Gay versus Queer versus Heteroflexible…I don’t know

Writing forces us to sift through our thoughts in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. It pushes us to find the weak links in our logic, and leads us to reconsider positions we’d previously held with some confidence. If no one ever reads anything I write here, it’ll still be worth it. After all, I’m probably the chief beneficiary of this effort. So, it’s in that spirit that I’m writing this post, which is something of a further reflection on last week’s post.

After publishing last Friday’s post on what it means to me to be gay, I began to have doubts. I began to wonder whether “gay” is really the right word to capture what I wanted to say. In a certain sense, I think it isn’t. The term “queer” likely provides a more accurate description of how I’m trying to describe myself. Prior to the 1990s, we generally used the term “gay” to refer to people who experienced persistent (primary) and exclusive sexual attractions to members of the same sex. By contrast, we used the term “straight” to refer to people who experienced persistent and exclusive sexual attractions to members of the opposite sex. And “bisexual” referred to people who fell somewhere in between. We largely owe this one-dimensional approach to sexuality to Alfred Kinsey.

But by the 1990s, we largely came to reject Kinsey’s model as inadequate. Key reasons for its inadequacy include the following. First, it fails to account for the fact that many people experience no persistent sexual attractions to members of either sex. Many are asexuals, who experience no sexual attractions at all. Others are demisexuals, who experience non-persistent (secondary) sexual attractions, which tend to arise as fleeting responses to certain emotional or romantic attractions. Second, it fails to account for the role that non-sexual attractions play within a social setting. Sexual attractions rarely operate alone within the context of a social interaction. Emotional and romantic attractions also play key roles in determining whether sexual attractions ripen into certain desires.  Third, it fails to account for the social scripts that govern how we perceive, interpret, and act on various attractions. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we live in a world of limited social possibilities. People act toward things based on the meaning they ascribe to those things. And those meanings arise out of social interactions with others in society. Thus, within a given culture, a limited number of social scripts emerge  with which people can align themselves. Therefore, it’s difficult to analyze sexual attractions in any meaningful sense without giving weight to the social scripts through which people have learned to perceive, interpret, and act on those attractions. This is especially true when a particular script, such as the heterosexual script (described in the previous post), has come to monopolize the social space in which people move.

Therefore, starting in the 1990s, scholars rallied around the term “queer” to describe those who, for one reason or another, struggle to conform to the heterosexual script. The term “queer” caught on in scholarly circles…and nowhere else. In the popular culture, it went nowhere. In recent years, the notions embodied by that term have finally made their way back into the popular culture, but under a different name: heteroflexibility. In some ways, this new term encompasses many of the same notions as “queer,” but without appearing to pose as much of a challenge to the heterosexual script. After all, given a choice between “normal” and “queer,” most people would choose the former. Being “queer” just doesn’t sound like a very good thing to be.  But “heteroflexible” contains none of that negative freight.  After all, who would ever want to be “heterorigid”?

If I had to choose a term to describe myself, I’d probably go with “queer.” But outside of certain academic circles, that term seems to cause more confusion than it should. And “heteroflexible” is too novel a term to know precisely what it means. So, I went with “gay” because that’s the term that most non-heterosexual people use to describe themselves in our culture. I also wanted to make it clear that “gay” can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But I’ve reconsidered the wisdom of that choice. Even if those things that motivated my original choice are true (and they are), identifying as gay still places one within a world of limited social possibilities. That’s because the term “gay” also describes those social scripts that are most antithetical to the heterosexual script. So, in describing myself as gay, I can’t help but claim a social identity whose script includes some measure of express opposition to heterosexuality. And, in doing so, identifying as gay tends to lend undue credibility to heterosexuality. And that’s the beauty of a term like “heteroflexible”: It simultaneously makes peace with heterosexuality, even as it mocks it behind its back. And that’s probably a lot closer to the cultural space I inhabit.

I tend to think that heterosexuality gets a lot of things right. In the aggregate, it provides an efficient starting point for ordering society. But it should only be a starting point. And just because it’s efficient in the aggregate doesn’t mean that it’s efficient in every individual instance. Thus, the chief problem with the heterosexual script lies less with its utility and more with the rigid way in which we often apply it. In an ideal world, we would go back and undo the mess that Freud has bestowed upon us. But, as long as we’re living east of Eden, we really can’t go home again. So, the best course is to take the Freudian mess that’s become ours, and work to build more flexibility into it. That’s what I hope to explore here.

I considered renaming my blog “The Heteroflexible Calvinist,” but figured that that sounded a bit too trite.  So, at the risk of using a term that Millennials won’t understand, I’ve just gone with “The Queer Calvinist.” In a world of limited possibilities, this seems like the best option.

Being Gay – Identity, Orientation, Closets, etc.

For my first substantive post, I’ve decided to unpack what I mean by saying that I’m gay. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around what it means to be gay, both within the church and the broader culture. So, at the risk of coming off as pedantic, I want to offer some preliminary reflections. In particular, I want to distinguish between questions of social identity and questions of sexual orientation. After all, being gay isn’t just a matter of our biological dispositions. It’s just as important to think about how those dispositions map onto the culture around us.

The Invention of Heterosexuality

We think a lot about sexual orientation because we live in a cultural that believes that sexual orientation—particularly, heterosexual orientation—is important. But this wasn’t always the case. Granted, people have always desired sex in one form or another. Even so, they generally haven’t given much consideration to those desires when it came to understanding their place within society. For centuries, Westerners lived in a world where social identity was largely disconnected from questions of sexual orientation. That would all change with Freud. Starting in the late 1800s, we in the West gradually came to accept the Freudian notion that human flourishing requires the expression and satisfaction of heterosexual desire. And we came to accept that the source of that desire is a heterosexual orientation.  Thus, the notion of “heterosexuality” was born. From that point forward, being a heterosexual was synonymous with being emotionally and psychologically healthy. Sexual orientation emerged as the key indicator of social normalcy. And with that, the culture coalesced around a certain social script that gave credence to its newly discovered significance. In this post, I’ve referred to that social script as the “heterosexual script.”

According to the heterosexual script, each of us is naturally wired to perform one of two roles, which, depending on one’s sex, has certain expectations concerning the appropriate expression and satisfaction of our emotional, romantic, and sexual desires.  In other words, it assumes that the male-female sex dyad necessarily implies a corresponding masculine-feminine gender-role dyad, where each person’s emotional, romantic, and sexual desires are naturally expressed and satisfied by pairing up with a member of the opposite sex and conforming to the natural gender role for one’s sex within the context of the dyadic relationship.  There’s some debate as to how the details of this complementarity work themselves out.  Some, for example, would insist that the natural gender roles require the male to exercise patriarchal dominion over the female.  But others reject the necessity of patriarchy. Even so, there’s still general societal agreement on the core themes.

As we think about the heterosexual script, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. First, the heterosexual script is not just another way of describing opposite-sex marriage. Rather, it is a particular social script that places certain expectations on the roles a couple performs within a given marital relationship. Moreover, it views entry into such relationships as the natural course for “normal” adults. Anyone who fails to conform is a social deviant of one form or another. Second, the heterosexual script is a rather recent social innovation in the history of the West. Only within the past 150 years have we defined social normalcy (and, conversely, social deviancy) around the expression and satisfaction of heterosexual desire. Third, the heterosexual script is merely a social construct. For the past 150 years, this is the basis upon which we’ve ordered society and upon which we’ve assessed normalcy and deviancy. It wasn’t always so, and it need not always be so. Fourth, our culture is heavily invested in the heterosexual script. This script has garnered something akin to monopoly status. It’s the interpretive lens through which several generations of Americans have come to understand themselves and their place in the world. Entire institutions depend on the maintenance of this monopoly. As a result, those who challenge the heterosexual script will face resistance from certain quarters of the culture. Fifth, rational argument against such resistance is largely futile. People don’t defend heterosexuality because they hold detached, rational views of its propriety. They don’t even defend it because they believe it’s biblical (despite what they may say). Rather, they defend it because it’s central to how they understand themselves and their place in the world. They defend heterosexuality because they fear losing some benefit that its monopoly status confers upon them. Sixth, monopolies discourage meaningful social innovation, except at the far margins. Thus, non-heterosexual scripts that deviate strongly from the heterosexual script stand a higher chance of taking root and thriving, even if on a niche basis. That likely explains why the predominant gay script of the Stonewall era looked a lot like an inversion of the heterosexual script. Non-heterosexual scripts that appear more “normal” will face greater difficulty in taking root. As heterosexuality’s monopoly weakens, that becomes less true. Even so, those coming out of the closet need to keep this in mind. The more “normal” you are, the harder it’s going to be to find other people who are living out a non-heterosexual script that fits you well.  Things are improving, but this is still the case.

So, against this backdrop, what does it mean for me to say that I’m gay?  I’ve come to see this as a two-part question: the first part relates to orientation, and the second part to identity.

A Gay Orientation

The first part looks at biological disposition. This is the orientation part. I say that I have a gay orientation because I’m wired in a way that renders the heterosexual script unworkable for me, where the reason for that relates in some way to my having certain same-sex attractions that run afoul of that script. Such attractions are not necessarily reducible to same-sex sexual desire. The standard APA definition of sexual orientation refers to emotional, romantic, and sexual attractions. To perform suitably within the heterosexual script, all three of these attractions have to be directed to members of the opposite sex. For gay people, one or more of these attractions are directed to members of the same sex. Of course, that can play itself out in a variety of ways. I tend to be demisexual, which means that I experience no primary sexual attraction to members of either sex. Even so, my emotional and romantic attractions are directed almost exclusively to other guys. So, I identify as gay because I experience certain same-sex attractions—in my case, emotional and romantic attractions—that render the heterosexual script unworkable for me.

On this point, it’s worth keeping a few of things in mind. First, having a gay sexual orientation is not necessarily reducible to same-sex sexual desire.  In fact, many of us have no primary sexual attractions to members of either sex, and identify as gay based on our emotional or romantic attractions to members of the same sex. Second, gay people vary a lot. In fact, they vary a lot more than straight people. Being gay is not merely the opposite of being straight. It may seem that way for some gay people. But that’s not the case for most of us.  After all, there are more ways to depart from the heterosexual script than there are to conform to it. Third, for these reasons, it may take some work to find other gay people whose stories overlap with yours. You won’t experience instant comradeship with all gay people. In fact, that’s what struck me the most when I first came out: Gay people are really different from each other…and almost everyone seems to be different from me. Fourth, this orientational aspect of being gay is generally involuntary. People may experience certain degrees of sexual fluidity, especially if they experience sexual attractions only secondarily. Even so, these biological dispositions don’t shift much over time.  Fifth, there’s still a socio-cultural component. If the heterosexual script didn’t play such a significant role in shaping people’s identity within our culture, it’s likely that sexual orientation would be less important.  After all, it’s not too hard to imagine a world where one’s sexual orientation is no more important than eye color. But that’s not the world we inhabit at the present time.  So, we have to think about it.  And, because sexual orientation is so important to people in our culture, we have to think about it differently than we would otherwise.

A Gay Identity

The second part looks at social identity. This is an entirely different question from the question of orientation. Orientation focuses on one’s biological disposition and the disparity between that disposition and the requirements of the heterosexual script. Identity focuses on the particular social script that one elects to adopt. This is where the notion of the “closet” comes in. A “closeted” person is someone who has a gay orientation, but who nevertheless adopts a social identity that is complicit with maintaining the heterosexual script’s social monopoly. People stay in the closet for a variety of reasons. One reason is fear. But I doubt that that’s the main reason. In many cases, people stay in the closet because they just don’t see any plausible non-heterosexual social scripts with which to align themselves. It’s only within the past twenty years that a wider array of female non-heterosexual scripts has begun to emerge. We easily forget how radical Melissa Etheridge’s coming out seemed in 1993. And it’s only within the past five years that a wider array of male non-heterosexual scripts has begun to emerge. Plausibility is the key here. Most people will stay in the closet until they witness some critical mass of other like-wired people emerging from the closet and living out a social script that makes sense to them. I came out of the closet because the stories of guys like Justin Lee and Wes Hill resonated with me. I saw something that looked plausible, and I wanted to align myself with it.

And, as before, I’ll offer a few take-home reflections. First, there is no “gay lifestyle” and no singular “gay identity.” Sure, there was a time in the recent past when gay people were faced with a dichotomous choice between the heterosexual script and a gay script that centered around casual sex. That day has thankfully passed. As an increasing number of gay people have come out of the closet, a wider array of non-heterosexual scripts has begun to emerge. We can’t let other people define us. Take the time to explore and find something that makes sense to you. Second, we need to recognize that people stay in the closet for reasons besides fear. We can best address this situation by working to create a wider array of plausible non-heterosexual scripts into which people can reasonably fit. Third, coming out is a political act. It engenders resistance because the emergence of socially stable non-heterosexual scripts eats away at the monopoly the heterosexual script enjoys. Expect resistance. And expect it to be irrational. Fourth, take the time to assess what kind of social script may work for you. Too often we fixate on all the ways in which the heterosexual script doesn’t work for us.  Then, when we finally come out of the closet, we can feel a bit overwhelmed. We’d spent so much time thinking about who we’re not that we never gave enough attention to figuring out who we are.

Concluding Thoughts

This approach probably owes a bit more to queer theory than to older ways of thinking about being gay.  But I think it also reflects the emerging reality of what it means for people to say that they’re gay in North America in 2015.  It’s less about wanting to experience same-sex sex, and more about seeking a meaningful alternative to the heterosexual script. Sure, Grindr still has plenty of active users.  But the fraction of gays who conform to that script is decreasing every day.




A New Beginning

I started this blog a couple of years ago, shortly after coming out of the closet. I hoped that, by writing, I could come to a clearer self-understanding of what it meant to be a gay Christian. But after putting up a few posts, I came to realize that I had less to say than I expected. I had a number of thoughts swirling around my head. Even so, shaping them into a cohesive narrative posed a challenge. Realizing that I needed more time to sort life out, I took a hiatus.

Two years have passed.  I’ve read more, reflected more, and engaged more with gay Christians. There’s still a lot about being gay–and about being a gay Christian–that I don’t understand. There’s a lot about it that I’ll never understand. But in the past half year, I’ve settled upon a narrative that makes sense to me, and through which I’ve been able to organize my thoughts. So, I’m going to write again…in the hopes that my reflections may help others who are on this same journey.

As far as comments go, feel free to comment if you have some perceptive insight to offer. But I’m not looking for debate or to be a moderator of debates. I frequently work long hours and travel out of the country, so don’t be surprised if your comment takes a few days to appear.

Peace in Christ.