Who’s Who around the table


During the holiday season, when people of all cultures and sexualities party with their families or their chosen posse, my thoughts turn to guest lists and social ties. (Some of these are covered with cartoon reindeer and are rarely worn more than once, if at all – but I digress.)

Should I follow my mother’s tradition by sending out a photocopied letter (or mass email) to everyone I’ve ever met, telling them all the news from my household for the past year? Should I send cards and give gifts? To whom? If family members are entitled to special attention, do in-laws count?

I decided years ago that my girlfriend’s sons were my stepsons, even though I already had a history (or a herstory/mystory) in a lesbian community that excluded males. So when my blood daughter provided me with a son-in-law and a baby grandson, I could easily accept the added testosterone in my family circle. The ground had been prepared, so to speak. I’m still not sure at what point in a stepson’s dating relationship his girlfriend becomes part of my family too. Or what this person would be to me if she ever “comes out” as bisexual or lesbian.

Various definitions of “community” have served many a social scientist with material for a Ph.D. thesis. The cultures of sexual minorities (for lack of a clearer term) have developed their own conceptions of “family” over the years. Even the heterosexual, missionary-position social “mainstream” has had to adapt to a rising rate of divorce, remarriage and sexual relationships that aren’t formally defined. Figuring out who identifies as what, and who is connected with whom, isn’t simple.

There was a time, not far in the past, when all four strands of the acronym GLBT or LGBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) were invisible in mainstream culture except as criminals or psychiatric patients. The history of the BDSM (bondage/discipline/Dominance/submission/sadism/masochism, etc.) community is, if possible, even more shadowy and contested. In some sense, Dominance/submission has a very long history, as do various methods and devices for restricting mobility and inflicting pain. The history of the “safe, sane, consensual” enjoyment of all of the above is harder to trace for obvious and less-obvious reasons, including the influence of the unreal worlds of literature and cyberspace.

There are other sexual communities that once consisted of discreet networks of friends. Married swingers (who temporarily trade spouses for sex-play) are different from people in polyamorous groupings (long-term sexual relationships of more than two people), but all of them have rejected the traditional concept of “love” as sexually exclusive, and many have ventured beyond heterosexuality.

The process of “coming out” as an X (lesbian, gay man, bisexual, poly person, leather person, trans person) is endlessly fascinating to poets and fiction-writers as well as to social scientists. Creative writers might just be the only ones who can tell that story accurately. “Coming out” usually refers to several stages of self-identification: first you “come out” to yourself (“Omigod, I’m the pervert my parents warned me to stay away from!”), then you “come out” by seeking others like yourself. You may “come out” to those who are different from you because they are ignorant yahoos who need to be educated about your community, or because they are important enough in your life to hear the truth. Some brave souls finish the job all at once by “coming out” to an audience of millions. (U.S. comedian Ellen Degeneres and Canadian politician Svend Robinson come to mind.)

An existing community – no matter how hidden – seems crucial to the “coming out” process. You can’t “come out” into a social void. In that sense, “coming out” as a “pervert” (to label all sexual minorities equally) is parallel to the upper-class tradition in which young ladies of a certain age (usually eighteen) “came out” into society at debutante balls where they were openly presented to bachelors of their own social class as women suitable for marriage. (The quinceanera, celebrated when a girl turns fifteen, is an existing Latin American version of the “coming-out ball.”)

The White Anglo-Saxon heterosexual ritual of “coming out” marked the boundaries of respectable courtship. Any girl who had not made her debut into the right social class was clearly too young or too declasse to be seen as a suitable mate. “Coming out” served to define who was “in,” who was “available,” and who was not.

So who gets to “come out” into a sexual-minority community and stay in it? Assuming that the community isn’t actually imprisoned (a whole other topic), there is always an element of conscious choice. In the early days of the “gay rights” movement of the 1970s, the few who were publicly “out” claimed to speak for the many who were deep in the closet. Some of the closeted had never done anything more transgressive than fantasizing about “perversion.” Some were lonely teenagers with no sexual experience, and some had been “respectably” married for years. Their unspoken feelings were identified as the roots of sexual identity.

Over the years, some people who “came out” as “gay” came to realize that they were still attracted to the other gender. After being painfully confronted by the purists in their chosen community, some newly self-aware (or born-again) bisexuals “came out” again by finding or forming a new community.

Some who “came out” as gay men or lesbians eventually came to realize that their sexual feelings were a symptom of gender issues. Some of these tried to “come out” as new women or new men, like the goddess Athena springing from the head of Zeus as an adult in full armor. Former “dykes” who identify as transmen have found themselves unwelcome in exclusively lesbian communities (see my previous comment), and former male “queens” who identify as actual women are often regarded as embarrassments in gay-male communities where feminine glamor has not been fashionable since Judy Garland died in 1969. As the number of transpeople continues to grow, so does their own community (or communities).

Many who have “come out” into the “poly” and BDSM communities have gone through parallel changes, as have these communities in general. Both the “poly” and BDSM crowds are subject to ongoing legal discrimination, specifically regarding marriage law (which, even in liberal Canada, defines a union of two individuals only) and assault laws, which can be (and have been) used against consensual participants.

In some avant-garde cities, there no longer seems to be a clear boundary between the GLBT community (ies) and other “pervert” communities. This means that the kinds of people who once assumed they would die young, probably in some harsh gray facility, can afford to plan futures. It also means that formerly insular communities are easier to find and to join than ever before. Both acceptance and rejection can come from unexpected sources.

So what will “coming out” look like in the future? It’s hard to predict. The crisis in the U.S. economy is guaranteed to limit opportunities for all sorts of people. The community of sex workers is likely to grow, not because turning tricks is good kinky fun, but because more people will be willing to do anything that pays.

The election of an African-American as U.S. President shows that a form of bigotry which was once deeply entrenched can gradually disappear, just as the election of JFK, a Catholic president of Irish descent, marked the end of another kind of ethnic prejudice. Legal setbacks for “gay rights” (including same-sex marriage), legally-mandated monogamy, Victorian laws against sex work that remain on the books, and door-crashing by the local vice squad all show that there is much room for progress.

So for now, at least for this season, let us try to conceive of “community” as generously as possible. None of us can be sure who will be in our chosen families by this time next year.

Jean Roberta
December 2008 – January 2009

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2008 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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