The Battle Beneath the Battle: Do Gay People Exist?

There’s a cognitive dissonance in our religious and political debates about homosexuality: it’s the only cultural struggle I can think of where one’s very existence is routinely denied by political opponents. African Americans have long had their humanity denied—but they are still seen, and recognized. Women’s rights and freedoms are again under attack, and their full equality is still denied—but no one doubts that women exist. Yet when it comes to LGBT people, our very existence is still, somehow, subject to debate.

This makes public debates over LGBT equality seem uniquely pointless, because the real questions are not the ones being discussed. For example, several states are asking should gays be allowed (or prohibited) to marry. But the real questions they are asking are deeper: Do gay people exist? Is sexuality simply a “lifestyle choice”; and if so, should it be rewarded or burdened by the state?

For a moment, I want to bracket the question of whether sexuality and gender identity are traits or choices, and assume for a moment that many (though not all) LGBT people experience them as the former: that is, as fundamental characteristics of what might be called the soul. I recognize that not every queer person feels this way. Studies have shown, for example, that women tend to experience their sexuality as more fluid and more likely to change over time than men do. I also recognize that, in some iterations of political liberalism, none of this should matter; it’s perfectly coherent to argue that the state simply should not be involved in regulating how people organize their intimate lives.

But I also want to recognize that, in my experience at least, whether or not one is “born this way” does seem to matter to a whole lot of people. For political as well as intellectual reasons, LGBT activists are loathe to base our rights on the latest scientific or pseudo-scientific data. This strikes me as wise. But as I talk about these issues with folks in the “movable middle,” I’ve noticed that the reluctant allies, semi-supportive family members, and more-or-less-convinceable moderates come to pro-gay conclusions for the reasons Lady Gaga identified: because gay people are born that way.

So it does matter, politically at least, whether sexuality is a trait or not. And here is where it gets weird. Because if that’s true, then what’s really at issue in our public debates about equality is my own subjectivity. I am telling my political opponents that I am gay. I didn’t choose it; I didn’t even want it, at first. But it’s as much a part of how I understand myself as being 6’1”, Caucasian, and male.

My opponent responds: no you aren’t. So what am I?

Well, the answers have shifted quickly over the last few decades. At first I was just a sinner. I indulged (or was tempted to indulge) in sodomy the way others are tempted to indulge in gluttony. Later, I was a psychological “invert”; someone with incomplete sexual-psychological development, and a dozen other varieties of psychological freak. But I was not what I said I was: a perfectly normal human being with a certain sexual orientation.

Today, even our opponents recognize this. The Catholic Church recognizes that homosexuality is a part of the human condition; albeit one which must be sublimated or repressed. Even in the “reparative therapy” and ex-gay movements, the rhetoric has shifted from promises of true conversion to heterosexuality, to promises of the ability to sublimate one’s desires into heterosexual expression. Ex-gay folks realize that almost no (male) clients actually stop feeling same-sex attraction. They just promise that one can work with it, live with it, and function sexually with a woman.

In other words, the only people who still say that sexuality is purely a choice are those who know nothing whatsoever about it. When you think about it that way it’s outrageous. I’m being forced to defend my subjective self-understanding to people who not only don’t share it, but who don’t even read objective books about it! I stand on the opposite sides of picket lines with people who deny that I am right about my own mind. They insist that millions of people are so deeply deluded about themselves that their own testimony must be disregarded.

Maybe, then, gay rights really are like civil rights after all. “Am I not a man and a brother?” asked Frederick Douglass. Which is to say: I experience myself as fully human. You, if you are listening to me, must hear and see that I am a human being. Yet our society denies my humanity, insists that while I am something close to a man, I am not quite one.

I hear myself saying something similar. Is this not love? Do I not know my own heart? Is my love not that of one human being for another? Not lust or perversion or sin, but love? When straight people really see gay people, when they allow themselves to look, they see that we are people, that our love is love. Similar in some ways, different in others, not necessarily better or worse—but real. We exist.

What I feel like we are still fighting for, in the places where our freedom is still contested, is neither rights nor freedoms nor any particular bundle of privileges, but some more fundamental, and fundamentally religious, human right that has only begun to be articulated: the right to self-definition, to say that I exist—and to be believed.

JayMichaelson&ltjay@nehirim.orggt'

Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.