Sunday 25th February 2018
Being an individual
What does it mean to be an individual? How do people become themselves? How does a person portray his sense of being separate from everyone else? These are questions that present themselves to me as I write my third novel – The Streets of London. The novel covers the period from 1967 to 1971. A colourful, vibrant and diverse era that included the Summer of love and the Swinging Sixties. The theme of the book is masculinity – what it means to be a man in the twentieth century. And today. In thinking about this, it struck me that gender and stereotyping are all about being an individual. Some people are what they think they should be. Others want to be themselves. In this respect, the theme is also about conformity and rebelliousness. Individuality is about having a sense of self. A concept of one’s identity; a concept of one’s own subjective identity and a concept of how people see you and how you know what they see – these are discussed in this article.
How males become men
A human being is born male or female. Well, most are. As we shall see, later, there are exceptions. That condition is determined by the midwife (or doctor) who takes the baby out of the womb and immediately looks at its genitalia. She (or he) then tells the mother “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” If the child is a male, he is treated like a male. He is brought up to be a male. What that is, in practice, differs from one society to another. In England, male children and brought up to be men. They are dressed as boys. When they grow up, they dress as men. They are given boys’ toys to play with. They are encouraged to do what boys normally do. They see around them a world that is pivoted on heterosexuality. So they become heterosexual. They become is what their believe their parents want them to be. They become, as adults, what they think their society wants them to be. This is has not been so true in history. It is something that characterises the twentieth century. In Victorian times, infant boys were dressed as girls.
Our society drives people to conform. It always has done. Society is a machine that manufactures conformity. It is geared to making people conform sexually and in terms of their gender. Even today, with our celebration of LGBT diversity, society presents us with a binary view of gender. Male or female. Everyone is expected to be either male or female. Males are masculine. Females are feminine. It’s all very simple. Isn’t it?
But how does society manufacture masculinity? That is what my novel is partly about. It tries to dig down into the mechanics of how masculinity is manufactured. It presents a view of the world in which society drives people to be one thing or the other. To be simple. To be clear. Not to fudge the issues. Not to be confusing. Especially when it comes to gender. Society manufactures masculinity; its systems and processes produce expectations and outcomes. Both for society as a whole and for the individuals that comprise it. Social processes make attitudes, beliefs, values, stereotypes, rituals, pressures, forces and a multitude of forms and fashions that mould and shape people. Manufacturing of social outcomes is a mass process. Masculinity is not a uniform cultural idea; not even in a single society. The wide spectrum of differences we find amongst men who are considered to be masculine, is the product of how each man or boy interprets social expectations, for himself. Family groups and communities vary in the extent to which they regard being masculine as important and their interpretations of social and cultural expectations differ too. Various social institutions are involved in the manufacture of masculinity; the foremost of these being the army and the school system and, in particular, the public school system. Sport is also important as a factor producing types of masculine behaviour and attitudes. Several writers have considered these – the military, schools and sport – as being systems used in the manufacture of conformity in general and in the process of configuring masculinity, in particular.
Society expects males to become men and females to become women. Both communities and families foster such expectations. Both church and state reinforce expected outcomes. Gender is not something that we are permitted to individualise. Society expects each of us to behave in a certain way. But how do individuals realise what these social and familial expectations are? What are the mechanics of making expectations work? Why do we internalise the social norms of being masculine or feminine? How does that happen?
Parents expect their children to grow up to be like them. They expect sons to become like their father. They expect daughters to become like their mother. Schools do the same kind of thing. Schools know what parents expect; they know what society expects. Boys have to be masculine. Girls have to be feminine. It is the way the world works. Schools reprocess social expectations, as much as they are created by them. Education is a process that involves adapting to conformity. Liberal educationists try to help students with this process of adaptation. Progressive teachers help their students to understand that his happens and how to react to it.
The social order is based on expectations. Society has a strong belief that people should be how it wants them to be. To behave, to dress, to act, to think… in socially recognised ways. Society expects that people will behave in a certain way. Expectations are defined for almost all aspects of human behaviour. Expectation means wanting something to happen in a certain way. Wanting something to be the case. Expectations are about beliefs. Values. Rituals. Expectations are about the future. And also about the present. OK. So social expectations change over time. What society expected of young men in the 1970s is not greatly different from those of today. But neither is it completely the same.
People internalise expectations because they want to be the same as everyone else. They see the world in the same way as everyone else sees it. Shared views of the world are what binds it together. Shared expectations are what binds people together into a society. The machinery of creating expectations works in many ways. One of them is the sharing of norms and values. If a group of people share something in common with each other, then they can teach children how to grow up and adults can regulate behaviour. Rituals are mechanisms through which norms and values are celebrated and inculcated. Rituals are the foundation blocks of culture. Rituals shape daily life and everyday social interactions. There are rituals that configure gender and sexuality. These are rituals through which the social order of male and female is maintained and reinforced. Rituals mould people into having sex in a particular way. Courtship is a process that prepares people for having sex with each other and it involves many ritualised routines. One of these is dating. In my novel, I look at dating in the sixties and how people conformed to rituals in the preliminary stages of mate selection and intercourse. Dating was portrayed as one of the foundations of the process of conformity. As the novel shows, there were whole groups and communities that disowned the standard normalities of dating. These groups replaced the standard rituals that led up to sex, with their own individual values and customs.
Expected to be a man
How do individuals internalise social expectations? Do straight men internalise expectations about maleness in the same way as do gay men? Are there differences between straight men and gay men that affect the extent to which they internalise social expectations and conform to them? These questions are touchstones, litmus tests, that unravel the nature of conformity and individuality.
It could be argued that homosexual men have failed to internalise – and to conform to – social expectations. After all, if they are homosexual then they have clearly failed to conform to social expectations about their sexuality, through becoming heterosexual. Hence, they might also fail to internalise expectations about masculinity. It could be argued. Is that because they are gay? Is there something in homosexuality that makes an individual inherently less likely to conform to expectations about masculinity? It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Are they gay because they are not conforming; or are they not conforming because they are gay? A man is gay if he has failed to internalise social expectations about his sexuality. Society expects all men to be heterosexual. Being gay means that a man has found ways of avoiding the pressures to internalise expectations about sexuality. But, even when a man accepts that he is gay, pressures to conform still apply. He is expected to behave like a gay person. He is expected to be a certain kind of gay person. Pressures from the gay community compel him to be gay in a certain way.
Most gay men – those who live in a gay community – conform to the social expectations of the gay scene. Insofar as they understand and accept them. This affects where they live, what kind of restaurants they patronise, which bars they go to, what kind of films they watch, how they dress, how they should decorate their homes, what kind of pets they keep, et cetera. Being gay permeates all aspects of life. It is a lifestyle choice and hence it stylises life from top to bottom. And yet there is, in the gay community, a widely held belief that people should be themselves. A belief that clashes with the pressures in the gay scene to conform to fashions and commercial exploitations. But then, this is not a highly organised process; it has not been thought-through before it gets to work on people. As with a lot of other communities, it just happens. It is the end result of historical processes.
Bringing the world inside you
What is internalisation? It is a process of bringing inside you what you see on the outside. By ‘see’ I mean understand, conceptualise, know, believe. Making your inner world match your view of the world outside. You no longer see things as being outside; they are what you think and feel inside. People have imported the (or a) view of the world into themselves – the world that they see outside of them, the view as they understand it. Does that mean, therefore, that a gay man has failed to see the world around him? Has he failed to see the view of the world in which a man should be heterosexual? No. The evidence is that a gay man knows only too well what he is supposed to be. He is well aware of the heterosexual view that he should internalise. It is not a failure to internalise social norms. Growing up to be gay involves a different set of processes. Gay people are painfully aware that society expects them to be heterosexual. They reject that pressure. They avoid it. They escape it. They accept that they are homosexual. They probably think they have failed to become heterosexual. They get over it. That is quite different from thinking that you have successfully become a gay man. Coming out as gay is a process that involves a man accepting his gayness and asking those around him to also accept it. Coming out as gay has become an established feature of British society. Many famous people have come out and most people would be able to name at least one celebrity who is gay. A search on the Internet, made today, suggests that gay men do not necessarily look different from straight men. You cannot tell a man is gay just by looking at his face. Or the way he is dressed. From the 1970s onwards, gay men’s fashions influenced men generally; their taste in music had a massive effect on musical popularity generally. Gay men’s style choices about personal grooming began to filter out into the straight world and men started to take more care of their personal appearance and to use cosmetic products. This gave rise to the metrosexual.
In my novel, one of the characters challenges a friend to say how became a heterosexual. As the friend says, he did not have to become a heterosexual; there was no point in his life when he had to ‘come out’ as straight. Being a heterosexual is the norm. It is not something that anyone must achieve; it just happens. The binaryism of straight and gay gives us insights into how the world inculcates us into conformity. Our society presents the social world of human beings in black and white terms. Our lives become an endless round of dichotomies. You have to be thing or the other. You are not allowed to choose. You have to be what the world wants you to be – whether that is the world of your community, your family or your faith.
Each individual has a private persona and a public persona. By persona, I mean identity, self, image, character – in the social sense. A persona is like a mask – you wear it in order to say who you are. There are circumstances in which these two things collide. Two senses of self clash. Recent research studies have looked at men who identify, publicly, as straight but who told researchers they sometimes had sex with other men. Such men might have a private persona of being bisexual – one that they might not disclose to even legitimate researchers. That is speculative.
What the research reveals is that men with heterosexual credentials – those that are not open to doubt – do sometimes have sex with other men, for a variety of reasons. The subjects of the research were men who identified as heterosexual to their family, friends, work colleagues and to the public generally. Judging from the research report, they were having sex with other men in a clandestine way. They were selected from a sample of men who used online apps to find other men, for sex. They maintained their identities as straight and the fact they occasionally had homosexual experiences did not alter their perceptions of themselves as straight. Many of the male subjects interviewed for the research were in stable relationships with women. The research suggested that many of these men had same-sex encounters only infrequently. The term ‘heteroflexible’ has been coined to describe these men. The difference between one’s public persona and how one sees oneself internally, the notion of a private persona, is long-established in sociology and psychology. What interests researchers are the rationales for these dissonances and how men justify presenting themselves as straight even though they are having same-sex encounters. These were men who had sex but without there being any emotional or romantic engagements; they did it purely for sexual reasons or gratifications. They said they were not attracted to men’s bodies and did not find them handsome. Many of them said they were interested only in the penis and not the person as a whole. These were men who were not exclusively heterosexual. Socially they presented themselves as straight guys. Most did not publicly identify as bisexual. They would have strenuously denied they were gay and pointed to their girlfriends or wives as evidence for their heterosexuality. They could not be said to be homosexually oriented. They had a heterosexual orientation but dabbled in homosex now and then. They chose to do this. It was not due to circumstances, as would be the case with prison inmates or male sex workers. They would choose to do this or not to do this, at will.
Sex is often a way of penetrating into the mechanisms by which individuals assert their separateness from the social world in which they live. In discussing individuality, sex and gender are often good topics to reveal and expose how people overcome pressures to conform. This happens because someone has a strong sense of being a separate individual. They are not ants in a colony. They exist separately from the society around them. They have refused to be configured by it; or they have failed to conform to its expectations.
Being an individual
Some people are conformists. Others are individualists. I use the term individualist simply to mean oriented to self or self-defining; as opposed to adhering to a set of beliefs about individualism. This is a notion, a concept, that any one person is either a conformist – they live up to social expectations – or an individualist – one who chooses whether to accept social expectations or to refuse them. But some people are individuals who reject convention. A man can either internalise social expectations about masculinity or he can make up his own mind. People who think about the outside world and then decide for themselves what they want to be, or to do, are individualists. It is not that they feel antagonistic to the outside world. Not necessarily. They have a strong sense of their own self. A person who decides to be what he wants to be – rather than what people on the outside want him to be – must have a strong sense of self. It takes guts to be different.
Being an individual is not easy. People apply pressure to conform to accepted norms, beliefs, values and customs. Today’s obsession with texting and commenting on social media is the new way of pressuring people to conform. People bully other people, online, to compel them conform to their own view of the world. That can lead an individual to be depressed, unhappy, even suicidal. The individualist is less affected by what other’s think of him. He wants to be self-determining. It is much easier to go with the flow; to do what other people expect you to do. If you want to be your own man, you have to be very strong mentally. Parents apply a lot of pressure on their children to grow up to be like themselves. Parents bring up their children to be like themselves, to behave as they do, to dress as they do, to have their beliefs, to have their ambitions (if they have any ambitions) and to be little models of themselves. With most families this process is successful. There are always a few who reject that outcome, both when they are young and when they become adults. There are individuals who are not anything like their parents. They are not the person their parents wanted them to be. They have forged their own identity. They have created themselves in their own image – not in the image of their parents.
Having the guts to be different is about self-confidence. A belief that what one thinks (about oneself) is right (if only for oneself.) Conformists often have a low sense of self-esteem and low self-confidence. This leads people to doubt themselves; to be uncertain about who they are and what they are becoming. Self-confidence is about having the strength to believe in one’s own values and priorities. It is also about having the strength to respect others. To value what other people think without always agreeing with them. To value the right of others to decide for themselves just as you decide for yourself. Conformity is a like a suit of armour. It protects, but it also imprisons. Conformists think that, if they follow social expectations, their lives will be easier. They are more likely to be accepted by others. They are more likely to agree with the values of the world around them. They are more likely to be deferential to authority figures.
Individualists have to protect themselves against the intrusions of the outside world. An individualist has to inoculate himself against internalising too many of those external expectations that clash with his own personal values and beliefs. Once someone has realised (or decided) that they are an individualist, they have to find ways to escape the pressures being applied to them by the outside world. Let us take, for example, the case of a man who wants to have his own take on gender. Some men become transvestites. Not the ones who seek gender reassignment (transsexuals.) Rather, those who want to dress as a woman for part of their lives. They have to be strong-minded individuals. Unless they are going to pursue these activities only in private, in secret. A man who wants to be a woman, at least to feel as though he is a woman, for part of the time, has to have a strong sense of his own self and his own identity. To him, gender is a game played by two sides. He knows how to switch sides and play for the other team. Many male actors have to dress up in women’s clothes and act a role. Doing that has no effect on their sense of identity. They remain actors doing a job. Acting the part of a woman might open up insights into womanhood if they play the role sincerely enough. But after the day’s work, they put on their male clothing and go back to being a man. Transvestites also do that. Very few are fortunate to have jobs where they can dress as women. They have to go back to being a man, when they go back to work. Being a woman is something they do only when they have the opportunity, when circumstances permit.
Earlier on, I argued that society was a machine that creates expectations about how men should behave and what they should do and be. In many societies, there is, in fact, a slot for the transvestite male. According to the rules of the machine, you can be a transvestite if you join a certain profession, occupation or religious group or engage in certain recognised rituals. Social machines can allow these exceptions. Today’s social machine allows some men to be gay. The machine manufacturers standard products but it can also turn out specialised components. Hijras are officially recognized as a third gender in South Asian countries; they are considered neither completely male nor female. Many Hijras live in well-defined and organised all-hijra communities. In India, some Hijras do not define themselves by a specific sexual orientation, but rather by renouncing sex altogether. Sexual energy is transformed into sacred powers. Seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, Hijras practice rituals for and on behalf of both men and women; they belong to a special caste. They may be devotees of certain gods or goddesses. There are other examples, in other countries, of male persons who adopt a trans-gender role for either religious reasons or because they become sex workers.
Transvestites and homosexuals are examples of people who have to escape from the clutches of social expectation. They have to find ways of being self-determining in a world which pressures them to be conformists. Some achieve this through religion; some through political ideologies. Some simply construct reasons and justifications of their own for why should not conform. Many are subject to discrimination, hate and social rejection. They might find solace and companionship in like-minded groups but they also have to be mentally strong enough to withstand the negative consequences of their status, if they are to survive (which not all of them do.)
I know this sounds a bit like a sociology essay. It is me thinking through the theory before I put it into practice in writing my novel. As I lived through the sixties and seventies, I saw the world in all its polymorphic colour. I saw it changing. I saw people changing. The world in which I lived was multifaceted, complex, challenging and always impermanent. My experiences of life fifty years ago are what leavens my literary ambitions. I qualified as a sociologist. What I now need to do is to apply my social theory, as I understand it, to fiction to create a novel that will both tell a story and entertain.
Choosing to be different
Do people choose to be different? Can they decide not to conform? Is it a matter of conscious thought? Most of the time we do not realise that we are conforming to expectations. The process happens, to us, without us realising it. Most people go through life without ever thinking about themselves, who they are, how they became the people they are. Life just happens. We just happen. There is no point in thinking about it. It is only when people stray away from the set pathway that they realise that they were conforming to a set of expectations. They find themselves off piste socially. Realising that they are in some way different coincides with realising that once they conformed.
Some of these processes of becoming different happen very slowly, over a long period of time. Some people who are different cannot point to a time or an event where everything changed. It does happen. But for some people, they drift unconsciously into being different. The ordinary person is not a philosopher – one who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence. Whatever protects the average man against failure to conform – it did not do it for them. Most people do not consciously conform to social expectations. It just happens to them. They do not realise that it happens or how it happens. It just does. They are seldom conscious of the mechanisms and processes of conforming.
Those who become individualists, are more likely to have become aware of such mechanisms and processes. They had to learn how to deal with them. Avoid them or neutralise them. If you want to be rebellious you have to learn how to be a rebel. You do not just become one. You might feel rebellious. But you still have to find out how to rebel. Circumstances can turn you from a conformist into a rebel. It can happen but it is not something that happens very often. A rebel can be someone who fights; he conflicts with his detractors. But he can also be a man with a rebellious attitude. A non-conformist, by nature. These are all kernels for a good stories.
If a man is sufficiently self-aware, he may choose to be different, decide in what way he will differ, how much he will differ and over what period time he will be different. That is not what happens to everyone. Some people suffer from mental health problems; that makes them different for a while (perhaps even permanently.) They might be aware of such issues and problems. They might even come to define such differences in their own minds. They might develop survival strategies that enable them to cope with those differences. It is not clear that they have chosen to be that way; it might be that, mentally, it just happened to them, without their choice. They became mentally ill. Likewise, it is possible that a man would reject some aspect of the culture into which he was born. If he was born into a religious community, for example, he might decide, intellectually, to reject that religion in whole or in part. He might want to become a devotee of some other religion or to have no religion at all. These transformations are thought through; their consequences are known and he is mindful of the potential repercussions. Sometimes, a man might be caught between two sets of expectations. Conflicting or opposing expectations. He has to choose which side to join. Sitting on the fence is far more difficult. There is a long and rich history of religious non-conformism in this country, as much as in the rest of western Europe. Some members of the Anglican tradition have left the mainstream church and joined protestant congregations that espouse an alternative theology.
It is an open question whether we do choose to be different or whether this just happens to us. For some people, I am sure, they just drift into it because of their circumstances. I thought of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. She was jilted at her wedding and spent the rest of her life wearing her bridal gown and living a reclusive life. Being different is not, of itself, a bad thing; there are thousands of celebrities whose difference brings them fame and notoriety but they see that positively. It becomes their trade mark. Members of the royal family are different – they are high-status individuals – but they would mostly regard their difference as being positive. They were born to be different. There are many hundreds of thousands of people who were born with a disability. Some of them are very different – physically – from the rest of the population. Some have used their condition to their advantage – such as the actors and actresses who were born with dwarfism and went on to come famous actors. Dave Rappaport for example. I was at the University of Bristol when he was an undergraduate there. Differences can be acquired or they can be adopted. Physical differences can be embraced and celebrated. Mental conditions can be a source of creative inspiration. Some of those who are bipolar become highly talented artists. Our society commands conformity in many ways. Can permit variations. It can protect diversity. In the west, we enjoy liberal, progressive versions of the state. This has not always been the case in European history.
The state machine
Society is a machine for manufacturing look-alike people – people who are similar to each other. Society works better when most people fit standard measures. Too much variation is unprofitable. The manufacturing machine expects people to behave in the way it wants them to behave. The machine comprises the state and capitalism and often the church or religious orthodoxy. Capitalism is a traditional philosophy, I know. These days it might refer to commercialism or a certain kind of economy. Modern capitalism is often seen as being corporatism. Many writers have seen the state as being organised and run by an elite; or a group of elites. Oligarchs. The ruling class. People at the top who rule those below. Top people control the country. Top means rich; or the wealthiest. They are the ones who have the most power. There is a passage in my novel, where one of the characters launches into an analysis of how the ruling class rules. He portrays thinking of the late sixties in which radicals, suckled on the paps of Marxism, saw people as being exploited by a kind of Big Brother totalitarian state. He rails against the mass media newspapers for imposing political will on the people. The will of their corporate owners. He belittles parliamentary democracy. He sees the politics of Westminster as being a ruse that deflects people away from what is really happening in the country. Journalists are told to focus on what politics say and do; in reality, he argues, this is all a smokescreen.
All of this is well-known. The state is a series of systems that wants people to be what it expects them to be; to do what it expects them to do; to not do certain things (criminal law.) Here in England, we believe that we are ruled by a parliamentary democracy. Well, some of us do. Others are not so sure. Those of a more radical bent believe that democracy is a weak force and that the real governors of our world are the corporations. Whatever the truth might be, the state is a machine that imposes itself on the population. What we fail to see are the newspaper moguls and corporate bosses who are imposing their values on the state. My character is a radical student; as a person he has chosen to become an individual – of a certain kind. No one made him become a radical. Neither did he become a radical by chance.
My concern here is with personal conformity and individualism (in the sense of self-compliance.) There are many social and political movements that are concerned with conformity. Religion is one of them. I recall the Tudor period when Henry VIII disestablished the church and attempted to convert the British to Protestantism. A large number of people became non-conformists. But many clung on to their Catholic beliefs. During a later period of English history, people divided themselves into puritans and Catholics, or later into Roundheads and Cavaliers, parliamentarians and royalists. In modern times, the Northern Irish community was (and still is) divided into republicans and loyalists. Every man, woman and child – in such situations – had to decide which side to join; on which side of the fence they would go. They had to choose which side they wished to conform to. These were situations that have parallels in today’s world.
The genetics of masculinity and the chemistry of sexuality
My novel is about masculinity and how men grow up to be masculine. The process is a complex one. And yet it appears to be simple. If you are born as a male you are brought up to be a man. The world makes you behave how a man is expected to behave. What I set out to do, in my novel, is to show that this process does not always happen successfully. I have introduced a number of gay male characters in order to explore the process of conformity and individuality as it concerns sexuality. But it goes much deeper than that. The heterosexual characters display varying modes of sexuality and levels of masculinity. I talked about people being standardised; in reality, this is far from being the case. We are all variations from (or on) the standard. Those who are conformists are not people who stick rigidly to the rules; they are people whose lives are mainly characterised by internalising expectations, most of the time and to some degree or other. But not necessarily in every respect. They can occasionally deviate from expectations. In some way. To some extent. Sometimes a person is a conformist, in a general sense, but at the same time, they can also be an individual. Conscious of their own individuality. It all depends on circumstances. We do not all lead exactly the same lives. Groups of people might be seen to lead lives that are similar. But there will always be variants.
Some people are generally conformists but have elements of individuality where they depart from the norm and defy conventions. If there is an expectation that people will dislike or reject homosexuality, some people will reject that expectation and take another view of gayness. Many people grow up in communities that hold sport in high regard and consider football to be of prime importance. A few might reject this view. That does not mean that they are all round non-conformists. They just don’t like sport or football. A man living in contemporary society, in England, might be a conformist, generally, in most aspects of life, but that compliance is tempered with attitudes, beliefs and values that are individual to him – his own preferences. Society is not so totalitarian that it requires absolute compliance with all expectations, all of the time. We have a degree of personal freedom. Some of the characters in my novel are exemplary heterosexuals but they allow themselves to deviate now and again. They occasionally dip their toes into homosexuality. That does not make them gay. It does not change their orientation. They are simply men who have sex with other men, occasionally. For them, it is a characteristic of manliness. Women might occasionally sample a bit of lesbian love. It is equally possible that a gay man might dip his toes into straight sex. I think that is less likely to happen and is rarer. My view of gay men is that, once they have come out, they are locked into that particular suit of armour, more so than their straight counterparts are locked into the armour of heterosexuality. It is one of my story lines that individuals do sometimes fail to comply, fail to conform, refuse to always be what they should be. Some men flout the rules; in doing so, they affirm the rules. As the French writer Jean Genet, once wrote: A man who fucks a man is a double man. A heterosexual man who has sex with another man is affirming his maleness. A man who occasionally dresses as a woman is affirming his masculinity – not denying it.
Let me explain one thing to do with this. Being gay is more than just about sex; gay is more than homosexuality. It is a lifestyle choice. It is a social and cultural position. I cannot say if this applies equally to males and females and there will also most certainly be ethnic differences and age differences. Gay has become something, in the twenty-first century, more than just about sex or even about partnership choices. An individual positions himself in a world that he recognises. Not necessarily consciously. And not as a one-off choice. Our lives slide into place according to the kind of work we do, the level of educational attainment we achieve, the kind of wealth we accumulate or enjoy, where we choose to live, who we choose to live with… a wide variety of factors make us what who we are. Our position changes over time; it evolves as we get older. As we marry and cease to be single. Or if we become disabled. Or mentally ill.
Another factor presses itself on my thinking. A person who lives in a family – all their lives – is more socially configured than someone who lives mainly in a solitary situation. Some live in fairly small family groups; other exist for most of their lives in extended family circles. Of all the factors that make people who and what they are, the family is the one that has the greatest influence. Small families of parents and their children might try to bring their children up to be individuals. Other families might do their utmost to make their children into replicas of the parents. Some families are based on values of liberal tolerance. In other cultures, there is stronger emphasis on conformity. The family is not always a standardised institution. Liberal societies allow families of be different. This then allows individual family members to be different.
Being a different race
A blogger called Devi Clark wrote: When I was ten, my blonde, blue-eyed best friend gave me a label. “I never thought I’d make friends with anyone brown,” she said. She was clearly embarrassed by her revelation and had summoned the courage to own up. I was dumbstruck for a moment. I never really thought of myself as brown, or indeed, as anything. I was just me. She went on to comment I still encounter many situations where people make incorrect assessments of me based on my looks. In her article, she went on to analyse the advantages of being different, seeing it as being positive characteristic. In particular, she saw being different a source of motivation and creativity. Writer Mandy Hale suggested that people should own their differences. She commented that if someone thought they were weird they should work on it. Several writers have talked about ‘being part of the herd’ and how leaving the herd can be a positive achievement. When it comes to race – based on skin colour – there has to be a point when a person realises that they are different to whatever group is around them or what kind of community they came from. Once they have accepted that they are different, they then have to work out what that implies.
We often think that black people came to the British Isles in the 1960s; this is far from the case. The very first Britons were people who were not white. Ancient ancestors who first populated what we now know as England, were brown-skinned people. Black people were brought to this country by the Romans back in the first century. They continued to live here and their presence was amplified during the time when the East India Company began to trade in slaves. Why should skin colour form the basis for racial discrimination? Some analysts of the history of slavery and of racism in this country have traced the source of discrimination back to economic status, poverty and the fact that black people were usually those who were exploited. In Britain today having a different skin colour is not in itself a disadvantage. It can be but other factors also apply. Some black people today are wealthy, hold positions of high office, are successful business people, are celebrities, Olympic athletes, distinguished sports people. Skin alone, is not a sufficient factor to explain disadvantage and discrimination. There have been many groups of people with white skins, who have become the targets and victims of hatred and intense discrimination.
A complex individual
It has been suggested, by some of the writers I have read, that a person is multi-layered. The self is not a simple, one-dimensional entity. It can have different parts. There can be more than one self; some of which the person is aware of and, in some cases, selfs of which he is not fully conscious. As babies and children grow and develop they become aware of themselves. They realise they are separate from the world around them and separate from people they see every day. A young person develops a sense of self and some degree of understanding as to what kind of self they have. Children grow to see themselves as separate individuals, persons, distinct beings or entities. During adolescence, we see ourselves, more and more, relative to people around us – in particular, our peer group. Adults can be defined or configured by their family or community. We used to talk about actuality. I think that meant ‘what we actually are.’ Allied to that, we used to use the phrase ‘self-actualising.’ Something invented by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Something to do with personal growth. Fulfilling a desire for achievement, realising potential.
Are people ever completely separate? If, as I have just said, people are defined by those closest to them, can it ever be that a person is completely separate? Complete separation can happen only when an individual lives in isolation – like a hermit or someone marooned alone on an island. In normal daily life, an individual is socialised into a family or group or community. His self is, therefore, a reflection of the attitudes, values, cultures, behaviours, beliefs of those around him and is it not wholly self-defined. My idea of individuality sees a person as being positioned somewhere along a continuum from, at one extreme, complete separation through to, at the other extreme, being like an ant in a colony – having no separate existence beyond or outside the hive. Clearly, some people are conformists who are well-adjusted to the social world in which they live; others might accept most of what they are given or what is demanded of them, socially, but have peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, distinctions, elements of who and what they are which make them different. That is what makes people interesting. Homogeneous clones are not interesting.
It is possible to argue that everyone has two selfs – the social self that is defined by the people around us. And the inner self, which we ourselves determine, mould and shape. That sounds like a credible idea. I talked earlier about having a private and a public persona. The social self and the inner self. Components of our individuality. These two selfs are usually one and the same – we see ourselves as people see us. What we shape our inner self to be, is the same as the way we are seen by those in our world. But it is not always the case. It is not wholly the case. Some of us keep our inner self secret – in part, at least. We hide some of our differences from those around us. We have secret private lives.
People who are sexually different – in particular, gay people – can and do keep their sexuality firmly in the private sphere. If they are not totally out, their sexuality forms part of their inner self and one that is not disclosed to the world around them. They are not seen as being gay and therefore being a gay person is not reflected back to them. They pass as straight – by default; everyone is straight until proven otherwise. Britain has become a society where LGBT is accepted, if not celebrated. This creates a society where people can come out as gay, in most settings, most of the time, without fear of retribution. They might experience disadvantage in being openly gay, but their difference should not result in aggressively negative responses. Legally they cannot be discriminated against for being gay. They are allowed to be different. That is not the case in many other countries. Liberal progressive societies are ones where there is scope to be different without there being negative consequences. Being gay, disabled, in a minority group, makes an individual different but these are acceptable differences and they are often protected by law. Societies that protect people who are different are those that value diversity. Where there is acceptance of groups of people with specific differences (gay, disabled, transgender) there is a generally positive attitude to being different. This might have its limits (given our preoccupation with dichotomies.) But, in general, people value both being different and the freedom that permits people to be different.
Despite this widespread acceptance that being gay is OK, there are still men who experience fear and anxiety about being gay and about coming out as gay. They fear the consequences of being seen to be gay by those around them. Teenagers are especially prone to this given the endemic bullying on social media. Teenagers today lead their lives on social media apps. That was not the case when I was young. So, I cannot claim to fully understand it. What I have found, as I researched this subject, was that there are many men who fear being gay – either becoming gay – or being thought of as gay. There was evidence that some heterosexual men become obsessed with the idea that they are gay – even though they are not. Fears that they might be gay distort their sense of identity.
I briefly looked at a few novels and films that dealt with aspects of individuality and of being different. I will not deal with those now but I might well return to them later. In particular, I have started to look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, the film Rebel Without A Cause and L’Étranger by Albert Camus. There are many, many more. These works provided me a method of weaving themes into a story. They reassured me that there could be a ‘genre’ for novels that dealt with themes of society and the individual.