Alex Blaze

What makes someone gay?

Filed By Alex Blaze | November 03, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

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Getting away from talking about the elections, I'm currently reading Ritch Savin-Williams's book, The New Gay Teenager. Savin-Williams caused a mini-stir a few weeks ago (so mini you probably didn't notice it) by saying, "there is no gay teen suicide epidemic." I'm working on a post for later this month on the statistics we have that support and don't support that.

usa-ex-gay-est-maintenant-orientation-sexuell-L-1.jpegSavin-Williams does have a few great chapters in the beginning of the book that are specifically about how hard it is to get data on LGBT people at all, much less teens who might not be ready or willing to identify as such. It's something I post about from time to time here on Bilerico. Whenever a study comes out that says, "X% of gay people do Y," I can't help but wonder where they found their gay people, and usually their source isn't that representative of the entire population.

The idea goes a bit further, with Savin-Williams asking just what we mean by "gay," "lesbian," or "bisexual" in the first place. It's not something we agree on and different definitions can produce wildly different study results. This passage, referring to sexual orientation, is particularly interesting:

Creators of these scales generally ignore whether adolescents attribute any importance to these dimensions. Had they considered this, they might have been surprised. A recent study with adolescent focus groups addressed the question "What is sexual orientation?" Regardless of the gender or sexual status, the respondents agreed that sexual orientation has two aspects:

    Sexual attraction, which may be described as a sexual desire for being with a specific gender; or an intense internal, physiological desire for a particular gender or to a particular person or attribute (e.g., body part).

    A desire to be in a primary romantic relationship, which may include being in love wiht someone, forming a long -term commitment and/or wanting to have such experiences.

Equally noteworthy is what the teenagers asserted is not particularly important:

    Who you have sex with. Self-labeling (e.g., straight, gay, bisexual). Sexual fantasies.

Ironically, the very domains deemed irrelevant by those being studied are the very qualities researchers are most likely to use as markers of sexual orientation.

Most studies go by self-labeling, at least the ones that make the press. Even if they find a way to interview people who identify as gay that's not a convenience sample (that is, if they don't just go to a gay bar or ask gay people in therapy for other reasons, as most research on homosexuality was done back in the 50's), they're still limited. There are plenty of people who say they're straight who have sex with the same sex, people who identify as gay who have sex with both, people who are in the closet and have sex with no one but still have a sexual orientation, etc.

The point of this post isn't the inherent problem with research on LGB people, but just to ask you all what you think makes someone a certain sexual orientation. Is it their actions? Their identity? Their attractions? Usually, when I think about it, I'd say that it's someone's identity, but then someone like Larry Craig comes along, someone who's clearly attracted to members of his own sex and has been having sex with them for a long time, who says they "never have been gay."

But these are all words and words are defined by how people use them, not the ideas we want to promote with them (as much as we may try). In the end, these labels are just trying to bring some order to chaos, and such measures will always fail. That doesn't mean they aren't worth attempting.


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In the end, these labels are just trying to bring some order to chaos, and such measures will always fail. That doesn't mean they aren't worth attempting.

Ugh, I so agree. But you know, it's near impossible to talk about it without people getting defensive. Self-identifying seems to be some sort of magic key to empowerment. But with no commonly understood definition for words, they're just kind of meaningless. For me the empowerment came in finding the word that describes how I experience sexuality and gender....and that goes away if there's no common meaning to the words. What happens if you come out as gay, and no one knows what that means?

Status and behavior are the same...until they're not.

While Professor Savin-Williams was correct in reiterating that gay and lesbian (he didn't mention bi or trans) youth do not meet any definition of mental disorder by virtue of their sexual orientation, I think he missed the point by not acknowledging the prejudice, exclusion, stereotyping and violence that they face in schools, homes and communities.

My own view is that the GLBTQ suicides that we've seen in the media this season do not represent a new epidemic but are the tip of a longstanding iceburg of chronic victimization, that has not been recognized or publicized until now. Intolerant or unsupportive families are inclined to keep their deceased LGBTQ children in the closet and the stories behind their suicides buried.

He didn't mention lesbian. But that's okay because gay implies LGB. Trans isn't a sexual orientation and I don't know that we can always treat sexual orientation and gender identity the same.

What makes someone gay? A same-sex attraction.

He acknowledges that homophobia, isolation, etc., exist, but he argues that they don't lead to suicide. He argues that there has never been a gay suicide epidemic.

To his credit, he does mention bisexual youth often, and has a refreshingly expansive definition of gay and bisexual. He's only mentioned transsexualism once so far in the book, specifically to say that it's not a sexual orientation.

That said, I'm finding the parts about our lack of knowledge of LGB teens to be more convincing than the parts where suddenly we're supposed to accept that the suicide rates are the same, an exact quantity, esp. considering how we were just told we can't know the suicide rate itself.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | November 4, 2010 7:42 AM

Until you mentioned him, I had almost managed to forget entrely about former Idaho Senator Larry Craig. I know some folks are obsessed with him and still engage in silly fantasies about his having been John McCain's running mate in 2008.

That having been said, I understand that the Minneapolis Airport Authority is going to vote soon on renaming its terminal to honor that infamous day when Larry and the law crossed paths underneath a metal partition. A suitable plaque, announcing "I am not gay, nor have I ever been gay, appeared to be gay, or even wanted to be gay for more than five minutes (or however long it takes in an airport stall)" will greet tourists.

Sounds a little obsessive, but great moments in history need to be permanently preserved.

I don't know if having fantasies about Larry Craig automatically makes someone gay. An interesting question for the readers!

I would say attraction is what determines sexual orientation. I knew I was gay long before I became sexually active.

I think basing the determination on one's attractions also allows for things like same-sex or opposite-sex experimentation early in life that's based more on just being horny than being attracted to the other person, as well as gay men and lesbians who have relations with members of the opposite sex while in the closet.

Also, I think a lot of people who identify as gay or lesbian are probably bisexual, but lean toward the same sex and are able to ignore their opposite-sex attractions or act on them only infrequently.

Psychiatrists will tell you that there are three pieces to the puzzle:

Lifted directly from the APA website: "Most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality.

It's important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation, and the reasons may be different for different people."

So the answer is: all of the above.

In my experience, "gay" is as "gay" does and sexual behavior and sexual identity play a huge role in how one decides to socialize oneself.

It's when these things conflict that there are problems.

ShipofFools | November 5, 2010 9:50 AM

" "Most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality.

It's important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation, and the reasons may be different for different people.""

Meaning, they know zero. As of today there is no single proven factor that even contributes to being gay.
Also, nobody ever came up with a scientific explanation as to why some people prefer strawberry to peach. Interestingly, nobody wasted money to figur that one out.

TravelsTooMuch | November 6, 2010 4:26 PM

Kinsey claimed a 0-6 scale where on one side, you were absolutely not interested in the other sex for relationships, love, and sexual interaction to the other side, where the same sex was 100% of your interest.

That scale had weak definitions, because for some, sexual relations are abstracted from 0-6 from emotional relationships and/or 'love'. It doesn't talk about monogamy, polyamory, promiscuity, anonymity, and so on.

Labels are so difficult, and worse so when you're young and have difficulty seeing how you fit in, which is all-important at that age. Add in fear of rejection, embarrassment, insecurity, hormones, and it's an awful mixture to deal with. Self-identification is even difficult, especially with so many loud yet potentially offensive models thrown at young people. I feel for young people. I was there once. I survived, but others didn't-- and don't.

Long ago and far away I asked someone why it was important to anyone else who I am attracted to. I never have gotten an answer to that question that made any sense to me.

Well, if they want to date you.

I remember one guy once sent that out to a non-LGBT list serve: "Unless you want to date me, my sexual orientation is completely unimportant to you!" I responded by asking him out. We went out, but no spark. Oh well. Live and learn.