12 Things You Should Know, Even After Obergefell V. Hodges: An Essay by Julie Marie Wade
I came out when I was twenty-two years old. Unlike many gay people, I did not present my sexual orientation as a fact about my identity prior to or separate from meeting my life-partner and future spouse. Rather, meeting her made certain truths about my life and future undeniable.
For a while, it was easier to say “I love a woman” than it was to say “I am a lesbian.” I feared—and not without cause, it seems—that many people would dismiss a declaration of homosexuality as purely hypothetical, the proverbial phase. I hoped—and I have continued hoping all this time—that the presence of a real flesh-and-blood human being with whom I was making a life would soften social prejudice toward us.
Perhaps if people thought they didn’t like gay people, they would reconsider when they saw two self-professed gay people in love. Who doesn’t like a love story? I reasoned.
As it turns out, there is no unanimous, affirmative response to this question.
My beloved and I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Washington State in the summer of 2003. We had been together for one year. During that year, though it was the fabled New Millennium, though the Pacific Northwest is routinely touted as a liberal place, we lost more people from our past than we retained. We were in love, and yet, it was also the loneliest time in our lives.
This is not to say that we didn’t meet some extraordinary people, of all orientations, who have affirmed us as individuals and as a couple, who have valued us as whole people, neither to be tokenized for our “difference” nor to be recuperated to heterosexuality. In fact, we have continued to meet such people in the five states and thirteen years of our shared residency. I continue to believe they exist everywhere.
This is to say, however, that I have been carrying around a list, printed by my own hand, for more than a decade now—an anonymous list posted on a basement door in one of the buildings at Carnegie Mellon University, where my partner and I found temporary and later full-time work in Pittsburgh.
I kept the list pending a time when its contents would be recognizable as common knowledge. Then, I resolved, I would throw it away. But even following the June 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, I have encountered some pernicious examples of homophobia that shake my faith in progress, or at the very least, validate my fears of a conservative backlash following nationwide marriage equality.
I present the original list here with my own commentary, hoping that it reaches an audience far broader than the few faculty, staff, and students likely to have passed it in that remote place on campus those many years ago:
12 Common Misconceptions Concerning Homosexuals
- We have a choice.
This one is tricky because we do, in fact, have a choice. Everyone does. Fear of social judgment is pervasive, and not just for gay people. If you think about it, most books and films explore straight lives, yet one of the dominant conceits in novels and narrative cinema is forbidden love. Love across classes, races, generations. Love between members of feuding families. Remember Romeo and Juliet? People can choose to follow their hearts. They can choose to lie about who they love. As gay people, we have a choice about staying in the closet or stepping out of it, but it isn’t a single step. It’s an endless staircase of disclosures and clarifications.
The reasons I love the woman I love are as complex and mysterious as the reasons any man loves any woman or any woman loves any man. Even the gendered language here is limiting. All love between human beings is complex and mysterious, period. Speaking about love in terms of choice is pointless. Defending homosexuality as a non-choice is equally so. But what we do with love, and what we do with self-knowledge—what I hope for all of us begins in love—is a choice that every human being makes, not once but over and over again. It is also a perennial choice for every couple that decides to venture out into the world together, united but not the same.
2. We want to sleep with you.
In 2015, this generalization continues to thrive, but I’m not sure how invested I am in negating it. The premise is silly. Aren’t women in this culture taught from girlhood, by means both explicit and implicit, to make themselves desirable to men? Even women who self-identify as lesbians now were once impressionable youths and presumed heterosexuals. I certainly was. My mother wouldn’t let me leave the house, even for a jog around the neighborhood, until I “put my face on.” In high school, I ran cross-country races in full paint because of this mandate.
Regardless of their relationship status, I often hear fully grown straight women talk about attention they receive from men. Clearly, attention from some men is more desirable than attention from others, but being desirable often seems to be an end in itself. The implication is that if a man wants to sleep with you, even if you have no interest in sleeping with him, you, the woman, the object of desire, must be doing something right.
So even if you’re straight, even if you’re married to a man, what difference does it make if a woman wants to sleep with you? You can’t control that possibility, and chances are, you can’t be sure who desires you or how. Desire, too, is complex and mysterious.
If being desired is flattering when the admirer is a man, why is it any less so when the admirer is a woman? Be flattered. Or be indifferent. But if you’re offended, consider the reasons. The fact that you’re “not into women” isn’t an excuse for the denigration of women who are and those who return their affections.
3. One is the male, & one is the female.
When I told my mother I had a lesbian professor in college, I was bragging. I felt so proud of my teacher. She was out. She knew who she was. I recognized in her something I couldn’t yet name for myself, but it wasn’t just a matter of sexual orientation. It was a matter of authenticity. She was leading an authentic life, and I wanted to lead one, too.
My mother was horrified. Why did I know this about my professor? Disclosures of heterosexuality had never bothered her. In fact, when I mentioned other professors’ different-sex spouses, pregnancies, or grown children, she seemed reassured. These people might be a bunch of “godless academics,” but at least they were not “unnatural” when it came to their personal lives.
The next question she asked was the real stunner. My mother wanted to know if my professor was the “woman or man” in her relationship?
“I think they’re both women,” I said. “That’s kind of the thing about being lesbians.”
For a long time, I thought this question and its variants had to do with socially constructed gender roles. My partner and I have been asked by many straight couples how we divvy up the domestic workload. I always ask how they divvy up theirs. Since I hope we can all agree that nothing makes a man innately more suited to lawn-mowing, or a woman innately more suited to vacuuming, I respond to the question as if it’s innocent—which perhaps, at least some of the time, it is. You have a home together. You own stuff. Stuff breaks. Stuff gets dirty. How do you manage it? Also: You have to eat. Presumably, you like to eat together. How do you make your meals happen?
But I think the question is actually about male and female after all. It’s an anatomical question disguised as a gender performance question. And in point of fact, it isn’t really a question at all. If you’re asking it, or you’re thinking it, you are wrestling with your own discomfort concerning who does what to whom in a private, sexual context that is none of your fucking business. I mean this both literally and figuratively: none of your fucking business.
Do you think without being told that you know what your heterosexual friends do and don’t do in their private, sexual lives? Do you think that you should? Homosexual expressions of desire are not a simulacrum of heterosexual ones. I would hazard a guess that the human sexual landscape is more diverse than anyone could ever imagine and that very little of this diversity is ultimately decided by the ratio of people to parts.
Also, as my former best friend once pointed out to me with her tearful “your love can never make a baby,” I’d like to declare on behalf of all homosexuals everywhere that we do understand that our sexual acts—“love” is not the appropriate word here, even as I have been known to enjoy a romantic euphemism—are not procreative in and of themselves. We are aware. We realize that you also are aware. If your intention has been to conceive a child every time you expressed sexual desire toward a member of the opposite sex, then perhaps there is more of a discrepancy in our experiences than I had heretofore imagined. If not, then please stop restating or implying the obvious.
While these are not the catchiest t-shirt slogans, I realize, they are axiom-worthy nonetheless: Biology is not destiny. Variation is not mutation. Anatomy is not metonymy. Et al.
In other words, not one of us is reducible to our bodies, and not one of us is extricable from them either.
4. We want to convert your child.
Seriously. We don’t.
I’d like to leave the matter here, but I don’t think that’s possible. The most insidious prejudice toward gay people that I have encountered to date is the notion of a need to protect children from them. The second most insidious prejudice toward gay people is the notion that children cannot be them.
I’m always astonished when people begin matchmaking their children with the different-sex children of their friends. I’m always astonished when they make any presumptions about their children’s romantic futures at all. Often, the children in question are still wearing onesies, unable to support the weight of their own heads, the world before them still blurry and upside-down.
Let’s see if any of these lines sounds familiar to you:
“Little Johnny can take little Sarah to Homecoming someday!”
“Leilah is going to drive all the boys wild!”
“Look at his lashes! Zachary is quite the ladies’ man already!”
I know, I know, I know. It’s just talk. It’s harmless, right? Until Little Johnny is a teenager who wants to take Zachary to the prom, and his parents are beside themselves with disappointment, grief, outrage, and fear.
But suppose Johnny’s parents aren’t churchgoing conservatives. Suppose they donate to progressive causes and lean left of center on most issues. Suppose they support same-sex marriage even. Suppose they have gay friends at work, a gay uncle who visits during the holidays.
They’re “OK” with gay people in particular contexts, and they’re “OK” with gay people as a concept. Homosexuality is the new physics to them. That is, Johnny’s parents know homosexuality is real and complex. They admit they don’t “get” everything about it, but they think it’s fine…in theory. They just don’t want to study it too closely. And they definitely don’t want a physicist among their offspring.
To speak of any sexuality in terms of conversion is ignorant. But to speak of a particular person’s sexuality in presumptive terms—that this child or that child must be straight unless something alters her or damages him—delays our progress toward a genuinely inclusive world. How can Johnny’s parents empathize with Uncle Robert’s dating woes, then not let Johnny take Zachary to the dance?
“Uncle Robert makes his own decisions. He’s a grown man. But we’re not going to let our son go down that path…”
Everyone suffers in this scenario, including Uncle Robert.
5. We hate straight people.
We don’t hate you, but we don’t trust you either—not completely, not across the board. How could we?
Many of us—the vast majority, in fact—were born to straight people and/or raised by them. We know you because we are of you and because we have been, by and large, expected to become you. We have been assumed, always already, to be you.
Some of us have watched the people who loved us first, who promised to love us most and best in this world, abandon that love to fear and shame. More alarming still, many of us have been taught to follow our hearts and embrace our most authentic selves by the same people who would later wish us otherwise, or not at all.
I’m haunted by a line from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet. It’s a fragment, like a piece of cloth torn on chicken wire. I don’t recall what precedes or follows it, but the line is this: “the culture’s pervasive wish that gay people not be.”
I know there are some gay people wishing against their truth every day. I feel their sorrow. But where did they learn to fear the self, to hate who they are and who they might become?
From a culture that wished for their “normality,” their “conversion,” their “rehabilitation,” and worst of all, their “eradication.”
I know because I have been a prodigal child. I have been a lost cause. I have seen my parents crestfallen and confused at the thought of my life now. I know they cannot love me as they once did. My “difference”—this particular one—is unforgivable and unredeemable to them, even as it is also the root of my greatest happiness, my most enduring joy.
What I fear now are the disillusionments I cannot predict—the new acquaintance who makes a startling discovery about me, whose demeanor changes mid-sentence; or the old friend who looks me up, secretly hopes I’ve “come to my senses.” Worst of all is the friend of any duration who believes she can love me around this fact, like overlooking a blemish on the nose. Like homosexuality is something that might still “clear up” on its own.
What if everyone I think I know, think I trust, would rather I were heterosexual, would prefer it if I were? It is too painful to speculate, and yet sometimes I do.
Just last week at the gym, I heard a man ask a woman standing near me if the spin teacher was a lesbian. My first thought as I eavesdropped: why does it matter? Upon learning that the teacher is in fact married to a man, the inquirer sighed, palpably relieved. “My wife is convinced she isn’t into guys. This will make her so happy!” he exclaimed.
I should have turned around and declared myself aghast. “Why?” Why was the heterosexuality of the teacher so important to them? Why was confirmation of her heterosexuality an occasion for relief, even delight? I should have made him tell me. But I didn’t want to hear the answer because I am the answer. It was my name he was using in vain.
- We all have good taste.
I think this is one of those gendered stereotypes about homosexuals that mostly pertains to men. Gay men are presumed to have good taste. Lesbians, as I understand it, are presumed to have none.
I can confirm that I have moderately bad to terrible taste and that I couldn’t care less whether this fact challenges a general stereotype about gay people or whether it ratifies a more particular stereotype about lady-gays like me.
Here’s what I actually care about: Homosexuals have long been associated with the beauty, fashion, and style industries. For many straight people, famous and otherwise, “looking good” involves recruitment and employment of a gay sensibility, even if that sensibility is never explicitly named. Many have profited from the gay sensibility, personally and professionally, socially and romantically, without ever giving a thought to the lives lived or the injustices faced by the people who made them “pretty” and “popular”—who, in some cases, made them possible.
Now Anita Bryant comes to mind. Her name arises, involuntary as a shudder. How many “gay sensibilities” do you think guided her to the title of Miss Oklahoma, to the brand ambassador for the Florida Citrus Commission? How many gay hands teased that hair, painted those lips, curled those lashes? Think what the stylists overheard in that salon. Think what they endured.
Bryant is an extreme example of an anti-gay crusader who wielded, in her moment, significant social clout. She’s the perfect storm of celebrity and bigotry to illustrate my point, but the fact is, there are plenty of little squalls all around us. Think of ordinary straight people getting their hair done by ordinary gay people. This isn’t oppressive in and of itself. In fact, the clients in question might be quick to tell us that a quality haircut these days (read: with a gay sensibility) “costs an arm and a leg.” The clients are paying for it—a fair price at least, perhaps even an inflated price. Isn’t another frequent stereotype that gay people always do well financially, that “gay” and “gentrified” are virtual synonyms?
Now the television series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy comes to mind. Five self-identified gay men, collectively deemed “The Fab Five,” help straight men—and eventually women and other gay men—raise their aesthetic standards for themselves, their homes, and their relationships. The television show cashed in on the gay-male/good-taste stereotype with big money, high ratings, and an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004. I saw it a few times and was not particularly inspired. Of course I’m not the target demographic either.
I keep thinking back to our lovely hypotheses, Johnny and Zachary. Let’s say they skipped their prom and went on to make a life together after high school. Let’s say in their early thirties, they opened a salon in Miami. They’ve been together eighteen years now. They’ve made hundreds of brides look camera-ready on their wedding day, while year after year, they’ve filed their taxes separately, remained business partners only in the eyes of the law.
Maybe they’ll get rich, or maybe their salon will fail, or maybe they’ll struggle, like most people do. But the love story at the center of their lives will be eclipsed in service of other love stories. It will be as if, for all these years, they’ve been decorating for that prom, and cleaning up after that prom, and daubing the mascara of all the girls who ran crying into the bathroom at that prom, without even once being permitted to dance.
- We have no family values.
Four months ago Obergefell v. Hodges granted all couples in the United States the right to legal marriage. To extend our metaphor, everyone now has been invited to the prom. What will happen as more and more same-sex couples begin to show up, to take their nametags and sign the guestbook, to become visible as more-than-roommates, more-than-friends—and with the public documents to prove it?
One dominant fear that has fueled this debate for years is the idea that gay people, once included in the institution of marriage, will “redefine” it, which sometimes seems a euphemism for “destroy” it. Can a wedding cake with two brides or two grooms perched at the summit still be called a “wedding cake”? Can you even have two brides or two grooms when each one has been understood to exist in relation to an opposite other?
And the greatest gator of all in this deep, semantic swampland: can such asymmetrical arrangements of sex and/or gender ever truly constitute a “family” in the cultural consciousness?
This original list was written to prompt the response, “Of course gay people have family values!” It was intended, I imagine, to inform or at least to remind its readers that some of us do in fact want to marry. Some of us do in fact want to raise children. In other words, We are not so different from you. In still other words, We have [some] normal desires, too.
But in my view, it is far more urgent to address the notion—a notion not always voiced but always lodged insidiously in the culture’s throat—that gay people have no family value.
For a variety of complex reasons, many people do not want or choose to marry, do not want or choose to raise children. Often, these individuals are badgered in social gatherings about “getting out there,” “finding the right person,” “settling down,” “tying the knot,” “starting a family.” Women in particular seem to bear the brunt of comments like “your father can’t wait to walk you down the aisle” and “your mother wants to be a grandma so much she can taste it”—as if it’s bad enough that a woman has fallen out of sync with the social clock, deliberately or otherwise, but now she is also inconveniencing others by this demonstration of her autonomy.
Within most families, if the proverbial black-sheep child or odd-bird child is heterosexual, failure to propagate the traditional patterns of the family may be treated as a matter of “not yet.” He’ll come around. She’s taking the scenic route. This kind of talk. As much as I hate to hear and see the devaluing of any individual—the son in his own right isn’t enough without a wife, the daughter in her own right isn’t enough without a child—there’s something I hate even more: the devaluing of the gay family member whose presence will never be enough, can never be enough. And if he or she arrives with partner in tow, even with a legally married spouse, the outcome is only further diminishment.
Which is to say: In retributive math, 1 + 1= 0.
Which is to say: In families like these, what is gay is not valued, and who is gay is never valuable.
I have been this gay child, and I have been this gay child’s partner, this gay child’s spouse. I have disappeared from pictures because my presence was too difficult to explain. My beloved has disappeared from pictures for the same reason. Once, my sister-in-law, ever committed to what is right and true, photo-shopped me into her brother’s wedding portrait. I had attended the ceremony but could not be acknowledged as belonging to the family.
Which is to say: I, and many others like me, have been stricken from records, have been written out of stories, have been reimagined as “friends of the family,” “casual acquaintances,” “just someone your Aunt So-and-So knows”—disguised so as not to destroy.
Which is to say: We have been stricken.
- We cannot control our sex drives.
Who among us hasn’t heard someone say when referring to gay people, “I don’t care what they do behind closed doors”?
I want to say, “So why are you even bringing it up?” Why are you contemplating what might be done behind closed doors long enough to come to the conclusion—or at least the public declaration—that you don’t care? This statement doesn’t make you sound hip, laidback, or progressive. It makes you sound complicit with straight culture’s Peeping Tom complex, the one which purports to cover its eyes while straining to see through the slats of its fingers.
Part of the implication here touches upon what I wrote earlier—the cultural obsession with anatomy—the false belief in anatomical opposites—the fixation on who does what to whom?—but it’s more than that. It’s the seemingly intractable assumption that gay people are especially or remarkably sexual (read: abnormally sexual), that we are preoccupied with sex to a greater degree than people who are not gay.
From this view, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to accusations of perversion and predation. For some, these words are already synonymous with homosexuality. For others, there’s merely a general, unexamined, but omnipresent sense of gay people as more prurient, more salacious, more—
I once overheard a stranger articulate it this way: “I don’t want to say promiscuous, but—” (sigh) “—I guess any word I’d use would mean promiscuous, wouldn’t it?”
Is homosexuality really all about sex? Are homosexuals this reductively represented in the straight imagination, and sometimes in the queer imagination, too? What about the gay person who answers “no, I’m not sexually active” on the doctor’s office questionnaire? Is she immediately suspect? Will his gay card be confiscated if he doesn’t cop to a wild and relentless fantasy life—at least?
The word “orientation” has become precious to me in recent years, as I’m convinced it holds the linguistic potential to widen the scope of our viewing lens. Instead of treating homosexuality as a tally sheet of sexual conquests, actual or imagined, “orientation” might invite us to consider all sexualities as expressions of complex and mysterious personhood, not reducible to what any of us does behind closed doors.
Phenomenologists have provided the generous and panoramic phrase, “a way of being in the world,” for which I consider orientation a synonym. Orientation asks: How do we situate ourselves in the social landscape? What do we notice most? Who are we drawn to first? By what language, gestures, interests, and skills do we best express our most authentic selves? Patterns of attraction are only a fraction of all that orientation includes.
I say this not as an apologist for homosexual desire or its many varied and valid forms of consummation. Rather, I say this as a critic of the heteronormative insistence that a “gay experience,” let alone the “Gay Experience,” can be demarcated as a purely sexual one. From isolating libido, it’s a surprisingly short step to parsing identity. In fact, paradoxically, it’s the hypersexual homosexual fallacy that gives rise to the idea that, “without the sex,” we’re all just heterosexuals. Or that what makes me gay can be left behind like a slip in the bedsheets.
Take it off! Take it off! somewhere a little chorus is always crying.
- We are not entitled to equal rights.
After Obergefell v. Hodges, I held my breath for one week, two weeks, three weeks. I could feel the cramped octopus in my abdomen desperate to stretch after so many years of clenching. I was legally married, I told myself. No one could contest it anymore. My partner and I were free to travel anywhere in the United States and have our union recognized. We could relax at last, knowing that we were as married as anyone else. I took a cautious breath and then another. Slowly, the eight tentacles of anxiety began to uncoil.
After one month of marriage equality, I affixed a LOVE WINS sticker to my car. I wrote a cheerful note on our kitchen chalkboard, commemorating the anniversary. Is this what they mean by letting your guard down? Without a sentinel in sight, I checked my inbox. Smiling, I clicked on a message from my friend, another in a long chain of correspondence regarding the visit I was making to his college in the fall. All arrangements had been made: my ticket purchased, my paperwork completed, my bio and author photo passed along.
I tried to wipe away the water from the screen before I realized it was seeping from my eyes. The physical reaction came first, and then my comprehension, lagging. It took a long time for me to understand that I was crying.
There was a problem with my bio, my friend said. The problem wasn’t his, and he was so sorry. The order came from higher up. He had just left a meeting where the higher-ups instructed him to write to me. You see, at the end of my bio, I mentioned my spouse. Before I could call her my spouse—before we were legal—I mentioned my partner. Always. I did so by name. I did so in print. I did so on principle. I acknowledged her because I love her and because I love who we are together. Our life is the light I will not hide under a bushel—which, for the record, is the only song I have carried with me from Vacation Bible School. I have innovated a bit, of course, with the context.
Yes, I was legally married to Angie Griffin. We could visit each other in the hospital. We could cover each other on our insurance plans. We could draw each other’s pensions. We had achieved our “equal rights,” and yet, an accredited American college in the first state to legalize same-sex marriage—the ironies here abound—was insisting that I remove any reference to my same-sex marriage from my biographical materials before I made the journey to their campus.
The explanation proffered was this: The school was Catholic in its affiliation. It could not officially endorse relationships like mine. My marriage flouted the Catholic sacrament of marriage, the Catholic understanding of marriage. On my own, as a person, I was fine. I could come. Some version of love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin, I suppose. I could read to the students and answer their questions about writing, about teaching. But my marriage—my open declaration of my marriage—put them in a tight spot. One of the administrators told my friend she had googled me, she had even read some of my work. She thought I had talent. She was sure I was a very nice person. But announcing myself in print as a gay person, that identity made firm and indisputable by the fact of my marriage to a person of the same sex…It was too big a liability. The bishop might get involved. He had before when an out soldier visited the school. If I would just please consider omitting any reference to my spouse. Couldn’t I be married without naming that person as the woman she was? Couldn’t I just be tight-lipped about it all for forty-eight hours?
No, I couldn’t.
They would still pay me an honorarium. They would still take me out to dinner. People would buy my books and ask me to sign them. I could put it all behind me, let bygones be bygones, just pretend.
But no, seriously, I couldn’t. Just ask the octopus fortifying itself in my gut.
- We are all alike.
Do you remember as a child being told some version of the snowflake story? It’s the secular alternative to the “Jesus Loves the Little Children” song.
In my Christian preschool, we sang these words every day:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world,
Red, yellow, black, and white,
They are precious in his sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
The diction isn’t politically correct, but I still appreciate the spirit of inclusivity my teachers were hoping to inculcate in us. Even though all the children I knew in my suburban Seattle youth were white, the song suggested that human beings varied in their skin color—shorthand, I’m sure, for their ethnic heritage and national origin and racial identification, et al.—but the important thing to remember was that human beings were equal in their value. Now of course all human beings aren’t religious, and they don’t all believe in Jesus, so the song begins to fall apart in terms of inclusivity after that.
Maybe the snowflake story is better after all. First, we learned how many different words there were for snow in the Inuit language. Snow wasn’t just snow, wasn’t just a lump sum of soft, uniform whiteness; it was comprised of countless, individual snowflakes, and each one was special, unique, induplicable. Then, we made snowflakes in class to illustrate this idea, folding and cutting an ordinary piece of paper to reveal as many different patterns as there were students in the class.
This was a simple but formative analogy for me: Human beings shared their basic humanness in common the way snowflakes shared their basic snowiness in common. But each one was different from the others, too. Human beings varied in their shapes and sizes and colors and genders and family histories. Over time, I realized they varied in terms of native languages and religious beliefs and socioeconomic status and educational experiences. But why did it take me so long to realize just how much variation there was in sexual identity?
In other words, no one ever said, “There are gay snowflakes, too.”
I was raised to believe that part of that basic humanness we all shared was heterosexuality. No one named it outright in my childhood, but they nodded toward it every day. I was always told about my future husband, my future children, the boys who had noticed me, the boys I should be noticing. All the snowflakes were straight, according to the mythmakers of my youth. There was one, and only one, essential human orientation.
By high school, I knew there were gay people, but I didn’t understand that I could be one of them—certainly not without forfeiting everything I had been told made me special and unique and induplicable. I’m embarrassed to admit how long it took me to realize that straight people aren’t the only ones who get to be dynamic and complex. Well into my twenties, some part of me still pictured an assemblage of multi-faceted and wholly individual straight people on one side of a cyclone fence, and on the other, an indistinguishable mass of gay people—their lump sum of soft, uniform gayness.
Hadn’t we learned in math about variation within groups as well as between groups? How had I come to perceive homosexuality as a singular variable within a uniform set? And was this why, in retrospect, it was so hard for me to claim my orientation by name—as if by saying “I am a lesbian” I was also implicitly conceding “I am only a lesbian” or, more precisely, “A lesbian is only one kind of person”?
Why did it take me so long to realize that not only are gay people as intricate, elaborate, and curiously contradictory as straight people, we are also not likely to be gay, or to come to this self-identification as gay, for the same reasons?
My sexuality, as it turns out, is a carbon copy of no one else’s—not in origin, not in expression. The gay snowflakes have always been here, as diverse across every spectrum of humanity as our heterosexual counterparts, as our bisexual counterparts, as our transgender counterparts…and so on, and so on, happily ad infinitum.
- We are all into leather or feathers.
Even this list of common misconceptions about homosexuals is too preoccupied with sex for my taste, too consequently narrow in scope. Take this statement, for instance, which seems to want to reassure the heterosexual majority that not all gay people are “kinky.” Flip it around: We’re not all into leather or feathers. (Feel the urgency here—Really! We promise!)
Well, of course plenty of heterosexual people are into leather or feathers. That’s the first, hopefully obvious point to make. Kink, BDSM, role play, the sex-positive movement in general—none of these terms or forms of expression belongs to gay people. None of these practices are inherently, let alone exclusively, gay. (And of course I could say, and would be justified in saying, So what if they were? Back to the dominant culture’s obsession with what goes on behind closed doors…)
This statement does illustrate, however, my aversion to the phrase “sexual preference.” There are countless sexual preferences that extend vastly beyond the person or people any one of us prefers to have sex with, and sexual preferences, in and of themselves, do not offer a sufficiently complex or complete portrait of any human being. Preference strikes me as only one sliver of orientation, only one detail of a manifold human painting, one splash of color in the multifarious gallery of human paintings.
My regrets to all the straight people who feel more comfortable (read: less intimidated, less judgmental) of the gay among us who aren’t kinky and who hasten to reassure them of this fact. But my regrets also and equally to all the gay people who feel more comfortable (read: less intimidated, less judgmental) of the gay among us who are kinky and who hasten to reassure them of this fact.
I don’t recall signing any paperwork outlining conditions for my membership in the homosexual community, any more than I recall signing any paperwork for my tolerability by the heterosexual community. You must do this to belong, or you mustn’t do that to get along.
Let me put it this way: In college, I used to listen to the folk singer-songwriter, Ani DiFranco, and one lyric of hers has stayed with me for nearly two decades: “If you don’t ask the right question, every answer feels wrong.”
Sexual preference is a right question between lovers, but is a wrong question for a culture trying to reconcile itself to the enormous complexity of its human snowflakes. I fear it is a question—indeed, a fixation—that wields a heat lamp, that proceeds with the threat of melting.
- We cannot be happy.
A woman I used to work with at Carnegie Mellon once said to me, her voice filled with empathy I have no doubt was genuine: “I feel for you. It’s just such a harder life.”
I had never spoken to this woman about my life. She was not aware of my estrangement from my parents, of the friends I had lost to protestations of my moral turpitude. She knew only that I had a life-partner and two cats and a job that paid the bills and a passion for my studies at the local university. I was not sad or lonely or visibly disgruntled in any way. I was also privileged, indisputably, by unearned advantages accorded my race, class, citizenship, and education.
The surprise must have registered on my face. “Is it?” I asked, and I was being genuine, too. Is it?
“Well, you know…” Her voice trailed off, and she smiled at me, squeezed my hand. I could see she was feeling sorry, pitying me, presuming my “difference” from everyone else in the office must be a handicap, a limitation; presuming I longed to belong to the same heterosexual club as those who surrounded me. And, if given a penny and a wishing well, I would no doubt toss that coin with an earnest plea for social and sexual normality.
I wasn’t convinced my life was “harder” than anyone else’s, certainly not in any objective or overarching terms, and even if it was harder in certain ways, the implication seemed to be that difficulty precluded happiness, which I had never known to be true.
I don’t remember what I said in the moment, if I nodded or shook my head. I suppose I wondered if she had seen the list posted on the basement door and if its presence had prompted her to reach out to me. But if that penny and wishing well were to materialize now, I would flash back twelve years. I would face my colleague across the counter, and I would find my words at last:
“You mentioned today that it’s a harder life to be gay. I think every life is hard in its own way. Mary Tyler Moore once said, in an interview, ‘No one gets out of this life without tremendous pain.’ I think she’s right. Pain is a given. But there’s a peculiar thing about the pain, the difficulty, associated with being gay. None of that pain comes from within. To be gay doesn’t feel like a burden or a disease or a deficit or a defect or a sin or any of the other ways I hear it described by people who are, almost without fail, not gay themselves. There’s nothing lacking or limited about being gay. No physical limitations, no mental limitations, nothing that is inherently difficult at all. Difficulty comes from outside. It comes from stereotypes and insults and people wishing to change us or not believing us when we talk about what we know to be true for ourselves.
“So if you’re sad for me because you’re afraid I’m going to have a harder life, or that I already do, the good news is you get to be part of what makes my life better, not worse. You get to be part of the solution, not the problem. Without homophobia in our culture, there would be no additional difficulty in the gay life. The more gay people are greeted with the same joy and welcoming spirit as their heterosexual counterparts, the less homophobia there can inevitably be in the culture at large. That’s why gay people need to be affirmed, not just by others who share the same identity moniker, but by those who don’t. Think about coming out itself, as a ritual. The only reason it exists is because children grow up knowing that everyone expects them to be straight. My dream is that one day children will not be raised with the assumption that they are straight. They will be raised instead with the imperative to be good, to be kind, to be curious, to be compassionate, but with no foregone conclusions about whom they’re supposed to love.
“If I were straight, I would have never had to tell my parents or my friends anything at all about my orientation. No one would have ever mentioned to you that I was straight either. If I had told you that I was heterosexual, you would have been surprised to hear something so obvious, so…given. But why should straightness be a given when we know that one or two out of every ten children born will grow up to be gay? Why not wait and see? If we encourage children to follow their hearts, which seems to be a common adage that circulates in our culture, we can’t very well turn around and say, ‘But not if your heart leads you to love someone of the same sex.’ That would be equivalent to saying that only straight people get to follow their hearts, and gay people have to follow the hearts that other people think they should have.
“What if your family and friends and teachers and the culture at large intervened when you wanted to date the man you love, or marry him, make a life with him? Imagine if you had to feel nervous telling people that you had a husband, not knowing how they would react. What a strange and discomfiting experience it would be if other people had the power to tell you—‘No, you can’t love him, or you don’t really love him, or he’s not right for you’—without even knowing him or even meeting him, just because he’s a man.
“Gay people do deal with a lot of judgment every day in this regard, but it’s dwindling because the cultural scripts are changing, and all of us get to be a part of a world that might someday make coming out itself a relic. Instead of having to tell someone we love we’re gay, we could simply say, “I’ve met someone I really like, and I’m bringing this person over to meet you.’ Until this is the status quo, though, we get to decide whether we go into the world assuming everyone we encounter or already know is straight until they declare themselves to be otherwise, or whether we withhold those assumptions. And if we know someone is gay, what do we really know about them? Not much. If we know someone is straight, what do we really know about them either? While sexual identity is an essential part of who everyone is—not just who gay people are—it is not totalizing. No one’s sexual identity could possibly contain or reveal everything there is to know about her.
“I think all of us get to help make the culture of the world one in which presumed heterosexuality does not reign supreme, and as a consequence, a world where there is less hiding, less fear, and less shame. Hopefully, too, a world where there is less sadness.”
Then, I would smile at her. “I am happy. I hope you are happy, too.”
Julie Marie Wade is the author of four collections of poetry and prose, most recently the lyric essay collection Catechism: A Love Story (Noctuary Press, 2016) and SIX: Poems (Red Hen Press, 2016), selected by C.D. Wright as the recipient of the 2014 AROHO/To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize. A recipient of the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and grants from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Wade teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus. She is married to Angie Griffin and lives on Hollywood Beach.
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