This post is by Paul J. Edwards.
“I don’t care that you’re a faggot, just stay away from me.” It remains painful that these were the most memorable words said to me on my high school Austrian exchange trip my senior year. I was in the gymnasium locker room with the other boys of our program and I had just made an offhanded compliment about one of boys on the trip. At his remark I became intensely defensive, I mentioned that I had a girlfriend and wasn’t gay, he blew it off as a case of me being closeted and told me to leave him alone. I found myself pleading for him to believe me, that I was straight, just like him. Looking back almost ten years later, I realize that getting into a debate about my sexuality was just as fraught with difficulty as any larger discussion about gender or sexuality. Of course, any discussion that starts with a slur is bound to go downhill.
At the time, my identity was centered on being straight and limiting any connotation of being otherwise. And yet, I knew that that identity was very limiting, I realize now the cage of identified sexuality leads from conformity to self-repression. In a time before anyone called me names, I remember wearing a skirt and my hair long at a very progressive summer camp and no one batted an eye or insulted me. I paid it no mind, it was something I wanted to do and it felt good. Now, when I wear a towel getting out of the shower, I hold it around my chest not my waist, simply because it feels right to me.
Society has a way of pushing against the inclinations we hold inside of us; that we are good people and that each individual is worthy of admiration. When I was about six years old, I walked in on my mother changing and I became upset. My mother put on a robe and sat down with me and asked why this bothered me so much. I made a big case that people aren’t supposed to be naked in front of other people; that there was something wrong with the human body. My mother then told me one of the most important lessons any person can learn at that age: every body is beautiful and every person is beautiful. As I grew older, I understood that although beauty and attraction are not wholly interchangeable, one’s own desire to connect intimately in a relationship depends heavily on seeing the beauty in another person and being attracted to it. And to that, I do not think of myself as straight, I’m attracted to people on an individual basis, the only standards set by first impressions.
I held that belief with me even as a college residential advisor. The hardest problem I ever dealt with involved a student who had just come out. I cannot tell her story as well as she can but I will share that she came from a wealthy family from the South and that she attended an all-girls Catholic boarding school. She had only come out to me and her roommate, but she still felt confined, even in our college’s progressive student politics. To her, being gay wasn’t her identity, it was just a fact — one that she didn’t feel require any more steps of self discovery. Of course anyone who has come out knows that any step away from the traditional norms of sexuality leads inevitably to future talks with friends, family and beyond. She found it increasingly hard to live in the queer culture at college and I struggled to find a like minded older student to help her through the process. We talked often during the first few weeks of her first year. The highest compliment I could receive was that she had completely forgotten my gender during our conversations, she felt completely at ease. Unfortunately, living in a coed dorm was hard for her after boarding school and she eventually left for the all-girls’ hall and to my sad understanding she transferred after her first year. Our student body is very open to discussing issues of queerness in any shape but for this student, it was “how do I be gay and normal?” Although I shared some wonderful moments with that student, I was never able to give her a satisfactory answer.
I feel hard pressed to give an answer now, five years later. When sexuality and queerness become issues of nature versus nurture, there arises a certain danger in exploring the science of sexuality. Often, we hold that science holds fundamental answers to inquiries into our world, and with that belief we see reason and rationality as intrinsic to science. However, if one were to look at how we lend credence to racial differences as science, we find an odious pattern that fractures any concept of an inclusive human race, thecreationofmedicineonlyforAfricanAmericansasastrikingexample. If science were able to give a conclusive reason for the existence of “divergent” sexuality, would society move beyond its prejudice? If we use race or gender as an example, we could answer that unfortunately nothing would change drastically. The fact that Bradley Manning’s sexuality is given as a reason for his behavior speaks to the bizarre nature of identity politics. I admit that creating an egalitarian society is not the goal of science but the amount of hope that society puts on the shoulders of science is unacceptable. In a perfect world, science would give us an answer that would not affect how parents love their children, how students treat each other, how employers treat employees and how the state treats its citizens. And yet, I fear these are the exact solutions the nature versus nurture debate will not give us and I can’t imagine an answer that would have made my resident’s life easier.
Paul J. Edwards is currently a American Studies Ph. D. candidate at Boston University. He completed his BA in Music at the Wesleyan University and has been affiliated with the same university as Head Resident.