Cultural Intelligiblity and the Difficulty of Acceptance

By: Donna Lynn Matthews, September 2006

Why is acceptance so difficult for us?

Not just self acceptance, but acceptance by others and for others.

We spend a lot of time on acceptance – usually in the form of confusion. We are confused about who we are – what we are – and why we are. We’re confused because we seem to lack a stabile identity – our anchor to reality.

Judith Butler makes an interesting observation regarding identity:

Inasmuch as “identity” is assured through the stabilizing concepts of sex, gender, and sexuality, the very notion of “the person’ is called into question by the cultural emergence of those “incoherent” or “discontinuous” gendered beings who appear to be persons but who fail to conform to the gendered norms of cultural intelligibility by which persons are defined. [Gender Trouble, p.17]

Sex, gender and sexuality should be stabilizing constructs – and they are as long as you are a male man attracted to female women or you are a female woman attracted to male men. The 'gendered norms of cultural intelligibility' only allow one accepted identity: Heterosexual – in its strictest definition. To identify as anything else is to render yourself as cultural intelligible – unable to establish a firm footing in the reality of society.

Heterosexual here goes beyond the compatibility of plumbing. It sums up in one very potent cultural signifier everything that we are expected to be. It makes no allowances for variation or diversity – it is quite specific. One is recognized as 'valid' only insofar as one adheres to the definition.

The immediate argument to this, I suspect, is the apparent acceptance of homosexuality in society today. True, there seem to be a better climate now than in the past, but is it really acceptance? Butler comments:

What remains "unthinkable" and "unsayable" within the terms of an existing cultural form is not necessarily what is excluded from the matrix of intelligibility within that form; on the contrary, it is the marginalized, not the excluded, the culturally possibility that calls for dread or, minimally, the loss of sanctions. Not to have social recognition as an effective heterosexual is to lose one possible social identity and perhaps gain one that is radically less sanctioned. The "unthinkable" is thus fully within culture, but fully excluded from dominant culture. [Gender Trouble, p. 77]

Butler’s point is an interesting one. It is not that "incoherent" or "discontinuous" gendered beings are excluded so much as they are marginalized. Anyone who is non-conforming is still “fully within culture, but fully excluded from dominant culture” – they are a part of and yet separate from society as a whole. Gays do not have true ‘equality’ in society – if they did, there would be no reason to differentiate them as ‘gay’. They ‘enjoy’ a marginalized status – not as bad as some – but marginalized nonetheless.

What is it then that we want when we want acceptance? We want to move from a marginalized position in society into the dominant sphere. With self acceptance, our goal is to stop self marginalization – to stop treating ourselves as second-class citizens. We have internalized the construct of the ‘Heterosexual’ as the social archetype, recognized ourselves as “incoherent” by comparison, and declared (marginalized) ourselves as less that those who ‘make the cut’.

Acceptance by others is nearly the same with one additional component. Recognition and acceptance by another – especially an SO – of someone “discontinuously” gendered calls that other person’s identity and being into question. What does it say about their sexuality? E.g.: Many wives fear a loss of and reclassification of their social identity by admitting that they have a cross-dressing husband. Many are afraid of being identified – both by themselves and others – as lesbian: which by all accounts still is considered a radically less sanctioned social identity.

So, just what does it mean to accept oneself – or another – as a culturally unintelligible, incoherent and discontinuously gendered being?

With such narrow confines in which to establish a coherent and continuous identity, it is any wonder we spend our lives fighting for acceptance?

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