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Can We Celebrate Queer Lives And Activism, Too?

James Franco

I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic?  I appreciate these efforts.  And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate).  In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.

Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy.  Coming out.  Refusing to hide.  Refusing to conform.  Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence.  Refusing to tolerate the status quo.  Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples?  Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.  Straight, cisgender people, get used to it!  That is some brave, bold shit.

Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave.  Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute.  Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex.  Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families?  How do we navigate our communities?  How do we navigate the law and institutions?  All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media.  All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.

Sometimes, the well runs dry.  Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship.  The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon.  Maybe you are naive to hope for better.  Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world.  Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.

Fuck.  That.  Noise.

My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical.  It is radical if equality is radical.  We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting.  When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them.  By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations.  It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.

So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them.  And, I am honoring the fallen.  Fight on.  Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.

Coming Out (Or Not) Is A Selfish Act?

This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day.  Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out.  The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years.  So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.

Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act

Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)?  Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.

I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish.  She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely.  To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone.  But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes.  (Other than that, I loved her talk!)

Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish.  She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me.  Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents.   (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.)  Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.

So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families.  And, a queer person is selfish if they come out.  I guess.  Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?

Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish

I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.

That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth.  A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.

When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.”  At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity.  We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”

Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance.  Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out.  It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.

More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different.  The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work.  So, the big guns have to come out.  We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc…  Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted.  Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity.  Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.

Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions.  The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.

Thinking Critically

As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context.  In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society.  Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).

As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities.  For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out.  For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.

So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.

Concluding Thoughts

My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people.  But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out.  Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to navigate survive in this world.  There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences.  Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out.  Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not.  And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.

Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make.  If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people.  We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!

A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction

With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own.  As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.

One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man.  I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men.  So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism.  The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.

Feminism For Gay Men 101

Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:

  1. We are men.  We hold male privilegePeriod.
  2. Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer).  Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
  3. Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism.  As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
  4. While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors.  And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist.  Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it.  Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
  5. Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women.  The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction.  I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay.  Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong.  But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
  6. Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories.  Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong.  Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
  7. Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity.  We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women.  Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
  8. Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment.  To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women.  Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t.  Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
  9. Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism.  We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
  10. Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
  11. The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism.  The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women.  Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
  12. We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face.  Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care.  Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.

We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.

In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

The Concept of Double Jeopardy: A Look At The Lives Of Multiply Disadvantaged Individuals

Black Feminism Symbol

To my surprise, I came across an article posted on Huffington Post yesterday that mentions “double jeopardy” — here, in the academic sense.  The article reviews a study published recently in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that found that leaders of unsuccessful companies in a fictitious news story were more harshly criticized when they were Black women.  That is, Black women faced more penalties (in this case, criticism) than Black men, white women, and white men:

In a study conducted by Rosette and Livingston, 228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts — even those of the same race.

What Is “Double Jeopardy”?

I say, “to my surprise,” because a quick search for “double jeopardy” on Google yields site after site about the movie, Double Jeopardy, featuring Tommy Lee Jones and Ashley Judd; a search on Wikipedia also yields a page about the film, as well as a few pages about the legal concept of double jeopardy.  Ironically, the legal meaning of double jeopardy, in which a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime, somewhat counters the academic meaning of the term.  In this sense, double jeopardy refers to the additional barriers and burdens faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses (e.g., Black women) compared to their singly disadvantaged (e.g., white women and Black men) and privileged counterparts (e.g., white men).

As early as the late 1960s, the term double jeopardy came into use to highlight the unique experiences of Black women, particularly their simultaneous exposure to racism and sexism (and classism). As the second wave feminist movement made progress through the 1960s and 1970s for women’s rights, calls from Black, Chicana, and multicultural feminists, lesbian feminists, and other women who faced other forms of oppression other than sexism to attend to the diverse needs and experiences among women grew louder.  Various feminist activists and scholars worked intensely to draw attention to the fact that the category of “woman” and all of its associated experiences and obstacles is not universal; many advocated for a perspective that considers the intersections among sexism, racism, and classism.

Double Jeopardy Versus Intersectionality

Over time, awareness of the full array of systems of oppression that operate simultaneously has evolved to include heterosexism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, xenophobia, and so forth.  Obviously, one can be disadvantaged in multiple ways or face “multiple jeopardy,” for example, as a lesbian, woman, Latina, and working-class person.   In fact, in my own research, I have found just that: among 15-25 year olds, the more disadvantaged statuses an adolescent or young adult holds (among race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class), the more forms of discrimination one faces (e.g., race and gender and sexual orientation discrimination).  And, as a result, these multiply disadvantaged individuals face double or multiple jeopardy in mental and physical health; that is, partially because of their disproportionate exposure to discrimination, they face even more depressive symptoms and worse physical health than more privileged youth.

While the notion of multiple jeopardies — almost easily counted based on the number of disadvantaged statuses one holds — is still used in some research, especially in sociological work on health, it has fallen out of favor among scholars who study the intersections among race, gender, and class.  This is, in part, because the idea of adding up one’s statuses, essentially adding one’s exposure to sexism to one’s exposure to racism and so on, misses the ways in which these identities and systems of oppression intersect.  Or, said another way, racism + sexism + classism misses how one experiences the world as a working-class Black woman, an experience that is not merely the sum of working-class experiences + Black experiences + woman experiences.  These systems of oppression intersect and mutually reinforce one another in such a way, for example, that homophobic policies like the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy harm Black women more than any other group.

Should We Do Away With Double Jeopardy?

Well, if we meant the literal experience of multiple systems of oppression — yes, we should do away with it.  But, what I mean here is, if it seems the notion of “double jeopardy” misses the ways in which systems of oppression intersect, should we stop using it in the way that we understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals?  Having used the concept in past and current research, it might seem I have a vested interest in calling for the continued use of the concept.

Like any good researcher, I would say the appropriateness, relevance, and usefulness of the concept depends on your research question.  In health research, documenting whether multiply disadvantaged groups are at elevated risk for illness and disease necessarily calls for a comparison with singly disadvantaged and privileged groups.  For example, lesbian and bisexual women’s elevated risk for obesity is identified by comparing them to heterosexual women, gay and bisexual men, and heterosexual men.  But, what causes that elevated risk — factors brought on or exacerbated by sexism and heterosexism — can be said to be evidence of double jeopardy (sexism + heterosexism) and intersectionality (the intersection of sexism and heterosexism).

As such, in general, I would recommend that we need both perspectives — multiple jeopardy and intersectionality — to fully understand the lives of multiply disadvantaged individuals and their more privileged counterparts.  Even if you use only one of these two perspectives, you are contributing to what little we know about the lives and experiences of, and challenges faced by individuals who hold multiple disadvantaged statuses.

Sexual Orientation: Nature? Nurture? Choice?

Recently, Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon remarked in an interview to New York Times magazine that she is “gay by choice”:

…for me, [homosexuality] is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not… As you can tell, I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.

In the midst of a long struggle for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and queer people, the looping of this story in the media led many LGBT individuals to groan, “why would she say that?”  Their fear is that her declaration — her autonomous choice to be gay — can be used in efforts to oppose the advancement of sexual equality.  Putting the comment that she is “gay by choice” into context, looking at her full quote, she makes clear that the question of whether sexual identity — namely those non-heterosexual identities — is irrelevant.  However, through the wave of sensationalism and abbreviated quotes, the media has promoted the simple fact that Nixon has declared her sexual identity a choice.  Despite Nixon’s intentions and the content of the entire interview, the words “gay by choice” rouse up the continued debate over the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.

Nature? Nurture? Choice? We’re Missing The Point!

More and more research out of biology, genetics, and other life sciences builds a case for the innate — possibly due to genes, hormones, or other biological factors — origins of sexual orientation.  And, many major academic organizations have made explicit the acceptance and appreciation of sexual orientation as a natural aspect of every human that should not be changed nor suppressed.  Yet, the overall question regarding the “true” origins of sexual orientation, and the oft-cited answer of choice, pervade rhetoric regarding equal rights for LGBT and queer people.  This is largely the result of the legal standard used to determine a minority’s group worthiness of being protected from discrimination: the status must be immutable.  And, legal standing aside, research suggests that heterosexuals are more likely to support LGBT rights when they believe sexual orientation to be fixed, innate, and/or genetic.

But, Cynthia Nixon has raised an important question.  The push to determine the origins of sexual orientation warrants the question, “why does it matter?”  As I just noted, civil rights legal tradition rests heavily on the immutability of a minority status to define a minority group as worthy of protection; and, it matters for changing attitudes about homosexuality and bisexuality.  But, why must one’s sexual orientation be determined at birth, fixed, or unchangeable to warrant respect, equality, and acceptance?  Why don’t we value individual freedom and choice with regard to consensual sexual and romantic relationships?

Complicating The Argument

Beyond asking why we are so fixated in determining the origins of sexual orientation, there are a number of other points that are missed in these debates:

  1. The one-sidedness of the question — “is it a choice — highlights the heteronormativity that shapes these debates.  We ask why people are or become lesbian, gay, or bisexual; we do not, however, ask why people are or become heterosexual.  That is, in treating heterosexuality as the norm, we take it for granted rather than question its origins.  We presume heterosexuality until proven otherwise (i.e., heterocentrism).
  2. The media stir about Nixon’s comments illuminate how fragile the understanding of sexual orientation as innate is.  It took only one celebrity to dissent from the “gay by birth” position to reopen the debates about the origins of sexual orientation.  Nixon does not serve as a spokesperson for LGBT and queer communities.  Interestingly, other celebrities who echo the popular position that sexual orientation is innate have not garnered the same media attention.  Certainly, the press did not hound Lady GaGa for further explanation for her song, “Born This Way.”
  3. The debate over the origins of sexual orientation simplifies human development into an either/or construction.  That is, either sexual orientation is determined at birth, or it is chosen later in life, or it is the product of one’s upbringing.  Simplifying these options makes it easier to place blame: distant fathers, overbearing mothers, single mothers, bad parenting, sexual violence, poor gender socialization, bad decisions, and so on.  (As such, the devaluing of homosexuality and bisexuality is obvious, in that we are searching for someone or something to blame.)  Although, as a sociologist, my work focuses on uncovering the social factors that shape and constrain our lives, I acknowledge that much of human life is likely a complex combination of human agency, social experiences, and biology/physiology.  Sexual orientation is no exception.  Though hormones may be the vehicle for sexual desire, our social experiences shape who and what we find desirable; in fact, much of what we find desirable are social constructs (e.g., masculinity, femininity).
  4. These debates also simplify human sexuality.  When we ask whether sexuality is a choice, are we referring to one’s choice to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with an individual of a particular gender?  Or, does one choose who one finds sexually attractive?  Or, is the choice really in the particular sexual identity one takes on?  Sexuality is complex and multidimensional.  Though we may choose to identify as bisexual, we may be exclusively attracted to women.  We may be mostly attracted to men but choose to equally pursue relationships with women, as well.  Also, we attend exclusively to gender in our conceptualization of sexual orientation.  In doing so, we are asking about the origins of being attracted to particular genders, but we typically do not think to ask about what causes us to be attracted to particular races and ethnicities, individuals of certain social classes, body shapes and sizes, and so on.  If we were to consider these dimensions of sexual desire, how strange it would seem to find evidence for a gene to be attracted to Asian-Americans or choosing to be attracted to tall women.

More research, both in the natural and social sciences, is needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of sexuality, including its origins.  But, in the mean time, we should ask ourselves why it is so important to find the answer to “is it a choice?”  If, one day, we were to discover that sexual orientation is 100 percent one’s choice, do we no longer afford sexual minorities the same rights and protections as heterosexuals?  Or, if we isolate the “gay gene,” will we put the debate to rest, ensuring full sexual equality?  My pessimism says the debates would still continue, and there would be new eugenics-style initiatives to eliminate that gene.  Disdain for LGBT people is the root of the problem, not the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.

A Night I Will Never Forget: Seven Years Out Of The Closet

No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity.  Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.

A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction.  Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me.  It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance.  My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me.  I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.

We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire.  The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from.  But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions.  I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be.  Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen?  who is at fault?  what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance.  The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.

What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events.  For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.)  She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death.  This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way.  Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves.  For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.

In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around.  My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news.  Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys).  There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics.  Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).

From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members.  I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close.  And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone.  I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people.  We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families.  Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes.  In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.

There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!

The Science of Sexual Orientation And Identity

Quite an interesting article.

I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.

However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?

I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?

With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?

This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.

I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?

Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.

As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.