15 August 2005


The Boston Globe Magazine Sunday ran a detailed article by Niel Swidey on some of the research on What Makes People Gay. I haven't seen most of the research — I'm suspicious of much of it, but more as a knee-jerk reaction than for real reasons — and so refer you to the relatively reasoned article. I did want to point out that the media these days has come to consensus: "gay" is the preferred term for "non-straight", in spite of the male bias. This is disappointing, as it reinforces a male norm and obscures queer womens' experiences. That said, Swidey's article does a good job of pointing out differences and similarities between male and female sexual orientation identification, and that there has been extremely little research on female non-heterosexuality.

I have, in fact, only one complaint about the article, and it's more a complaint about language in general than about this specific article. I wish that people would continue to use the phrase "sexual orientation identity" rather than "sexual orientation". It's slightly clunkier, but "sexual orientation" already fails marvelously to roll off the tongue. No, I want to preserve the word "identity" to remind people that these categories may change over time, both for individuals and for society. It is currently the case, says Swidey, that how (American) men identify has a lot to do with their sexual arousal patterns, whereas women's identities don't seem to correlate with arousal, since most women tend to be aroused by women and men. I would like to remind people that this is at least as much a function of how society has chosen to define the terms with which people self-identify as it is a function of individual biology and socialization.

Let me repeat myself: I have no doubt that prenatal biology, genetics, etc. have profound impacts on how people behave. But how people identify is an interaction between their actual behavior and the categories as defined by their specific society. There may be a gay gene, in the sense that there may be a cluster of genes that predispose someone towards identifying as queer in this society. But if the category weren't there....

And it is in our interest as activists to change the categories' definitions so that everyone can be queer. So that the default is non-heteronormativity.

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