“I believe that it is impossible to establish homosexuality and heterosexuality on an equal footing as long as one argues by using a sort of ‘language of pain’. This only reinforces the dominant view of homosexuals as being completely different – a difference that is ranked lower than heterosexuality.” This is the opinion of Tone Hellesund of the Rokkan Centre. She has looked behind the suicide statistics, and has interviewed 12 people who have seen their attraction to people of the same sex as a deadly burden and who have therefore tried to commit suicide.
The study of the living conditions among lesbians and gay men in the late 1990s showed that the risk of a member of these groups contemplating suicide was six or seven times higher than in the general population. The most shocking finding was that one in every four gay men or women under 25 years of age had attempted to commit suicide at least once. This lead to a political initiative to increase our knowledge about the conditions among homosexuals in Norway, and several research projects were initiated. Tone Hellesund’s project is one of them.
Although she believes that a lot of important knowledge was gained from the study of living conditions, she points to the fact that there are methodological weaknesses associated with quantitative studies of this type which give rise to questions about how meaningful they are. They also provide inadequate answers regarding the reasons for the attempted suicides. She underlines that other approaches are necessary if the negative and difficult experiences of many gay people are to be taken seriously.
“The personal histories of my informants also reflect society’s dominant view of homosexuality. Among other things, they describe the burden of being regarded as fundamentally different. Gay people tend to feel that they are not a natural part of the world,” Ms Hellesund says.
Longing for normality
The cultural researcher points out that when people, in their eagerness to highlight discrimination and oppression, emphasise the role of gay people as victims, then this has no effect on the culture that defines homosexuality as fundamentally different from heterosexuality. On the contrary, such arguments contribute more to reinforcing the negative self image many young gay people have.
“My informants all feel a longing for normality. When they discover that they are attracted to people of the same sex, their foundations collapse. This is also connected to the fact that they consider homosexuality to be an orientation they are born with, as the core of their selves. But a gay identity does not fit into the future they had envisaged for themselves, and this makes it a frightening break in their autobiographical development process,” says Ms Hellesund, and refers to a statement made by one of the girls she has interviewed.
“I felt that being gay would be like breaking down everything else that I had built up, I would first and foremost be gay, and not all the other things.”
Playing down categories
In Ms Hellesund’s opinion, emphasising homosexuality as an orientation one is born with and cannot do anything about contributes to producing and reproducing homosexuality as a negative deviation. It becomes a special identity to be either ashamed or proud of.
“I believe that slogans such as “Gay and proud of it” also show that shame is lurking just beneath the surface. Identity politics can be an effective way of achieving rights, but they derive their power from a collective pain. If one chose the opposite path and played down the categories, this could reduce many gay people’s feeling of not belonging,” says Ms Hellesund, who also believes that sexuality should not be regarded primarily as fixed categories, but rather as culturally changeable and unstable.
“However, this is a rather controversial question. Defining homosexuality as something one is born with could also be a counterweight to those who believe that one can just ‘change sides’. That is definitely not an opinion I want my research to be cited in support of,” she underlines.
Ms Hellesund points out that it is not the Church or the neo-Nazis that are most important in making a lot of people feel that living life as a homosexual is frightening. When her informants tried to explain what created that painful feeling of being different and excluded, they told her about everyday incidents, not about vicious harassment or violent episodes. It could be that awkward moment of silence after one tells somebody that one has a partner of the same sex, the media’s focus on homosexuality as a problem, or the usual question: “When are you going to have a baby?”
“This everyday marginalisation is rarely meant to exclude, it can be done with the best intentions. It is those thousands of trifling little things that together form a massive demonstration of differentness,” Ms Hellesund says, and she therefore believes that the most important condition for improving the self esteem of gay people is cultural change.
“In addition to pointing out the good prospects for a happy life gay people have today, one must stop assuming that everybody is heterosexual and endeavour to do away with the established inequality between homosexuality and heterosexuality. Of course one should not ignore the pain that exists in some gay people, but social change cannot be based on a language of pain.”