orienteering, not orientation

I’m writing from the 10th Biennial Thomas R. Watson Conference at the University of Louisville, where the conference theme is Responsivity– responding to student need, to public desires, responding to the world outside of the academy. Public engagement and bringing our work to the wide world has become something of an obsession in the field, which is part of what makes the continued perception of English specifically and the humanities generally as insular or obscure so frustrating. More work to be done.

I just saw a good keynote from Jonathan Alexander of the University of California-Irvine. Alexander’s talk was inspired by the case of Ted Haggard, the mega church pastor who had the ear of the Bush administration and was caught frequenting male “masseuses” regularly. Haggard initially denied everything, and then later admitted that he had engaged in sexual contact with other men many times. But what Haggard refused to do was to accept a simple definition by the media as a gay man. The effort to define him in this way was undertaken as forcefully by liberals as conservatives; Alexander quoted Jon Stewart from the Daily Show mocking Alexander by saying that he couldn’t “run from the gay.” As Alexander noted, this was coming from someone who thought of himself as criticizing only hypocrisy, as standing for gay people and gay rights, and yet his aggression and mockery ultimately had the opposite effect. Alexander asked us to think about why, in an era of rapid advancement for gay rights, we remain culturally indisposed to push people into categories rather than to accept their questioning, their status as unfinished or undefined beings.

Alexander’s talk made me think about a student of mine, who was in the first upper-level course I ever taught. A college junior, he wrote a remarkable essay about his experience as a 17 year old, telling some of his friends that he had been having sex with other men. His friends were eager to be positive and accepting of this information– too eager. His privately sharing this information led them to pressure him to come out on National Coming Out Day. To them, this was a matter of necessity, of him declaring pride in who he was. But at the time, he was not interested in sharing that information more widely. More importantly to him, he didn’t then (and still didn’t, at the time he wrote his essay) identify as gay. It wasn’t a label that he felt applied to him or his life. What was most striking about his essay was how adamantly his friends believed that, in pushing him to adopt an identity he was not yet ready to claim, they were honoring him. Their attitude appears to have been that this is just the way it works– you have sex with other men, you come out as gay.

They were teenagers, and so this attitude is very forgivable. But I think that this story reflects a broader reality of our current social attitudes towards sex between men. (And not, usually, sex between women, which is a whole other story.) We’ve made tremendous leaps forward in terms of acceptance and support for gay and lesbian men and women, particularly youth. But we seem to still need the comfort and structure of categories, and categories limit and constrain as much as they support.

I can already hear the annoyance from people like Andrew Sullivan who, not entirely unfairly, complain about the postmodern tendency to act as if there is no settled sexual identity for anyone at all. I don’t at all doubt the physiological differences that often place people comfortably in one sexual identity or another. Saying that there is a spectrum of sexual preference does not at all imply that human beings are equally distributed along the spectrum. A large majority of people appear to be situated comfortably on the heterosexual extreme, although given the still-prevalent reality of social disdain (or just awkwardness) about being queer, that may be more of a social artifact than we think. And many people seem to be equally comfortably situated on the homosexual side of the spectrum. But to say that is not to deny that there are also people who have never felt comfortable being placed in that way. What respecting people’s sexual and romantic autonomy requires is to respect their self-definition, in part because of the simple fact that only the individual can experience their own sexual desire.

Alexander spoke a bit about the word “orientation” and what it means. I want us to think, culturally, less about orientation as a fixed identity and more about orienteering — the process of figuring out where you are and where you’re heading. Many people will end up pointing definitively in one direction. But we’ve got to respect the people who continue to explore, even when that exploration seems to be a wandering path. And we should take care to remember that everybody comes to comfort with their sexual self at their own pace. We need to give people that time, and that space, without rushing to define them, or joining with Jon Stewart in his insistence that any exploration is a matter of running away.