Unicorns

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Why are unicorns so central in the symbology of gay culture and lgbt culture in general? Unicorns are magical animals, they are “special” or even “unique” but they are often associated with purity, not to mention virginity. What does that have to do with the very material and often highly sexualized gay imagination?

The stigma on sexuality reminds us of something dirty rather than of the purity of the unicorn coat. One of the most ambitious aims of a movement for sexual liberation is precisely to eradicate the idea that there is any purity in certain behaviors or that virginity has any moral significance whatsoever – or that it has any meaning at all. Lgbt movements attempt to break the barriers between heterosexuality and what is considered “deviant” from it and hence “bad”, “stained”, “sick”. In the lgbt universe, purity is irrelevant, dethroned by an inclusive rainbow of all the different shapes human sexual orientation can assume.

The whiteness of the unicorn couldn’t be any further from the darkness of the sleepless nights of gay clubbing. Its lack of imperfections couldn’t be less representative of the wounded, scarred personal histories of many lgbt people.

Perhaps, unicorns are symbols of re-birth after the first coming into the world was repressed by homophobia. The virginity they stand for could be a metaphor for the brand new start of life after coming out and accepting oneself.

This looks like a plausible interpretation, but I have my doubts about it, for it sort of clashes with my conception of (gay-lgbt) pride. Being “out in the open” as a lgbt person doesn’t mean to have forgotten one’s own past. On the contrary: the scars are worn with pride. They remind us of the fights, of the resilience against all odds, of survival and of the final victory, which didn’t come without high costs.

Lgbt people can be “re-born” in a certain sense, but not without any connection to their past. Personal histories give meaning to our pride, our joie de vivre, our strengths as well as our weaknesses.

I don’t have the intellectual tools to analyze lgbt symbology any deeper, also because it would require expertise in historical and cultural studies, not to mention semiotics and hermeneutics, disciplines I know little or nothing relevant about, especially for this specific case.

Let me then just give you a hint of what I think about unicorns. As small children we have been told that unicorns do not exist. The same doesn’t necessarily happen with respect to other imaginary figures like Santa Klaus, angels or else. Unicorns are the ultimate non-existent thing – at least in the western collective unconscious.

On the other hand, lgbt people have lacked visibility and are often misrepresented. They have been marginalized and made object of false beliefs and myths. Just like unicorns, they didn’t exist in the ordinary life of most people. Not because they hadn’t been there the whole time, just because they were oppressed to the point of invisibility.

Being recognized as existent, worthy of love and acceptance is central for the construction of the personal identity of many lgbt people. The unicorn becomes the symbol of being there when many do not believe in you, to be as real and as worthy of existence as anyone else, without further justification. Just because one exists.

Unicorns do not exist. Or maybe we just failed to see that they have always been there, under another name or another form. For now, I am content of being part of the most fabulous volleyball team ever. We are the Royal Unicorns and I am a proud unicorn.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Taste

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

When did you first understand that you liked a particular ice cream flavor? You probably had to taste several flavors and you thought that, perhaps, vanilla was your favorite. And after a while, you could have also probably changed your tastes and nowadays you like mint the most, or chocolate, coffee, watermelon, or who knows better than you? Tastes have a certain stability, but they can lose it with time and regain a new one. They don’t really depend on choice, but they definitely depend on experience and they are embedded in cultural practices. The more you experience, the more it is probable for your tastes to change.

Now, scope of this letter is to show that sexual orientation is fundamentally different from sexual tastes. I feel the need of writing this kind of letter because many people see no difference between the taste of ice cream and the fact that some girls like boys and others do not. Instead, there is a distinction, and this distinction matters if we want to better understand the implications of sexual orientation in our lives.

First of all, I think that sexual tastes do exist. Some of them are known as “fetishisms”, but also the simple attraction to a certain body-type is a taste. As tastes in general, also sexual tastes respond to the criteria I’ve already exposed: they are usually stable even if they can vary with experience; culture and experience are the basis upon which one can explore them and eventually change them. But sexual tastes and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

When a heterosexual man – call him Juan, favors casual sex over sex with the same person, he displays certain tastes and certain habits. It has surely happened to Juan that certain sexual partners were more enjoyable than others and he has sharpened his taste in women as sexual partners. At the same time, these tastes are constrained by his heterosexual orientation. He looked for women and not men to have sex with. Someone may object that he didn’t look for women: he chased only “good-looking women” and he would have found distasteful to have sex with bad-looking women as well as with men.

But there are good-looking men also! And I don’t think that a hedonist such as Juan would have denied that certain men can be extremely attractive, also depending on one’s tastes. He simply is heterosexual rather than bisexual, and his tastes are directed at a certain category of women he finds “good-looking”. To argue for the theoretical distinction between sexual orientation and sexual tastes doesn’t mean that the two things aren’t usually strictly related. We always display sexual tastes depending on our sexual orientation.

But then, what is sexual orientation supposed to be? Why doesn’t it respond to the same criteria of tastes? This is a very hard question that experts of human sexuality are still trying to answer. I am not an expert and my aim is not to define orientation, nor taste. I just want to argue philosophically for their distinction and I think that the best way to do so, is to say that orientation shapes our lives long before we develop sexual tastes. In fact, in the scientific literature on the topic, experts are used to refer to children as “pre-straight” or “pre-gay” depending on what sexual orientation they will develop later. But these terms do not only define children negatively – i.e. in terms of what they are not yet. Indeed, some pre-gay children manifest “deviant behaviors” when they have still long to wait before puberty. The “deviance” happens with respect to cultural heteronormative standards and not to supposed “biological standards”. The only issue with homosexuality is that too often, people don’t see that all mysteries related to it belong also to heterosexuality. That is to say that, if pre-gay children manifest their “pre-sexuality” so early, the same might very probably be the case for pre-straight children, with the difference that the social context they grow up into favors their adaptation unlike for non-straight people.

Experience and culture can’t do much to influence our sexual orientation. Sexual orientation and culture are both fundamental and irreducible features of our sexuality: they ground our sexual tastes and shape them. For the same reason, a Catholic priest may avoid sex for his entire life and not develop sexual tastes, but he will always have a certain sexual orientation – surprisingly as it may sound. As a matter of fact, sexual taste is strictly related to sexual practice, whereas sexual orientation is independent of it.

You can’t say that Juan doesn’t know whether he is heterosexual or not because he has not yet tried homosexual intercourse. He knows he is heterosexual the same way most of us know. On the other hand, it is ok to invite Juan to a bdsm party, for he will never know how enjoyable bdsm is if he has never tried it! For the record, I never did. But now I like vanilla ice cream… who knows what I will like tomorrow?

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Pride

Dear princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday I went to the disco with some friends of mine. We had our pre-drinking at Museumsquartier and had time to chill and relax before the crazy dancing. Being relaxed means to me also to let my “gayness” flow freely and abandon myself to somewhat theatrical manners.

M, a friend of mine, asked why I “try” to be gay. Well, that’s not much of a claim, since I am gay indeed and I don’t have to try. But obviously he meant why I “struggle” to appear gay. I found the question puzzling but interesting at the same time. Indeed, how can I be myself if my behavior is “theatrical”, which sounds dangerously related to “forcefully contrived” if not “fake”?

“I behave like that, because I am like this” was my first thought. But that answer is wrong, for one thing is to be “born this way”; another thing is to give a very strong impression of what one is.

We could make use of the insightful concept of “naturalistic fallacy” to understand better this dilemma: what is natural entails no “normative force”. To put it simply, if you ARE something, it doesn’t follow that you OUGHT to be (or do) anything as a consequence (especially in moral terms). If you hold this principle to be true (as I do), then you can see how inadequate my answer to M was: from my being gay it simply doesn’t follow that I ought to act as a gay person.

M spotted some sort of endeavor in me to appear gay. And I admit that sometimes I am not “gay simpliciter”, but I also feel like I ought to be gay. How to make sense of this in front of the naturalistic fallacy?

At a first glance, I could answer “because that makes me feel alright”. But what if I am self-deceived in believing I feel alright? Why isn’t the normative expression of “gayness” a mark of  insecurity and need of attention, rather than of independence?

We need to do better than that. M himself suggested that, perhaps, it helps to strengthen my personal identity. However appealing this answer may sound, we have not made much progress since the strength of my identity could always be an outcome of self-deception. Think for instance at an overweight person who starts believing that all people thinner than him are sick and therefore he accepts his physical appearance. He is self-deceived, but the outcome would still be an authentic reinforcement of personal identity.

These two answers show that normativity could be nothing more than a psychological trick and that I don’t really “ought to be gay”. Either I am self-deceived in believing that the endeavor in being gay makes me feel better or in believing that my identity depends on showing it off as lively, colorful and stereotypical as possible.

I am not convinced by such conclusions. Instead, I do believe that there is something truly normative entailed by “being gay”. But what is it?

Even if I am too ignorant with respect to the academic literature on the topic and I have not yet thought about it more than a couple of hours this morning as my hangover was slowly fading away, I suspect that we can derive from the natural struggle of existing as a gay person the normative force we need.

If your own existence is endangered by the social environment around you, you may develop resilience as a natural response. That is, you learn how to adapt to an hostile environment while staying true to yourself. However, you don’t “naturally” stay true to yourself. You ought to be yourself against social pressure. You ought to take pride in who you are, because otherwise you succumb.

If my intuition is correct, the very concept of “pride” becomes an essential part of yourself, the part enabling your survival and flourishing. And if this is so, the distinction between what is natural and what is normative in “being gay” becomes a strict connection. The naturalistic fallacy stays unchallenged for most of the cases. It simply doesn’t apply in the special case in which it is not possible to naturally be oneself without normatively being oneself.

It’s not possible for me to distinguish an underlying self from my acting under norms regulating who I take myself to be. The fact that I feel alright and that I am randomly cultivating my personal identity are not enough. In order to be authentic, I ought to be proud and that also means that I ought to behave in a way which conforms to my inclinations. Hence, “being gay” doesn’t mean “fake”, but rather “proud” and “auto-nomous”, in the literal sense of “self-regulating”.

This has been only a brief reflection on one of the many meanings of pride, even if not the easiest one. To thank you for your patience in reading it through, I wish you a joyful, extravagant and (why not) theatrical season of pride!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha