Straight or gay, we're all just acting

February 01, 2002|By Crispin Sartwell

LIKE A LOT of the straight guys I know, I am a homophobe.

I had that realization last week when a guy named Jake gave a presentation to a meeting I attended.

I disliked him on sight, though he seemed perfectly nice. And I had the realization that I thought he was defectively gendered.

He didn't walk right; he didn't sit right; he didn't talk right.

I am not a fan of Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms.

I don't reject homosexuality on Biblical or in fact any other grounds. But I have a visceral reaction of hostility to men I perceive as gay.

Homosexuality seems like a performance to me, whereas heterosexual masculinity seems natural.

Now sometimes I suppose it's fair to say that homosexuality really is a performance.

There's no doubt that Greenwich Village drag queens are at play in the fields of gender; that they're very purposefully trying to compromise the categories of male and female.

And perhaps Jake, who seemed very androgynous (though in fact I don't know his sexual orientation) was consciously messing around with gender, too.

But the funny thing is, heterosexual masculinity is also a performance. My ways of walking and talking and dressing and sitting were things I actually remember choosing and learning in my adolescence.

At the time when my own sexual identity was fluid, I consciously chose and performed heterosexuality.

RuPaul is a performer of gender. But you know what? So is, say, Bruce Springsteen. The "plain" clothes (jeans and a white shirt), the studiously unkempt hair, the stage swagger. These are public performances of heterosexuality, no more "true" or "natural" than RuPaul's.

In fact, the staging of heterosexual masculinity is extremely elaborate and takes a long time to learn. It is an extremely elaborate performance that is supposed to be effortlessly natural.

One is simply supposed to be heterosexual and masculine, effortlessly, by nature.

But the repertoire of gestures and inflections that mark one as masculine are things that must be learned.

Male effeminacy is threatening because it indicates that masculinity is optional, that it is a public performance.

The attack on homosexuality has often taken the form of saying that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality is unnatural.

Heterosexuality is what mammals do in order to reproduce; homosexuality is just a distortion or a pathological state of the reproductive impulse.

But in fact sexuality has many functions in mammalian life, including various kinds of partnership and bonding.

As a philosopher, I have long argued that there is absolutely no defensible distinction between the natural and the artificial.

Everything human beings do is perfectly natural: We can no more violate the laws of nature than can a squirrel.

Our minds are natural objects. And, by the way, everything we do is also artificial, in the sense that it is something human beings do.

Mr. Springsteen's outfits are no less artificial than RuPaul's: Mr. Springsteen also communicates an identity by his manner of dress.

I say this as seriously as possible: Natural and artificial are the same.

And that's how I try to reason myself out of homophobia.

That's how I stopped hating Jake.

But it's a constant task, a constant discipline, because homophobia is built into the structure of heterosexual masculinity.

Crispin Sartwell is chair of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

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