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On the myth of the gay-straight dichotomy

April 29, 2013

Today marks the first time that an athlete in a major American sport has come out as gay.  It’s a fairly monumental moment, one that would have been unimaginable even during my (not-so-distant) childhood.  The tide of public sentiment is very firmly and dramatically changing.

As it happens, the athlete in question is Jason Collins, an NBA center who plays with the Washington Wizards.  I have long had a personal liking for Jason Collins, probably because he was an NBA center (which is my own dream job) who went to Stanford (where I wish I could have gone) and who listed in his official biography that his favorite book was Faulkner’s A Light in August (which I wish I had understood well enough to appreciate).  I even met him once (very briefly and incidentally) at the Radio Shack in the Minneapolis Skyway.

Today Sports Illustrated published an excellent article written by Collins about his coming out.  If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend reading it.

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There is one feature of his article, though, that bothers me.  This is, in fact, something that stems from a larger problem I have with the way we think about homosexuality.  Namely, Jason Collins goes out of his way to say that “Being gay is not a choice.”

This is a sentiment that is repeated by just about everyone who comes out publicly: “I didn’t choose to be this way.”  Of course, I don’t doubt that this is a true and even good thing to say.  But it bothers me for two reasons:

  1. It oversimplifies the complex and highly diverse nature of human sexuality, and it creates a misleading impression that people are born as either “gay” or “straight.”
  2. It implies that homosexuality is okay only because its practitioners have no choice in the matter.

Homosexuality is becoming more accepted; that much is very clear from the chart above.  But I am worried that it is being accepted only because people can be sympathetic to a very particular, and for the most part very untrue, narrative.  This is the narrative of the person born without the ability to feel attracted to the opposite sex, who is forced by nature to develop homosexual rather than heterosexual relationships.  This is the person who announces “I didn’t choose to be this way,” as if to say “I would have been straight if I could have been, but I was born gay so the decision wasn’t mine to make.”

But what would have been wrong if the person could have decided?  If some hypothetical person felt equally attracted to both genders, what would be wrong with them choosing to pursue a homosexual rather than heterosexual relationship?  It seems to me that this narrative is still one that we, as a society, are still not willing to accept.

And I think we should get over that.  Because, ultimately, the more freedom people are given to choose their partners, the more easily they will be able to form happy and stable relationships.  And I strongly suspect that, in a world where value judgments were not associated with the gender of one’s partner, gender would be a significant part of that choice for a great many people.

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Let me try to say it this way.  The idea of the “gay person” is a myth, and so is the idea of the “straight person.”  Every individual is attracted to a particular set of features and attributes, both physical and personal, that they want in a potential partner.  For most people, members of the opposite gender are much more likely to have an attractive combination of those attributes than a member of the same gender.  But for no one is every member of the opposite gender more attractive than every member of the same gender.  In other words, no one is 100% straight, and similarly, no one is 100% gay.

To make this discussion a little more concrete, let me introduce a hypothetical measure of a person’s sexual preference.  If I were asked to design such a metric, it might go something like this.  For a given individual, randomly select one person from the opposite gender and one person from the same gender (if you want, choose both of them to be within the individual’s age group).  Have the individual spend some time with each of the two people, and then report an honest assessment of which person the individual found more attractive (hypothetically, you could get this information from something like plethysmography).  The probability that the individual will be more attracted to the person of their same gender could be called the “gay preference ratio.”

I am virtually certain that for no individual would this ratio be exactly 0 or exactly 1.  Instead, I imagine that its distribution across a large population would be something like this:

You can fairly say that people on the far left and on the far right of this distribution have essentially no choice in which gender to date: they are virtually never attracted to one of the two sexes.  All those people in the middle, however, could theoretically have a happy relationship with a person from either of the two genders.

Most people (most Americans, anyway) who are publicly gay probably do correspond to the far right of this distribution, and in this sense their proclamations of “I didn’t choose to be gay” are likely very honest and heartfelt.  After all, until quite recently (arguably), societal prejudice has made being a gay American so difficult that only those who have nearly no alternative would choose it.   (And in most places this is still the case, to varying degrees.)  I suspect, however, that for every publicly gay American there are a dozen straight Americans who, in a completely free society, could easily have settled down in a homosexual relationship had a good one presented itself.

Thus, while gay rights are advancing at an impressive rate, we are still a long way from granting the sort of casual non-judgmentalism that would benefit people in the middle of this distribution.  Their existence just doesn’t fit the narrative that we are willing to follow in order to accept homosexuality.  Perhaps in the near future our gay rights discussion will shift toward eliminating this completely false narrative, and advancing the idea that everyone should be free to choose who they want to be with, regardless of whether gender is part of that choice.

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Footnotes

1.  As I read stories about Jason Collins, I can’t help but contrast them with the story of another professional basketball player, Sheryl Swoopes.  Swoopes was married in 1995 to a man and had a son.  Then in 2005 she “came out” as gay, saying that she had fallen in love with her former (female) assistant coach.  That relationship ultimately didn’t last, and in 2011 she became engaged to a man again.

While her coming out in 2005 was widely-reported, I haven’t read anything about her since.  Somehow, it’s easier to champion the courage of someone who is gay than of someone who is capable of being attracted to both men and women.  I hope that in the near future stories like hers become more commonplace and more easily acceptable.

2.  The schematic distribution drawn above is actually a logit-normal distribution.  It is, of course, completely hypothetical.

3.  There seems to be much hand-wringing about whether people are born gay, or whether they develop it through some factors present in their upbringing.  Personally, I can’t imagine why this distinction matters.  I love sports, but who cares whether that love arises primarily from genetic or environmental factors?

UPDATE:  4.  In this post, I have not bothered to draw a distinction between “gender” and “sex,” and have mostly used the former.  I understand that’s not very correct, but for the point I’m trying to make it doesn’t matter which way you decide to look at the word “gender.”

5.  Of course, it was silly of me not to bring up the Kinsey Scale in this post, which was the first real attempt to make a quantitative measure of “gay preference ratio.”  I hope no one got the impression that I consider myself the first person to realize that sexual orientation comes on a continuous spectrum.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    April 30, 2013 5:39 pm

    I had a similar visceral reaction to the “choice” quote, too. This essay does a nice job of delving into that idea, but I want to add something else. The struggle for marriage equality in the realm of sexuality is sometimes compared to the struggle in the realm of race. In 1967, the Supreme Court of the US invalidated anti-miscegination laws in Loving vs Virginia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loving_v._Virginia).

    But let’s pick up a nice passage from the post: “If some hypothetical person felt equally attracted to both genders, what would be wrong with them choosing to pursue a homosexual rather than heterosexual relationship? It seems to me that this narrative is still one that we, as a society, are still not willing to accept.” Now let’s re-write the first part: “If some hypothetical person felt equally attracted to any race, what would be wrong with them choosing to pursue an inter-racial rather than intra-racial relationship?” The answer is “nothing,” obviously (at least to me), and it should be the same in the realm of sexuality as it is race. Echoing the post, this should be about honoring autonomy, freedom, equality, and, yes, if it applies, choice.

  2. Brian permalink*
    April 30, 2013 7:28 pm

    Thanks. And that’s a good point: it does seem likely that in the future we will think about same-sex relationships the same way we think interracial relationships. I imagine, also, that religious institutions will have to adapt to the change. Judeo-Christian churches, it seems to me, are primarily responsible for anti-homosexual sentiment around the world. In the US of the early 20th century, these churches were very vocally against interracial relationships also (I even heard it in church myself a few times as a kid). As societal opinions changed, they softened or eliminated this position. I imagine we’ll see a lot of that same “softening” about homosexuality in the next 20 years.

  3. December 10, 2013 1:17 pm

    Thank you Brian and Eric. I desperately try to live a homosexual life but I can never come to rest with my expected social repercussion of doing so! This mindset, I think, stems from my deep rooted notions (probably in my DNA at this stage!) that homosexuality is somehow “wrong”. I was born into Ireland of the 1950s!!

    I’m inspired by your article Brian and your comments Eric as I expect future generations will be more able than I, to choose inter-sexually in the same way as so many (more than before) can now, after much ado about nothing, choose inter-racially.

    Regards

    Peter, Dublin, Ireland

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