we've always been where?
April 25, 2016
I think one of the more insteresting things I’ve seen in terms of white discourse around the gay community recently has been this notion that identity policing is both new and tagetting people who’ve ‘always been a part of the community’. The idea has been rolling around in my head and I find it fascinating. Who’s always been part of what community now?
Given that I’ve mostly seen white americans advancing this thesis, let’s restrict the geographical scope of this post to america and, thus, american gay history.
What does it mean to assert that ‘we’ve always been here’? There are a few different assumptions that tag along with this assertion. First is that whatever identity you are talking about has always existed. Second is that even within that singular identity there exists enough coherence to assert that there is also a communal or collective scope to the identity (as in, it isn’t just personal). Third is that there is a ‘here’.
I’ve seen some assert that asexuals are a part of the ‘queer’ community – by default – because we’ve ‘always been here’1. That ‘always’ kind of gets me. Because this is really asserting that asexual people have always existed. Yes, I can already hear the screaming of white aces over how I’m invalidating their identities and blah blah blah.
And sure, depending on how you slice it, the ‘always’ can make sense. It could be referring to the likely fact that people who don’t experience sexual desire (or whatever the current definiton of asexual is) have always existed. This would be true. However, the existence of such people doesn’t necessarily imply that asexuals have always existed.
Its weird. In the case of terms like ‘gay’ and all, people are at least somewhat aware that going back into history and labelling just about any historical figure from any period of time ‘gay’ is… anachronistic. Calling Alexander the Great ‘gay’ because he had some kind of relationship with another man is anachronistic. In terms of history, we generally understand that removing something from its historical context tends to strip away important aspects of its meaning.
Words for sexuality like ‘gay’ and ‘asexual’ are really new. Indeed, having a distinction between sexuality and gender in the first place is really new. So too with having a distinction between romantic and sexual desire. Pretty much all the words commonly used in english to describe sexuality and gender are really new. And their meanings cannot be really understood outside of their historical context.
As such, it simply isn’t true to say that asexuals have always been here. It also isn’t true to say that gay people have always been here. So too with trans, bi, pan, and the multitude of contemporary identities.
The other pressing question is: where, exactly, is the ‘here’ we’ve always been a part of? What is this place? Location? Community?
This is where this assertion tends to really fall apart because, well, few people bother actually identifying or describing this (conceptual) space where we all are.
I realize that I’ve been a fairly heavy proponent of the idea that there is not singular ‘gay/queer/lgbt/whatever umbrella you want’ community. Umbrellas – when used correctly – refer to distinct (sometimes overlapping) communities rather than a singular, unified one (honestly? I think this is the chief virtue of using ‘LGBT’ as the main umbrella, since this quality is explicit).
But more important than there not currently being a singular community is the fact that there has never been a singular community. Not once. Not ever. In other words: there is no ‘here’. We cannot have all been ‘here’ all along because no such place actually exists.
There is no (conceptual) space where all non-heternormative and non-cisnormative people belong. And there has never been such a place. Not going to say that such a place could never exist but… certain things would have to drastically change before this were at all possible.
Ultimately, asserting ‘we’ve always been here’ as a means to legitimize your identity is meaningless. Its an appeal to a mythical history and community.
And before anyone interprets this as me saying that contemporary identities aren’t ‘real’… that isn’t the point. The real point is that you don’t need to appeal to history in order to legitimize your identity. Its already legitimate by virtue of being your identity.
We should most definitely question the impulse we have to try and retroactively create ancestors. Why does Oscar Wilde need to be gay? Because this isn’t a neutral act and is usually invoked for political reasons. You can’t oppress gay men because they’ve ‘always been here’, just look at Oscar Wilde! But you also can’t say that ‘gay’ isn’t a real identity, just look at Oscar Wilde! Gay men have always been ~here~.