Sexual Orientation

Writing about civil rights and sexual orientation presents at least one conundrum. On one hand, nonheterosexual people (of "other" sexual orientations including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and some transsexual and transgendered) face injustices everywhere: work and housing discrimination, lack of state-recognized marriage or domestic partnerships (and the according tax benefits), legal separation from their children (or being prevented from having them), often unprosecuted (and sometimes lethal) gay bashing, being prevented from making health care decisions for their partners, legislative actions in some states to criminalize the spread of HIV and to revoke the right to privacy about HIV status . . . not to mention attempts to curtail civil rights even further for gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, put simply, gay and lesbian people have no civil rights. "There is no constitutional protection; there are no civil rights for homosexuals," notes Judith Roof, an associate professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington. "Insofar as any local government or demographic formation tries to endow some version of civil rights for sexual orientation, it can work as a sort of modest protection. What I'm thinking of now are mainly things like corporations or universities that have clauses that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," she continues. "Rarely does that protection extend into anything positive. In other words, the university may have a clause that protects faculty or staff against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but they will not give those people the benefits that they give to married people. There's always a bigger law someplace else that prohibits full participation in both the benefits and responsibilities of the institution."

Roof's research focuses on feminist theory and gay and lesbian critical theory. She is preparing to edit a new book with Robyn Wiegman, an associate professor of English and of women's studies at Indiana Univer-sity Bloomington, titled Demanding Discipline: On the Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Studies. Exploring the ways that scholars are conceiving of and producing sexuality studies in contemporary academe, Roof and Wiegman question whether it would be most effective and transformational if gay and lesbian studies became a discipline of its own (hence the book title).

Gay and lesbian studies draws together an interdisciplinary program of history, literature, art, sociology, and political science, among other disciplines. Wiegman is concerned that departmentmentalized sexuality studies not become a shorthand for a minority identity, as has often happened in other disciplinary areas. "It's just that making the study of sexuality about gay and lesbians makes it seem as though the question of sexuality is not fundamental to being human," she says. "Sexuality studies must interrogate heterosexuality in some really significant ways as well," Wiegman points out. The current concepts of heterosexuality/homosexuality, black/white, male/female, are artifical binaries: "The more you think about this, the more you realize that these binaries cannot hold up. The actual multiplicity and variety of humans on the planet is absolutely non-binary, yet we're so wed to the binary concept and it scares us to think otherwise," Wiegman continues.

The fact is, Roof says, civil rights protections for nonheterosexual people tends to be seen as gifts, rather than as rights derived from the Constitution. "And because they're gifts, the powers that grant them also have the right to wrest those rights away," she says, "which makes it a completely nonanalogous category. There's no other category where one perceives that one could take away those rights. You can't take away rights, you can only protect what's already there."

Interestingly, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the scientific and medical communities began to view homosexuality as one aspect of a person's identity, rather than as an isolated sexual act in which anyone might engage. "Sexual activity was seen as very different from a sexual identity," Wiegman says. "And many notions of identity are derived from particular understandings of citizenship and of civil rights connected to democracy." For instance, englightened "citizenship" originally did not include women's right to the vote. "Different people have had to constitute themselves as a group with an identity to prove that their identity was excluded from the notion of citizenship that the law claimed was a universal right," Wiegman continues. Paradoxically, although the culture of civil rights and democracy defines what is a citizen, that very definition, percieved as all inclusive, still excludes on the basis of identity. "New categories of identity have been created to challenge democracy's exclusive practices of citizenship. Homosexuals are now the latest identity form asking for the protections of civil rights."

Fear seems to drive most civil rights infringements. Stephanie Kane, an assistant professor of criminal justice at IU Bloomington, researches the criminalization of HIV transmission. One focus of her research is to look at the problems associated with targeting specific social groups in the spread of HIV, most notably, prostitutes, intravenous (IV) drug users, and gay men. Because a criminal justice system is already in place to arrest these individuals for activity not related to HIV, the addition of laws criminalizing the spread of HIV is likely to become an unequal application of the law.

"There are people out there who do intentionally want to infect other people, and it makes sense to prosecute them and put them away because they actually can kill. But it's very hard to distinguish intent, and so the problem becomes how to identify people who actually intend [to sprend HIV], from those who happen to be HIV positive but don't want to hurt anybody else by it," she says.

The problem that gay rights activists are examining is, once legislation starts eroding the broader law protecting confidentiality of one's status, which applies to everyone in the United States, it makes a precedent for other erosions that might affect gay people negatively. "The balance of what's fair or not depends on the particular social group you belong to. If you're in a social group that's subject to the application of the law more than others, or if you're in a context where you're put at risk because you're with someone who's at real risk (for example, a sex partner or an intraveneous drug user), your perspective changes," Kane notes.

Describing the intent behind criminalizing HIV transmission, Kane says, "It's a way for people to act on something without really having to change their lives or to put any effort or resources into really changing the situation." Because HIV and AIDS are so fearsome, people do not want to believe they are at risk of being infected, "and as long as they can separate themselves, saying ‘only prostitutes, IV drug users, and gay men get the disease,' they feel safe." She continues, "By making laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV, [it] makes it look like people are safe, but in actuality, it increases the spread of disease. When you think that you're safe but you're actually not safe, then that's more dangerous than if you're not sure if you're safe or not."

The problem of civil rights and sexual orientation is a vastly complex array of infringements, covering non-heterosexual individuals from every race, gender, socioeconomic status, location, and even ideology. Closeted or out, politically active or not, monogamous or not, the threats to gays and lesbians are real and powerful.

Last November, Indiana University Bloomington opened the Office of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual (GLB) Student Support Services with private funds. The GLB office, according to its mission statement, "is a resource center for the entire university community, supplying educational resources on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues and offering information, support, and referral for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals." Much of the emphasis so far has been on education and personal support, and, Doug Bauder, the coordinator of the office, says, "Our services are prioritized by the person who asks for help. It's a matter of first come, first served, but we encourage people to make appointments if they have specific issues to discuss." The GLB office refers students who have been harassed because of their sexual orientation to the GLB Anti-Harassment Team. The team then assists students in finding a resolution to their situation and documents the incident in order to combat further harassment.

So far, the office's internal educational resources are limited. Bauder says, "We're really just beginning that phase. Beyond that, the main resources available are Carol (Fischer, the office's information specialist) and me, and the computer access to the Internet and the World Wide Web." The library now consists of more than 200 books, newspapers, periodicals, and videos. At least one graduate student so far has used the center's resources, including Bauder's and Fischer's expertise, to plan a course in GLB studies.

Wiegman comments that one of the most important aspects of political work by gay and lesbian academics is to create cultures of support, and she suggests that the GLB office is part of that work. "I'm hoping that the GLB office can take the pressure off of courses in sexuality studies to provide the emotional [and] networking support that gay and lesbian students need. I want to see sexuality studies at IU interrogate a wide range of practices and challenge the practices of compulsory heterosexuality that guide our society's social forms," she says.

Although society has progressed somewhat in these "Gay Nineties," the complex problem of civil rights for nonheterosexuals deserves continued, insightful research and discovery.

--Lucianne Englert