The gay-straight binary is a lie. It is a powerful, influential and persistent lie in which a lot of people have invested a great deal of wealth and energy, but it is as wrong as the male-female binary, which is also defended vehemently. Defenders of these two binary fictions have a lot at stake and they will not give ground easily. I will leave it to others to continue the campaign to destruct the male-female binary. This small essay is about the gay-straight deceit, and why it is not merely a mistake.
I base my case on dissection of the stories of a group of gay friends I have known and loved, six of whom are pictured above. That is a picture of friends across the spectrum. From their stories, even more than their appearance, we know they are transgender, transitioning, transvestite (for the party that night at least), tentative, tender and tough. It is unjust to call them all gay, or to fix a label on any of them. They match the shades of the rainbow.
If the gay-straight analysis were fair and sufficient all we would have to agree is that these six friends are either gay or not. How would we know? We could ask them and accept their answers, in which case we would probably hear that they are gay. That is the way we would hear what they would say, and we would bend their far subtler answers to fit our two pigeon holes.
Here in Thailand there is room for a third sex and for ambiguity. So, if we were to ask the impolite question, “Are you a kathoey?” we would gain a reply appropriate to such a rude question. The way to determine whether a friend or acquaintance is a kathoey is by observing how they present themselves androgynously. But that, too, would be misleading because the word kathoey has two meanings, one sensitive and the other essentially derogatory. As a curse, the term accuses the person of being deceitful about their masculinity and sexual ambitions. To be more sensitive and put it as elegantly as possible, a kathoey is a female cursed by karma from previous lives to be born in a male body; there is a degree of fatedness in that. But it doesn’t translate into popular acceptance, rather into tolerance. People put up with the condition in others and themselves without being altogether happy about it. What they do about it, on the other hand, is where the spectrum applies.
There are also some guys identified as male at birth and throughout life who are not any more biased toward a psychological identity with their female side than the average human being might be. Psychoanalysts are very clear we all have both an animus and an anima operating in our sub-consciences. So, these guys are male but they have a strong tendency to be sexually and romantically attracted to people with male bodies and personalities. They are gay ... or more than a little bit gay ... or bisexual. Once you hear people’s stories the lines blur.
Why does it matter so much that we keep strict track of whether there are individuals or even populations who are gay? It matters because we are in the midst of a culture war. The real battle is for freedom of action and expression. But that will not prevail as a rationale. That would denigrate the issue to a range of behavioral choices. We will lose the battle (and possibly our freedom and our lives) when the issue is about our choice of sexual practices. It is crucial in this culture war for us to be identified as essentially distinct. That limits our potential alliances.
I know of embattled confederations who have risked everything to get into the mainstream. They do not want us. Radical feminists a few years ago refused to accept lesbians and their issues into feminist discussion because they did not want to weaken their campaign by multiplying their issues. Christian groups now are gaining traction in an effort to penetrate fundamentalist fortifications with the slogan “We will make marriage more enduring.” Racial-ethnic minorities tend to oppose gay rights because they think of us as a threat; they have enough to be on about without having any more difficult causes to diffuse their thrust.
For the most part, the gay-pride movement is trying for two things: (1) To have marriages like everyone else’s. This is a minimalist and reasonable request. We want to join the mainstream. We declare, “There is nothing unique about us.” (2) To be understood and appreciated. This is an appeal to basic humanitarian sensitivity. “We are your brothers and sisters, your sons and daughters.” There is nothing threatening about us.
But there is more to it than that.
We know that choices about sexual practices and relationships are subservient to something more basic. We are battling for the right to be authentic and not just for the freedom to do as we please. Gradually we have acquired allies. Psychiatric and medical associations have agreed that there is something called orientation that is enduring and cannot be changed. Sexual orientation cannot be changed. In fact, as we have long perceived in our own hearts, the doctors are now in widespread agreement that it is even damaging to deny that orientation. The best case scenario is to discover one’s orientation, adjust to it, find friends and lovers with a compatible orientation, and develop a community within society.
But there is more that we can do than fit in.
Very few people in the cultural majority are interested that we might actually have unique perspectives, different gifts, singular experiences or creative insights quite unlike their own. Worse, some who do perceive what it would mean to receive us as peers and equals fear our contributions would result in equivalents to revolution or anarchy.
On the whole I think it is altogether possible that the conservative right is right to fear us. We may not have the agenda they accuse us of pursuing, but we certainly are more potent social change agents than our own minimalists recognize, who just want to get married and file joint tax returns. We have more to offer and more to require.
Our six friends would like nothing better than to be unremarkable, but they are remarkable, not only for their courage, stamina, and loyalty, but also because of their identity as successful, independent and creative. They are unpretentious and basically unaware of the impact they are making just by refusing to hide within the mundane shadows. If you knew their stories you would understand how I can insist that we across the rainbow spectrum are coming not to sustain cultures and societies but to improve them.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.