The burden of sexual identity

The burden of sexual identity

This year’s Malta Book Festival includes the participation of award-winning writer Michael Amherst, best known for Go the Way Your Blood Beats. He talks to John Grech about what he terms the ‘fluidity of desire’, and about how society places a burden of sexual identity.

Michael AmherstMichael Amherst

Right in the opening pages of Go Where Your Blood Beats, you steer clear of the view held by some radical voices who subscribe completely to the key Freudian idea that we are all born bisexual, and that heterosexuality and homosexuality are different forms of repressed bisexuality. Is it more important for you that these terms are not used to suppress the fluidity of desire and the fact that it starts from an individual not from a fixed orientation?

I think there was a time when I’d have subscribed to the Freudian idea. However, I think it comes close to asserting something definite, as well as an ‘original position’, and I’m anxious about both of those. I suppose I’m deeply sceptical of the idea of a fixed anything.

Which isn’t to deny the experience of those who very confidently describe the experience of their desire as fixed. However, none of us can be sure of that ongoing certainty. I don’t think we can have such foreknowledge of ourselves. I also wonder what we miss by ruling things out. I suppose I want to advocate an openness: an openness to experience, an openness to desire, an openness to being surprised by ourselves.

I also think our current language of fixed sexual identities carries a burden of meaning – meanings that are felt to be objective fact, and burdens that some cannot bear. Simply put: when a teenager finds themsleves attracted to their own sex, so often they – or their friends, their families – will ask, ‘But what does this mean? Does this mean you’re gay?’ I think it helpful to open a space where we say, ‘Why does this have to mean anything? Anything other than that you’re attracted to this person, in this moment?’


You make the case for the word ‘queer’ as a broad and inclusive term for all those who are seen as outside of the normative, including, surprisingly, straight white men. Can you elaborate on this?

Well for a start, heterosexual men and women can fail to meet expected gender norms, with resulting presumptions about their sexuality. But there is also sex between heterosexual couples that would be – is – deemed ‘deviant’ by the mainstream. When these things occur between heterosexual couples, they could be termed queer.

I think it also plays into my wider suspicion that heteronormativity and homophobia are not so much about policing sexual behaviour, but about policing gender, and that much homophobia is really rooted in misogyny. For example, those who take issue with male penetration by a dominant female reveal themselves not really to be interested in issues of sexuality – because this is a heterosexual couple – but about gender norms and anxieties around masculinity.

You address the notion of sexuality as an objective truth, associating this with the violation of privacy explicit in society’s assumption of its right to probe and to call on individuals to identify themselves. It is a view you find not only reductive of an individual’s lived experience but a presumption of what you call ‘constant and universal bad faith’.  But such ‘bad faith’ should have ramifications that extend beyond sexuality and be manifest in all aspects of social life – you mention the case of the media probing the authenicity of refugees, for instance.

Heteronormativity and homophobia are not so much about policing sexual behaviour, but about policing gender

When we think about it, I don’t think any of us believe that the self is static. We change and evolve all the time. Yet, somehow, an imposition of identity – in this case one of sexuality – implies a constant, originating sexuality. I don’t believe any of the evidence supports that.

I’ve also been giving a lot of thought to the language this engenders. Take ‘coming out’, and ‘living a lie’ – these terms mandate that those who are not heterosexual should account for ourselves in a certain way and at a certain time.

This is not a demand made of heterosexual people. It is fundamentally discriminatory. I want to challenge that.

Let’s go back to the notion of ‘living a lie’. Those who feel unable to, or don’t want to, declare their desire to the world – and why should anyone have to – are making their own accommodation with the world in which we all live. A homophobic, discriminatory world.

Yet, we all make concessions as to what we reveal and share of ourselves based on our context. It is only those deemed ‘other’, however, who are taken to task for this, who are said to be ‘living a lie’, not simply doing what is possible for them. By demanding an account from others, by questioning their authenticity in a way that is uniquely sceptical, we deny them a common humanity. And yes, I think we can see that in many forms.

It might occur to some readers that many of the concepts you bring into the argument – probing, othering, objectification, assumptions of psychological and intellectual superiority, the reification of constructed difference – reference postcolonial discourse. Yet, you choose not to explore this link in the book. Why? Is the historical aspect irrelevant to your inquiry?

I hope not! I was very keen to explore the differing historical contexts of desire, for example, how very different it was in Renaissance Europe.

However, with regard to postcolonial discourse, I think, first of all, this was not an area I know enough about. But also the book’s argument is for us to recognise and have the freedom to live and express our own individual subjectivity.

In that sense, the book became, and could only be, profoundly personal. The only claim I can make is my own, while hoping it might have resonance for others. However, I’m interested in the parallels you mention. I recently read Will Harris’ wonderful Mixed-Race Superman, published by Peninsula Press. He interrogates masculinity but through the prism of race and I was fascinated at the level of crossover with Go the Way Your Blood Beats and questions of masculinity and desire.

John Grech is senior manager at the National Book Council.

The Malta Book Festival takes place between November 7 and 11 at the MCC, Valletta. Michael Amherst will be speaking on November 9 at 5.30pm in an event set up by the National Book Council in collaboration with MGRM.

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