I wrote this post a while back and had I known how many people would read it and how many excellent questions and comments I’d continue to receive, I would have addressed the subject more exhaustively. And yet, the fact that I wrote with admittedly broad strokes about such a complex issue has prompted readers to produce an awesome archive of thoughtful, challenging, heartbreaking, and irritating responses from which we can all learn. So that’s good news.
One particularly compelling question has come up repeatedly. Several commenters have suggested that no one in an oppressively homophobic culture would ever engage in homosexual relationships unless they were born gay, because doing so means risking isolation, violence, and even death. Some have testified about their personal experiences as gay men or lesbians who came out despite their homophobic context, and even despite their own wishes. I want to take a bit of time here to dig deeper into this question.
The fact that people persist in having gay or lesbian desires and relationships, even when they are facing some horrific consequences, appears at first blush to be evidence that there must be something so powerful in their physiology that they have no other choice but to act on innate homosexual impulses. And yet, there is another view to consider, which is that people have long risked death to fulfill desires that are rooted in the social. Girls and women have risked rape and death to attend school or to be out in public at night. People have risked death, and have died, for the freedom to vote or express their religious beliefs. While humans may be born with some kind of innate craving for knowledge and self-determination, we are not born with an innate craving for schools or voting, as these are historically specific social phenomena.
In the same sense, we cannot discount the possibility that in the presence of any given sexual desire—the desire to masturbate, the desire to have sex with someone of the same or opposite gender, the desire for oral sex or anal sex, etc.—the human impulse toward self-determination and sexual gratification is very powerful. But this alone is not evidence that the particular sexual desire in question is in-born, just as religious beliefs are not in-born (no matter how deeply held or severely punished).
Then of course there is the question of how any sexual desire forms in the first place. Like many others, I have taken the position that “sexual orientations” are formed after we are born, sometimes in early childhood and sometimes later. The possibilities for how this happens, like the possibilities that can lead people to any number of erotic tastes or distastes, are nearly endless. Good experiences, bad experiences, unconscious experiences, willful defiance, and happy conformity are all potential parts of this story. The fact that some people don’t have a coherent story about all of the social, cultural, and psychological factors that produced their particular complex of sexual feelings simply does not mean they were born with those feelings already intact. To my mind, this is equivalent to assuming that George Bush’s transcendence to political power must mean that he was born with exceptional leadership skills or extraordinary personal ambition, when instead we’d do better to trace the multitude of experiences, privileges, connections, and collective influences that have produced George Bush and his life.
The fact that people (and especially women) experience and act on homosexual desire under especially homophobic and patriarchal conditions is to my mind, not a surprise. In many cultures, acute homophobia goes hand in hand with great restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms, making heterosexual relationships—and the culture of heterosexuality more generally—both hierarchical and violent. Show me a culture that makes life hell for queers and I will show you a culture that makes life hell for heterosexual women (and that forecloses men’s capacity for true identification and partnership with women). While it is unpopular among gays and lesbians these days to suggest that some people might choose queerness because heterosexuality has so little to offer, I think this is precisely the experience of many women. Many women orient themselves away from heterosexuality because it has been far less satisfying than they anticipated. This is NOT because women’s sexuality is inherently more fluid than men’s, but because heterosexual partnership, under sexism, offers women less than it offers men.
The fact that violent religious persecution has often failed to suppress people’s desire to practice their religious traditions—even though there is nothing hardwired about particular religious beliefs—is an amazing testament to the human capacity to become deeply attached to feelings, thoughts, and cravings that are learned and developed after we are born. The fact that homophobia cannot suppress people’s desire for homosexual encounters—even when those desires are not hardwired—is not something to deny, but something to embrace with, dare I say… pride.