Gay, gay, marrions-les

November 15, 2012

France is about to legalize gay marriage. This has caused some turmoil in some part of the opinion and the right wing opposition bitterly opposes it, mostly, I think, to show they are indeed the Opposition. Indeed, the very fact that a measure which concerns only 5% of the population has become, in the middle of a major economic crisis, one of the focuses of our collective conversation tells a lot about how impotent our rulers have become. As for me, I tend to favor it, first because it does benefit a sizable part of the population and fails to impact the rest in any meaningful way, and second, because it is the logical conclusion of the choices our civilization made three centuries ago, namely that marriage was the coronation of love and that homosexuality was an identity rather than a practice. This is, by the way a recent development, the advent of which correlates with the advent of modern Western culture and of industrial civilization… which of course begs the question : what will be the future of gay marriage, or even of gayness in the deindustrial future.

Homosexuality is a fact of nature. Some of us, male or female, are sexually attracted, exclusively or not, by members of our own sex. This probably genetic in origin and not necessarily a bug. Whatever causes homosexuality generally results in the affected people having less children, obviously, so it must be somehow beneficial to their kin or their cultural group, otherwise it would have been weeded out of the genetic pool long ago. The way societies deal with it, however, vary considerably. Some ignore its existence. Breton, for instance has no word for “lesbian” and its words for “male homosexual” are all recent loanwords, which is definitely weird for a language which as many words for “beautiful woman” as Inuit has for snow. Others, such as some native American tribes , used work gender roles to hide away the sexual aspect of the question. Others still relegated it to the margins of society to eliminate the problem it posed, Islam, for instance or the medieval West.

Modern Western civilization, and its imitators all over the world, is the only one to have created a whole social identity around it.

Roman Emperor Hadrian had a long affair with Bithynian Greek youth, Antinous, yet was not considered as an homosexual in the modern sense of the word. He was just a normal man who happened to have a relationship with a boy, which was perfectly legit as long as he did not adopt a submissive role. To quote Gibbon “[O]f the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct." One of his successors, Elagabalus, publicly lived with a charioteer whom he referred to as his husband. He was reviled, not because of his choice of partner – not different from Hadrian’s – but because he assumed a feminine, submissive role. He was not gay, but effeminate, a qualification which emphatically did not correlate with homosexuality.

It was also true in pre-modern Europe, even if , of course, the society as a whole was far more repressive. The effeminate XVIIth century fop was a womanizer, while the English Restoration rake courted (or bought) boys as well as girls. It was only during the late XVIIth century that appeared, in England, France and the Dutch Republic, the now familiar figure of the “Molly”, that is the effeminate homosexual male, with an identity and subculture based upon his choice of partners.

This happened just as those three countries where laying the foundation of modern capitalism. They were not industrialized but a better mastery of of wind and water power, as well as ruthless resource grabbing all over the world, enabled them to concentrate into their hands a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. This allowed them to field large armies and navies, to better control their population and to complexify their societies. This also triggered a number of social changes, notably in gender roles. Humans, like most apes, are sexually dimorphic, which results in differentiated gender roles. Basically, in paleolithic societies, males were hunter and fighters and competed for resources while females took care of the home-front and competed for attention from the best providers – the latter fact is important, even though it is overlooked by your average macho; in most species females are drab and passive, ours have been selected for assertiveness. The neolithic revolution complexified things considerably as various decisions about who was going to do what led to very different gender roles accord to the society. That’s why you had Greek Gynaecea and Scythian amazons. Of course, even then, there were considerable overlaps, and a significant number of outliers. That’s why we had Aspasia and Sappho. And from time to time, a whole society could undergo a shift in gender roles.

That is what happened in early modern Europe. As societies got richer, it became possible for upper, and upper middle class women to opt out of the domestic economy. This was certainly advantageous for them, but by doing so they put an ever larger distance between the home, and therefore married life, and the public square. The result, as Michel Foucault argue was that while prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focused on the productive role of the married couple In the 18th and 19th centuries society took an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union. This led to an increasing categorization of "perverts"; where previously a man who engaged in same-sex activities would be labeled as an individual who succumbed to the sin of sodomy, now they would be categorized into a new "species", that of the homosexual. The result was both increased repression and a cementing of gay identity.

Westernization caused a similar process in many non-western societies, even though the result were sometimes different. Thailand is typical in that matter. The kingdom, once a major power, was never colonized but was nevertheless subject to intense pressures from both France and Britain and to avoid sharing the fate of its main competitors, Vietnam and Burma, it adopted a strategy social critic Sulak Sivaraksa called ‘fighting wolves by donning their clothing’. This included the imposition by the state of western gender roles and sexual norms, notably a strict differentiation between men and women – before that, all western travelers insisted on the “masculine” looks of Thai women, whose dress differed little from the men’s. Moreover, economic modernization was accompanied by a genderization of jobs, while in traditional Thai society agricultural work had been relatively ungendered.

The result has been a polarization of gender roles and norms and the birth of a special class of transvestites / transgenders who adopted the behavior and look of western women, or rather what they thought to be the behavior and look of western women, namely the kathoey. A similar process occurred in Tonga with the fakaleiti, a class of transsexuals / effeminate men who emerged out of a previous category of men who enjoyed traditionally feminine jobs in the wake of westernization.

Where things become interesting is that gender roles and norms will likely be as affected by the energy descent as they were by the birth of modern western culture or its arrival on such or such far shore, and so will gayness, or kathoey-ness for that matter. It is easy to see why. As the flow of high grade energy which still keeps our complex societies working dries up, we will be forced to scale down our economies. This means that our societies will become a lot less complex and that our economy will focus out of services toward industry then agriculture. A lot of jobs will simply disappear and domestic economy will make a big come back. This is bound to create a shift in gender roles on the same scale as the one we experienced at the beginning of the modern age or during the seventies. It is impossible to predict the details of this shift and it will doubtlessly vary according to local culture and conditions. The typically western idea that teaching and secretarial work are "women’s jobs” may have interesting consequences several centuries down the road for instance, when a scholarly tradition will have to be revived by teachers and private secretaries.

What is certain, however, is that there will be a return to the domestic economy and that the home, the family and the community will be put back at the center of the society. After the inevitable demise of the welfare state – or of its corporate rivals – there will simply not be no other way to survive rough times. A new repartition of roles between men and women inside the domestic economy will emerge and with it new definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. These definitions will be based on biology, of course, but there too there will be considerable variations in time and space.

It is unlikely, however, that gayness, as a specific identity, survives such a shift. Human sexuality being fluid, there will be humans with homosexual leaning until the extinction of the species, but in a differently gendered social environment, they will no longer consider their preferred choice of partner as a fundamental element of their identity. Basically, gayness will fade with the culture which has created it.

That does not mean that homosexual people will be persecuted in the post-collapse world (even though they may and will be in some areas), nor that gay marriage will go the way of gay identity. Again it may and will in some areas, but it is not a necessity. Its main interest is that it integrates what was previously a deviance into the world of home and family which will be central in the future.

In fact it may be this integration which will guarantee the survival of gay marriage / coupling and the continued acceptance of homosexuals in some mainstream societies. Separatism of any kind has no place in a society where community cohesion is literally vital but the argument cuts both ways. In such a society it would be stupid to exclude otherwise productive people on the basis of their choice of partner. Gay marriage may fade away in some culture, but where it will have become established, it will probably become just marriage, with all the obligations and responsibilities it entails. Those who will be excluded, and rightly so because they pose a real threat to community cohesion, will be promiscuous and adulterous people, no matter the sex of their targets.

In a sense, gay marriage is one of the conservative measures we need to implement if we are to socially cushion the energy descent. Of course, for the majority of the population it won’t be much, but in some circumstances, redefining normalcy will enable us to better use human resources, as well as allowing previously discriminated people to be productive members of the community, which is by no means negligible.

Damien Perrotin

I’ve always disliked writing biographical blurbs because I never know how to begin... well, let’s say I was born and raised in Saint-Nazaire, a small industrial city in Southern Brittany and have graduated from Science Po’ Aix, a school specialising in law and political science – I must still have the diploma in some drawer. Like most French men of my generation, I spent some time in the military... Read more.

Tags: energy descent, Society