I think I became aware of the fact that sexual orientation is supposed to be an important part of one’s identity around 4th or 5th grade. I made a special homemade valentine’s card for another boy who had moved in. I was not romantically interested in him; I meant it as a special gesture of welcome. But he avoided me thereafter. In middle school, my male peers would talk knowingly of which female classmates were “hot,” but would profess utter ignorance about which male classmates were attractive. Female peers did the same. Being male (and straight, though this part went unspoken) meant, so we thought or affected to think, that the attractiveness of the other gender was transparent and that of our own opaque. Which, of course, is utter nonsense.
For as long as I have been attuned to the beauty of the human form, I have been attracted by male beauty as well as by female beauty—though my appreciation of male beauty more easily remains purely aesthetic, while my appreciation of female beauty more easily becomes erotic. And yet with males as well as females I experience the potential for sexual interest. I think that is true of most of us, in some degree—or would be, at least, if our sexuality had not been affected by a particular identity regarding our sexual orientation. For better or worse, my sexuality remained unaffected by my “straight” identity at least in the sense that I continued to experience some sexual interest towards men, even though I was not “supposed to.” For example, there is one scene in “George of the Jungle” whose evident purpose is to accentuate Brendan Fraser’s sexiness—and my response to this scene was similar to the response I would expect in an analogous scene accentuating the sexiness of an actress. This and other similar episodes caused me a great deal of anxiety. Was I actually “gay”?
The attempt to repress a thought or a feeling often backfires, especially in the sexual context, where the allure of the forbidden is part of the mystique. It was so with me. My anxiety grew to the point where it became clinical, and I received therapy for how to deal with intrusive homoerotic thoughts—thoughts which increasingly corresponded with homoerotic feelings. Therapy helped. Eventually the thoughts became less disturbing to me: so what if I had some gay/bisexual tendencies? I could still act out my sexual identity in the way that conformed to my moral code. (I was and am a Christian).
Kinsey (of Kinsey scale fame) claimed that the subjects of his studies experienced shifts in their sexual orientation, sometimes even from day to day. Some social scientists disagree, but others have achieved the same result. (Here is Wikipedia page on “sexual fluidity,” i.e., change in sexual identity or sexual orientation.) I, at any rate, can testify that my own sexual orientation has shifted, over the last fifteen years. It has moved some indefinable but significant distance from a dominantly “heterosexual” orientation towards “bisexuality” and back again. I am sure that my personal choice as well as my religious and moral convictions played important and complex roles in both shifts, among other things.
It was only after I was able to distance myself from distress over my sexual orientation that I began to think more carefully and more clearly about the whole binary of gay/straight and the taxonomy of homo-/hetero-/bi-/asexual. (For strangely, this binary coexists with this taxonomy even though they are in tension with each other. Perhaps this just goes to show how unthinking we can be in these matters.) Learning a little about the history (i.e., that these categories were not thought to exist until the 19th century, see Part One) was an important part of obtaining clarity. I came to see that all of that anxiety could have been avoided if I had known and adopted the medieval/ancient way of thinking, which conformed more closely to my lived experience.
5 thoughts on “Questioning the Homo-/Hetero-/Bi-/Asexual Taxonomy – Part Two of Four: The Evidence of My Personal Experience”
I almost wish you would have started with this one first. I don’t say this as a criticism, only that I think some people dismiss (or engage offhandedly) with your arguments until they see some skin. Subjective experience in public discourse is often given the highest validity for whatever reason.
Way to be vulnerable! And I know what Josh means — starting with this may have guided the conversation differently.
Thoughts as I read about your experiences:
– I believe you.
– I also believe people that tell me their sexual preferences are not fluid.
– If there’s anyone out there that doesn’t want to categorize or label their sexuality, that’s fine by me. Putting everyone on the Sexual Spectrum and calling it good is A-okay in my book. That said, if someone does want to label or categorize their sexuality, that’s fine too.
I mean it’s a pretty new thing that people can safely identify as anything other than heterosexual, so of course, people are still learning to deal with that and figure out how they fell about it.
– It’s completely awful that you and millions of others had to deal with anxiety over totally normal sexual development. And there are millions more that are still having to deal with it today.
I know our society isn’t quite there yet as far as being able to not put such emphasis on what someone’s sexuality is or is not. But, like I said in my comment on your previous post, I think our 4 current sexual categories are a huge improvement compared to the last century.
I mean, even 15 years ago, or 10 years ago, I don’t think you could have written this post without facing severe repercussions in your community — especially your religious community.
I think the four sexual terms and the discussions around them have been amazing for helping people understand how wide the range of “normal” sexuality is.
– I’m glad they were helpful to you in overcoming your stress around this topic, but I don’t much like the historical examples. The Greek example is problematic to me because we’re talking about a society that was having sex with children, and about a society where women were property. Two major issues that make it a deal breaker for me as an instructive example.
The medieval example is also problematic to me because in a culture where anything outside of heterosexuality is stigmatized or punished, then it seems like it would follow that anything outside of heterosexuality would magically disappear (meaning: remain hidden). Remember in 2007 when Pres. Ahmadinejad said there were no homosexuals in Iran? Same sort of situation. But of course there are_homosexuals in Iran, and the same logic tells me there were homosexuals in medieval times.
They just couldn’t safely claim to be anything other than heterosexual, so there was no need to name homosexuality as a category. At least, that’s my take on it.
I agree that the Greek example in particular is problematic. I do not hold up the cultures I mention as a shining example in general. What I claim we can learn from them is that our taxonomy does not correlate with the fundamental nature of sexuality. It is only with respect to that realization that I hold up the ancient and medieval cultures.
To be clear, I have no problem with “heteronormativity” in the sense of traditional Judeo-Christian morals, though that is not a subject I take up much here. I only have a problem with the idea of heterosexuality/homosexuality as a part of one’s nature. Indeed, I think I will be more effective at guiding my children towards healthy heterosexual marriages because I understand that the gay/straight binary for sexual orientation is false and can therefore more easily reconcile any sexual inclinations in other directions with the path that my religion marks out as the right one. I believe that men should be with women even though they may well be capable of sexual interest in a wide range of things. But again, that is not my topic here.
As a historical matter, I do not think that “homosexuality” “disappeared” in the Middle Ages. The behavior was called sodomy and it was very common in some areas, including some where the prevailing religion morally condemned it. Whether that condemnation was justified is a separate question. But the inclination was well known and still there was no emerging category of “homosexuality.” The “repression” theory of history simply does not hold up–read the Wikipedia page on Foucault’s History of Sexuality (who, as I said, was himself living a gay lifestyle). I am also unaware of any evidence that it would have been thought common to be exclusively homosexual–most people (indeed, EVERYONE so far as I can tell) in cultures that condoned same-sex relations were what we would call “bi-sexual.”
I don’t pretend to know my medieval history, so I truly appreciate your patience and teaching. Please clarify for me: Are you saying sodomy existed, but no one referred to sodomists as a group, so therefore there was no homosexuality category? I’m not understanding that. Is it more of a language thing? Like Eskimos have lots of different words for snow. And as we learn more about sexuality, we have more words for sexual orientation? Maybe they didn’t know much about sexuality and didn’t need the words?
Or, if there is no record of anyone being strictly homosexual, isn’t it possible that the reason is that history has been rewritten, or more likely, written by people that didn’t care for homosexuals? I mean women barely exist according to history. The idea that homosexuals aren’t mentioned as a group doesn’t really convince me that they didn’t exist.
Though really, I’m not sure that it matters for this conversation. Even if I don’t like the medeival or greek examples, I still believe that sexual preference classifications will become less important. Which I think you also agree with.
Yes I do agree that sexual preference classifications will and should become less important.
They did refer to sodomists as a group, but they didn’t think that the sodomists expressed a different type of sexuality. They believed (as far as I can tell–and I’m no expert either) that sodomists expressed the same type of sexuality differently.