Response to student’s forum post in 10/2010
I understand your theory, but it’s based on the assumption that gender identity and sexual orientation are “built in” to who we are, that they’re “hard wired” or “encoded” into us, and we either recognize and embrace it or repress it. But to what extent might gender identity be something we “put on”, in response to social pressures? What if we “become women” because we feel we have no other choice? And if we can put it on, then we can take it “off” too, when we realize it doesn’t fit any more, or when we want to expand and try new things.
Likewise with sexual orientation. What if we each have the capacity to love (and be sexually intimate with) any other human, but social forces pressure most of us into believing we must only be interested in the opposite sex? Those same social forces would also likely pressure us into believing we must “really” be gay if we happen to experience some romantic or sexual feelings for the same sex. And yet those feelings are actually a normal part of growing up for most humans. Why aren’t they evidence that we’re “really” human? (Why the need to rush to assign someone a label?)
I don’t think I was really “always” a lesbian and just in denial of it. I loved some of my best female friends in the kind of “romantic friendship” way that is typical of girls. But I also fell madly in love with a variety of boys, including boyfriends with whom I had semi-serious relationships. I nearly got engaged to my boyfriend in college, and ended up saying no simply because I didn’t want marriage to interfere with my career aspirations.
When I fell in love with a woman shortly after college, I was shocked at first. I couldn’t imagine being even remotely physical with her, and sex certainly never crossed my mind. But I felt towards her what I had felt towards the men I’d been in love with and involved with, so it seemed to mean something more than just a friendship connection.
I suppose I could’ve written it off as a weird crush, but then it happened again a few years later, and that’s when I started to investigate the possibility of opening myself up to being involved with a woman. The more I thought about it, and read about it, the more my mind gradually opened to the idea. (Like any good academic, I did a ton of reading about relationships between women, in history as well as in the present, and started writing papers about lesbian identity and theory.) Eventually I really embraced the identity of lesbian and had relationships with women exclusively from my mid twenties to late thirties.
But when a long term relationship with a woman came to an end a few years ago, I had trouble meeting single lesbians in my age range who appealed to me (I’m more into the intellectual, not so much the sporty types). So I decided to see what it would be like to date a man. I ended up meeting a man I connect with on an amazing number of levels, and we’re still together (four years later). We’re very atypical in many ways (in terms of gender norms and all kinds of other social norms), but the fact remains that he’s a man and I’m a woman.
I don’t think that I’m “really” a lesbian on some kind of fundamental, hard-wired level, any more than I think that I’m “really” straight. If anything, I suppose I could be “really” bisexual, but then, couldn’t we all be? But most of us would never even entertain that thought long enough to give it the chance to even flicker into a reality. Society teaches women to keep careful boundaries around our sexuality (female friends are for friendship only and men are for romance — never mind that our best female friends are often better matches for us in every other way!) Society teaches men to keep even more careful boundaries, to the point that men are often unable to form emotionally intense bonds with other men.
The subject of the third unit, which we’re not going to have time to get to, is how we know what we “know” from scholarly and scientific research, and we were going to take a closer look at how most of the research done to date (and possibly any research of this type) is terribly flawed by all kinds of faulty assumptions and hidden (or blatant) social agendas. The flaws in the research are really quite shocking. The problem is that so much of what we try to study and learn about gender and sexuality is simply not knowable, at least not in any kind of scientific way. So that’s why we’re working on the personal essay instead, given that what we know through our own experiences is sometimes the best source of knowledge about these kinds of matters.