Understanding sexual orientation is important for all of us, and especially now as we approach the February referendum on the anti-discrimination law. It became a vital issue for me personally when someone in my extended family “came out” as a lesbian this past fall. Since there are 28 people in the three living generations of my family, since it isn’t surprising that, statistically, someone should be gay.
Still, it has shaken our family tree to its roots: sleepless nights, preach letters flying back and forth, anguished phone calls, and now an uneasy silence. We siblings of the middle generation are squared off, at war over the core issue: Is homosexuality a choice?
Is the offending person, swayed by the feminism and new-ageism of her western abode, rebelliously getting back at her parents, making an ill-considered but conscious choice to adopt a deviant lifestyle? Or is her inborn nature manifesting itself? “Coming out” is then an apt description: An aspect far more basic than the forebrain’s choosing this or that is becoming visible. How absurd and cruel, then, for anyone else to judge that natural process.
I feel presumptuous writing about being homosexual. You want to know? Ask someone who is. But the issue often comes to us unbidden, and since my own life has its lessons, I dare to presume.
I first began wrestling with the issue while living in Europe in a predominantly gay religious community. I sometimes felt myself the hold-out and thought I should just loosen up and switch over. But as the years passed and I remained “hopelessly heterosexual,” I began to wonder: Was this stubborn fact a result of homophobia — that socially conditioned fear or hatred of homosexuality? But, if so, why in three years of a different social context had it not diminished in the least?
Perhaps I was experiencing the hard rock of sexual orientation, a sort of inborn wiring which for many people is not amenable to change even over many years?
I concluded that the latter was true, and from there it was a short step to empathize with anyone who was being told to change this orientation. If someone told me I should be gay, I would be angry. Gays and lesbians must be equally affronted.
The decades since have blessed me with many friends who happen to be homosexual. How I wish some of my extended family could have the experience of these friendships. People often reort that they don’t know any homosexuals. I suspect that they do. Perhaps their bank teller, choirmaster, or favorite shopkeeper is quietly so. I suspect that the steady fraction of homosexuals, little changed in recorded history, impinges unknown on their lives.
This is the great gift which comes of ending discrimination and thawing our anti-gay social climate: As those invisible people become visible, we all discover that this issue is a non-issue. Sexual orientation is a fact, like the color of our eyes, noticeable but not a basis for judging character. We can add our homophobia to the dusty shelf of past fear-based isms: racism, sexism, and all the rest.
I have sometimes heard people recommend celibacy to anyone who feels same-sex attraction. Maybe we can’t choose our orientation, they say, but we can always choose not to act on it. Often those recommending this are well along in years! Celibacy is a great idea — for other people. Certainly, voluntary celibacy, one that comes from deep conviction, can yield a centered, devoted life. Religions throughout the ages have found this. But when it’s undertaken without full volition, without a heart-felt spiritual base, a celibate person is a person at risk. Something unexpected, perhaps worse than the original evil being avoided, will often manifest. An unwillingly celibate teen-ager suddenly become pregnant. An unhappy priest is convicted of abuse. A repressed society is unsafe by nature. We are safer with a wide field of choice. Those options might not be taken, but the freedom to follow one’s destiny makes for a more stable and contented population.
People sometimes say that choice or no, there should still be laws against homosexuality. In my view, law exists to protect the innocent, to set the stage for each to pursue happiness without harming others. When law goes beyond this vital but limited function, when it tries to legislate religion, even the religion of the majority; when it tries to legislate intimate personal choice; when it comes into our houses, bedrooms, even minds — then we have lost our direction. We have failed in that feisty experiment in nationhood begun so long ago. And ironically, we have re-created the oppression which initially brought many immigrants to this soil.
But seeing teh role of law in this limited way means having to put up with the rough-and-tumble of American life. I might despair of pornography on the Internet, the slowness of our legal system to convict, our lousy distribution of wealth. Another might wish that homosexuals would change their behavior. But amidst our groans, we must both be patient with our country’s slow but impressive evolution. We must be willing to live in a pluralism, tolerant of a social diversity which is often uncomfortable. This is the pricetag of our own deeply-valued freedom.
Jory Squibb of Camden is a free-lance writer.