Image: Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872-1940), intimate friend of Henry James, untitled painting from 1894.
A friend of mine said to me recently that if she were to have a child, she’d hope the child was heterosexual.
My friend knows I’m gay.
I didn’t have a problem with her statement. Every parent wishes the best for their child, and—all things being equal—it’s just easier to be straight. It’s easier to be like others. It just is.
Most of us would like to be like most people.
So, yeah, if I could choose, I’d be heterosexual.
As a gay person, that’s the kind of thing one isn’t really supposed to say anymore, in 2017, in Montreal, in Quebec, in Canada. After all, as the zeitgeist would have it, we’re all free, we all have the right to be attracted to, have sex with, get married to, whomever we want. That’s the popular, open-minded, “progressive” view. So, most of my straight friends would say, there’s no problem with being different, John! It’s cool. Homophobia is so yesterday.
The thing is, though, some of us are more different than others, and if you look at history (and current affairs in countries not so far from ours, and in ours), human beings don’t have a great track record at accommodating difference. We usually like personal characteristics to fall within certain limits. So yeah, our society now can just about accommodate gay folk if we look kinda like straight folk, if we form nice couples, if we’re entertaining and funny and just different enough to be picturesque and diverting without being unsettling.
According to a certain line of thinking, we’re not even all that different. One idea that’s getting a fair amount of air time these days is that all human beings, if given the chance, like to play the field when it comes to physical pleasure, and that we’re moving toward a world where everyone will explore a whole range of sexual tastes, where it really won’t matter anymore if you’re having sex with someone of the same sex or the opposite sex, where we'll just be able to do away with labels such as “gay” or “bi.” It’s all just sex, right, and that’s good, right?
So we see celebrities making coy comments about how they might be “a little bit gay,” or being all sensual with other persons of the same gender in a public space where it'll get reported, and all of this is seen as evidence of how we’re blurring the lines of sexual orientation, opening up the prospect of a new world where you’ll just kiss whomever you want.
I do have a problem with this. Because it seems to me that it’s just a benign variation on the thinking of fifty or sixty years ago, when they used to try to “fix” homosexuality, because it was believed to be fixable, and it was believed that it was better to fix it. Now we’re saying it’s all about choice—which implies, by the way, that your actions are fixable. You can choose to have a non-alcoholic beverage over another whisky. You can choose to not smoke. Or, if we’re talking about love and sex and relationships, you can “choose” the "healthier" option, which is to be straight. Following this line of thinking, some in our society might at some point be inclined to ask--and maybe, if the tide turns at some point, a lot will start asking--why not just do that? Certainly, if one wants to raise a family (which would appear to be a pretty fundamental human desire), it’s one heck of a lot easier if you’re a guy and a girl, for reasons that I don’t think I need to go into. And if you don’t want to go against two thousand years of our Judaeo-Christian heritage, you’ll just be more comfortable in a hetero relationship, you won’t feel all the time as though you’re walking around with a weight attached to you. So, sure, by all means, play around when you’re young, but then settle down like a good chap.
That’s where I see that kind of thinking going.
But let’s get real for a minute. If you’re a guy and you kiss another guy, even right on the mouth and then shove your tongue down his throat, it doesn’t make you gay or bi. If you’re a guy who likes to wear skirts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trans. If you’re in touch with both your masculinity and your femininity, it doesn’t make you queer.
If you wear moccasins and have a dream catcher in your window and burn sage, it doesn’t mean you’re Native.
There’s a difference between behaviour and what you are. Behaving like someone else doesn’t make you them.
To the extent that one can choose, I think people will ultimately choose to go with the dominant group. It’s not rocket science. And at the banquet of the world’s citizens, queer people are never going to be the popular favourites. So let’s just acknowledge that, and move on from there.
We all have a range of things we need to deal with in our lives. Some of us have greater challenges than others. So let’s not pretend we can all “choose” to be whatever we want to be. I cannot choose to be a ballet dancer if I don’t have the physiognomy. I cannot choose to be Black. Even if I were to discover that I had African DNA, it wouldn’t make me African-Canadian, because it’s not the culture that formed me. I cannot choose to be Native.
I cannot choose to be heterosexual. Not even some of the time.
We are not just atomized beings ticking off characteristics we’d like to have. We come with histories. We emerge from somewhere. We have innate qualities. We have, dare I say it, limitations. We’re human, in other words.
Respect comes from recognizing people’s differences. Saying “we’re all a little bit gay” doesn’t show me respect. Quite the opposite.
Maybe this all sounds kind of prickly and defensive. The fact that I’m writing it is evidence that I’m part of a minority that the majority has some issues with. And that probably isn’t going to change any time soon. I think that recognizing this fundamental truth is a precursor to having the strength not to try to become the “acceptable gay” that the mainstream likes (witty, occasionally bitchy in a cute way, in a committed relationship that looks actually pretty hetero, given to passionate, ironic statements about popular female singers) and to just be who I am, which is very likely way more complicated and revolutionary (and interesting) than that cliché.
I guess what this article is all about, when I get right down to it, is formally acknowledging that, yes, I would dearly love to be like everybody.
But everything I am is the product of my not being like everybody.
So, to be who I am—to have integrity, in other words—means not being like everybody.
To be part of a minority.
To feel solidarity with other minorities who live with unease.
To recognize when I’m being condescended to.
To embrace the revolutionary act that is not submitting to structures that don’t fit me.
Finally, to abide with the unending search for balance that is never attained.
An unending search … sounds like a pretty good life to me.
As the (homosexual) philosopher Socrates put it, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Queer people’s lives rarely go unexamined. We don’t have that luxury.