The End of Gay?
Gay identity is destined for oblivion once homophobia is overturned.
"If homosexual activity persists on as large a scale as it does, in the face of very considerable public sentiment against it, and in spite of the severity of the penalties that our Anglo-American culture has placed upon it through the centuries, there appears some reason for believing that such activity would appear in the histories of a much larger proportion of the population if there were no restraints".
These words, written nearly half a century ago by Dr Alfred Kinsey in Sexual Behaviour In The Human Male(1948), encapsulate a profound insight that even most gay activists refuse to grasp and dare not publicly express: with less homophobia there'd be more homosexuality. By removing the social pressure to repress same-sex attraction, queer desire would grow and spread.
It is precisely for this reason that homophobes oppose the glamorisation of homosexuality and resist attempts to end the repression of gay people. They fear the increase in homosexual behaviour that would follow from a more sexually enlightened culture.
In this sense, contrary to what most gay rights campaigners claim, homophobia is not irrational. It's very logical. Homosexuality is tempting, which is why it has to be ridiculed, condemned and victimised. If queer sex was really unnatural and revolting, it wouldn't be denigrated and suppressed by the combined forces of parliament, police, press, pulpit and prison. There'd be no need for heterosexuals to trumpet their supposed normality and superiority, no necessity for them to proselytise on behalf of their straight way of life, and no reason for abrogating to themselves the exclusive legal right to marriage and the financial incentives that go with matrimony.
The huge resources invested by society in the promotion of heterosexuality infer that it is a rather dire, unattractive option that can only be sustained by endowing straightness with privileges and by handicapping the homosexual alternative with a mill-stone of disparagement and disadvantage. Indeed, the institutionalised social discrimination and public hysteria against homosexuality is a tacit acknowledgement of the pervasive appeal of queerness and the precarious nature of exclusive heterosexuality.
The idea that many more people might be gay-inclined in a gay-positive culture, which is basically what Dr Kinsey was arguing nearly 50 years ago, is now under challenge by the proponents of theories which posit that homosexuality is biologically predetermined by the existence of 'gay genes' and 'gay brains'. These theories cannot, of course, explain bisexuality or the experience of people who, suddenly in mid-life, switch from heterosexual to homosexual relationships (or vice versa).
While there might be biological predispositions - such as genes, hormones and brain structures - which influence sexual orientation, most evidence suggests that cultural values and peer pressure are the prime determinants.
The possibility that everyone is born with the potential to experience both same-sex and opposite-sex attraction is borne out by the anthropologists Clelland Ford and Frank Beach in their pioneering study, Patterns Of Sexual Behaviour(1965). They examined dozens of tribal-based societies all over the world, including many where homosexual relations were common and accepted. In some, all young men went through a period of homosexuality as part of their rite of passage to manhood, and then later switched to heterosexuality and got married. Ford and Beach concluded that human sexuality was predisposed to bisexuality and that a person's subsequent sexual orientation was largely the product of social learning and expectation: "Men and women who are totally lacking in any conscious homosexual leanings are as much a product of cultural conditioning as are the exclusive homosexuals who find heterosexual relations distasteful and unsatisfying. Both extremes represent movement away from the original, intermediate condition which includes the capacity for both forms of sexual expression".
These insights suggest that if society ended its favouritism towards straightness and its chastisement of gayness, same-sex desire would, since it is an intrinsic human potentiality, be much more widespread. This doesn't necessarily mean that a higher proportion of the population would be lesbian and gay. More likely, bisexuality would become the norm, and the prevalence of both exclusive heterosexuality and exclusive homosexuality would diminish.
A major consequence of defeating homophobia and winning gay acceptance is that the social differentiation between hetero and homo will no longer be important. Since one form of sexuality will not be deemed superior to the other, there will be no need to sustain separate, polarised sexual identities.
The labels hetero and homo will lose their relevance. No one will care who's gay and who's straight. This will create a whole new ball-game for the gay rights movement. There will be no need to assert gay identity because homosexuality will no longer be victimised and will therefore not have to be defended.
Gay identity has had (and at the moment still has) great value as a defence against compulsory heterosexuality. It is, however, a historically-transient, culturally-specific phenomenon which arises in response to the needs of a persecuted queer minority in homophobic societies. Once straight privilege disappears, the necessity to affirm gayness declines rapidly.
This questioning of the assumed mutually exclusive, unchanging nature of 'majority' heterosexuality and 'minority' homosexuality has a subversive flip-side: if everyone is born with the potential to be gay, then everyone equally comes into this world with the potential to be straight. That is the rubicon queers (and straights) have yet to cross. So many gay people love to say that inside every straight there is a queer bursting to come out. Few are prepared to admit that inside every homosexual there might be an element of repressed straightness. To concede this does not devalue same-sex attraction or collude with homophobia. It simply acknowledges the liberating truth that an individual's sexuality can potentially embody both same and opposite sex attractions.
The possibility of one day transcending the chasm between heterosexuality and homosexuality is not as fanciful as some imagine. It is, after all, a chasm created largely by homophobia. Once homophobia is defeated, the gulf between the two sexualities will narrow dramatically.
All that will remain are the physiological differences in the sexual acts, and even those are similar. Whether hetero or homo, the process of sexual arousal and orgasm is essentially the same. William Masters and Virginia Johnson highlighted this coincidence in their pioneering study, Homosexuality In Perspective (1979). Fourteen years of clinical research led them to observe that at the level of psycho-sexual functioning "homosexuality and heterosexuality have far more similarities than differences...The physical capacities of erection and lubrication and the inherent facility for orgasmic attainment...function in identical ways, whether we are interacting heterosexually or homosexually. When a man or woman is orgasmic, he or she is responding to sexual stimuli in the same basic physiological response patterns...regardless of whether the sexual partner is of the same or the opposite gender".
Whatever the precise cultural metamorphosis of sexuality in years to come, it is totally implausible that the contemporary configurations of homosexuality and heterosexuality will always remain the way they are now. The incidence and forms of sexual identity and behaviour are bound to change in the future, as they have changed in the past (homosexuality in modern-day Britain is vastly different from homosexuality in Tudor England, Ancient Greece and Imperial China). What will transform human sexual relations more radically than anything else is the process of winning lesbian, gay and bisexual freedom.
The present system of homophobia creates an antagonism between queer and straight. Overturning homophobia therefore creates the conditions for transcending this conflict. It ends the need for heterosexual oppressors and homosexual victims, and subverts the whole rationale for the cultural division between straight and gay, whereby one sexual orientation is valued and prioritised over another.
The more we succeed in asserting our human rights as homosexuals, the sooner the differences between heteros and queers lose their significance. With no social relevance, the differences between gays and straights no longer have to be policed. Sexual boundaries become fuzzier. The need, and desire, to label behaviour and people disappears. The end result of this erosion of sexual difference is the demise of distinct, exclusive and antagonistic identities. Bravo!
We queers are, it seems, destined to be the agents of our own salvation, and our own supersession. By the act of gay emancipation, we sow the seeds of the destruction of gay identity (and its straight counterpart). This, then, is the great paradox: queer liberation eradicates queers. But in the process, a new pluralistic sexual democracy, transcending the orthodoxy of gay and straight, at last becomes possible.
* Peter Tatchell is a contributor to Anti-Gay (Freedom Editions, £9.99). He is also the author of Safer Sexy - The Guide To Gay Sex Safely (Freedom Editions, £14.99), and We Don't Want To March Straight - Masculinity, Queers & The Military(Cassell, £4.99).
Thud, 11 July 1997.
An alternative version was previously published as "Gay's out", Chartist, November- December 1996
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