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.

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Posted on April 12, 2009, in Gay Rights, Priviledge and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I followed your name-link from SP because I loved your comment about the Boyle video, and here is the first post I find on your website. You have said so many things that I wish everyone could read. You will be on my Bloglines now. :-)

  2. I like your style and I hope you continue blogging. I think point number 5 is really important and often overlooked by a lot of white, gay males. Perhaps if you’ve never had to face any other kind of bigotry, then it may be confusing when people undeservedly treat you worse than others. The assumption of a lot of white, gay males is that the people mistreating them will change their ways if they think gays didn’t choose to be different. That assumption has been proven wrong again and again. (After all, the biological explanation hasn’t stopped sexism or racism.) I’ve often thought that sexual orientation should be seen as a liberty of the individual to determine her destiny, much like religious liberty.

    • That’s my point exactly. Orientation and consensual sex acts are should not be thought of as norms and deviations from those norms. And you’re totally right, biological fact has never stopped the most disgusting of oppression. Furthermore, doesn’t it seem implicitly homophobic to even want to isolate a gay gene in the first place? I’d compare it to scientists trying to isolate the gene that pigments one’s skin. The only reason they are taking the effort to look for it in the first place is because of the assumption that it is a deviancy from the norm. The medicalization of oppression is nothing new. Eugenics can attest to that, as can the Holocaust. 19th century maps of criminal’s skulls—searching for physical features that supposedly link them to mental deviancy—are supported on the same bigoted sentiments. The search for the “natural” is a very old and recycled way of positing the dominant class as the norm and the oppressed class(es) as deviancies from those norms. Objectified and trapped in the public perception of deviancy, the oppressed are objects, not subjects. They may be studied, but cannot study and cannot object. This process is as old as human civilization.

  3. undercoverpunk

    Ooooh, I LOVE IT! Yes, yes, yes!!
    The continued oppression of WOMEN—about which all feminists are supposedly concerned—is *dependent* on perpetuating the reigning relationship models designed by and servicing the VALUES of the hetero-patriarchy (domination/submission in general; specifically, female-as-subordinate!). It’s not just a gay issue, it’s a WOMAN issue. Told Nine Deuce this yesterday over at my blog under “TABOO!”. Heterosexuality and a society structured around its relationship models is an essential, load-bearing pillar of male supremacy. Biological justification for this hierarchy and the popular insistence that sexuality is immutable only serves to reinforce our oppression. Word, sister.

    • Exactly. In the words of someone smarter than me that I read somewhere, it doesn’t take a man to make a family, it takes a family to make a man. Marriage, as it exists (structured around heterosexual monogamy and male public sphere and female private sphere), benefits men more than women. In fact, men are dependent upon the institution for their survival and continued enjoyment of unearned priviledge.

      • undercoverpunk

        Jenn, I’d go further and say that HETEROSEXUALITY, even outside of marriage, benefits men more than women.
        Did I hear you mention somewhere that you’re in law school? Class of 2005 here.
        Marriage is a legal institution. The only area of law that favors women is in regard to child custody—obviously a recognition of our social utility/DUTY. Child support is still calculated according to a measure of the non-custodial parent’s (usually the MAN’s) income, rather than according to the CHILD’s needs. Spousal rape became a legally recognized WRONG (and is still impossible to prove due to the Fed. Rules of Evidence) in all 50 US states in 1993!!! 1-9-9-3. Marriage is a shit deal for women, even if we get some ca$h at the end, BECAUSE of the underlying values of HETEROSEXUALITY that serve men FIRST. The very *definition* of it is MEN FIRST. And to think that women still routinely, even unquestioningly, change their last names to reflect their undying loyalty to the man who “owns” them. It makes me crazy!

        Men depend on women to PARTICIPATE in the inherent hierarchy of heterosexuailty for their continued enjoyment of unearned privilege. Though I once called myself “straight,” I’ve been living a lesbian lifestyle since I was 20. That’s 10 years now. Highly recommended to all radfems who believe in the constructed nature of sexual preference!!

        Thanks again for the post, LOVE it!

        • Ha, no problem. Luckily for me, the lesbianism comes naturally. Choosing not to love women would be like cutting off my arm.

          Not only is heterosexuality something that primarily benefits men, it structures society to the point that even lesbians exist to benefit men. The outrageous beauty standards women have to meet to be taken seriously is all for the pornifying gaze of the Man (or the woman who seizes power without bothering to discover she isn’t a Man), even if we don’t want anything to do with dick.

          Actually, I’m bisexual. But it’s a lot easier to give up dick than give up women. Women typically aren’t into the whole repress and masturbate scheme.

          • undercoverpunk

            Amen, sister!!! This makes my day. :) I am very interested in the philosophies of other young, political lesbians!!! There are NOT enough of us out here in the blogosphere! (I’ve actually just arrived in the past couple of months, so maybe you can help broaden my blog-reading horizons.)

            As a former man-lover, I too am bisexual. I could easily enjoy the hetersoexual privilege that flows from a relationship with one of those “exceptional” men hetero radfems are always trotting out to support their continued man-love. But yes, giving up dick is sooo MUCH EASIER than giving up my full humanity!! It’s no question. Even exceptional men receive male privilege. It makes me kind of sad, though, when women choose spinsterhood rather than other women. But I suppose it’s equally difficult to find a suitable female partner. And I have an irrationally strong commitment to romantic partnerships due to my co-dependent nature. So I *know* I really have no business being sad about it. I also know that I shouldn’t be saying this out loud either. Ah well, I’m here to learn.

            Now, about those beauty standards: I’ve been really, really struggling with this lately. As a woman-loving-woman, do you think that lesbians should adopt androgynous appearances in order to subvert/ interrupt the pornifying gaze of the Man? I am undeniably addicted to appearing as a woman. Not sexxxay, but unmistakably FEMALE. What do you think about that?

          • As to your blog-reading horizons, I have a pretty long blogroll you can take a look at. Most of it is cisgender heterosexual feminists who are radical or lean radical. But there’s other issues in there, and many of them link to people who blog more extensively on issues about race (ex: Renee of Womanist Musings is one of the best anti-racist activist bloggers) and other issues.

            I do need to do a post later on political lesbianism and my thoughts on it. I’m not a political lesbian, I’m more of a “pansexual” who enjoys the personalities of women more then the personalities of men because of patriarchal attitudes in men. If I could only bubble in lesbian or straight, I’d bubble in lesbian. I didn’t consciously choose it, so I know little to nothing about the process and emotions involved in the choosing of orientation rather than the realization of it (mine very much hit me upside the head one day and told me to pay attention).

            And you’re preaching the choir about appearing female. I have no desire to pass as a man outside of the priviledge I’d get for doing so. Androgyny is out of the question for me. I’ve been told repeatedly that even though I haven’t touched makeup in years, I’m still conventionally feminine and pretty. If you want to surf back to my post on makeup, I think I say something about how women ought to choose their appearances, even as they attempt to define them for themselves without using the patriarchy to justify their adherence to the norms or letting the patriarchy dictate their self-destructive (if that’s the case) defiance of the norms.

            But if you want to dialog some more about things unrelated to specific posts, you can always email me. My contact in on my About page. I might not be totally prompt with the replies, but I do read them!

  4. This is excellent analysis. Most people resist the possibility that sexuality and relationships can be complex matters. You’re right–most folks go for the dichotomous thinking of straight/gay, right/wrong, etc. etc. Everything, everything is more varied than this sort of thinking.

  5. “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…. 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.”

    This.

    A little while ago I read a comment, in response to an article on political lesbianism, that sparked a real “click” moment for me. The article, on the website of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, was a personal coming out narrative, about how the writer (a regular columnist on this paper) as a young woman growing up in a very heteronormative working class culture had been able to make sense of her lesbian feelings by reading a feminist pamphlet advocating political lesbianism. She was proud to have chosen to be lesbian – she wasn’t straight to start with but the feminist ideas gave her a positive, political context for her sexuality. Now, this writer and other women writers on this website always garner hundreds and hundreds of virulently negative and judgemental comments from the straight white male commentariat of the site, and from numerous other commenters who cheerlead/accomodate/don’t think beyond the straight white male viewpoint. Some of these male commenters are openly anti-feminist, but the more poisonous are the articulate “liberal” men who pay lip service to feminism and LGBT rights, but very clearly subconsciously fear these movements and ideas gaining too much ground – no feminist article on this website is ever apparently good enough for this kind of commenter, it must always be condescendingly criticised (the commenters clearly always presume that their legitimating male approval is being sought by any feminist writer). Anyway, you get the idea; it is a stewpot of privilege in action, that simultaneously fascinates and frustrates.

    The comment thread response to this article was a particularly fine example of its kind, and consisted of commenters male & female, straight and gay, castigating both the writer and the 1970s feminists who had written the political lesbianism pamphlet for the terrible sin/intellectual failure of saying that sexuality could be a choice. Clearly, the writer had set LGBT rights back hugely by daring to write about how she felt she had chosen lesbianism. The very silencing reactions of these commenters to the idea of political lesbianism is extremely interesting to analyse.

    This particular comment struck me because it demonstrated such a clumsy, othering grasp of why homophobia is a bad thing (I include the first part of the comment too because dozens of the commenters made the same point that they clearly thought won them the argument hands down; silly women, extincting the human race with your silly politics) :

    “If all women followed in your footsteps, the country would disintegrate in a generation, and if the women of the world took it up, our species would end. On that basis, i dont think its a great idea.

    Secondly, i thought one of the arguments for tolerance of homosexuality is that it ISNT a choice? Isnt that why religious reactionaries persecute gays, because they see it as a choice, a sinful choice?”

    This is so very clearly a straight man who knows only that he has to “tolerate” gay people, and isn’t actually arsed to be a proper ally to them.

    Such a weak argument, and it made me realise, the real argument for LGB rights isn’t that these poor people just can’t help not being straight and therefore it is really mean to hurt them for something they can’t help, but very simply that there is nothing wrong with sexually desiring and being physically intimate with someone of the same sex as yourself.

    • Such a weak argument, and it made me realize, the real argument for LGB rights isn’t that these poor people just can’t help not being straight and therefore it is really mean to hurt them for something they can’t help, but very simply that there is nothing wrong with sexually desiring and being physically intimate with someone of the same sex as yourself.

      Exactly! I’ve read some of the political lesbian manifestos myself, and I don’t understand how they were detrimental to gay rights. Here were lovely kind progressive political women who were so convinced that there is nothing wrong with any gender and orientation (or lack thereof) that they chose to be gay and have homosexual relationships. It’s only if you assume that the point of gay rights is to make people “tolerate” gays rather than recognize that there is nothing wrong with any orientation that political lesbians are threatening.

  6. Butterflywings

    ‘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.’
    This is wrong.
    Most ‘intersex’ people DO identify with a gender.
    Women with Turner’s syndrome are women. Men with Klinefelter’s syndrome are men. (If you don’t know what those are, Google is your friend).
    Yes, gender is socially constructed. Sex isn’t. I absolutely support the lessening of gender roles. The thing is that gender is not sex, hence why not all intersex people experience gender distress, and some non-intersex people do (the trans or genderqueer).
    People should be free to idenitfy as whatever gender they like.

    Most intersex people are comfortable (well, as comfortable as anyone else) with the gender they appear/ were assigned. (They were socialised as that gender, just as anyone else is).

    Many itersex people rightly resent the implication that they must experience gender dysphoria, because they don’t wish to be pathologised and made into freaks for the curiosity of gawkers.

    We are PEOPLE, not some radical feminist point.

    Political lesbianism only makes sense if you are essentially bisexual anyway. Sadly, some feminist women do fancy men. I say sadly, because it is not easy. I would be a lesbian if I could…but I am not.

    • Perhaps I wasn’t being clear, because I don’t really disagree with any of your points. When I say that transpeople and intersexed person or gender queer individuals do not have definitive place on the gender binary, I mean that social definitions of gender specifically exclude them from the categories of men or women or they don’t care what they choose to identify with. I’m not questioning the validity of one’s gender identification, I’m recognizing that the oppression of the current model of gender does. I agree that people ought to be able to identify themselves as they wish, or choose not to identify themselves as they wish. But my thoughts on gender and sex are not what I’m commenting on in that passage.

      Also, some people don’t have a sex under the current medical model. Doctors arbitrarily decide what anyone who isn’t XX or XY is depending on what theory they happen to ascribe to. Again, it’s a mechanism of oppression and naming that is taken out of the hands of the people who are being identified and placed in an oppressive establishment.

      Some intersexed people aren’t comfortable, and the kind of agony that someone has to go through when their gender doesn’t fit right because of the oppression of the static gender binary is not something that I approve of. I’m comfortable in my gender and sex, but many people aren’t. I’m not saying that all intersex people do experience gender dysphoria, I’m saying that some do–as do the non-intersexed–and it’s made all the more difficult because of the system of oppression I’m addressing. I’m not trying to reduce anyone to a talking point, and I apologize if how I was phrasing my posts didn’t make that clear.

      Furthermore, I also don’t think that sexuality is rigid, and that some people change. I reject the single variable model of sexuality that posits homosexuality and heterosexuality on two ends of the spectrum, and forces everyone to be defined by a spot on that scale that they cannot change or grow out of. Frankly, that’s crap. Some people aren’t attracted to gender at all, and focusing the scale on gender excludes them. Which is why I identify myself as queer, not bisexual. I’m not going to say that everyone can be a political lesbian if they just try really really hard. Some radical feminists say that, I don’t. What I’m saying that everyone is different, everyone has different sexualities–sometimes even from themselves earlier in their lives!–and I’m not going to call someone a liar if they say they used to be strictly straight and now they are not. I firmly believe that sexuality isn’t some mystical unchangeable impulse dictated solely by chance or genetics. If some people say they can influence their sexuality rationally, I don’t see what’s so weird about that.

  7. I identify as straight (but personally think many, if not most people – including myself – are probably on a bisexual spectrum, whether or not they can or want to admit it), and think this post is a work of genius. All of this needs to be said and repeated again and again. It *doesn’t matter* why someone is gay (or bi or trans or cis or straight or asexual or poly). People have the right to enjoy whatever form of (consensual) sexuality they desire. Period. Making the argument that “gay is natural,” undermines the whole movement, in my opinion. Bravo.

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