[Written around 2006.]
I could just as easily start by asking why straight people are straight. Few ask this, because they consider the answer so obvious – “it’s human nature.” But what isn’t human nature for a human to do? Are chimpanzees suddenly not chimps or penguins not penguins when they engage in homosexual behavior (which they sometimes do)?
People are created with a potential for all forms of sexual orientation, similar in some respects to our early window of opportunity for language acquisition. The infant’s mind is open to any language, no language is healthy or pathological, and some children learn several. My observations have shown me that all sexual orientations have an inherent healthiness – that is, a potential for coinciding with deep emotional maturity – and that none is objectively pathological. Yet in the same way that all languages have curse words, all forms of sexual orientation can fall prey to – and become lenses for – pathological expression, as prostitution, promiscuity, fetishes, and pedophilia, each notably distinct from sexual orientation, attest.
Although it is easy to see why we learn our first language, it is much harder to know why we gain our sexual orientation. Perhaps our sexual orientation is more like the languages of birdsong, pre-wired in our brains and waiting to be manifested as we develop. Yet many people don’t even know with assurance what their sexual orientation is, much less why it is.
We all fall somewhere on the very broad, complex, and non-linear continuum of purely gay to purely straight, for a variety of reasons – some of which we may know and about some of which we may at best hope to guess. Add to this complexity that many people’s sexual orientations shift over their lifetimes – just as our accents can change. And some people can even learn a whole new language, though usually not fluently, later in life!
I know a set of identical twin brothers (both elderly now), one of whom is overtly straight and one is overtly gay. Although a still photograph would show the two looking identical, their body languages, energies, voices, and personalities are deeply different. If their features didn’t look virtually the same you’d never know they were related, much less carrying identical genetic code. I had the chance to interview the gay brother, and he was open to my questions about the “cause” of his sexual orientation – and not unaware that his was a fascinating case, the perfect foil for the “nature” argument of homosexuality. After all, if sexual orientation were due entirely to genetic nature, or even partially to hormonal experience in the maternal womb, his twin would be gay too – or he himself would be straight.
Unfortunately, he had few answers. He said he’d spent years in therapy in his early adulthood probing these very questions, and the best he came up with was that he was born gay – and knew of no specific reasons why he might have “become” gay. Was he molested when he was too young to remember? He wasn’t sure. Did his mother or father treat him differently from his brother? He didn’t think so. Did he make any attempt to become straight in therapy (considering he was in therapy in the 1940s and 1950s, when attempts at “conversion” were more popular – and when homosexuality was still considered “illegal, immoral, and insane”)? He tried, but like most gay people of any depth who try, found it pointless, fruitless, and spiritually enervating. Did he think his straight brother might be disguising a “homosexual” orientation? No, though decades earlier the idea had disturbed his brother – and sent him into therapy too, though he apparently uncovered equally little. Might he and his brother have both been bisexual to begin with and simply defined their identities in polar opposite of the other’s to feel more unique? He acknowledged the possibility with a slow nod, and I have since read (Farber, 1981) that this aspect of the twinning phenomenon may account for why in some cases identical twins reared apart, in different homes, actually behave more similarly in certain respects than do identical twins reared together! They have less emotional need to resist their inherent nature, assuming, that is, that “nature” does play at least some causative role in the formation of sexual orientation.
I have asked many other gay men and lesbians why they think they are gay, and I have gotten a variety of answers, from the most common of “that’s how I was born” and “that’s how God made me” to the less common “I have no clue,” “it’s in my genes,” “I was molested and that messed me up,” “I think it has a lot to do with my relationship with my parents,” and “who really cares? – it’s who I am!” I have also asked many straight people why they think they’re straight, and their main answer – after they get over their surprise at being asked such an unexpected but nevertheless reasonable question – is “that’s how I was born – it’s human nature.” But when I have pressed deeper with those of either orientation who are willing to go there – myself included – I start hearing more and more answers of “I really don’t know” and “it’s really hard to tell exactly why.” The answer, assuming as I do that there is one, is clearly deep within us, and I can at best speculate. Certainly “science” hasn’t done any better.
This subject, however, has many dimensions and variables. Most of the gay people I have talked with have had heterosexual experiences or crushes at some points in their lives, if only as children or teenagers, and some have had full-on straight relationships – some satisfying and loving. And some gay people I know are more sexually active, and have had much more sexual experience, with members of the opposite sex, than their straight counterparts have had! And some of the reverse is equally true with many straight people: homosexual feelings, experiences, and relationships are hardly a rarity – especially if you include the childhood and teen years – and for some are a regular occurrence.
One wonders how things would pan out if our world didn’t demand that people “pick a team and start playing” – especially when the teams are set up so artificially as opposites, and all players are forced to wear either a black or white uniform. Although the rigid dichotomy of “gay” and “straight” is regrettably convenient at times for some on both teams – and for my use in this essay! – it mostly just ends up as foolish and simplistic, pressuring everyone to bury their inner shades of gray.
Yet I am open to the idea that some overtly gay adults – and overtly straight adults too – had their sexual orientation influenced because of their childhood relationship with their parents. This does not discount that each of us has our own innate, temperamental preponderances that play out in the arena of sexual orientation, but it seems ludicrous, actually, to consider that childhood and teen experiences, which influence every other area of our personalities, would not also influence sexual orientation to at least some degree. To explore a semi-clichéd and sometimes misused example, if a boy has a relationship with his radically needy, invasive, lonely mother who seduces him on an emotional level, I can conceive of him turning off to women as a creative survival strategy, and all the more so if he has an emotionally or literally absent father. If he kept his heterosexual avenue open his mother might just psychically cannibalize him the whole way.
But does this mean he was born straight and “turned” gay because of his parents? Not at all. Considering we all went through an embryonic stage of physical bisexuality, why not the same bisexuality, only on a broader and more temporal emotional level, in our psyche? I see this boy as having utilized one avenue in his psychic repertoire to keep alive his life force, his very spirit, not unlike how many struggling American immigrants, unlike so many children of the fabulously wealthy, develop ingenious traits of industry and thrift. Interestingly, it is worthwhile to speculate that if he were a less creative child he might have lacked the flexibility and originality to keep himself alive so radically. Perhaps a less creative and independent boy would have allowed his mother full entrance to and use of his spirit – and become emotionally dead, straight, and average as a result.
I have had the chance to interview a man who made a conversion from gay to straight through psychotherapy. (I was not his therapist, and I have never worked with anyone who made a conversion on the level he claimed.) He told me that although he had had a couple of girlfriends as a teenager, he became fully gay in his twenties, and remained “out” and homosexually active – with a few different long-terms lovers and a lot of anonymous sex – throughout the subsequent two decades of his adulthood. He explained to me in detail that when he resolved his deeper issues with his troubled, invasive, and boundariless mother and his cold, rejecting father he felt less threatened by women, more emotionally safe being attracted to them – and also felt his sexual desire for men largely recede. He also attributed part of his shift to his deep and long-felt motivation to be in a straight relationship and have children. Interestingly, he told me that most of his gay friends were bothered by or didn’t believe his conversion – like he was a traitor to the team. Equally interesting is that he picked a troubled, emotionally invasive woman for a wife (who reminded me of his descriptions of his mother – and was also homophobic like his mother), reminding us that a shift to heterosexuality in and of itself is distinct from many other aspects of deep emotional dynamics.
But was he really even gay – whatever gay is – to begin with? And does his story speak for all gay people and their potential – or all straight people? Perhaps he was bisexual to begin with, or even far closer to the straight side of the continuum than conventional half-and-half bisexuality. Maybe he was only 2% gay, if such a quantification is even possible, yet because of the emotional torment he felt from his unresolved maternal issues he had to deny his straight side and live through his gay side. If this were the case, he certainly wouldn’t be the first person to live consciously through a minuscule sliver of his personality. In our society it is the norm to live one’s life all but unconsciously and in the shadows, sexually and otherwise.
I have also talked with many other people who shifted – or shift – sexual orientation. I know many women who have been in fully lesbian relationships, and then became seriously romantically involved with a man – sometimes for years – and then fell in love with a woman and went back to being an “out” lesbian. Although this can be difficult on such women, society, for any number of contradictory and sometimes overtly duplicitous and sexist reasons, is often more gentle on them than it is with men who make similar shifts, which gives women a little more flexibility to explore alternate relationships. Even the Nazis, who murdered thousands of gay men in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, undertook comparably little persecution of lesbians [Paragraph 175 (movie, from the year 2000), and see internet references below from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum].
But were these “shifting” women really bisexuals – as some even label themselves – or is this just a convenient label to describe a much more complex phenomenon? Some of these women have shared with me that they find different qualities attractive in the male versus the female objects of their interest. Interestingly, other of these women have told me that the men to whom they were attracted had many more qualities in common with the female objects of their attraction than the men did with most other men in society. And in reverse, the women to whom they were attracted had much more in common with the male objects of their attraction than they did with most other (unattractive) women. And it often wasn’t other overtly bisexual people who attracted them. It was other qualities.
Thus, a question I might have posed to one, having heard her story: “So what you’re saying is that you’re attracted to smart, insightful, educated, gentle, mildly submissive feminists, and it doesn’t matter so much if they’re men or women?”
Reply: “Exactly, oh, and I also prefer curly hair.”
And then there are people who make “surface” shifts of sexual orientation. Here I think immediately of straight men and women who become gay in prison out of convenience, subjugation, or acceptance, and then shift back to being straight upon release. Does this result from deep sexual inclinations in the personality that get forced out in a bizarre and hostile – or perhaps homosexually tolerant – environment, and then slip back below the surface when the environment changes? Or does it result more from deep loneliness and other ancient unmet needs that merely play out through the sexual lens in alienating surroundings? Perhaps it differs in different people, or is both in some people – or neither!
And then there are the “fully” straight and gay people who, if you put a little cocaine or even alcohol in their system, swing all over the sexual map – and will go to bed with anyone. I have heard these stories all too often, some recounted with shame, some with a shrug, and some with self-reflection.
And of course we cannot forget people who are fully “out” as either gay or straight, yet have never had a sexual encounter with a person of the sex of their choice except perhaps in masturbation fantasy or while dreaming – yet may have had a lifetime of experience with the object of their non-interest. Does this make them any less gay or straight? And do lifelong celibates suddenly have no sexual orientation? And does asexuality even exist, or it is just a mask for something deeper?
And then there are those who make a “full” shift of orientation – but “in name only.” Here I think of gay people who found seeming heterosexuality (and thus social and familial acceptance) through fundamentalist churches, cults, bigoted “reparative” therapy, and the like, though I usually only take their situations to be examples of the degree to which desperate people can dissociate under extreme social pressure – and split off from whole deeper sides of themselves, healthy or otherwise. Often a course of respectful and kind psychotherapy that dismantles the mental torture they experienced from the cruel heterosexist norm is enough to help them breathe a sigh of relief and reconnect with a more honest – and gay – side of themselves. And sometimes a simple dose of humane and nonjudgmental friendship is enough to break the spell.
One is only left to wonder about the motivation of the “professionals” and “leaders” who make it their mission to convert people to straight. Charles Socarides, the now-deceased psychiatrist who made his fame writing with conviction and authority about converting gay people, continually referred to gays as “neurotic” and “perverted” because of their “symptoms” (that is, their gay feelings and expressions). Interestingly, one of his five children, Richard, is gay and out of the closet (and, according to Wikipedia, was an advisor to President Clinton on gay and lesbian issues).
I can only imagine what kind of a father he was with Richard, especially considering lines he wrote such as the following, in which he instructs the reader, presumably an analyst like himself, on how to keep gay patients from quitting “reparative” therapy:
The analyst must not permit the [gay] patient to use his self-deceptive rationalizations as a threat to terminate treatment. Nor can the patient be permitted to belabor arguments that the analyst is biased against homosexuality and only interested in its eradication [Socarides, 1978, p. 420].
And should a Jew also not be “permitted” to quit his Nazi therapist because the Nazi believes he is not biased against Jews?
Socarides might have done the world more of a service had he instead empathized with his patients’ internalized homophobia, and questioned how that might have been motivating their self-hatred, sexual acting out, and therapeutic goals. Socarides’ main error, which is consistent with many in society, is his confusion of the immature behavior of some homosexual people with homosexuality itself. Is the essence of heterosexuality itself also pathological, perverse, and neurotic because some men go to female prostitutes, are promiscuous, are into kinky sex, or can’t maintain stable relationships? (Interestingly, Socarides himself was married four different times.)
Unfortunately, however, almost no one even looks at or talks about Socarides’ work anymore, because the whole subject he addressed – albeit with more bigotry and faulty assumptions than insight – is considered so politically incorrect as to be taboo and moot. But I learned a thing or two from him, though mostly about what not to do.
On the flip side, however, I have so much internalized political correctness in myself regarding the nature-nurture debate of homosexuality that it has blocked me from writing this essay for years, and has caused me a serious unease during this very writing process. We live in a world where it’s dangerous to talk openly about this subject at all, if only because so many have been damaged by the bigots’ misuse of it. In this vein, I have met no shortage of modern therapists and especially psychoanalysts, who, behind the scenes and when the cameras aren’t rolling – and in spite of all the “gay is healthy and great” publicly stated by their very own mental health organizations – still overlap with a point of view quite similar to Socarides…and whisper it confidently when they feel safe. What is ironic, though, is that the squelching of open dialogue, much as it does help protect against blind and overt pathologizing of gays, clearly stunts the lost theorists (and of course their gay patients), because it allows no fresh air or ideas into their hermetically sealed psyches. Criminalizing dialogue can never be anything but a temporary rest stop in a psychologically evolving society.
Meanwhile, the people who shift orientation on the surface remind me in some basic ways of gay people who live for years with little or no conscious awareness of their sometimes enormous homosexual side – and who marry, have children, and only learn of their buried sexual orientation in their twenties or thirties or forties – or beyond. I have even met some people who came out as gay or lesbian – and admitted their previous life had been a lie (often a lie to themselves first) – in their eighties! And of course there is the very true cliché of the gay person who is the last one of all his (or her) friends to know that he (or she) is gay. Denial, after all, is not just a river in (homophobic) Africa.
And then I have met people who were terribly sexually traumatized as children, which jarred, muddled, or even disjointed their perception of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. I think here of men who as boys were molested by men, and grew up to become men who are overtly straight in most ways – but then act out sexually, and often surreptitiously, with members of the same sex as a repetition compulsion of their traumas. Are they really gay? I certainly never felt they were, though of course it is confusing – often most especially to them – if they compulsively have gay sex. But I see the issue here as less about whether they are gay or not, and more, again, about the limitations of trying to fit any aspect of human experience into rigid, non-overlapping boxes. It’s the same with most psychiatric diagnoses: they really tell little about the essence of human experience and spirit, and instead serve no one except health insurance companies for billing purposes and limited therapists who can’t handle broad dynamics and need simplistic labels to comfort their denial. There is little more exciting for me than to work with a person labeled “schizophrenic” who has more reality-based insight into humanity and more passion to grow than do a thousand of his “healthy,” non-psychotic fellows.
Then there are others who were molested by men as boys but feel that they were gay before the molestation – and that the familial and societal alienation they felt because of their gayness made them susceptible to the abuse. (Some, however, deny the abuse as abusive, though I see that as a pain-protecting denial.) Many have shared that they feel the molestation didn’t affect their root sexual orientation, but instead just affected its expression (usually perversely – or with other drastic emotional consequences). Would they have “turned out” to be straight had they not been molested? Probably not, though I imagine their sexual expressions and their romantic relationships would have been a lot healthier. In fact, I could conceive, if only hypothetically, that in some cases a gay child’s molestations by someone of the same sex might have so turned him off to male-male sexual interactions that he found more comfort in being straight!
And then there are women who were molested by men and grew up to become lesbians. Were they homosexually oriented beforehand? Perhaps, but perhaps not – or perhaps yes AND no, if we hold to the inherent bisexuality theory. In that case we could conceive that the molestation just influenced their development toward what might otherwise, such as in a case of non-molestation, have become a latent pathway of their personality. And then there are women who were molested by men and grew up to become heterosexual – and even sexually compulsive with men. Or there are women who were molested by females yet grew up to become heterosexual – or some homosexual. Life is complex!
I sometimes wonder how different our conception of sexual orientation would be if overt homosexuality were the norm, and heterosexuality were pathologized, stigmatized, ridiculed, marginalized – and even criminalized. Imagine if parents sent little Johnny into therapy – or verbally abused him, ignored him, beat him, or threw him out of the house – because he came home telling his mother he had a crush on little Susie. Imagine if his mother told him that he was a pervert and a shame to the family and that he should be more like his “healthy” older brother Ralph, who had Jack as a boyfriend?
If this were the case I think we’d see a vastly different social structure, with a much huger percentage of men and woman displaying overt homosexual orientation, walking down the street hand-in-hand and kissing with no shame or hesitancy or awkwardness, and tormenting and even attacking the “queer” heterosexual “deviants” who lived in the marginalized shadows and struggled to consolidate their identities in a world that still labeled them as “illegal, immoral, and insane.”
Of course, my little paradigm shift doesn’t hold well, because one thing that so differentiates gay people from all other cultural groups, and even from cultural minorities, is that gay people (with a rare few exceptions) were raised by two parents who were different from them – that is, not overtly gay. Most whites were raised by whites, most blacks raised by blacks, most Asians by Asians, and most Latinos by Latinos. And in the rarer cases of fully interracial or cross-cultural adoptions (such as a black or Asian child adopted by a white family), the children who differ overtly from their adoptive parents often have a huge amount of work ahead of them in defining and consolidating their identity – especially if their parents have pathologized their difference.
Yet even so, would we be so surprised that these oft-hated and marginalized straights had lower self-esteem and risked all to escape to big cities to live in straight ghettoes? Would we be so surprised that these straights showed a heightened creativity and perspective because they had spent their lives thinking and living and surviving outside the box? Would we be surprised that a straight man who never left the old “gay” hometown and lived disguised in the heterophobic frontier hid his inner world from everyone and referred to his secret girlfriend in polite gay company as “my friend” and a woman referred to her secret boyfriend as “my roommate”? Would we be surprised if some percentage of pathologized straights drank or drugged themselves into oblivious or even committed suicide because acknowledging their heterosexual orientation was so loathsome to the gay parental voices internalized in childhood? Would we be surprised if a lot of these naturally straight people so despised their sexual orientation that they just buried their feelings and disappeared into acceptable homosexual relationships – and sued you for slander if you called them straight? Would we be surprised if some of these straight “perverts” went to “reparative” gay therapists like Socarides in a desperate attempt to work through their “neuroses” and achieve the Holy Grail of gayness? And would we be surprised if some percentage of the most self-hating straight people called themselves transgender, found clinicians to diagnose them with “gender identity disorder,” and undertook costly and dangerous genital reassignment operations (and took hormones) to make them look more like the homosexual ideal?
Of course, this last hypothetical is not so simple and perfect, because in reality, as opposed to in my artificial paradigm, there are – rarely – heterosexual men who do feel they are women trapped in male bodies and get sex changes and become lesbians. But they are a small minority of transgenders, and in my experience they have a whole different slate of complex psychological issues going on below the surface. And I have heard of biological males who feel they are actually women but are attracted to men, and then get a sex change and become “women” – only to find themselves attracted to…women! Other similar and seemingly illogical permutations exist, which shed a further light on how complex these dynamics can be.
So to conclude, I really can’t say it’s possible to ever be sure exactly what makes a person gay or straight – and what in fact gay or straight really even means. What of these terms and what of these feelings really are so fixed and concrete as to be objective – and even ultimately useful? What really lies buried our unconscious and guides our behavior? I believe it is possible to know these answers, and others like them – but clearly we still have a long way yet to go.
- Farber, S.L. (1981). Identical Twins Reared Apart: A Reanalysis. New York: Basic Books.
- Paragraph 175 (2000), movie, directed by R. Epstein and J. Friedman.
- Socarides, C.W. (1978) Homosexuality. New York: Jason Aronson.
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Persecution Of Homosexuals In The Third Reich
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C. Lesbians And The Third Reich
- Wikipedia: see Charles Socarides
- Wikipedia: see Richard Socarides