An essay by Nick Thiwerspoon
A correspondent in a recent post to my group said something which intrigued me:
I’ve gotten to the point where I’m beginning to consider “gay” a
historical phenomenon more than anything else. I identify as gay
because that’s the culture I came of age in. (I think I’m also a
Kinsey 6 — never been attracted to women.) Hearing about younger
men, and behavioral patterns from non-Western cultures, it strikes me
that Kinsey was right — most people are, to one degree or another,
bisexual. It’s social conditioning — the black/white, either/or
thinking that infects Western culture — that forces most people into
being either “gay” or “straight,” I think.
This led me to think again about the theses Bert Archer presents in The End of Gay (And the Death of Heterosexuality).
He has a couple of key points. First that what the psychologists call ‘gender dysphoria’ ( psycho-speak for people who don’t behave as the stereotypes of their gender are supposed to) is not the same as homosexuality, though the two are often confused. The second is that sexual orientation—straight or gay—is learned. Many people might not disagree in principle with his first assertion, but will find his second harder to swallow. His third thesis is that the whole concept of “gay” is a 20th century construct, and that the boundaries of gay and straight hardened sclerotically under the malign confluence of religion, psychiatry and the U.S. military.
First, Gender Dysphoria. Don’t you love the term? Giving it a nice ‘scientific’ name makes it easier to imply that it’s an illness, something which requires intervention by parents, teachers, shrinks, preachers. People who know best.
It goes like this. Men have a set of paradigms of how to be a ‘real man’, and women of how to be a ‘real women’. We absorb these consciously and unconsciously from our parents and other adults; from TV and film; in the playground. Real men don’t cry, real women are gentle and caring. And so on. Archer points out that when you actually go through a checklist of what is “generally agreed” to be paradigms of gender identity, you will find that you don’t tick all the boxes, and that in fact no one does; that the “ideals” are just that, and don’t have much to do with reality at all.
So, straight men might have some “feminine” characteristics, and still be straight. (What exactly is a “real man”?) There are 100% straight men (well, if such exist) who like to wear their wives’ dresses/undies/high heel shoes. There are ‘femme’ men who are straight, ‘butch’ men who are gay. There’s no inevitable link between gender dysphoria/gender identity and sexuality. However, while there’s no necessary correlation between gender dysphoria and being gay, it’s a very common assumption in our society. Especially at school—that prison for children and adolescents—where feminine behaviour by a boy is quickly equated with gayness by his peers. And punished. Brutally. It strikes me in fact that the objection by his peers might not be to the implied sexual orientation itself but in effect to the gender dysphoria (“being girly”). The crime is not to have sex with men, or even to love them. The crime is to be ‘effeminate’—whatever that means. That would explain why ‘manly’ sportsmen are not unhappy to have sex with their teammates, as long as it isn’t ‘too gay’.
Societal assumptions about “effeminate” behaviour and sexuality may well be self-fulfilling. Now, somebody who is constantly informed (at the end of a fist or a boot) that he is a homo faggy failure, because he doesn’t act like a ‘real man’ is very likely to end up believing the propaganda. And ending up gay—if ‘gay’ is a learned response, which it probably is, even though perhaps entirely unconscious. More on that below.
I was a total outsider at school. I liked Beethoven, not the Beatles (I’m more catholic now). I hated sports. I devoured books—reading for pleasure is a dead give-away of unsound masculinity, as is being artistic or musical (once a euphemism for gay.) I was gentle, and took no pleasure in hurting my fellows, unlike most of them, it seemed. I painted and—it appeared quite natural to me, a perfectly logical extension—I experimented with tapestry and needlework (how very abnormal). Desperately lonely, I tried too hard to be friends with the boys in my class (another black mark in the masculinity box: one must not be too emotional; one must not care too much). It was made apparent to me that I was an outsider, an object to be hated, beaten up, mocked, bullied, and so tediously on. Moffie, they called me. I had no idea what that was. Probably they had no idea either. But it became blindingly obvious to me that I wasn’t a ‘real man’. At 13 or 15 or even 18, I wanted more than anything to be like the other boys at school, to have the (apparently) easy friendships they had. And I wasn’t and didn’t. I didn’t belong.
So, looking back on it now, it’s hardly surprising I turned out gay. I never consciously chose to be gay. It was a shock when I actually realized that I was, when I first fell in love with a man. After being called queer and assumed to be queer, what else was I to do? I could, I suppose have taken on the protective camouflage of the über-macho, the clone, but I must have known that that wouldn’t have convinced anybody, and in any case, I liked classical music and art and reading, and disliked exercise. In my case, gender dysphoria undoubtedly contributed to my turning out gay.
We all know too many examples of straight “femme” men and straight “butch” women to believe the clichés. The correlation between gender dysphoria and gayness isn’t intrinsic. Actually, it’s forced on us by a strait and straight society. The unmanly amongst us end up gay because we are already outsiders.
The implicit assumption in what I said above is that I—and other blokes like me—started out straight. We were bentgay.
Now Archer goes into this at some depth. He describes the way in which the whole concept of homosexuality was constructed by church, shrinks and the armed forces over the last 150 years, how in fact even the term ‘sodomy’ appears to have meant something else a thousand years ago to what it means now. (So much for Biblical exactitude.) He extensively quotes Kinsey’s research.
37 per cent of the total male population has at least some overt homosexual experience to the point of orgasm between adolescence and old age.
13 per cent of males react erotically to other males without having overt homosexual contacts after the onset of adolescence.
25 per cent of the male population has more than incidental homosexual experience or reactions (i.e. rates 2-6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 55. In terms of averages, one male out of approximately every four has had or will have such a distinct and continued homosexual experience.
18 per cent of the males have at least as much of the homosexual as the heterosexual in their histories (i.e., rate 3-6) for at least three years between the ages of 16 and 35. This is more than one in six of the white male population.
These are extraordinary statistics. And it’s worth remembering that ‘bisexual’ men may give up their ‘gay side’ when they marry. Wives aren’t as a rule terribly understanding of forays outside the marriage bed. So these men appear to the world and perhaps themselves as straight (“I had a gay period, but I’m over that now”.) The stats may well understate the degree of gay experiences. After all, how many of us would reveal details of a forbidden sexuality to a stranger?
But Kinsey also says:
It should be emphasized again that there are persons who rate 2’s and 3’s who, in terms of the number of contacts they have made, may have had more homosexual experience than many persons who rate 6.
Note that Kinsey did not say that 10 per cent of the male population was gay. In fact he said that there was no such thing as a ‘homosexual’:
Males do not represent two discrete populations, heterosexual and homosexual. The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats. Not all things are black nor all things white. It is a fundamental law of taxonomy that nature rarely deals with discrete categories. Only the human mind invents categories and tries to force facts into separated pigeonholes. The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex. It would encourage clearer thinking on these matters if persons were not characterized as heterosexual or homosexual, but as individuals who have had certain amounts of heterosexual experience and certain amounts of homosexual experience. Instead of using these terms as substantives which stand for persons, or even as adjectives to describe persons, they may better be used to describe the nature of their overt sexual relations.
So how do we become gay (or straight or bi or whatever)? Archer uses the analogy of language learning to explain sexual orientation. He says that being gay is in a sense a choice, and then, to head off the Christian-Fascists and their offensive and criminally stupid dogma that gayness can be ‘cured’, he adds that this is comparable to the way a human child learns his/her mother tongue. A baby can make all sounds in all languages. But as he/she grows up, he/she becomes able to pronounce properly only the sounds of the language(s) he/she is surrounded by. After about 8 or 9 or 10, almost no one who learns another language speaks it without an accent.
Now his thesis (or one of them, anyway) is that we are all born with the capacity to love and desire both genders, and that it’s the circumstances of our upbringing which make us ‘choose’ to be gay or straight. This process might be entirely or mostly subconscious but once we have ‘chosen’ it’s hard (perhaps even impossible) to change. Like growing up learning English and then having to learn French. Feasible, but hard. It can’t be ‘cured’ but it is still a ‘choice’. Truly bisexual people are the equivalent of the truly bilingual.
Yet things are shifting, even in me. Yesterday on the train I noticed this gorgeous man, short thick brown hair, intelligent warm smile, in jeans and canvas trainers, polo shirt: classy, handsome, hot. It took me a few minutes before I realized that it was in fact a young woman. It didn’t make her any less attractive. Bert Archer describes a similar experience, where he saw a hot man across a room and later realized it was a woman. He talks about a guy who dresses as a woman, goes to straight bars, and picks up straight guys. Before they head home to bed, he explains the situation. In the time he’s been doing this, all but two of his pickups has gone home with him; some have even bottomed for him. Gender dysphoria? Straight? Gay? Bi? Or just attraction, to the person, not the gender?
I consider some of these issues in my article on Ethan Mordden’s How’s Your Romance? Here’s what he says (and I suspect he himself is a Kinsey 6):
“… for someone who is supposed to be closeted, Tom-Tom seemed to have no secrets from the males, who were doing that trendy nineties thing of flirting with the gay boy and making lewd tease jokes”
And (Tom-Tom is speaking):
“You know. The ones who have to stay with you on Friday nights and they get affectionate and suddenly it’s more sex with straights, which seems to be happening a lot lately. No wonder the heteros think marriage is endangered.”
“Did those people give you some idea about whether the guy is gay?” [I asked Ken]
That stopped him briefly.
“It’s different nowadays,” he told me. “Everybody’s completely mixed together.”
My thinking has also been influenced by two true stories, Cross Currents and It Started With Brian, where I was lucky enough to talk to some of the guys involved. These guys aren’t ‘gay’. Two are bi, two are straight, yet love their guy (note well: not all guys; just theirs.) A bit like me and my wife, where she is really the only woman I love, while my primary sexual attraction is for men.
For a couple of years I was 100% gay. And then I met my wife-to-be. These days I am bi, I suppose, but while I am fluent in gay, I still speak straight with an accent. I think this is what it’s like for most gay-shaded guys who are over 40. The world has moved on from the 70s and 80s. My kids have gay friends; my daughter won’t go out with a bloke unless he’s experimented with men—she says it makes men nicer, more grownup, better with women, more loving, and less likely to be sexist—and the shame and stigma which I felt so strongly—which I was made to feel—when I was growing up just doesn’t seem to be there.
There are places where being gay—or suffering from gender dysphoria—is still lethal: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and much of Africa. But these are uncivilized barbarian regimes, backward, narrow, obscurantist, murderous. Even in the US, there are places where it’s unsafe to be openly gay. But everywhere else, Europe; the better parts of Eastern Europe; India; China; Indonesia; North and South America, gay is legal, gay marriage (or a close legal analogy) is legal, and young people just don’t care. Aging conservatives fulminate and froth at the mouth, but change is inexorable and inevitable. And when gay becomes harmless, instead of a vile social taboo and legal crime, more and more people will experiment with same-sex sex and love and more and more will be bilingual in straight and gay. It’s too late for me and others of my age, alas. But it’s good that teenagers growing up now will have it much easier than we did, and that they will grow up without the self-loathing and loneliness that seemed our inescapable lot.