The President’s sudden conversion to the cause of gay marriage has brought the topic again to public consciousness. However welcome this may be, what is strange is how confining the conversation still is about this subject. In the public domain, at least, identity seems to possess a thick, unchanging essence. You are what you are and your sense of self is inked into your skin, like a tattoo.
So it was with some relief that I returned to two works, an ethnography and a novel, which offer alternative perspectives on the subject. In demonstrating the range of affective, erotic, and sexual behavior that takes place below the stain of acceptability, both texts take out the cliché out of the very idea of gender bending.
I start with Elizabeth Kirtsoglou’s For the Love of Women: Gender, Identity, and Same-Sex Relations in Greek Provincial Town, which caused a slight sensation when it was published in 2003. (I struggled with the idea of writing about this book in the current climate, fearing that it might reinforce orientalist assumptions of the unbuttoned Greek cicadas, buzzing their summers away, while the Teutonic neighbors to the north are developing biofuels in their anthills.)
Her book studies a secret society that was formed in the 1980’s and 90’s in a Greek town by women of various ages and classes. The author was both a participant and ethnographer, studying the group (the parea) in which she herself belonged. Her fiends invited her to tell their story: “Let the world know that somewhere there exist some women who dare imagine a different life.”
What is this different life? First of all, these women wished to remain unclassifiable and insisted on the freedom to define themselves. “If they find out about us, they will target and classify us.” Kirtsoglou argues that they avoid the accustomed binary tensions of homosexuality/heterosexuality, oppression/resistance, and center/margin. Above all, they refuse to see sexual behavior as a function of identity and identity a manifestation of behavior. Some women are married with children, others have boyfriends or fiancés and others have no intention of seeking male attachments. Yet they come together in a bar to dance, flirt, and find mutual support.
The various ethnographic accounts read as fiction. A memorable scene shows the author in the bar with Maro who fastens her eyes on a young woman entering with her friends and asserts that “I want this woman.” It turns out that Bea is engaged to Niko but in a week, following a brazenly directed play of seduction by Maro, she is ensnared into an amorous relationship with Maro and confesses to the author: “This was everything I had ever dreamt of. I think that actually it was everything a woman dreams of.”
Then there is Nena who has had a life-long relationship with Stasa without ever living with her. It’s not because of Stasa, she insists, that she did not marry. She could not imagine that a man could love her as a whole person in the way that Stasa does. “I am not attracted to women. I am attracted to Stasa.”
My favorite is the story of Carolina (all the names are pseudonyms, including that of the town, appropriately called Kallipolis), a woman of 35, married with a teenage son. The author describes how one morning she returns at 6 am with Carolina and a friend to Carolina’s house. Carolina kisses her husband goodbye as he goes to work, prepares her son’s lunch, makes coffee for the “girls,” and then goes to bed only to wake up later to go to her beauty salon where she works all day. Carolina surprises even the author with her superwoman energy and her ability to play the roles of lover, mother/wife, and owner of salon.
Reading the work, you ask yourself questions about motivation as you would of a novel. Would Stasa and Nena have defined themselves as lesbian had they lived in Gallipolis Ohio, rather than Kallipolis Greece? Is Bea going to return to Niko? How does Carolina do it?
What is striking about these women is their insistent desire to present themselves as questions rather than as fixed answers. We are accustomed to speaking about ourselves as unchanging truths. But they see themselves more interrogatively. In so doing, they put into question their relationship to what is modern and what is traditional, what is provincial and what is cosmopolitan. So I wonder how those outside the parea would judge them? As hypocritical, closeted, betrayers of a cause, confused?
For a possible answer I turn to fiction, to the final scene of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Birkin and his wife, Ursula, have returned to England after their trip to the Alps. Birkin’s best friend, the self-destructive Gerald, has committed suicide by trailing off and falling asleep in the snow. His girlfriend, Gudrun, leaves for Berlin with the gay, artist, Loerke.
Here is the final conversation between Ursula and Birkin: “Aren’t I enough for you?” she asked. “You are enough for me. You are all women to me. But I wanted a man friend, as eternal as you and I are eternal.” “You are enough for me. I don’t want anybody else but you.” “To make life complete … I wanted eternal union with a man too,” he said. “You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you! … It’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered.
This scene too presents human identity more tentatively than we are used to in our current political conversation that privileges marriage over other social relationships. And it pleads for the possibility of seeing marriage from alternate perspectives. In short, it points to different ways of narrating human relationships, beyond the traditional marriage plot.
A strange and unexpected link binds the quixotic Gerald with the self-confident Carolina. Perhaps we can understand both as fictional characters who ask their readers for empathy and for freedom to represent themselves. Both figures reveal a range of desires and behaviors that just can’t be grasped by the legalistic and essentialist discussions of identity.