversational manner, and instead have Dr. Aultman deconstruct classic statements, questions, and ideas that arise from an ignorant social and political narrative about what it means to Be. This both as an LGBTQ+ person, and anyone for that matter.
The interview is structured with me presenting a common assumption about the queer community, with Dr. Aultman responding to it and deconstructing it.
The statements, questions, and ideas expressed, in which the interviewee answers, are mostly written from a first-person perspective for the sole purpose of effectiveness and clarity. The ideas and or beliefs stated before the responses are not ones that either I or the interviewee, personally hold.
“Who’s the man and who’s the woman in the relationship?”
Aultman: That tends to be a common misconception based on certain kinds of tropes about sexuality, based within a kind of heterosexual lifestyle; a normative script if you will. Where somehow there’s a passive, and somehow there’s an assertive partner. But there really is no one defining role. There are so many ways in which two people within a same-gender loving relationship may be both passive and assertive, might say, or neither.
“Aww, look at that gay/lesbian/same-sex couple. That’s so cute.”
Aultman: This idea that somehow difference is cute, usually it pastorializes, we like to say, violence. There is something violent about the fact that when we make something different cute, we discredit the history that a couple, especially same-gender loving couples, have had to work through. It dismisses that violent history. We have to be careful of making something, in that sense, diminishing the power of [the history].
“Oh, I totally thought you were straight / Oh, I totally knew you were gay.”
Aultman: Ahh, yeah, I mean that comes from a very powerful social meaning of “behind the closet.” This idea that being patently masculine or having a certain kind of femininity, especially if you are male-embodied, has or posses an indication of sexuality. It’s always framed around this idea of “the closet,” especially, for instance, Eve Sedgwick, who writes the Epistemology of the Closet, it frames our knowledge of each other on multiple levels across gender. So it is funny that there are moments of the “open secret,” but there are so many ways that the person just, especially in the statement of “I never knew” or “I always knew,” is a “go-to,” but part of ongoing modern construction of sexuality.
“How do you decide who’s the top and who’s the bottom?” [Referring to gay/same-sex sexual intercourse]
Aultman: Well…. it depends. Often times there isn’t a single moment in which there is a top or a bottom, there’s a conversation that occurs well before, usually a discussion that is had, and given the technology of our time, it’s usually had through various social media apps. So yeah, it’s a discussion that ends-up taking place before-hand. How do you determine it? Well, often times it’s just sort-of how one is feeling in the moment. Just like anyone else; it’s sexuality.
“Let’s go shopping/Watch RuPaul’s Drag Race/Get a mani-pedi/Get brunch/etc.” [Referring to straight women interacting with gay men]
Aultman: There’s this sentiment that somehow gay men immediately have an alignment with the feminine. That all things are somehow socially ascribed to femininity, would just simply fall in line with being gay. To an extent, that’s just sort of cultural reproduction — it’s all over the media, it’s everywhere from Clueless, and it’s representation in that movie, to this idea that somehow gay men and straight women share the commonality of loving men. That somehow, that’s the theme, in one sense it’s an assumption, it’s a powerful one, and sometimes it’s true. But in many instances, it oversimplifies an otherwise a very complex relationship.
“I heard bisexuality is just a stepping-stone for people to slowly come-out completely, and that it’s also just something straight women experiment with in college?”
Aultman: You know, it might be the case that someone uses the idea of bisexuality or contemplates coming out as bisexual, especially in the compulsory nature of heterosexuality, and the culture, to sort of “win out hope” as it were. Or say coming-out to a parent, somehow one might actually be, in this sense, reproductive. But that is hardly a “stepping stone” in itself. It is its own sexuality and identity. The use of it needs not….it shouldn’t be taken lightly. In some sense, if someone is using bisexuality as a means of coming out, or a stepping-stone, that would indicate a system of a much larger problem that it is a homophobic culture in which we live. Not only is it a birasure if we take that as a sort-of….we miss the deeper, phobic nature of our culture.
“Why does the gay community always have to be so sexual/scandalous/deviant? Wouldn’t they want to not place that image on themselves? Why do gay people have to make their sexual orientation all about who they are? Why are they emphasizing just a part of who they are as their entire identity?” [Referring to meshings of the gay community and outlets of rainbow capitalism]
Aultman: Well again, it depends so much on the kind of politics that we as gay/lesbian/queer/bisexual identifying people, even agender or asexual folks, engage in a politics that were denied for so long. The very fact that in exploring sexuality for the first time, many people through adolescence and into adulthood would seek to come out in a big way. But that describes probably less than 50 percent of the population wanting to engage in activities that are seemingly, purposefully explicit for the purpose of being anti-normative. My sense of things is that folks just generally want to lead a life; and that often times, in leading that life, what ends up being the case as taken as scandalous, is usually just someone else’s aversion to sexuality to begin with.
Aultman: Well, I mean, it goes into the question, “What is a man?” and “What is a woman?” Acting like a man implies a certain kind of essentialized vision of manhood. At the end of the day, there are as many feminine qualities to masculinity as there are masculine qualities to femininity. So far as deconstruction is the case, gay men are acting like men as much as lesbians are acting like women.
“They/Them is plural, how can that be used as an individual’s pronouns?”
Aultman: This often times boils down to a certain kind of personal choice on the part of the person engaged in gender-neutrality. So someone might actually adopt for they/them/plural pronouns, but it is, within the Oxford English Dictionary, used as a singular, in such a way that you can’t say “they is” and still have it be grammatically correct. Not that it never needs necessarily to be, and in many instances, some to avoid the “plural problem.” [Some] might use “they,” and then the pronoun “ze” in the individual.
“That person clearly looks like a man/woman, I shouldn’t be attacked for getting the pronouns wrong.”
Aultman: Well, here it comes from the standpoint that someone clearly looking as a certain kind of embodiment, falls back on two things. One, if someone is aggressively asserting that they have the right to misgender another person, then they are also subjecting themselves to if it’s not an attack then it’s a retaliation and a correction. There should be no naturalized way in which we just simply engage with, what appears before us, as a simple gender given. But I think in many instances, a correction should be enough. Assumptions happen all the time, but that we have to be open to revision.
“Why did the ‘Q’ and the other’s labels under ‘+’ get added to ‘LGBT’? Isn’t ‘Queer’ a slur?”
Aultman: Well, it had been for a while, but even before queer had been a slur, it had been used to determine things that are strange; anything that was off from the norm. Things that got attached what we oftentimes colloquially the alphabet soup, had meant to, sort of combine together all of the non-normative ways that sexuality and gender identity form a sense of common community. That queer had over time become a means of reclaiming kind of a political identity within that.
“Don’t you think the LGBTQ+ community will be taken less seriously if more letters keep being added? It’s tedious and confusing.”
Aultman: I think there comes a point where we have to be aware that adding acronyms will become burdensome and encombering. I don’t think that it would be politically, in one sense, it would be politically numbing. I do think that there are some others was that we may refer to our community, for example, a lot of times sexual orientation and gender identity, or S.O.G.I., has been used to sum it up. But that can, in some instances, do violence to asexual or agender identifying folks who want to avoid being confused with gender, or as an identity in itself. So again, it depends but I don’t know if it’s necessarily politically destabilizing as such.
“Isn’t the LGBTQ+ movement about equality? It seems to me it’s centered around special treatment.”
Aultman: It depends on what we mean by equality. Any question or any insertion made by populations that have been historically marginalized aren’t necessarily going to be interpreted as asking for more. Asking for special treatment, given the fact, I think, would indicate a historical marginality anyways. Asking for equal treatment is to ask for something that has not been granted unless it might appear to be asking for something that would be special, and it is indeed special.
“What if children of same-sex couples look at their parents, and become gay? That doesn’t seem fair.”
Aultman: Well, again, this idea of being gay somehow rubbing off, as it were, onto the child, if that were true, then everyone ought to be straight. Every seemingly heterosexual couple has produced, so it goes, a gay child. So there’s something to be said about the quality of nurture and nature that isn’t a continuous dialectical tension. There’s no one overpowering point in this relationship over the other. So if seeing a gay a parent or seeing a, you know, a same-gender loving couple who are partners and parents, if the child grows up and is, in fact, gay, lesbian or otherwise, has a lot more to do with everyday and ordinary circumstances than just what’s happening in the parental unit.
“Don’t you think children will get confused growing up, and therefore have harmful effects if their birth certificate states their gender as “X,” or a gender isn’t assigned to them?”
Aultman: It will only be confusing as far as our culture is unable to [adequately deal with the question of] gender identity. It’s in that sense that unless we are willing to adjust, then of course confusion is going to happen, and that confusion is just another name for injustice.
“Well, if it isn’t a choice, it must be a disorder.” [Referring to LGBTQ+ identities]
Aultman: This is a common theme. The idea that somehow that anything that relates tends to be a kind of western discourse that says, “Our identity is framed around our ability to make free decisions and agency, and that any deviation from it is a problem of the will.” That leads to a misconception that somehow any identity that deviates from the norm is a pathological indication of an anti-will. That is relatively a 20th-century and late 19th-century mark of the psychiatric community that has been substantially revised. As a result, there still might be an attachment culturally. To an extent, if the medical practitioners have come a long way, I think that perhaps culturally-speaking we should probably follow suit.
“You need to think about the family when doing what you are doing.” [Referring to gender/masculinity-femininity/sexual orientation/other breaks from heteronormative culture; parent to child]
Aultman: There’s always going to be an element in which the family plays its part in the everyday life of what our activities entail. But doing something for the purpose, and the sole purpose, of pleasing the family, especially when it comes to one’s own exploration of identity, is I think only ever going to be harmful. It will only ever lead to a kind-of repressive, and otherwise problematic way that people get to then explore and otherwise think through their feelings, their identities and their relationships.
“I heard intersectionality is just the hierarchy of opinion, and even existing/being? The idea, for example, that if you are a lesbian black female, you are valued more, and put on a higher pedestal than a straight white male, or even a gay white male.”
Aultman: Well, that is a misperception and misconception of intersectionality that is usually lead by those who attack identity politics and has a tendency to come from white, conservative men. Intersectionality, as it had been originally posited, was a way of dealing with overlapping oppression; specifically from the angle of black feminist identities. Black women’s identities within, according to Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, within the law, and discrimination and anti-discrimination policy. So no one identity is privileged over another under intersectional methodology, rather identities under intersectional pressure, or at least under the pressure of intersectional methods, break-down and see how oppression operates. How certain kinds of privileges are afforded to some and not others. So it ends up being quite the opposite.
“You can’t just change biology. Would you take me seriously if I am one age, yet stated myself as another, just because I personally identify as so?” [Referring to gender specifically, but implies sexual orientation/etc. as well]
Aultman: This idea that somehow, that biology becomes the site of truth and is unalterable, falls back on the notion that somehow, biology itself is not a part of a constructed theme in science. Believing one’s self to be an age, that differs from one’s own, say, “biological” age, is something completely different from one’s sense of gendered self; in relation to the birth-assigned body. Or the body-assigned, let’s say, the birth, the sex assigned at birth. I’ve heard moral equivalence to saying, “I believe that I am a unicorn, and therefore you have to take me at my word.” That is a gross misstatement, and otherwise a problematic equivalence that can’t be drawn, merely because feelings of gender are so ingrained in our social being. That these senses of gender identity, they take precedent.
“The gays/lesbians/etc. are able to get married now, why do they keep asking for more? When will it ever be enough for them?”
Aultman: Well considering that our culture never really has, and in some sense, can never really have an end, we’re in a constant state of changing, thinking and producing new realizations about ourselves culturally and individually. There is then going to be a constant negotiation with all of those that have been historically marginalized, including gay and lesbian communities who not only want but deserve to participate in these new ways of being, culturally and socially speaking. So it’s never asking for more, then what is already there, and should be, according to justice, equally served.
“Why does the military/private business/government/etc. have to get involved in LGBTQ+ matters? It’s just a disruption, and causes wasted funds.”
Aultman: You know, here’s where perhaps more radical critiques say the military might come into play. If we’re discussing, take bans on trans-people in the military, it’s harmful because everyone who wants to serve their country in this particular instance ought to have the ability to. Whether one wants to support, or on the other hand, can be a radical critique in which, you know, why would anyone want to participate in military expansion? It’s not a waste of funds to include as many diverse arrays of people and identifications that occur in society. Who are willing, what ultimately, becomes a sacrifice; if someone is sent off to fight, or others.
“I’m politically conservative and support LGBTQ+ people. Why does the LGBTQ+ community and media have to be so liberal, attacking and making assumptions of non-liberal people?”
Aultman: Mostly it becomes a kind-of, and this is my own sort-of take on the state of political affairs, reactionary behaviors on both sides have a tendency to occur because, well, if you have a historically marginalized group, their tendency against sort-of conservative politics is prompted because conservative politics wants to conserve a status quo that continues that marginalization. The attack that seems to be, at least in that sense, it’s formulated as an attack, figured in that sense, figured as an attack, is really a critique. There has to be a willingness to envision the critique as a space of revision of a particular political stance. Otherwise, it’s just a back-and-forth. That’s also to say that there are plenty of gay and lesbian conservatives. That not every gay, lesbian, or queer, or trans-person for that matter, is going to have either a liberal or a radical take on things. Some might engage in politics or not at all. But it asks or calls for a substantial revision, or at least it calls for substantial space for revising one’s own political commitments.
Is there anything else you would like to include on what we have mentioned so far, or other?
Aultman: Just that I think, regardless of one’s own political stance, liberal or conservative, centrist, what-have-you, even leftist, there’s got to be a commitment to the notion that people want to live. They want to live conventional lives, they want to lead normal lives to that extent, and that doesn’t always involve radical politics. It often times simply involves the radical claim, that to live a life, and to have a life, requires being recognized as being a human.