It’s not about the sex, it’s about the public lewd behaviour. Sure, whatever. Larry Craig’s misdemeanor has driven a lot of talk not just about sexual identities, but the practices of homosexuals.

Andrew at Air Pollution has been critiquing those who would label Senator Craig (as those before him) as being gay. He has also been dissecting the icky factor in reporting this story: bathrooms and cruising. Andrew and I have had a number of discussions about the construction of sexual identities, and for different reasons we have been uneasy with the politics thereof. However, we completely agree that professing sexuality in public has its problems:

Many college students, in my experience, see the development of GLBT identities in a pretty straightforward trajectory: in the nineteenth-century we couldn’t speak, now we can. Many of them have, in fact, read Foucault and they understand that identities are historically constituted and change over time. But what is so often missing in these discussions, both on college campus and on the internet, is how the injunction to speak can often be just as limiting as it can be emancipatory. Speaking creates categories, forcing people into them against their will. Obviously Foucault made this point, and it probably does little good for me to say it here in this form, but I think its important to emphasize when this sort of thing happens. The automatic reaction should not be “if only he could have come out of the closet,” but rather, “how unfortunate we live in a society where the ability to freely express sexual desires, in all their (consensual) forms, remains a dream.”

Indeed the creation of a defined category produces conformity as well. Why should everyone be labeled? Could not Senator Craig simply have sought gratification?

Last semester I assigned André Gide’s The Immoralist to some students (a book that I picked with Andrew’s assistance). I was myself surprised at one student’s reaction: she was unwilling to accept the sexual openness proposed in the book. In her opinion, Michel’s unwillingness to come out the closet made him sick, made his wife sick, made the people whom he touched sick. Simply put, his disease was not admitting his true sexuality.

Andrew isn’t he only one talking about sexual identities. On the other side of the political spectrum, Marc at Spinning Clio is criticizing a work that purports to find same-sex marriage in the late Middle Ages. Projecting contemporary homosexuality, in particular the desire to marry one’s same sex partner, reads too much into the past. In communities where each marriage was scrutinized, would not couples affrèrés meet resistance? Would homosexual men and women seek emotional fulfillment through marriage? Marc hits an important point: deep affection between men need not be manifested sexually.

All these examples show more about how identities are constructed and employed than how sexuality is conceived. So many identities are constructed on the belief of unchangeable, unshakable natures that they become essentialist, bordering on nativism or indigenism. These identities become so confining that they tend to isolate those who employ them. Indeed they are best employed when the identifying group wishes to resist modernization. The danger is that they will not participate in the discussion about modernization, rather it will occur around them as they are immune to it. Or that modernization will disturb the root assumptions upon which identities are based. Among the problems faced by Alsatians under German rule, for example, was how to argue that they were who they were (people shaped by history and tradition) and participate in German politics and global commerce.

The point is best driven home by Mahmood Mamdani in Citizen and Subject. By identifying Africans with tribal communities, colonial governments could keep them under traditional tribal justice and traditional tribal authority. Thus they had limited access to European institutions. The African worker, in particular, could not make choices about development and progress. S/he was always a visitor to the modern world, and what s/he experienced could not change African society.

Labeling Senator Craig “gay” potentially constrains him to being a man who cruises for sex in bathrooms–as much as it constrains gay men. It constrains him to live up to an identity that is not as stable as it seems.

(Disclosure: I hate people who fuck in public places. It unnerves me. Sorry, Andrew, I’ve reported a few couples in various states of passion in the library because, dammit, I have work to do. They were all heterosexual.)