Part 2: American Assumptions about Orientation and Identity
by James Goldberg
This essay is the second in a series about Gay Marriage and Proposition 8.
In Part One, I discussed how same-sex affection, though varying in intensity from individual to individual, is an inherent part of human nature. I also pointed out that different cultures have dealt with this aspect of human nature in different ways. Some, like the culture of the Biblical tribes of Israel, valued same-sex emotional attachment and physical expressions of affection, but put a high premium on family relationships and had taboos against same-gender sexual behaviours. Others, like many ancient Greek cultures, practiced opposite-sex marriage while also combining the bonds of sexual intimacy with same-sex relationships for various educational, military, and other purposes.
Our culture’s approach over the past fifty years is quite different from any ancient world model. Rather than treating an individual’s complicated mix of social, emotional, and sexual feelings as aspects of that person, we divide the population into separate straight and gay identity groups (with the notion of bisexuality as a footnote, typically lumped in as a subset of the gay identity group).
We believe in these distinct identity groups partly because our culture increases the distance between opposite-sex and same-sex orientations. Especially among men in our society, the stereotypes which accompany that divide help to mask the natural spectrum of emotions beneath. In order to avoid appearing gay, a straight modern American man is expected to limit expressions of affection for other men more than in any ancient culture and to shy away from deep same-sex emotional investment.
On the other hand, gay men are permitted (even expected) to invest emotionally in women and to express physical affection but to frame such feelings and actions in a non-sexual way, as generalized flamboyance rather than opposite-gender affection. The reluctance of straight men to acknowledge or develop natural same-sex attachment allows them to ignore their share of such feelings, while the expectation of flamboyance allows gay men to feel drawn toward women without re-questioning their sexuality.
But creating two sharply delineated orientations out of the broad and malleable spectrum of human affinities and impulses is only half the work of constructing sexual identity groups. The division of our population into gay and straight identity groups also depends on our belief that a person’s private feelings and perceptions are a determining aspect of their identity. In a sense, the shift to believing in sexual identities is rooted in a shift to viewing identity as something to be sought in experimentation and subjective experience. If we’re prepared to search for identity in musical tastes, certainly the far more intense experiences of sexuality or even just sexual fantasy should be considered a core aspect of self. Sexual orientation is powerful as a source of identity in modern American culture because we care so much about people’s tastes, personal memories, and self-explorations.
Again, the importance of sexual orientation to identity is hardly a given across cultural lines. Sexual orientation is less compelling as a core determinant of identity in cultures that treat identity as largely tribal and hereditary. It also means less in a covenantal culture, where a person is defined not by his/her desires, but by the promises he or she makes and keeps.
But we live in a culture where sexual orientation is considered a core part of individual identity and a strong distinction is still made between gay and straight people. And because we see straight and gay as separate identity groups, it’s often difficult to differentiate between attitudes about same-sex relationships and attitudes about gay people.
Read the 6-part series