This past week I went and saw the play Cock at the Duke theater here in New York. This is a very sparsely written, sparsely staged show in which a young, handsome man must choose between his boyfriend and a woman who he has unexpectedly fallen in love with. As Boyfriend and Girl battle for the attention of the indecisive, identity crisis victim there are many funny lines urging him to do what is natural: living a heterosexual social existence, or following his “born in” gayness. Somehow bisexuality as a concept is only briefly mentioned, but mostly this play is about choice. choice choice choice.
Leaving the theatre I was talking to my companions about how much I liked the show, but how I was surprised that it had opened up this debate which I had thought we already finished. Aren’t we, I said, beyond the point where people believe they can choose their sexuality. We are Born This Way to quote Lady Gaga. The response I got from my friend surprised me, and it was actually the second time in one week that I had someone describe choice as the next era in identity politics.
Please let me backup: Earlier that week my dear friend Cale and I had a long conversation over ramen about Lady Gaga (it seems she enters all conversations about identity) and how she was “a disappointment” to Cale. At first I was indignant. Who could be disappointed? I balked. I said it not as a worshiping fan, but as a person alive in 2012. Gaga might be an acquired taste, but she is notable enough and successful enough that “disappointed” felt like an odd word. Cale explained, and I will now paraphrase:
We’ve already had champions for the just be yourself/just love yourself movement. This is something we covered in the 90s and earlier. “it’s ok to be gay.” “black is beautiful.” These kinds expressions are good because they confront discrimination but they are still based on one era of identity politics: the What-you-are is Who-you-are era. When Gaga first came on the scene and was acting crazy I was really excited because she wasn’t just acting crazy she was defying categories. What type of person wears a meat dress? well no type. Gaga was creating this elaborate personality that wasn’t actually based on race, religion, or gender. She was simply who she was, with no category of what she was. And so the underlying message wasn’t What-you-are is Who-you-are, it was: Explode-who-you-are and go invent yourself. This is an era of identity politics with much more choice. But then she released the album Born This Way and everything imploded because you don’t have any creative power anymore; you were just born this way. the end.
I’ve shared this conversation with several people and gotten a lot of mixed responses. But it opened up in my head the concept of looking toward choice as the NEXT good thing. My theatre companion for the show Cock suggested to me: perhaps this play was operating in a space where this man’s sexuality was a choice and not inherent. After all, there was not easy answer for the main character. He couldn’t just detect who he was attracted to, he had to choose. And it takes him a play’s worth of time.
So what do I think: I want people to believe it’s ok to be gay. And for now having no explanation other than your genetic makeup is nice. The fact that “it’s not a choice” has been a great defense for gay people, disabled people, and minorities. But as two friends in one week have expressed to me, maybe there’s a new era of social justice where (as long as your not hurting anyone) your choices should be respected too, not just traits that you were born with. That sentence sounds really obvious when I read it back, but in my mind it was a subtle shift. Perhaps we can have it both ways? what you are is ok… and what you choose is ok too.