Race, Sexual Orientation, and Anti-Essentialism

Jerome McCristal Culp

Lesbian identity—and our playing out of it—matters. At the same time, Lesbian performances are not unconstrained. We do not choose freely from an unlimited set of possibilities. While we make and remake our identities, we do so within the boundaries of con­ventions; and while we may choose to transgress those boundaries, we do so at the risk of making our performances unintelligible.1

No one will have to call themselves gay. Maybe that’s at the bottom of my impatience with the term. It answers a false argument, a false accusation. That is, that you have no right to be here, that you have to prove your right to be here. I’m saying I have nothing to prove. The world also belongs to me.2

We are all many things at once, and some of what we are may seem­ingly contradict other parts of our identity. For example, as a gay man of African descent, I, like many others, live out what may ap­pear to be antagonistic truths. The apparent antagonism rests in a dysfunctional prioritizing of identities represented in the question, "Which are you, African American or gay?” To act as if these things are not always simultaneously true—and both worthy of loving af – firmation—is to fall victim to the socially constructed antagonism between them.3

THE MOON WAS still in the dark evening sky over the conference center near the University of Colorado Law School. Ducks, who mate for life, were dancing among the water and the reeds of the brook near the conference center. I was thinking of those complete matings as I thought of how gender, sexual orientation, and race work to­gether. It was the early summer and I was attending my first Critical Race Theory Conference, and my somewhat arrogant paper, "The Michael Jackson Pill," had been presented along with a number of other papers by members of the conference to an embarrassingly large group of scholars of color. Though I published parts of this paper as three other papers subsequently including a large part in the Michigan Law Review, this was my first attempt to deal with the notion of race, not simply to accept it.

I gained much insight about that paper from that conference about race and my ignorance of its use and abuse, but one of the most important comments made by both the presenters and a number of conference participants was that, when they thought of Michael Jack­son, they thought of gender bending, not racial bending. I had used the title of that article as I did subsequently because to me the almost total change in Michael Jackson’s appearance posed the question, what if Americans all had the option of shifting racial identity and what would that mean for race and racial relations in America? How­ever, the participants kept on insisting that what Michael Jackson did with his music and his hips and his appearance had more to do with not fitting into standard gender categories than with obscuring race. I reluctantly saw the point. It seemed to me that race was too often lost in thinking about other issues: we couldn’t talk about race today be­cause poverty or class or Americanism or globalization was more im­portant. I hoped that what has come to be called critical race theory would move the discussion of race from the back burner, but I was troubled by the point that was so clear to most people. Michael Jack­son was not just a black person changing his appearance. He, like "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince," was engaging in an interro­gation of race and gender at the same time and in much the same way that Madonna has tested gender and sexuality and Dennis Rodman has obscured race, gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation. How to deal with the questions raised by this problem? I sat down on a rock and. . .

A fellow, I guess I should say person, whose gender identity I could not be sure of was looking down at me. This person was dressed like "The Artist Formerly Known as Prince" with a dash of

James Baldwin, painted red nails and dark ruby lipstick. There was a certain racial pluralism about his/her look. If you looked directly at his/her face you thought the person was African American, but if you glanced from the side maybe Korean, or Native American. I resis­ted the urge to tell him/her the lipstick was too much, but before I could speak him/her spoke to me.

"Professor Culp, you have gotten yourself into another pickle: race, gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation. How are you going to get out of that?" I was a little startled, but not too startled to get con­trol of this conversation. I hadn’t been teaching for twelve years for nothing. "I don’t have any idea what you are talking about, and in any case who are you and why are you disturbing my sleep?" "My name is Tinkerbell and I am the visualization of all the pent-up sexual passion and emotion that has occurred at every Critical Race Theory conference that has ever met." I thought to myself that I could see how that much tension and emotion could create a image that one could visualize, but my question was, why was it talking to me? I said to Tinkerbell, "Let me go back to dreaming some dream where I actu­ally have sex instead of one where we talk about unfulfilled passions and emotions. I have had enough to fill my waking life without see­ing them in my dreams." Tinkerbell just laughed, and, with a kind of magical grace, he leapt from rock to rock, causing the mated and un­mated ducks to fly away. From the other side of the pond he spoke over the bubbling brook: "If you listen, your dreams from now on will be emotionally satisfying and full of passion." Now if I had been awake I would have questioned Tinkerbell on exactly what that meant and would have pressed him/her on how that was going to benefit me, but this was a dream and I was asleep, so I said instead, "How are we going to do that?"

Tinkerbell snorted and waived his arms above his head and he/she and I were transported to one of the conference rooms where the meeting had taken place earlier. Surrounding the table were the participants from the conference earlier in the day—they had no clothes on, but I seemed to be the only person who noticed this fact (I know this is silly, but it is my dream). This meant, of course, that naked people kept jumping up and down and going to the board with various "things" swaying back and forth. I kept averting my eyes and tried to keep from laughing or becoming sexually excited. Tinkerbell was standing at the head of the conference table leading a discussion about how we could eliminate homophobia and sexual and racial oppression with an anti-oppression pill. "All oppression comes from an essentialist commitment to eliminate difference and all oppression will go away," someone said from the corner of the table. Tinkerbell said, "As you wish," and with a wink and a flourish said, "It is done." Instantaneously everyone’s genitalia disappeared. Except for Tinkerbell and myself, they all looked like asexual man­nequins. For some reason this wink and flourish did not work on me, though the slight erection and sexual titillation I felt instantaneously disappeared.

At this point I spoke up: "I don’t think this will work for the obvi­ous reason that we need sex to carry on the species." Tinkerbell, still fully clothed with no greater hint of her/his sexual identity, gave me a nod and said, "That is only a slight problem. Many living things are able to survive without sex or sexes, and presumably we could have children using cells combined in a petri dish, grown in an incubator, and raised by computers, or if it is the combination that you fear, we could simply take a cell and reproduce people." One of the other par­ticipants, still naked but sexually and racially indistinct with pin holes for eyes and a slit for a mouth, added, "Much of racial oppres­sion has to do with the existence and importance of sexuality. Black men were hanged for appearing to want to have or for having sex with white women, and Asian and black women were fetishized by American culture into prostitutes for the pleasure of predominantly white men. Women thought to be lesbians are forced to have sex with men in the armed forces to prove they are not lesbians. Without sexu­ality there would be no reason for that racial, gender, or sexual orien­tation oppression." I squirmed in my seat, searching for the argument that must exist in my brain. "I know," I began, "that the courts have always been obsessed with the sexuality of people of color. In the Civil Rights Cases one of the lower courts examined whether exclud­ing a black couple, the Robinsons, from a train would have been all right if the conductor did not know that Mr. Robinson was black and therefore assumed that the reason this white man was traveling with a black women was because she was a prostitute." I paused and looked around at the eerie sight of all of these raceless and sexless mannequins and added, "We also know that many early feminist groups were reluctant to associate with black women because they would be accused of being prostitutes and loose women themselves.

Race and sexuality have always been intimately intertwined, but that does not seem to be a sufficient reason to get rid of it." I paused again, and, shutting my eyes, I said, "I would miss the sexual desire associ­ated with the existence of sexes and the hope for sex. Sexuality is a good thing, and to lose it would be a bad thing."

One of the mannequins, I could no longer tell my critical race col­leagues apart, said, "Why not simply keep sex and eliminate desire? If it’s the sexualization of women of color and black men that drives the social and legal oppression of people of color, we can eliminate it by eliminating its cause—sexual desire. We keep the sex without the sexuality." I knew there must be something wrong with this response, but I could not put my finger on it. Tinkerbell cleared her/his throat and said,"Without sexual desire, who will ever engage in the messy, primitive aspects of sex? Without sexuality, can sex exist?" A different mannequin began to speak: "Jerome, aren’t you willing to give up anything in order to eliminate gender, racial, and sexual orientation oppression? Isn’t social justice worth an erection?" I thought to my­self no, but I responded, "Maybe, but it seems to me we lost all sense of identity when we eliminate sex and we lost all sense of romance when we eliminate desire."

Tinkerbell started to laugh. "Sexual desire does not require ro­mance, and there can be romance without sexual desire. When young men make a sexually ambiguous male perform fellatio, there may be desire, but there is no romance. Or when the cadets of VMI treat their newly enrolled female colleagues as objects of playful harassment, there may be desire but no romance." I cleared my throat and added, "The cadets may have desire and romance or neither when they ha­rass their male or female colleagues, but if sex exists and desire en­dures, then there is sexual tension whenever people interact." One of the mannequins from the other side of the table added, "We can’t nor­mally require people to eliminate their sex, but we can require them to take a kind of sexual desire control pill. Such pills prevent profes­sors from sexually harassing their students and supervisors from sex­ually oppressing their employees." Tinkerbell said, "Sometimes, but classrooms and offices are full of sexual tension. The sexual desire control pill obviously is not enough to totally control sexual desire, or sexual harassment would not be the problem it is."

I added, "Isn’t that the problem with all of these pills of control or elimination: they only deal with part of the aspect of the interaction of race, gender, and sexual orientation?" One of the mannequins be­side me interrupted, "One of the points of sexual orientation is to allow sexual desire toward people of the same sex to exist. A pill that is going to eliminate sexual orientation discrimination has to have a desire-creating aspect." Tinkerbell responded, "Do you mean that we are going to put aphrodisiacs in everyone’s drink and hope that sex­ual desire will break out creating a sexual orgy?" The mannequin standing beside me shouted, "No! No! Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals are always seen as being purely sexual beings. To be gay or lesbian is not just to be sexual. Sex is only a part of their lives, and efforts to as­sociate them with uncontrollable sexual desire is an effort to demo­nize them just as blacks and Asian men and women have been sexual – ized and demonized over the years." Tinkerbell, standing straight up and moving to the middle of the room, said, "I understand that possi­bility, but why shouldn’t we see sexual orientation as a product of the genderization of people and sexual desire? If we remove that inter­section, sexual orientation discrimination and sexual orientation will disappear. I knew that the heterosexuals would object to the elimina­tion of desire because it is at the heart of their control of society, but I did not think that those on the margins who are racial or sexual mi­norities would make the same claim."

I was still uneasy with Tinkerbell and these mannequins in the room, so finally I said to Tinkerbell, "Can’t we return gender and de­sire to this discussion?" Tinkerbell smiled a wicked smile at me and said, "If you insist," and he/she waived his/her arms and the people regained their genitalia and faces and I immediately regained my slight erection and sexual desire. Tinkerbell said, "Maybe this experi­ment ought to teach us that law cannot solve problems involving sex­ual desire, gender, race, and sexual orientation. These issues may be too big for legal remedies." I responded, "It is not that law cannot do this but that most of our efforts end up conflating sex and gender and sexual orientation and gender, as Frank Valdez has noted.4 These con­flations confuse us and do not solve the problem of how these areas interact. Single pills always remove the seemingly offensive object of our concern without dealing with the larger question of how to live with difference."

One of the participants said, "My partner is a researcher on AIDS therapy, and that work, and the work of people treating high blood pressure, suggests that many diseases require a multiple drug strat­egy. One drug helps to kill the AIDS virus, while the other helps to build resistance to its coming back. Similarly, for high blood pressure, one drug helps reduce blood pressure directly while others help to protect the heart and kidneys from damage." Tinkerbell snorted, "Do you mean to say that oppression is one disease and racial, gender, and sexual orientation discrimination are just aspects of that disease? If so, does that mean that one of the pills must be a pill of awareness that the obscuring of race, gender, and sexual orientation is part of the problem?"

One of my critical race colleagues responded, "No, oppression is many diseases that require different combinations of drugs to cure them. Reducing gay and lesbian oppression requires understanding how much that oppression is a requirement that people be silent about their sexuality but also how much that sexuality is seen as de­pravity that threatens heterosexuals."

I said, "What you mean is that we have to appreciate the differ­ences in oppression to eliminate them and that if we essentialize op­pressions we are unlikely to eliminate any of them permanently." "What is the exact mix to eliminate racial, gender, and sexual orienta­tion oppression?" I started to say when Tinkerbell waived her/his arms above her/his head, and he/she and I were back on the rocks in the brook outside the conference center. "Tinkerbell," I said, "there are other solutions that we have not explored. What if we required people to mate for life like those two ducks? Wouldn’t that eliminate sexual oppressions without eliminating either sexual desire or sex?" Tinkerbell danced among the reeds as the ducks mated at his/her feet. "Obviously you haven’t been married or you wouldn’t assume that lifetime bonding means the continual existence of sexual desire or fidelity." I said, "That is true, but that pair of ducks seem happy to me." As she/he disappeared in a pink cloud he/she chuckled, "You mean those two mallards?"