Alison Laurie

Alison Laurie


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at labels and how people who have same-sex relations have referred to themselves. Language is very important because until language exists people can't name themselves or talk about their sexuality. But then, on the other hand, that doesn't mean that they aren't doing it, but it's a question of at which stage does this become verbalized?

If we go back through the written records we find that every society has had some kind of way of talking about same-sexuality. Among the Greeks there are terms, but more generally it was thought that certainly among men this was something that everybody would be doing: an older man with a younger man, a way of learning of love between men, very important on the battlefield, and those kinds of things. The Greeks were writing a lot about this model.

And we know that from the Greeks, too, the Isle of Lesbos, where the poet Sappho lived, that she wrote many of her poems to women, that she had a university or school for women and that clearly the poems express love between women.

Interestingly, one of the legends about Sappho is that she eventually leaps to her death for love of a man, so once again these kinds of ideas from the Greeks don't talk about exclusive same-sex relationships, and clearly the Greek men were all expected to marry, but there is some view that their love for their wives is not as profound as their love for their comrades. So that's a model coming to us from them, with some terminology.

There are certainly views about same-sex love from Egypt where pharaohs, and also from Rome where kings, did enter into what appear to be some sort of same-sex union, perhaps marriage.

So wherever we turn we can see that there have been instances of same-sexual love and relationships, and that there have probably been some sorts of terminology to refer to this. But it's difficult to make an argument that we're finding terminology which suggests unique, special people are doing it. Even though we do find terms like lesbian existing, going back many, many centuries, and being understood, there isn't necessarily an idea that this was an exclusive sexual orientation as we understand that in a modern term, and sodomite doesn't necessarily carry that view either, any more than you might say that referring to someone as a burglar or stamp collector is everything about their identity or would suggest something that wouldn't change. So it's important, perhaps, to think about that sort of thing.

As we move into the 19th century we see the medicalization of the human body, the rise of the medical profession. They begin to train; they begin to take over, defining many things about the human state.

Prior to then, the understanding of human sexuality had been the province of the church. The church, certainly until the end of the Catholic period, took the view that everybody would be tempted to do any of these sexual sins, or in fact any sin. Everybody would be tempted to masturbate. Everybody would be tempted to do sex with their own sex or sex out of wedlock with the other sex, and that people shouldn't do it. You would need to confess it and promise not to do it again.

And even as we move into the Protestant period we don't get much difference in terms of that. It's all thought to be sin and people shouldn't be doing it.

Now, once we pass through the Enlightenment the church loses its position to make pronouncements about the human conditions. The rise of science is very important here because science says that only science can understand nature, and if God is part of it then it's God's intention that we should investigate these things and find out about them ourselves. So the Enlightenment is very important, and it is that period from the late 18th century that gives rise then to doctors and scientists in the 19th century pronouncing on the human body.

The first things the doctors do is medicalize many aspects; for example, childbirth becomes something that midwives won't be doing anymore, doctors will be doing it. Things like menopause and menstruation become diseases. They're very concerned about the fact that they see the whole female body is a likely site of many diseases because it's so weird to have a uterus, so they begin to start talking about things like hysteria again.

And they become very interested in sexuality, and Jeffery Weeks says, "In many ways they take the views of the church but they medicalize them," so they say we've got this normal sexuality, and then we've got this abnormal sexuality.

The first use of the term homosexual happens in 1869 when Dr Benkert, who was neither a doctor nor was that his real name, refers to homosexual. He makes the term up and he refers to this in a pamphlet where he's arguing for a change in the law in Prussia against buggery and acts between men. This term is then taken up and used by a number of people subsequently. There had been some earlier terms in use, but this is the one that becomes popular, and the first use of this term in English is in 1892. The first use of heterosexual is not until quite a bit later, and in fact bisexual is used for quite awhile as meaning an attraction to the other sex – bi meaning two sexes. So the original usage of all these terms is not quite as we may have learnt them later in the 20th century and so on.

Lesbian stays in common parlance, always being understood, and that's interesting. It's being used in pornography and it continues on as a term which is the oldest term for sex between women.

Now, the term homosexual and the idea of a unique sexual identity, Michel Foucault, writing about this in The History of Sex, tends to be quite strict about this and says that it really only exists from the later part of the 19th century. We might trace it earlier, and we can't completely rule out that some people did think of themselves as having a fixed sexual attraction in earlier times. We simply don't know enough about that.

But certainly by the time we get to Magnus Hirschfeld in Berlin, he sets up the Institute of Sexual Science, and he very much sets up the idea of homosexuality – inversion – as a permanent biologically determined state. Now, he's a medical doctor. He's part of that group of doctors, including people like Cesare Lombroso who was very interested in inborn criminality, which could be physically demonstrated by characteristics of the head – all of these kinds of ideas about the human body that became popular with the Nazis 40 years later, that actually you had biological characteristic which were unchangeable. So we have to see Hirschfeld, although he is a heroic figure and very important in terms of the history of homosexual politics, but we do have to see his ideas about fixed biological identity as part of something which is broader than that.

Now, there were other people at that time who absolutely did not agree with him. Adolf Brand, who started Der Eigene, The Community of the Special, he and people who belonged to that organization in Germany and elsewhere, because there were members of that organization and receiving their magazine in many different countries, their view was that we are "the special." We are especially good, masculine men, and we're just like the Greeks – we love masculinity – and in fact really masculine men can actually only love other men because women are so inferior, who would love them?

It's very sexist, but it is an interestingly different kind of viewpoint and it's mirrored in some respects in the early women's movement in Germany, which shows some tendencies, in some respects, towards lesbian feminism. Lillian Faderman cites a woman who stood up at a conference in about 1905 and said that inverted women had done a great deal for the women's movement, and what thanks had they had? So clearly these views are being shared by women, and they were women who were certainly part of Hirschfeld's movement as well. So we see a whole body of different ideas conflicting.

In terms of the British ideas, Edward Carpenter, who as a socialist, vegetarian and spokesperson for what he called the intermediate sex, had a number of women who were followers of his, and again we get an idea that there are special people, but it is rather fluid because Carpenter is of the idea that the intermediate sex, which is a fairly large category, can interpret extremely masculine men and extremely feminine women to one another. So, in a way he's talking about a continuum.

These ideas of a continuum are floating around at this time, and of course they re-emerge with Kinsey in the late 1940s when he actually looks at the practices of same-sexual behavior among men and women in the United States and finds that this does in fact work on a continuum and that the majority of people are somewhere in the middle and not at extremes. So that is another kind of interpretation.

So in many respects we've seen a balance between ideas about innate, inborn sexuality which is highly fixed in one direction, with some people being bisexual and that's then fixed in two directions, and so forth, and that sort of view, and another view which is that of social construction, which is environment, which says that you might develop your sexuality in terms of things that happen in your environment and that it might also be able to be changed.

The notion of a fixed sexual identity is important when we talk about the law. Hirschfeld was annoyed with others at that time, at the beginning of the century, because he thought that talking about the fact that everybody might be able to do it – all men might be going to be able to do it – would certainly influence the authorities in terms of changing the law. And certainly that was a view that we took here, too, during Homosexual Law Reform; that actually to talk about the fact that yes, everybody might like to do this would be playing into the hands of the fundamentalists who said if you change the law it means that these awful men are going to go out and seduce a whole lot of other men and seduce boys and that sort of thing. Clearly you've got a better legal argument if you say only a small number of people, just a fixed minority, want to do this so there's no need to have a law against it. But that may not really be the way that things are, because we may have a more universal view, really, of human sexuality.

Gay liberation came along in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, and lesbian feminism. Very emphatically gay liberation said: We want to bring out the lesbian and gay man in everybody's head. This is something that everybody should be doing.

And lesbian feminism said: Every woman can be a lesbian, and in fact, in a society where men oppress women, to be lesbian is a sign of mental health. And so lesbian feminism was saying: Leave these oppressive marriages. Come out! You'll be much happier if you find a woman partner.

And a lot of gay liberationists felt that men stuck in their rigid heterosexual roles were denying themselves an exploration of their sexuality and their emotional beings. So those ideas were very definitely there from the 1970s and '80s.

And as we move into now, the second decade of the 21st century, we see a greater universalizing principle. Many young people are not that interested in calling themselves gay or lesbian. They like to call themselves unidentified. Many people don't even necessarily want to call themselves bisexual. We've seen the rise of the term takatapui here in Aotearoa / New Zealand. This term resurrected from the story about Hinemoa and Tutanekai by the scholars Ngahuia Te Awekotuku and Lee Smith independently finding this term, which originally has the meaning of "intimate friend of the same sex," but which is now being much more widely used to refer to people who are part of these alternative communities, rather as our original term kamp, which was the term we used here before we got the American terms gay and lesbian in the 1970s and began to use those fairly exclusively.

So we see a movement, really, toward either people not labeling themselves, or labeling themselves in a more inclusive kind of way. And we're finding now, as we're talking about the various communities, that we want to use constructions like LGBTTQI, where we might be saying the communities which are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, takatapui, fa' afafine, queer, questioning, and intersex, that we see a much broader church when we're talking about who our communities are.

So, all we can really say about language and about ideas about same-sexuality is that they change according to the circumstances of the time and can't exist apart from the societies in which we find ourselves, so that as we look forward into the future all we can say is that it will certainly change, and ideas about same-sexuality will change. But it does appear that in this country we're moving forward into an area where more people are questioning, more people are prepared to consider the fact that they might be attracted to someone of the same sex and that their sexuality isn't fixed and could change.

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