Unchanging orientation: a point that should not be ceded
In the course of the gay rights movement, it seems that sexual orientation has been constructed as something unchanging. Gay people are assumed to have been born gay, and their sexual choices are thus “natural” and above political analysis.
I think that this has done far more harm than good, for the following reasons.
1. It excludes from the gay rights movement those who are not cisgendered. Transpersons and intersexed persons do not have a definitive place of the gender binary to call their own. Thus, they cannot call themselves either straight or gay. Orientation is an identity that depends on both one’s gender and the gender of those to which one is attracted. For those who have no place in the restrictive gender paradigm (or those whose partners do not have a place), an unchanging model of identity cannot conceive of their experiences and oppressions. What happens is that these people—who are more vulnerable to violence than cisgendered homosexuals—are often totally ignored in the scope of gay rights and gay theory.
2. It excludes those who are not homosexual but not straight. Bisexuals, pansexuals, polysexuals, and asexuals all have identities and experiences much different from homosexuals and heterosexuals. Yet, because orientation is determined mostly by one’s attraction to the opposite or same sex, rather than other variables1 these people occupy a tentative place in gay theorizing and are often thrown in as an afterthought or excluded altogether. An example would be a gay bar whose patrons are not friendly to the expression of heterosexual relationships therein. How do they create a place for the bisexual woman with a male partner? Is this possible? Such instances, in which cisgendered and/or cisgender-attracted (i.e. attracted to one specific gender) homosexuals oppress or exclude others, cannot be captured with the assumption that orientation is binary and unchanging.
3. It excludes those whose gender or orientation has changed. Many closeted homosexuals have had relationships with members of the opposite sex. While some later find that these relationships are not satisfying, some find that although they were satisfying at the time, their identity has changed. For example, a gay man might marry a woman in order to hide his sexual preferences and enjoy the many privileges legal marriage grants. However, he never feels fulfilled. But it is also the case that a man can marry a woman and be fully fulfilled in that marriage, only to later turn around afterwards (through divorce, death, or separation) and find that the company of other men is just as satisfying, even though it was not before. I wouldn’t doubt that such circumstances are far more commonplace than presently reported. Other groups that fall under the same oppression are those such as political lesbians—women whose political convictions imply that being a “woman-identified women” is more revolutionary than remaining straight—and any transitioning or happily ambiguous non-cisgendered person. Obviously, if one is not female or male, one cannot have a sexual orientation. The current definition of orientation relies on the sex of the orientated. If that sex is fluid, ambiguous, undefined, or transitioning, the orientation is similarly undefined, ignored, oppressed, invisible, and/or transitioning.
4. It gives authority to dichotomous and oversimplified thinking. The reasons for maintaining that orientation is innate are very political pervasive. First, it serves as an easy way to stop debate. The gay rights chant, “we’re here; we’re queer; get used to it!” references the idea that orientation cannot be altered; only suppressed. But this obviously excludes vast numbers of non-heterosexuals who are equally, or even more, oppressed than homosexuals. It might be tempting thus to grant legitimacy to those whose orientation has changed, but deny that anyone can consciously change their orientation. But this solution is inadequate. Is the political lesbian who chooses to seek romantic relationships with other women not oppressed? It would be absurd to deny that. Why this concrete theory of orientation arose has little to do with referencing the experiences of oppressed non-heterosexuals, and more to do with making the face of the gay rights movement easily defensible and more palatable to those who are responsible for oppression. What has happened is that the gay right movement has let the prejudices and the biases of the homophobic public dictate the method of gay theorizing. This obviously has resulted in the exclusion of wide swaths of the non-heterosexual experience, and jeopardized the long-term success of the entire movement.
What I mean by this is that the public conception of “natural” is very much tied up with the conception of “good”. What is good is natural, and what is natural is good. Such reasoning is not only dangerous, but highly absurd. First, determining what is “natural” is always done by the dominant class. There is no objective way to point out the natural order of humanity without creating an infinite regress of anthropologic theory. Is Babylonian civilization “natural”, or do we have to regress back to an earlier non-human ancestor to answer that question? Such inquires are absurd and have no cognitive value. The result is that the dominant class—the class with the most access to the prestige required for recognized theorizing—stops the regress at the point which best buttresses claims about the legitimacy of the forms of oppression that they benefit from. The result is such navel-gazing “science” as the following examination of why women like pink:
Ling speculates that the color preference and women’s ability to better discriminate red from green could have evolved due to sex-specific divisions of labor: while men hunted, women gathered, and they had to be able to spot ripe berries and fruits. Another theory suggests that women, as caregivers who need to be particularly sensitive to, say, a child flushed with fever, have developed sensitivity to reddish changes in skin color, a skill that enhances their abilities as the “empathizer.”
Thus, when a gay person asserts their right to exist with claims about the naturalness of homosexuality, they are framing the debate in the only way the class of oppressors permits them to. This references the old homophobic claim that “homosexuality is unnatural“. Rather than the gay rights advocate exclaiming, “No, it’s just as natural as heterosexuality,” they should have replied, “Questions about nature are irrelevant.” After all, the purpose of sex is not solely reproductive. Unless the heterosexual debater is willing to cede that his purely carnal, not reproductive, enjoyment of women—clad in artificial titillating textiles or slathered in toxic paints—is just as unnatural and should thus be subject to the same vicious repression.
5. It conceals the real source of oppression. For some of the reasons I’ve briefly explored above, insisting that homosexuality is as “natural” as heterosexuality is simply easier to support without rigorous debate. But why support anything without rigorous debate? When confronted with the pseudo-intellectual who is unwilling to entertain arguments that unseat his deep prejudges, the better idea, clearly, is to reject those prejudges rather than continue to play the game by his rules. Playing the game in this fashion has legitimized the “divide and conquer” tactic of the oppressors. In much the same way that anti-feminists mischaracterize feminists to pit working mothers against homemakers, or anti-porn feminists against sex workers, homophobes would like nothing more than to let non-heterosexuals endlessly fight amongst themselves rather than ever have to see their privilege dismantled. It should be obvious, for any marginalized population, that letting the oppressors set the frame of the debate will result in intellectual stagnation and political fragmentation on the lines of false dichotomies.
The issue here is not whether or not homosexuality is natural. In fact, who cares? Who cares why Sally prefers women to men? Who cares why Sally can maintain this preference and still have a happy relationship with a man? Does any of this change the fact that non-heterosexuals are viciously oppressed? No! For gay rights to even have a chance to succeed, the debate must be framed in a way legitimized by the experiences of all oppressed non-heterosexuals. It should not be comfortable and soothing to the innate prejudices of homophobes. Indeed, isn’t that contrary to the point of the movement?
When mental health professionals try to “cure” adults and youth of “gender disorders” and homosexuality, is the problem that they cannot cure them? Obviously not. The source of oppression is that anyone can conceive of why such things are deviances that ought to be “cured” in the first place. This point is not altered if the gay movement recognizes that orientation can change, and has changed, for many people. They have ceded no intellectual ground. Rather, they have wrested the reigns of the debate back from the oppressors and refused to recognize their logical fallacies.
The question was never whether or not transsexuality, homosexuality, bisexual, heterosexuality, or anything else was “natural”. It has always been whether or not the oppression of anyone who is not heterosexual and cis-gendered is valid. This is concealed with debates over if therapy to cure homosexuals can work, or if such a thing as a gay gene exists. Honestly, anyone who is a true ally of the gay rights movement shouldn’t give a damn whether or not homosexuality is learned, innate, or filters into our brains with a diet of tainted fruit.
All such debates rest on the assumption that heterosexuality is normal and that non-heterosexuality is the other. Rejecting that hierarchy of oppression cannot be accomplished by excluding non-cisgendered non-heteroexuals from the debate or by infinitely regressing explorations of anthropological “natural” human behavior.
In fact, it never will.
1I fully intend to, at a later date, attempt to construct a more useful method for the delineation of gender identity and orientation with more variables than the current political model.