Wednesday, March 31, 2010

THE "GAY" VS. "HOMOSEXUAL" DEBATE

Thanks to my recent post on True/Slant inspired by Ricky Martin's coming out of the closet, my brother Alexi and I had an interesting conversation yesterday about the semantics of "gay" and "homosexual." I'm not sure if I agree with his point of view, but I like how he thinks.

The point in my post with which Alexi took issue was when I insisted that for both men and women, bisexuality leads to men. Generally, I try to shy away from such sweeping generalizations, and if I had to do it over again, I would explain that while I do believe bisexuality exists (and it is rarer than so-called bisexuals would have us believe, though not as rare as biphobes might want to believe), whether it leads to a life with a man or a woman, there is usually a predilection for men.

When I offered this to one reader, she responded by giving me examples of bisexual men she knows who ended up with women, one of them even previously identified himself as gay. What she doesn't know is what she doesn't know: What are these guys doing when no one they know is looking? If I'm skeptical of any guy who goes from "homosexual" to "heterosexual," or a bisexual man who ends up with a woman, it's because sex clubs, saunas, after-hours parks, public loos and Manhunt are full of such men who settle down with women but constantly, obsessively seek out sex with men.

I suspect that bisexuals who end up with men do not actively pursue sex with women. But that's just my honest opinion.

Anyway, here is the transcript of my Facebook conversation with Alexi.

Alexi: I do not agree that "bisexuality" has any particular direction for any gender.

My thinking is that "you are what you say you are." Sex acts do not determine orientation. If someone says they are straight all the while doing homo on the down low, leave them alone to their straight world. I am 100% for letting furtive homosexuals be as "straight" or as "bi" as they want to be. I like to think that truly gay people are honest and courageously participant in the LGBT movement and not hiding in a sexual-orientation closet somewhere.

Jeremy: Alexi, you and I have discussed this before, and I think your point is a good one. That said, I do believe that sexuality depends on more than admitting it to yourself and to others. You are what you are. Sleeping with women and saying you are straight doesn't make you inherently so. And neither does saying that you just happen to be with someone of the same sex at the moment. I believe that what you are talking about is identity, what you identify with. But think about this: If a black person identifies with whites or vice versa, he or she is still black or vice versa. One point I should have more clearly made in my post is that because of the nature of women -- how for them, sex isn't as intrinsically tied to love as it is for men -- I believe that sexuality is more fluid. 

Alexi: The purpose of labels is that they communicate information. When someone says I am "gay," they are saying that they are receptive to a certain set of relationships that a person who says I am "straight" would not be receptive to. These statements are not dependent on any action subsequently taken by a person.

Imagine a person who is gay but not sexual. Does that mean they are not gay or unsure? The conflict arises when the actions do not fit with the label. Or when communication is cut off by making unconvincing objections to labels. When this happens, one has to ask what's really at stake for the persons involved.

If one is not personally involved, it is best to just stay the heck out of it and be as wary as you would with anyone whose actions do not fit their words. Trying to apply the label "gay" to someone who says they are "straight" or refuses to communicate at all is insulting to those who struggle to live a healthy and open gay life.


Jeremy: I respectfully agree and disagree. I just do not think "gay" and "lesbian" are clubs where the price of admission is simply admitting it to yourself and others. Someone who is married until age 30 and finally comes out at age 35 was gay at 15. It may be unfair to those who come out at 12 and deal with all the strife that follows, but then life is not fair. Sexuality is a biological fact of life that does not depend on whether one embraces one label or another or none at all. Your argument seems to imply that being gay is, ultimately, a choice based on whether you want to admit it or not, which is probably exactly what the right wingers and holy rollers would like for us to believe.

Alexi: I see your point about the 30 year old man married to a woman who says he is gay. I would say that he was "homosexual" from when he was 15 but not "gay." I think homosexuality is inherent to most humans to some degree, but being gay is definitely a social choice.

For example, same-sex penguin pairs are homosexual but only in the most ludicrous way would one say that same-sex penguin pairs are gay. So, yes, to be gay is human, it is socially emergent, and it is a club. One where the price of admission is being authentic with respect to one's homosexuality and the same-sex relationships one is seeking to engage and build one's identity on.

Now, homosexuality -- like skin colour -- is not a choice. I doubt the obligatory nature of homosexuality will change the minds of bigots. Everyone knows that skin colour is obligatory yet racism is rampant.
Jeremy: So this is a very interesting point that you are clarifying now. You are making a distinction between being "gay" and being "homosexual." I've always used and thought of both words interchangeably, the former being less scientific-sounding than the first. I'd never thought about there being a difference between the two, so this is a discussion based on semantics, but we agree. Perhaps your idea is one that I need to explore in a future post. As for the club aspect, the woman I mentioned [editor's note: in the True/Slant post] in the episode of Sex and the City would probably agree with you, but for her, the price of admission would be eating p***y.

Alexi: I think making a difference between "gay" and "homosexual" is important. Man has always been homosexual, but the notion of being "gay" as an identity emerged from the sexual liberation movement of the late '60s, like Stonewall. Before that time, the use of the word "gay" implied any general willingness to disregard conventional or respectable sexual mores.

Conversely, it can be said that "straight" implies orthodoxy or a willingness to embrace conventions or respectable sexual mores. Whether sexual mores are being embraced or disregarded says a lot about a person regardless of what they may do privately in bed.

This is how you can have, say, "straight" conservative politicians often married to women looking for sex with men in airport toilets and gay clubs. One later insisted he was not gay, and you know what? I believe him. Just because he is got caught in a homosexual act does not grant him spiritual or ethical right to consider himself gay.

In sum, all gays are homosexual, but not all homosexuals are gay.
Interesting. Do you agree?
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