$1 review: virtual equality

$1 reviews are posts about books I find (or Hanna finds for me) on the $1 used book carts at the bookstores we visit around Boston.

This past Saturday, Hanna found me a copy of Urvashi Vaid's Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation on one of the $1 carts at Brattle Book Shop. 'Cause it had all the right keywords in the title, she picked it up for me (my girlfriend is awesome!). Published in 1995, it's fairly dated -- most notably in its repeated references to lesbian, gay and sometimes bi with trans issues completely ignored, even in the section on intersectional politics (more below).

Vaid is a community organizer and lawyer (she attended Northeastern University Law School here in Boston in the early 1980s) and during the 80s and early 1990s worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. This book is clearly influenced by that, since she focuses on law and politics at the national level, rather than the more cutural history, personal politics stuff I tend to find the most interesting to read and think about. As an activist Vaid is also very focused on the contemporary moment (mid-90s), a perspective that means her analysis ages more rapidly (in my opinion) than it would if she was taking a longer, cultural-historical view. But then, that's clearly my own scholarly bias!

Having said that, I'm going to turn around and more or less contradict myself by sharing a couple of passages from Virtual Equality that I thought resonated nicely with my post a couple of weeks ago about the heavy reliance of lgbt advocacy on the biology-is-destiny argument, at the expense of arguing that choosing non heteronormative relationships can be a positive and ethical personal and social choice.

From the first chapter, "Virtual Equality" (p. 30)

Homosexuality always involves choice -- indeed, it involves a series of four major choices: admitting, acting, telling, and living. Even if scientists prove that sexual orientation is biologically or genetically determined, every person who feels homosexual desire encounters these four choices

Just as, I would point out, every person who feels heterosexual desire encounters them.

The first involves whether we will admit the existence of our desire: Will we acknowledge to ourselves that we feel same-sex attraction? The second choice is whether to act on this desire: Will we risk engaging in this love? The third is whether we acknowledge to other people that we are gay, lesbian, or bisexual ... [this] question never end[s], because the process of coming out to other people never ends. The final choices each gay person makes is how to live a queer life.

Again, I'm struck by how easily we could understand these questions in the context of human sexuality, full stop. Regardless of the nature of our attractions, every person makes a complex series of choices about how to articulate, act on, and share with the world their own sexualness. I don't think these questions are unique to non-straight people, but I do think they are thrown into relief for anyone whose sexuality does not approximate the normative vision of what it means to be sexual.

From "Divided We Stand: The Racial and Gender Status Quo" (p. 289)

My problem with conservative views of gay and lesbian identity is twofold: I disagree with the reliance on biology as the reason gayness should be fully tolerated, and I disagree with the idea that single-identity politics is effective. Same-sex behavior may well be related to physical differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals, but if our purpose in this movement is to remove the stigma surrounding same-sex love, then both biologically gay people and those who simply fall in love ought to be embraced by our movement.

I'm not particularly comfortable with how she phrases this, as "biologically gay people" on one hand and "those who simply fall in love" on the other (wait: don't people who are "biologically gay" fall in love too??), but she's spent the few pages before this talking about the Kinsey data on people who identify as straight but nevertheless report same-sex sexual encounters at some point during their lives, so I think that's what she's trying to get at, as clumsy as it sounds.

Organizing around the notion that there is a fixed, definable gay and lesbian identity is far more convenient than organizing around the notion that homosexual desire is a potential in every person. It is also far less threatening to straight America. We are certainly more comprehensible when we speak and act as if there is such a thing as a gay gene than when we attempt to argue that we seek to liberate homosexual potential in all people! ... But even biology does not limit its expression to one form of being. The fact that homosexual people are as multifaceted as humankind itself means that our effort to organize around one gay or lesbian identity will inevitably fail.

What she ends up arguing is for the end to identity-based politics (which is where we see how she is arguing against the late-80s and early 1990s narratives of identity and political advocacy). In its place, she urges the necessity of a broad coalition of people organizing not around accidents of personal experience or identity but rather (dare I say) values.

In the chapter on the political right (what Vaid identifies as "the Supremacist Right" to differentiate those who are interested in preserving the democratic process from those who use it as a means to a supremacist end) she writes specifically about the importance of discussing sexual values and ethics on the left, rather than leaving such discourse to the political and religious right (p. 324).

The most provocative and, in my view, important of [Suzanne] Pharr's suggestions is the call that the gay and lesbian movement vigorously debate sexual ethics. We must talk about our values, what we do, what we won't do, what we think is right, and what we believe is wrong.

And, I would add, share the outcome of those conversations with the wider world. I think that since 1995 there has been more discussion about progressive and/or leftist, feminist and queer sexual values -- educators and bloggers have definitely been asserting more frequently the importance of not leaving the ethics debate to conversative interests. Vaid approaches the issue gingerly, with the bitter divisions of the feminist "pornography wars" in the recent past. It was heartening for me to realize, as I read this passage, just how far we've come since then in articulating and embracing the wide variety of human sexual expression, and arguing for the "safe, sane, consensual" ethic as a starting point for discussing the finer points of what it means to make moral choices as a sexually active, sexually joyful human being.

Obviously, the task is far from over (will it ever be?), but reading Virtual Equality was a small taste of a single political moment captured in time through prose, and I was impressed by how much the discourse has changed since then, even if the issues remain virtually the same. Hopefully, as we begin to speak differently, we're live differently as well. As feminism has taught me over and over again: langauge matters like hell: speaking about what we value is, hopefully, a step in the direction of seeing what we value valued all the more in the dominant culture.


  1. Hi! I followed you here from a trans-positive comment on Feministing, and I've been waiting for you to say something I could comment on.

    As a fledgling progressive I was pretty conflicted over the genetics as destiny defense. On the one hand it's really not a position of strength to claim that you deserve rights only because you can't help being gay. And on the other hand, it's deeply suspicious that our culture's concept of same-sex attraction perfectly lines up with biological inevitability, and all those other cultures that see attraction to both sexes as the rule are just confused.

    The reframe that made that sensible to me is similar to Vaid's: desire is (mostly) not chosen, but the social interpretation of desire is. A woman in our society who finds herself attracted to women and not men has a range of available options from (frustrated) heterosexual to (woman-leaning) bisexual to lesbian, and the decision to acknowledge what she feels (or not) is a choice.

    This is seriously long already, but I just wanted to add that Vaid's line about advocating for homosexual desire as a potential in everyone was a "Wow" for me. That's so delightfully subversive that it's no wonder the movement has stayed well clear of making that argument. But it's really what the movement comes down to: all of you out there have sexual orientations, and we're here to help you express them.

  2. @Juniper,

    Welcome! I'm flattered that you clicked through to my blog and that you hung around as a lurker in order to comment! I enjoyed reading your comment very much. I look forward to hearing from you again in the future when you feel so moved :).


  3. I think I read this book in college. I know I read something by Vaid. I did a lot of thinking about sexuality in college (as one does), and I bet this was in there somewhere.