Tuesday, April 23, 2013

(First Revision) Identifying as Gay: a Philosophical Reflection

Homosexuality is most likely not a choice in any real sense of the word.  We don’t choose our feelings towards things.  My distaste for licorice, appreciation of fine bourbon, aversion towards extreme cold, sensitivity to pinching, love of Beethoven and 90’s rock/alternative music, the smell of iris’s, love of my parents and friends cannot rationally be considered choices.  Along these lines it seems straightforward that someone’s sexual desire and love for another person cannot be considered a choice. 

Further it would be extremely detrimental to attempt a denial or suppression of feelings.  If I were to try to deny the heat of my morning coffee or suppress the feelings of the scalding water I will certainly suffer injury.  The same is true for the suppression and denial of emotional feelings[i].

Clearly we have no choice in feeling feelings.  They just happened to us.  Where we do have a choice is in our actions.  I may choose not to act on any of my desires or attempt to resist the temptation of desire.  I may also choose to suppress my feelings at a cost to my overall well being.  Where choice becomes of the utmost interest to us in this particular treatment, is our choice in how we choose to identify with our feelings and desires.

Sexual desire is a peculiar desire.  We will often hear philosophers make food analogies when referring to sexual desire (I am no exception).  Hunger and lasciviousness certainly share a similar intensity and strength.  One marked difference is that the satisfaction of hunger is necessary for life and the satisfaction of lasciviousness feels like life may be nothing without it.  One has almost nothing to do with how we identify with ourselves and with others while the other is centered upon how we self identify and even defines many of our relations to others. 

Perhaps it is important to differentiate between the carnal desire for sex and the more complex desire for companionship.  The desire for sex and the desire for companionship don’t appear to be any different for the heterosexual or the homosexual individual and it seems crude to assume that based on a stereotype of oversexed men (either homosexual or heterosexual) that being female or male changes this in any meaningful way.  In other words the desire for sex and companionship seem to be universal to all humans.  With that said we will try to focus on sexual desire here.

Let’s take a question often posed to homosexuals after they come out publicly: “When did you know you were gay?”  When I put myself on the receiving end of that query I’m shocked at how out of place and odd it sounds.  “When did you know you were straight?”  To be honest I can’t remember, but I know I had my first crush in the first grade but had made my best friend in kindergarten.  Perhaps it’s just my poor memory (I also don’t remember learning how to throw or hit a baseball), but I think my general lack of any real self reflective modality at such an age makes me a poor judge of when or what may have triggered my heterosexuality. 

Merely because I can’t remember when or how I came to know of a general attraction to the opposite sex doesn't count as proof for the claim that my sexuality is in any way biological, it is just an example of that classic fallacy of begging the question.  I would even argue that any show of attraction to the opposite sex before puberty is clear evidence of the opposite.  It isn’t until puberty that real sexual desire grows in us.  It should not be viewed as just a correlation that at the moment in our lives when we are most susceptible to the influences of society and culture (during our pre-pubescent life) we show the first inclinations of our sexuality.  Sexuality in this case is clearly not a choice in that at such an age we have no control or ability to limit those strong influences around us.  Some individuals are never able to overcome the heavy influence of peers, culture or society.  This is reflected in how we identify ourselves throughout the rest of lives as well.  Some will continuously rebel, others conform and many will do a little of both.   

The biggest struggle a homosexual, especially a male homosexual[ii], faces is usually when and how to begin identifying as gay[iii].  ‘Coming out’ is a when someone has chosen that they are ready to identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, pan-sexual, polyamourous, transgender, transvestite etc.  The choice is that this individual is now ready for society to see them as someone with a particular sexual orientation. 

It is important to notice the social aspect of identity here as well.  Sometimes we think that who I am is contained somewhere within ourselves; our thoughts, feelings, desires, likes, dislikes and the other subjective aspects of the inner experience of our life.  This is only part of the story.  A great deal of who we are is tied into how others perceive us.  The part we are aware of, the part we are unaware of, our attempt to influence how others perceive us; all of these are integral aspects of our identity.

Heterosexuals are lucky in that they do not have to make any conscious decision to proclaim their sexuality to society.  Heterosexuality is the default sexuality.  It is such a standard that in order to feel true to themselves someone of a differing sexuality must take efforts not to be associated as heterosexual.  So we need to address a central question:  “What makes someone homosexual?” or to put it another way, “Who is homosexual and who isn’t?”

Imagine a room of 20 random individuals of different sexes, ethnicities and body types.  Now imagine they are all naked, tattoo-less, without piercings and standing quietly.  It would not be possible to tell their sexual preference.  While they may identify as any assortment of sexualities no one would be able to identify it when they are bare and presented without any socially identifiable marks.  There exist no objective markers for sexuality.  This is important to illustrate the problem with trying to assign sexual identity to someone. 
To further muddy the water let us consider the claim that your actions make you gay. One action that would seem an obvious indication of gayness or homosexuality would be sexual intercourse with someone of the same sex.  This however is not at all conclusive.  For example a woman may have sex with another woman but she may also have sex with men or have had sex with men.  In fact, there have been studies that indicate that most gay men have had sex with women.  We have all probably heard stories of men who have been married for years and have children (this proves they had sex with their wives) and then come out of the closet as gay.  One may respond, “how can you be gay if you’ve had sex with women?  Doesn’t that make you bi-sexual?”  The answer is that it’s not up to society to label their sexuality, it’s the job of society to recognize it. The individual labels themselves.

Another good example involves incarcerated individuals.  A man in prison may engage either willingly or not, in homosexual activity.  The fact that they participated in the act doesn’t warrant a label of gay or bi-sexual.  How they then choose to identify themselves is the proper and only rational standard.  The concept that so long as you’re the penetrator and not the penetrated you can still reasonably call yourself straight is as illegitimate as claiming that a man who enjoys musical theatre and loves Bette Midler and Judy Garland must be called gay.

The final, possibly the most telling example would be involves virgins.  We have no problem with a young man or woman identifying as straight while still a virgin (and I mean virgin in the strictest sense).  So why is there doubt cast on the sexual identity of someone who identifies as gay or lesbian while still virginal?  Clearly the act of having sex with someone is a poor guide for such a claim.  The virgin is well justified in identifying as any sexuality that they choose, despite never having had sex.  In fact an argument could be made (I will not make that argument in this paper) that the virgin is better justified claiming sexual neutrality until they have had some experience with sex.  Virginity also brings us to the problem of sexual desire.  A virgin may desire sexual congress and perhaps out of curiosity this desire may sway between a desire for the same or opposite sex.  Would we insist then that this virgin accept the label bi-sexual?  Does the same swaying desire or curiosity based desires of this or other nature dictate sexuality?  It seems absurd to claim.

The above examples illustrate the main thesis of this paper: Sexual identity is a matter of how one chooses to be perceived by society.  This previously married man will more often than not identify as gay and not as bi-sexual.  Bi-sexuality we will see turns out to be the most telling of the sexualities and the genesis of this thesis.

[i] There are many psychological theories with just this premise as the basis for their approach to therapy.
[ii] The reason I emphasize the difficulty for the male homosexual is that society, as accepting as it is in places, is far less accepting of male homosexuality than female homosexuality.  This seems self-evident and since it is not central to my thesis I leave it’s debate for another time if needed.
[iii] I use gay here to signify the notion of ‘gay’ in popular culture, not the traditional meaning of happy.  In no way should this use of the term signify a derogatory attitude towards homosexuals.  There is a cultural significance attached to this word that cannot be ignored.