The Subtle Chemistry of Relationship

Photo Credit: everyone’s idle via Compfight cc

Day 9 of Lent

Tonight is another one of those nights when it is very difficult to keep up with this daily blogging vow. It has been a long day: A full day of work, followed by an evening with family, followed by getting my son in bed. This Lenten discipline is beginning to teach me why I sometimes go one or two months without writing much of anything at all. I am tired, but I am content.

As my wild Friday night at home of watching cartoons and telling silly stories with my son drifts to a close, I am reflecting on several experiences I have had this week that have reinforced in my mind the importance of the “queer” label I use to identify myself. More and more I am convinced that, despite its vagueness (and perhaps because of it), it captures my experience better than any of the alternatives.

A number of social scripts exist for life outside heteronormative gender and sexual norms. Some of these scripts trade on negative stereotypes; others are tied closely to the lives and stories of self-identified gays and lesbians, especially as gays and lesbians have gained greater social acceptance in the USA and elsewhere in the course of my lifetime.

In some ways this makes sense. It strikes me that the emerging narrative around gays and lesbians, from the struggle for marriage equality to the rallying cry of “born this way,” is that gays and lesbians are like straight folk, just pointed in different directions. This isn’t to say that all gays and lesbians are the same. Just as there are many, many ways to be straight, there are many ways to be gay or lesbian; those who claim those identities resist tidy generalization. But the way they function as identities and as forms of relatedness seems to be very much the same. “Straight,” “gay” and “lesbian” seem to name stable, fixed dispositions, innate or formed very early in life, to relate emotionally and sexually to people of the opposite or same gender. The forms and patterns of relatedness are similar, just directed towards different characteristic objects. Bisexuality frequently gets cast in this same mold: as a fixed, stable disposition to form relationships with men or women.

My own experience of relatedness, though, feels more fluid and diffuse than can be captured within the notion of a stable, fixed disposition. When I quantify over the entirety of my experience, I can say that I have felt related to both women and men. But it isn’t as if there has been any given time of my life when I have been disposed to relate to both women and men equally. I can reflect back on times in my life when I have been more attracted to women and times when I have been more attracted to men. I have known many people who have experienced this kind of fluidity over time in their patterns of attraction and relationship. Some of them identify as “gay” or “lesbian,” but make it clear that the time they spent in relationships with people of the opposite gender was based on genuine attraction.

Another way that the notion of sexual orientation as a fixed, stable disposition feels confining to me is that it tends to isolate sexual and emotional attraction from the remainder of a person’s overall psychic life: the prevailing gender norms, the individual’s social location, effects of race and class, and still others. Just as chemical reactions take place under conditions that can expedite or impede them, attraction and relatedness happen in social conditions that either foster them, slow them down, or in some cases deprive them of some necessary ingredient and block them entirely. The identities we claim for ourselves help us steer ourselves through our lives like rudders, but the realities through which we steer can be fluid and shifting, as conducive to reactivity as a strong acid or as inert as water.

For me, calling myself “queer” is my way of owning that fluidity in attraction and relationship and admitting that I am in it and it is in me. Rather than trying to analyze it under controlled conditions in a laboratory, isolating some facet of it in my life and identifying exclusively with it, I am trying to reflect upon the reality of it in my life in all of its complex, subtle lived chemistry. Describing it is a hard task; I still do not think I have found a language that describes my experience very well. Some of that is due to my own dim-wittedness, but some of it is due, I think, to the fact that as a culture we still have an impoverished understanding of gender and sexuality.

Lots of good people, though, are struggling to change that. In the conversations I have with people, and the public discussions I witness, I am thankful for folks who include and take seriously the “Q” in “LGBTQ.” When people take the time to include explicitly queer-identified folk like me in their discussions and honor our experiences as being a legitimate part of the overall discussion of gender and sexuality, I notice. We queer folk have our own role to play in reflecting upon the subtle chemistry of human relationship.

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