Theater of Cruelty

Babel in the backland

Gender researchers must get on the field in the gay debate.


[chronicle] Norwegian gay debate is characterized by religious questions and representatives of the Christian right taking a disproportionately large place; that the views and arguments are mostly predictable, whether they come from gay-friendly or gay-friendly debaters; that the number of actors is relatively limited and mostly consists of gay activists, politicians and reactionary Christians; and that gender researchers are largely absent.

I will concentrate on the latest, why and how Norwegian gender researchers must now get on the field and actively contribute to creating a more interesting, relevant and nuanced Norwegian gay debate.


The most startling and depressing thing about today's situation is that we live in a society that places great emphasis on sexuality, but at the same time has such an underdeveloped conceptual and theoretical basis for discussing what we today call sexuality. The public debate almost always moves within predictable conceptual frameworks and on the basis of more or less naïve and unproblematic assumptions about what sexuality is and how sexuality is practiced. Even in the so-called enlightened public, I dare argue that there is virtually no understanding of the historical and culturally conditioned nature of sexuality.

The media in today's Norway is the foremost arena for the spread of homophobia and homonegativity. At the same time, public debate about homosexuality in the media is a potentially important source of dissemination of knowledge from the research institutions to the general public. There are three gay-related debate topics that I see as particularly significant in this regard and where I believe gender researchers can and must make an active contribution.

Adoption debate.

First, we have the fundamentally important debate about the right of gays and lesbians to be considered adoptive parents on par with all other law-abiding, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens in this community. Homosexual exclusion from the possibility of adoption is undoubtedly the most haunting example of public, law-abused discrimination that still exists in this country. The debate about adoption rights is always interesting because it reveals them so quickly

deeper homo-negative attitudes that lie beneath the neat and politically correct surface. At the same time, the adoption debate is forcing opponents to articulate what it is about gays and lesbians that they believe makes them unsuitable as parents of children others have created.

Gay Muslims. Then we have the debate about how gay and lesbian immigrants, especially those with a Muslim background, can do better in Norwegian society. This is a more complicated and difficult debate, where we already see that the traditional arenas of the Norwegian public are inadequate. The debate on gay immigrants is also of theoretical interest, because it cannot be conducted without a recognition that today's Western sexual system is in direct conflict with sexual understandings and sexual morality in many non-Western cultures. In the wake of what is currently only a thin start to a debate on the position of gay Muslims, we should also have a debate on Norway's potential role as a proponent of creating dignified relationships for gays and lesbians in other parts of the world, not least in countries receiving assistance from Norway. Norway's refugee policy in relation to disparate refugees is also part of this picture.

Bisexual in the blind zone.

In particular, the debate about gay Muslims shows that there are still limits to what is possible to mean and who can mean what, even in a seemingly progressive, liberal and open society like the Norwegian. What is it that still makes us feel insecure or uncomfortable? Which positions are difficult to take or almost impossible? We should be concerned about such questions. In this connection, there is one non-theme in Norwegian gay debate that I think should be brought to the fore as soon as possible: it is the question of those people who do not feel comfortable with a traditional gay or a heterosexual identity. Just as transgender individuals are a challenge to our understanding of gender, bisexual and "skewed" individuals should bring us into discussion pretty much everything we believe to be true, unchangeable and universal in human sexuality. Bisexuality is a challenge for both heterosexuals and gays, because acceptance for bisexuality requires an understanding that for some people there is a choice. Or to put it another way: Some people do not want to have to choose.

The role of gender researchers.

Most participants in Norwegian gay debate contribute with their personal experience and emotional commitment. Scientists and intellectuals, of course, also have experience and commitment, but they have something else that is more important that they contribute: empirical, historical and theoretical knowledge. Gender researchers should take a step back and consider the debate as a debate. Polarized positions, as we often see in the Norwegian gay debate, just invite deconstruction, perspective, exploration of alternative arguments and positions. What are the premises for the debate? What perspectives have not yet emerged? Why? In spite of a strong need for research-based knowledge, in some situations it may not be appropriate to participate in the debate. Debate is not an absolute good. You must choose your opponents with at least as much care as you choose their allies. Show me who you debate with and I'll tell you who you are.

Come on.

The researcher's task is not to make the world easier, but on the contrary, to make it more complicated, to create chaos in the categories, but in a neat way. The biggest challenge in today's thoroughly sexualized, homoliberal Norway, as I see it, is not to stand out as gay in public, but to speak from a position that is not explicitly gay or heterosexual. How many are it dry or can it? In such a situation, I think gender researchers in particular can contribute with an anti-identifying viewpoint, that is, a viewpoint that does not depend on our own identity or that crosses categories and identity markers. Gender researchers participate in the debate because they know what to do and it is in fact independent of his or her own sexual identity. On that basis, more researchers should feel called to participate in the gay debate than those who self-identify as gay or lesbian.

Comment Author:

Nils Axel Nissen

Gender Researcher, University of Oslo

The text was written in connection with the 20th anniversary of the Center for Women's and Gender Research at the University of Oslo.

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