Thursday, September 20, 2012


"I know you're gay," said my friend at church one recent Sunday morning, "and I don't give a damn. You and I have worked together here on the vestry and on several committees, and I've always found you to be very pleasant and interesting, so I don't see how it's any of my business who you go to bed with. As long as you respect the fact that I am not gay, and don't try to push your lifestyle on me, I don't have a problem with your sexual preference." Sounds like a pretty straightforward, tolerant attitude, right? Wrong. Those words mask at least three misconceptions which I believe are not only unfortunate and dangerous, but which I find borderline offensive.

First was my friend's use of the words "preference" and "lifestyle." Preference implies choice. If my being homosexual is my sexual "preference," it means that at some point I was presented with all the alternatives, and I chose to be gay. If I made that choice, I have to believe that everyone else is presented with the same range of sexual choices, and chooses where he or she will be most comfortable on that sexuality spectrum. I am almost 71 years old, and am a "people-person," so I have known thousands of people over my lifetime, but I have yet to meet one person who says that he or she was presented those alternative sexualities, and chose to be either gay or straight, homosexual or heterosexual. No one makes that choice; it is a given. Whether there is a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality or heterosexuality or not I don't know (I have my suspicions), but I do know that I never chose to be gay, and I doubt that anyone else chose to be either gay, straight, or whatever.

I believe that there is a difference between one's sexual orientation and one's sexual behavior, and I believe that most people recognize that distinction. For example: Even the strictest, most strait-laced Christian would contend that Jesus, the Apostle Paul. and Mother Teresa were heterosexual, right? Those observers would bristle at the suggestion that either of the three people we just mentioned was gay or homosexual, so by default they'd have to be straight or heterosexual. Yet, most of us assume that neither of those three "did it" at all. Their orientation was heterosexual; there was no behavior. The two things are different, see?

But when it comes to gays, most heterosexuals (and all too many homosexuals) define us by what they suppose we do. Straights, heterosexuals, are defined by what they are; gays, homosexuals, by what, supposedly, we do. The truth is, though, that the sexual orientation of every person is defined by what that person is, not necessarily by what he or she does or does not do.

The vast majority of people are naturally heterosexually oriented, a significant minority are homosexually oriented, and a tinier minority are possibly bisexually oriented. That is the way they are born. But, for any of a number of reasons, men and women who are naturally homosexual may learn to behave heterosexually; and there are some who are naturally heterosexual who behave homosexually. Their natural orientation doesn't change, though their behavior may.

People back in what we tend to think of as the Dark Ages of sexual understanding nevertheles seemed to grasp this distinction easily. Before the Pill and HIV/AIDS, it was pretty common for men to seek sexual "relief" from other, usually effeminate, men rather than risk "doing it" with a "bad" girl or if a willing female wasn't available at the time (this was, and to some extent, still is, a pretty common scenario in jails and prisons). Neither of the men engaged in such conduct considered the "top," the "man," to be gay; he was straight, but for whatever reason did his “man thing” with another male (I know there’ll be many who’ll dispute this contention, but I’m speaking from experience, not just from what I’ve read or been told). That attitude changed abruptly in the 1970s, to the point that --- again, in my opinion, based on my observation and experience --- the Viet Nam vet generation is, probably, the most anti-gay one of all. With the development of the Pill and because of fear of contracting the “gay disease,” HIV/AIDS, straight men no longer chose to be with other men for sex; only homosexually-oriented men did such a thing. The distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior all but disappeared.

And that has been psychologically devasting for a host of young straight men. Many of them, because of substance abuse, incarceration, dysfunctional family backgrounds, financial need, or whatever, have engaged in homosexual behavior --- and since, now, there is little or no distinction made between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, they have taken the homosexual behavior in which they’ve engaged to mean that their orientation is homosexual, that they are gay. And, this erroneous self-label has led to all kinds of deep psychological problems, and even to violent and deadly actions. That’s why I find my friend’s statement to be deceptively innocuous. Those subtly mistaken attitudes can have deadly consequences.

The final thing we should consider, though, but haven’t touched on so far, is Lifestyle. Just as there is no one “heterosexual lifestyle,” there is no equivalent “homosexual lifestyle.” Let’s recap, and I’ll explain:

First, one’s sexual orientation is naturally or genetically encoded; it isn’t a “preference,” nor does it change.

Secondly, one’s sexual behavior, unlike one’s sexual orientation, may involve preference. One may prefer oral or anal or vaginal sex, being “top” or “bottom,” or “pitching” or “catching.” Within the person’s orientation, his or her preferred behavior may, in fact, change.

Thirdly, one’s sexual lifestyle probably does involve choice. No matter what one’s orientation or preferred behaviors may be, one may choose his or her sexual lifestyle. One’s lifestyle may range anywhere from celibacy, through monogamy, through serial liaisons, through to group sex, promiscuity, or whatever. So, a person will have a natural sexual orientation, preferred sexual behaviors, and a chosen sexual lifestyle. These three things are not at all the same, and may not even be in harmony with each other; but confusing the three things, or using the terms interchangeably, is not only inaccurate, but can be psychologically troubling, and downright dangerous.

For the record, if in some pre-existent state I were given the choice as to how I’d come into human life, with all the alternatives laid out before me, and knowing what I know now, I --- unlike most people I know, gay or straight --- would choose to come into human life exactly as I am now: Male, black, and gay. But, of course, I am not given that choice; I just thank God that I am, in fact, male, black, gay, and now --- considering the alternative --- old.