Gay Identity

by William H. DuBay

12 June 2012

On June 27, 2012, we celebrate the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, which marked the beginning of the modern gay movement. It is a good time for some hard thinking on what we have accomplished and where we are going.

As a community under siege, we do not have the luxury of following a political agenda based on unexamined or dogmatic beliefs. When we look at the gay movement, we see twenty-five years of a political agenda focused on legitimizing persons rather than behaviors. The main thrust of this movement has focused on coming out, asking people to publicly identify themselves as homosexuals.

This agenda is based on identity and has aimed at defining homosexuals as a minority of persons to be protected against discrimination as defined in the statutes. The agenda is based on two common assumptions:

  1. Self-labeling as a homosexual is the best way to integrate one's sexual experience into one's life and personality.
  2. Public labeling of homosexuals reduces the stereotypes and fear of homosexuality.

A growing number of investigators from a wide range of disciplines raise questions, such as:

  1. Is there such a thing as a "homosexual" or is it merely the stigmatic label created by society to maintain definitions of gender?
  2. Do the concepts of "homosexuality" and "sexual orientation" have any scientific validity as internal conditions or are they merely social markers created by centuries of gay oppression?
  3. Is coming out a process of self-affirmation, or is it a function of stigmatic labelling?
  4. Are the politics of identity an expression of liberation or a different form of oppression?

Instead of promoting homosexuality as a normal part of everyone's sexuality, identity politics promote the belief that homosexual experiences are rare and confined to persons who are different from others.

It also isolates homosexual behaviors from the general experience of humans and tends to confine such behaviors within an encapsulated subculture. Many investigators see gay identity as resulting not from an internal condition but from adopting the deviant role society has to control and limit gay behaviors.

Along with Kinsey and Freud, such investigators believe that everyone is born potentially bisexual and that one's sexual capacities and choices are influenced by a wide combination of genetic, psychological, biographical, social, and environmental factors.

The Language of Stigma

The concept of homosexuality is very recent and until lately was very unique to our culture. It was journalist Karl Maria Kertbeny who wrote in 1869 that a medical condition called "homosexuality" was the cause of these prohibited behaviors. There was the tendency to attribute a single medical cause to behaviors that shared certain similarities.

Since then, for over a hundred years, doctors have been dissecting the brains, bodies, and psyches of anyone suspected of these behaviors, looking for the cause. The search for the illusive "gay gene" was the latest effort. Their efforts were doomed from the start, because they did not even have a clear definition of the condition for which they were seeking the cause. What these subjects had in common was not their behaviors but their adoption of the gay role.

This is not surprising. Sixty years after Kinsey told us that the world is not made up of two different kinds of people, gay and straight, the media still engage in gay labeling and defining the world as made up of two kinds of people, gay and straight. They still believe that people who act that way must be different.

The words "gay" or "homosexual" are not a just convenient form of shorthand to describe sexual behaviors. They are highly loaded, stigmatic terms that severely alter our perceptions of people, making us believe that people act differently because they are different. It is a lazy way of thinking that has corrupted our language.

Aristotle long ago recognized our human tendency to attribute unpopular behaviors to some internal difference. He called this tendency an error of logic called hypostasis. English philosopher John Stuart Mill agreed: "Of all vulgar modes of escaping from considerations of the effect of social and moral influence on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences."

We owe the existence of the gay role and the identity resulting from it to our society's long-standing persecution of homosexual behaviors. As Kinsey said, "There are practically no European groups, unless it be in England, and few if any other cultures elsewhere in the world which have become as disturbed over male homosexuality as we have here in the United States."

Current sociology considers gay identity as a deviant role (with "deviant" used in a sociological, not moral sense). It is a way for society to control and limit these behaviors by framing them as being rare and the result of a condition that belongs to a limited number of people.

What Kinsey Really Said

What Kinsey's massive study of sexuality in the U.S. did was first to show that same-sex behaviors are not rare but very common. Secondly, it showed that there is a big disconnect between gay behaviors and gay identity. Many people enjoy extensive same-sex behaviors without adopting the behavior, while others adopt the behavior often with very little sexual experience.

Supporters of identity politics often quote sex researcher Alfred Kinsey who, they say, found that one out of ten (or seven, or five, depending on who is talking) persons is a homosexual. This remarkable statement is all the more surprising when we consider the trouble Kinsey took to refute it, as in these passages:

"The classification of sexual behavior as masturbatory, heterosexual, or homosexual, is, therefore, unfortunate if it suggests that only different types of persons seek out or accept each kind of sexual activity. There is nothing known in the anatomy or physiology of sexual response and orgasm which distinguishes masturbatory, heterosexual, or homosexual reactions... It would clarify our thinking if the terms could be dropped completely out of our vocabulary.
"Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual... Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into pigeonholes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects...
"It is amazing to observe how many psychologists and psychiatrists have accepted this sort of propaganda, and have come to believe that homosexual males and females are discretely different from persons who respond to natural stimuli. Instead of using these terms as substantives which stand for persons, or even as adjectives to describe persons, they may better be used to describe the nature of the overt sexual relations, or of the stimuli to which an individual erotically responds.
"In regard to sexual behavior, it has been possible to maintain this dichotomy only by placing all persons who are exclusively heterosexual in a heterosexual category and all persons who have any amount of experience with their own sex, even including those with the slightest experience, in a homosexual category... The attempt to maintain a simple dichotomy on these matters exposes the traditional biases which are likely to enter whenever the heterosexual or homosexual classification of an individual is involved."

Researchers of the Institute for Sex Research founded by Kinsey did a study of 1,000 gay-identified persons in the San Francisco area. They found the sexual behaviors of their subjects ranged from two to six on the Kinsey scale a range so broad as to include a full third of the population of this country! What gay-identified persons have in common with one another is, evidently, not their sexual behavior, but their adoption of the gay role.

In 1983, John DeCecco, Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University and editor of The Journal of Homosexuality, published a paper that further challenged this positivist view of homosexuality. DeCecco and his colleagues found that 228 major studies on the concept of sexual orientation were unable to agree on the definition of sexual orientation, much less come up with any scientific evidence for its existence.

In a later article, DeCecco wrote: "In itself, having intercourse with one sex or the other requires no more explanation than eating North Sea fish or Nebraska beef, pursuing Swedish blondes or Italian brunettes, and furnishing an apartment with Scandinavian or Victorian furniture."

DeCecco's and other studies indicate that concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality are abstractions endowed with great significance and power for purposes of social control.

Gay identity, like all identities, is a social artifact rooted in social perceptions, which can vary widely from culture to culture. This is especially true of the gay role, which is absent in many other cultures, as anthropologists have shown. These other cultures have developed many different kinds of roles for organizing sexual behaviors. In most of them, our concept of "same sexness" used for organizing sexual behaviors would be very strange indeed. They organize sexual behavior around other concepts.

Alfred Kinsey stated that patterns of human sexual behaviors need no explanation other than that the human animal tends to repeat pleasurable experiences. "Sexual preference" indicates little more than a pattern of repeated pleasurable behaviors.

A similar view enabled one of the characters in John Henry Mackay's novel The Hustler to regard his own homosexual feelings this way: "What was self-evident, natural, and not in the least sick did not require an excuse through an explanation... It was love just like any love. Whoever could not or would not accept it as love was mistaken."

As many investigators besides Kinsey have pointed out, each of the terms "homosexual" and "heterosexual" is too broad an umbrella for describing such a wide variety of behaviors such as desire, love, attraction, rape, masturbation, anal intercourse, and so on. No one is attracted to all men or all women, but only to a very small slice of the spectrum. In fact, we can say that everyone's sexual desires are unique. There are many other things besides gender that affect our sexual desires.

We don't have people seeking a gene to explain why so many people are attracted to those who are physically fit or have smooth skin. That is because we don't have laws stigmatizing those desires.

Genes certainly do affect our behaviors but not in a way to compel such a wide variety of behaviors that come under the wide umbrella of homosexuality. Genes are labile enzymes. They do not dictate behavior or development but respond to a chronological unfolding of events and windows of opportunity.

Our sexuality is the last element to emerge in the development of our individual personalities. As with all other forms of human experience, sexual experience reflects a very complex response to our internal and external environments, an elaborate compromise between social and genetic causes. To contend that any single biological or psychological factor is the cause of sexual pleasure is simplistic and lacking scientific evidence.

The Ritual of Coming Out

The most distinguished sociologists of our time, including William Simon, John Gagnon, Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, David Matza, and Edwin Lemert, have contributed to the constructionist view of gay identity as society's means of controlling behavior. We sexually label those who don't measure up to our rigid standards of male and female conduct: "If you don't measure (or straighten) up, you must be gay."

Why do some people come out and label themselves, shouldering a stigma fraught with such danger? The process makes little sense until we realize that it has less to do with sex than with resolving the anxiety created by social pressures, sexual and non-sexual.

Those most likely to adopt the gay role are those who see the role as a means of solving a variety of conflicts. For them, the gay role resolves the conflicts created by their non-conforming behavior by simply attributing them to an internal difference: "My sexual orientation makes me different from others." They may indeed be different from others, but it is not their sexual feelings that make them so. It is as if society says to them, "You can proceed in these non-conforming behaviors if you adopt the homosexual label and take your place in the gay community."

Kinsey referred to this process in the following:

"One of the factors that materially contributes to the development of exclusively homosexual histories is the ostracism which society imposes upon one who is discovered to have had perhaps no more than a lone experience. The high school boy is likely to be expelled from school and, if it is in a small town, he is almost certain to be driven from the community. His chances of making sexual contacts are tremendously reduced after the public disclosure, and is forced into the company of other homosexual individuals among whom he finally develops an exclusively homosexual pattern for himself...."
"Exclusive preferences of behavior, heterosexual or homosexual, come only with experience, or as a result of social pressures which tend to force an individual into an exclusive pattern of one or the other sort."

We push people into the gay role, not just for their sexual infractions, but for a variety of other gender infractions. We tend to apply the gay stigma to male children who might be slight, effeminate, delicate, creative, precocious, or not meeting standards we set for masculinity.

We know that the sexual response can be triggered by any strong emotion. In childhood, almost any experience can trigger a sexual response. As we grow up, we tend to focus this response more narrowly to experience sex as adults.

In our society, a male can never be male enough, and this in itself can create a sense of longing and aspiration that triggers an erotic response. Even the most masculine and self-confident males can be attracted to those perceived as different. Our society's emphasis on individualism and hero worship only re-enforces such responses.

Adopting gay identity is essentially a strategy for coping with the social prohibition. In a landmark 1968 study, British sociologist Mary McIntosh wrote that adopting the homosexual role "appears to foreclose on the possibility of drifting back to normalcy and thus removes the element of anxious choice." Inherent in the role is the attribution of an inherent condition that accounts for the behavior.

The gay role offers a stunning resolution of the conflict. It transfers attention away from the realm of morality and choice to an internal condition: "I act this way because I am this way." The reason people are so committed to the identity is that it gives them an excuse for the behavior, and a defense against the prohibition. Choice would mean they have to take responsibility for their behavior, an eventuality that seems impossible, considering the great force of the ban.

This strategy, however, comes at a high social and personal cost. The gay role often becomes a "master status" which comes to dominate all the other roles that one must play in life. In a process called "objectification," a person begins to organize one's life and personality more and more around one's sex life.

What initially seems to be an innocent warrant to proceed in the behavior can suddenly become an invitation to deeper realms of deviance involving prostitution, drugs, and promiscuity. The fast lanes of the gay world are littered with the casualties of young people seeking to lead "an all-gay life." Fortunately, the more mature are able to attenuate their identity and establish that they are more than their sexual behavior.

The politics of identity, far from eliminating gay oppression, merely gives it a different form. Adopting the gay role replaces a closet of secrecy with one of deviant identity. Itself an expression of homophobia, gay identity is a no-win agenda. It keeps the ban intact, making moral and social legitimacy impossible.

Social Effects of Gay Identity

It has been the implied rationale of the gay movement that having more people adopt a gay identity and that "coming out" will break down the stereotypes. In some respects, this seems to be true.

Gay-identified persons are certainly more visible now, in the media and elsewhere. Since the movement started in 1969, many of the state laws against sodomy have been revoked in both state laws and the military. People are openly debating the issue of gay marriage. There seems to be increased tolerance for gay-identified persons.

But these perceptions are contradicted by the steady increase in hate crimes and teen-age suicides related to sexual identity in this country and around the world.

We also have to question whether greater acceptance of gay-identified persons is the same as greater acceptance of homosexual behaviors and feelings. Shouldn't the goal of the movement to get all people to accept and embrace their own homosexual desires as normal and beneficial?

The assumption that familiarity will bring acceptance is also wrong-headed. Women and blacks, for instance, have been very familiar forever and still are saddled with discrimination.

The politics of identity and "coming out" have been a detour centered on civil rights rather a direct confrontation with traditional moral prohibitions of the established churches and society at large. It was a misdirected effort to think that by winning civil rights for those identified as gay will bring down these ancient and deeply embedded prohibitions. Instead, it offers a solution that only reinforces the problem by objectifying it.

We may or may not have direct control over our desires, but we certainly have control over the behaviors affected by those desires. This may seem as heresy to many in the gay movement as it corresponds to the claims of religious conservatives that we always have choice. The solution is to agree with them on that point but to go on to show how misplaced are their prohibitions and how moral and beneficial the behaviors can be.

The Restoration of Choice

Our first task in confronting the oppression is to restore choice to homosexual behaviors. To do that, we have to reject the label. Literature is full of examples of individuals who have done this, including the woman quoted by Barbara Ponse in her 1978 study of lesbian identity:

"I reject the use of those labels to define a person; if she happens to have an interest in this person, it's not fair. If someone says a person is a lesbian, it's a critical word. I don't think that a private relationship between two people that are interested in each other has any social significance. They are simply expressing what they feel. I dislike such terms as lesbian. They imply a certain acceptance of a certain group. It's like we have a convert. It's a group rhetoric... I actually cannot function in a gay bar. I shake, I tremble, I am with a group of people who are not real. I have a strong sense of unreality. I certainly have no gay identity."

The same author quotes another example of rejecting the role:

"I guess you might say I'm person-oriented, as opposed to being heterosexual or homosexual. I personally can't relate to the idea of being only with women or only with men. It depends on the person. One of the most important love relationships of my life was with a man, and I can only say that I would be with (my lover) whether she was a man or a woman. It is her as a person I love. It doesn't matter to me what sex a person is, but what kind of person they are."

Don Slater, the founder of the Homosexual Information Center in Los Angeles, wrote in 1971:

"Is it the purpose of the movement to try to assert sexual rights for everyone or create a political and social cult out of homosexuality? Persons who perform homosexual acts or other non-conforming acts are sexually free. They want others enlightened. They want hostile laws changed, but they resent the attempt to organize their lives around homosexuality just as much as they resent the centuries-old attempt to organize their lives around heterosexuality."

In 1990, Slater wrote:

"Many homosexual leaders have been uncomfortable with the notion that homosexuality is a sexual orientation. To reduce homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter, to an orientation given our limited understanding of human sexuality is presumptuous."

A Broader Definition of Human Sexuality

The second task in restoring choice is to open up the discussion of the morality of homosexual behaviors and the positive functions they can have in society. A number of historical and anthropological studies—including those of Foucault—have linked the modern ban to the rise of the industrial state to maximize reproduction.

This priority not only affected gender behaviors but also a number of other bonding behaviors connected with reproduction, including ritual, art, nurture, care-giving, and education. Many traditional, extended-family societies do not expect everyone to marry and often accord high and respected status to unmarried persons who serve as sacred judges, healers, dancers, artists, singers, teachers, and tenders of women and children.

There also have been a number of biological studies showing how rampant same-sex behaviors are among many animal species. Biologists have rejected any single cause of this large grab-bag of different behaviors. They all have different causes, functions, and different evolutionary meanings. The biologists' view of same-sex behaviors of animals is also true of humans. Such behaviors have many different causes and social functions.

These observations suggest we do not need gay-rights laws that institutionalize sexual labels. What we do need is to legitimize same-sex behaviors and marriages, steps that would go a long way in helping us appreciate the nutritive, emotional, and social functions of human sexuality. We have to base equality on what makes people the same, not what makes them different. Gay behaviors do not make one different.

Jim Fouratt, one of leaders of the Stonewall revolt in New York City in 1969, was no less categorical in his rejection of the label:

"Homosexual. I find the word hard to relate to because it puts me in a category which limits my potential. It also prescribes a whole system of behavior to which I'm supposed to conform which has nothing to do with the reality of my day-to-day living.
"I feel the same way about the word homosexual. Our culture has created these artificial categories defining human sexuality, to protect and perpetuate the institutions and systems in power whose end is only to dehumanize life. I reject the word homosexual. I reject a category that defines my central life in limiting terms."

William H. DuBay is a writer living in Poulsbo, Washington. His books include The Human Church, Doubleday, 1966, and Gay Identity: The Self Under Ban, McFarland, 1987.

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© William H. DuBay, 2012. Published with the permission of William H. DuBay.