I’m currently reading the manuscript of a forthcoming science fiction novel by my friend, Kelly Haworth. I say forthcoming because, although it hasn’t been picked up at the time I’m writing this, I have no doubt that it will be, as this is a unique, provocative work that, like any good novel, challenges your perceptions and really gets you thinking. In this case thinking about one of my favorite subjects: gender.
Gender is a complex thing, and Kelly doesn’t simply replay the same old male-female dialectic. Rather, she questions our very conception of what gender is and what it really means, by presenting what is literally a man’s world in which male homosexuality is not merely the norm, but is in fact the only form of sexuality known. I think it’s safe to say that it’s a daring idea, and it challenges our conceptions of gender like no novel since Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
I am also impressed that she doesn’t take the safe way out. She could easily have told the story on the basis of female homosexuality, but that’s been done more and is less provocative. Our culture is much more comfortable with the idea of female homosexuality than male. Indeed, lesbianism is a central part of the fantasy spectrum of many straight men, whereas I am aware of few, if any, straight women who get turned on by the idea of two men going at it.
I don’t have the space here to explore why we find female homosexuality less threatening, but it does show a significant double-standard within the “gay community,” if there is such a thing. Consider: if a woman does something sexual with another woman, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. She could be “experimenting,” or “just having fun,” or “exploring her femininity,” or even “putting on a show for the guys.” It does not mean she is a lesbian. Unless she says she is. Then, we are told, we must accept that. Unless she changes her mind again. And after all, many would say, aren’t all women really bisexual?
On the other hand, if a man does anything that could even remotely be considered sexual with another man, it means he’s gay. Full stop. No middle ground. It’s an odd dichotomy that many in our culture believe that all women are more or less bisexual, and no men are. This despite the complex scale of sexual orientation established by Kinsey. It also potentially makes things harder for the cause of gay rights.
The fact that a woman seems to be able to “decide” whether or not she’s gay – as evidenced by the significant number of female celebrities who all of a sudden announce that they are lesbians, sometimes later turning around and “becoming” straight again – makes it hard to support the contention that homosexuality is not a choice. That is, these women sure make it look like they have chosen.
Obviously the reality is not that simple, but I’m talking about perception. And frankly, if the gay rights movement were to back off from the “born that way” argument, I think they’d be better off. So the argument goes: homosexuals are born that way and don’t choose to be gay, so we must accept them. But why must we?
It comes down to the definition of “homosexual.” People who advocate the “born that way” argument define “homosexual” as “being sexually attracted to your own gender.” That makes perfect sense and supports the argument that it’s not a choice. But others define the term differently. For them, “homosexual” means “engaging in sexual activity with someone of your own gender.” In other words, the difference is inclination vs. action. This latter is the basis for deciding that a man who does something sexual with another man is gay, because we can best form an assessment based on what is observable.
Therein lies the problem. For people whose definition is based on action, being told that homosexuality is not a choice is a very disturbing concept. They interpret it as meaning that homosexuals cannot control their actions, and that feeds right into the old-school homophobia that would prevent homosexuals from serving in the military and being teachers and that sort of thing. This is not an argument that the gay rights movement should have to defend against, and they bring it on themselves somewhat by focusing so much on the “born that way” argument, which translates to others as, “gays can’t control themselves.”
But we expect people to control themselves no matter how they were born. There are all sorts of people who are “born that way,” and we say, “too bad, that’s not acceptable.” This argument is especially troubling because it opens the door to other arguments, most egregiously the one that says pedophiles are also presumably “born that way,” so we should accept them as well. Bullshit, we say, but there is apparently a movement to adopt terms like “pedosexual” and “minor-attracted adult,” and its proponents base their arguments on the exact same rationale used by the gay rights movement, even noting that homosexuals used to be called “homophiles.” Is this really a road we want to go down?
Let me be clear that I am not comparing homosexuals to pedophiles; rather, I am saying that the gay rights movement is using an argument that invites such a comparison, valid or not. Rather than focusing on the slippery-slope argument that homosexuals are born that way, people calling for gay rights should focus on the only argument that matters, and really the only one that works: homosexuality, whether or not it’s a choice, doesn’t affect others, and therefore is nobody else’s damn business. It’s neither a biology issue nor civil rights; it’s a matter of privacy. In other words, if you stay out of my bedroom, I’ll stay out of yours (unless, of course, I’m invited). That’s an argument that’s a lot harder to knock down.