Thursday, February 7, 2008

Everybody Is Unique -- Except Me

What keeps me skeptical about “born gay” theories is that I’m not attracted to Men, that is, to males as a sex. I’m attracted to various individuals who happen to be men. I don’t say this to be coy, like the gay writers who claim that they’re not gay writers but writers who happen to be gay, because this is a distinction that makes a difference, namely that I’m not attracted to most men. Neither are most other gay men, as far as I know. I’m not talking about men whose lack of appeal most people might find obvious -- old, fat, ugly trolls like myself, for example; I’m talking about ordinary, healthy, guys-next-door whom most other men would find Hawt, even Totally Hawt. Yet they leave me totally cold.

I think this is true of most people: the people we’re attracted to are an island in an ocean of people we’re not attracted to. For many, this is a point of pride: a person has to have standards, you know! I get the impression that for many gay men, at least, “I’m attracted to men” means “Any male I’m not attracted to isn’t a man.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I don’t mean to harsh anybody’s buzz here. My point is that even for monosexuals – those of us who are attracted to people of one sex only – the basis of attraction doesn’t seem to be a person’s sex, but something more specific, something more personal.

Many born-gay advocates have no difficulty explaining this fact away. They postulate “sexual orientation” – which sex a person is attracted to – as a genetically programmed condition, the ground of sexuality as it were; which individuals a person is attracted to – his or her “type” – is something learned. (One gay man I used to debate online defined this latter category as a person’s “sexual preference,” though that is not of course how the term is generally used.) I think this begs the question. There’s no evidence that I know of to support the distinction, and it contradicts the main born-gay assumption/claim, that because we don’t remember having “learned” our desires, they must be inborn. This gets tricky when someone complains that other people are too shallow, and should open their minds to different types (usually the complainer himself) than the limited, narrow media images we are brainwashed to want, etc., etc. But men I’m not attracted to might as well be women for all the desire they arouse in me; why should I suppose that this is something I learned, rather than something inborn? And if I can be expected – or expect others – to change my inborn desire for one man instead of another by main force of will, then why can’t I be expected to desire women instead of men?

At the very least, we need an explanation of how our specific sexual attractions are “learned”, if they really are learned. I don’t expect an explanation anytime soon, of course, because those individual attractions aren’t generally seen as a problem, the way “sexual orientation” is. Language is a good analogy here, I think, because it’s certain that we learn the specific language we speak. Yet the fact that English, or Russian, is not innate doesn’t make it feel any less natural to us, and many people have prejudices about other languages, or dialects, or accents, that to me are very reminiscent of the (often hostile) incomprehension people have about others’ sexual attractions. (This might be a good place to mention that I’m similarly skeptical when researchers talk about a “gay accent” as a sign that homosexuality is inborn. Accents are learned, not inborn. For more information see Rosina Lippi-Green's English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States [Routledge, 1997].)

Of course, there are other theories of “sexual orientation.” I once read an interview with an elderly Chilean poet in Gay Sunshine, who recalled how in certain 1920s artistic circles, some men claimed that they loved men because men are inherently more beautiful than women. The poet considered this nonsense: a black panther, he reasoned, is more beautiful than either a man or a woman, but you wouldn’t want to go to bed with it.

Some lesbian-feminist writers in the 70s said the same thing: men are ugly, hairy, and gross, so of course women would rather make love to other women, who are beautiful and delightful. I’ve encountered straight men who agree – they can understand lesbianism, because women are beautiful, but who could love a dirty, hairy guy? Some even concede that they can’t understand female heterosexuality, for just that reason. Like the Chilean poet, I think this notion is absurd; but many people believe that sexual attractiveness is an objective, universal trait. When I first came out I spent a fair amount of time comparing notes on passersby with other gay men, and I quickly found that they liked men who left me cold, or even repulsed me; and of course they felt the same way about many of my choices. That experience makes me feel confident in asserting that sexual attractiveness is in fact subjective and personal. I believe that our attractions are learned (though not taught) or acquired, rather than something we’re born with – and I include the male-female divide known as “sexual orientation” in this belief -- but I also believe that we have a right to them, as idiosyncratic as they are.

In particular, I don’t believe that “sexual orientation” is determined, either by genes or by environment. (There should be snigger quotes around “environment” too, of course.) The first males I was attracted to, in first grade, were two other first-grade boys. Unlike many other gay men, I’ve never been interested in “princes” or “angels.” The appeal of Homecoming Kings has always escaped me. Those first boys came from families poorer than mine, but I was drawn by their vulnerability, not their toughness. (One had one leg in a brace, this being the 1950s, when polio was still a threat.) Miss Manners once wrote apropos school dances that “There is no such thing as a thirteen-year-old whose affections have been aroused by the charm of vulnerability.” Maybe not, but I was one, and I doubt there’s a gene for it.

So, maybe I’m totally unique? I doubt that too. One thing I learned early on as a writer was that when I spoke from my most weirdly personal experience, a surprising number of other people would feel that I was speaking for them too. And if enough other people recognize themselves in my account, then there’s a flaw in the concept of “sexual orientation” that needs to be thought about some more.