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Cultural Identities  
 
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Much commonsense logic about gay and lesbian life in North America, Western Europe, and Australasia (as well as much scholarship on gay history in these regions of the world) has assumed that in the wake of gay liberation, new, politically informed conceptions of sexual identity have irrevocably overtaken "older" modes of identification among persons engaging in same-sex sexual behavior. Such "alternative" sexual identities are frequently imagined as an unenlightened historical circumstance to be superseded.

As the politics of gay and lesbian liberation and the modes of identification that they prescribe have made their way into more and more regions of the world, contemporary indigenous sexual identities are often also dismissed as atavistic products of profoundly societies.

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Many have assumed that the homogenization of diverse sexual identities into a global "lesbigay" identity is necessarily a good thing, proof that gay liberation is working. Arguably as more people take on an openly gay or lesbian identity, they appear to aspire to a set of social and behavioral ideals understood as common to this particular cultural identity. Lesbians and gay men are imagined as white, middle-class, urban residents. They are coupled, monogamous in their sexual relations, even formally partnered or married as changes in local law permit. Partners are approximate social equals in terms of their age, income, class, and occupational status. The gender identity and sexual object-choice of each partner is to remain consistent, meaning that bisexual and persons are perforce excluded from this matrix. Sexual relations between partners are supposed to be non-coercive, reciprocal, and loving.

Such a vision of a "liberated" gay identity had begun to crystallize as early as 1977, when Charles Silverstein and Edmund White were able to state the following in their landmark book, The Joy of Gay Sex: "To simplify the difference [between 'old-fashioned,' 'unliberated' sexual relations between men and those of the present], we might picture a 35-year-old Athenian in love with a 17-year-old ephebe whom he fucks and instructs in geometry and whom he will stop loving when the youth turns 20. By contrast, in New York we might picture a 35-year-old lawyer in love with a 35-year-old doctor; they take turns fucking each other, they share expenses and household duties and they will stay together forever (or so they hope)."

Such ideals as this have been widely disseminated though lesbian and gay media and political organizations over the course of the past three decades. Yet in the great scheme of same-sex sexuality, this remains but one mode of identification among many. A great number of lesbian and gay people aspire to such an identity, but fewer achieve it, and many more openly refuse it in favor of alternate, concurrent conceptions of sexual identity.

Alternatives to the above model are stratified most strongly by sex/gender roles and sexual object-choice of individual persons. They are further inflected by phenomena pertaining to these persons, such as social class and income, race and ethnicity, disability, occupation and institutionalization, and sexual preference (meaning not sexual object-choice but rather such practices as sadomasochism, sexual fetishism, polyamory, and others).

Sex/Gender Role Stratification

Common to many cultural conceptions of same-sex sexuality is the notion that equality and reciprocity of partners' sex and/or gender roles is impossible and, indeed, undesirable. Among men, the division of sex partners into "active" (insertive) and "passive" (receptive) partners is often paramount. This was broadly true in the classical Mediterranean and remains so in contemporary Latin American societies, though such cleavages have been found historically as well as currently in North America among the military, prisoners, and prostitutes. Indeed, the logic of "top" versus "bottom" remains pervasive in the way that contemporary gay-identified men imagine themselves and their prospective partners in anal intercourse.

This sex-role differentiation, in turn, implies a gender differential between partners (the receptive partner is frequently cast in the role of the woman and may be expected to be more effeminate) as well as a differential in terms of sexual identity (receptive partners are often "gay" or perceived as such, while insertive partners may not be).

Undeniable, too, is the power differential between partners as a result of these apparent social inequities. Such a differential is taken to a logical (albeit often highly theatricalized) extreme among leathermen and S/M enthusiasts, Bears and cubs (older, larger, hirsute men and their frequently younger admirers), as well as boy-lovers and boys.

Among women, such sex/gender role stratification also exists, expressed most frequently as a division between "butch" (masculine) and "femme" (feminine). In this case, however, we find the reverse of the male situation: it is the "dominant," masculine role that is more visible and generally stigmatized. Additionally, butch/femme roles are not as dependent on a sexual economy of insertion and reception (although these may be factors in defining and allocating roles). They are more frequently characterized by their emphasis on gendered self-presentation: butches wear men's clothing and sport short haircuts, whereas femmes do not.

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