This post is by Patrick R. Grzanka.
I have no idea why I’m queer.
Like most people who identify as straight, gay or anything in between, I experienced a range of sexual desires in my teenage years. I was often nervous and scared about sexuality, which seemed much more complicated to me than it was “supposed” to be. I was attracted to women, dated girls and imagined marrying a woman. All the while, I was extremely curious about men’s bodies, hated my own and was intrigued by the possibilities of gay life and culture. As I grew more comfortable in my own skin, I guess I became more open to the idea of being with a man. It was hardly a calculated plan, but I wound up sleeping with a man in the summer between college and graduate school. I was drunk and he was hot. I didn’t particularly like the guy, but I liked hooking up with him. It felt right. I came out, and I’ve been having sex with men since then.
That’s the story. I was never abused, my relationship with my parents was open and honest, and there are no other queer people in my family – at least none that I’m aware of. There was no catharsis or dramatic instant in which my sexual identity revealed its true, permanent essence. So, it remains fascinating to me as both a queer man and scholar why the “true” and therefore knowable secret cause of (homo)sexuality remains such a compelling interest to scientists, politicians, many LGBT activists, religious leaders and artists alike. “Compelling interest,” is actually a profound understatement. Obsessive, fetishistic fixation is perhaps a better characterization of the ongoing search for why some of us (i.e., queers) don’t have desires and sex like “everyone else.”
I don’t know why I’m queer and I don’t care. I do care deeply, however, about the political and ethical consequences of the hunt for the “gay gene” and other biomedical and social scientific inquiries into the causes of sexual orientation. I think that these proverbial wild goose chases are fascinating not only for the ludicrous claims they produce, but for what they reveal to us about how we – in the 21st century, in the West, at least – understand sexuality. How we understand sexuality, of course, shapes what we do to and with it as an object of science, public policy and everyday life.
In both academic circles and the broader public sphere, the debate about the origins of sexuality is typically framed, like sexuality itself, as a binary argument: essentialism versus constructionism. On the one end of this imagined spectrum are those essentialists – the scientists and Lady Gaga – who claim that we are “born this way.” They believe that sexual orientation is innate, like the color of our eyes and disposition for certain diseases, such as cancer. Sexy, right? Sexual desire is, to the essentialist, presumed to be written into our genetic code – an “essential” part of the self. On the other end are the crazy constructionists, like myself, who emphasize both the historical, cultural specificity of sexual identity categories and the mutability of sexual desire across the lifespan. Philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, for example, famously traced the “birth” of the modern homosexual (and, in turn, the heterosexual) to the transformation of sodomy into a new clinical category of personhood in the 1870s in Europe. When we take even a strictly behaviorist approach, the constructionist position highlights the tremendous diversity of sexual practices even within sexual orientation categories. Given the infinite variety of sexual appetites among straight people, for example, it becomes little more than arbitrary that we choose to categorize sexuality in terms of gender and object choice, as opposed to the frequency of sexual behavior or the kinds of sex people like to have.
But just like the hetero/homo binary, the essentialist versus constructionist debate appears to be little more than a convenient illusion meant to simplify an otherwise exceedingly complicated terrain of beliefs about sexual orientation. For example, while essentialist beliefs about race and gender are often correlated with negative attitudes toward people of color and women, recent discourse suggests that essentialist beliefs about sexuality are often affirmative toward sexual minorities. Gaga’s anthem, for example, follows the logic that being born gay a) is possible, and b) means that gay people deserve the same rights as straight people. Conversely, believing that someone is born gay can also reinforce the idea that being gay is a malignant deformity – something to be screened for and/or prevented.
For her doctoral thesis in psychology, my friend and colleague Julie Arseneau tackled the enormous task of creating a survey to map different attitudes about what sexuality is. She developed over 100 questions that reflected commonly held beliefs about sexuality and asked hundreds of people to rate their agreement with these ideas.
Arseneau found not two but at least four different (but not mutually exclusive) core areas of beliefs. Naturalness describes those “beliefs that sexual orientation is innate and biologically based, determined and fixed early in life, unable to be changed or chosen, and historically and culturally universal.” We might think of this as the uber-essentialist position. Discreetness, however, refers to beliefs that sexual orientation groups, such as gay and straight, are unique and non-overlapping categories. Think: “You have to pick one.” Interestingly, these beliefs are distinct from those about the “group-iness” or entitativity of sexual orientation categories. Arseneau describes entitativity as the similarity and inter-connectedness of people who share the same sexual orientation, as well as the “informativeness of the category label for knowing or understanding the individual member.” These beliefs include the notion that knowing someone’s sexual orientation tells you a lot about who that person really is. Finally, social and personal importance refers to ideas about the significance of sexual orientation to individuals and to society. Arseneau writes that the issue of group membership can be interpreted in a variety of ways:
For example, one could hold a belief that sexual orientation is important because it is a fundamental attribute of a human being (an essentialist viewpoint). Quite differently, one could have a belief that sexual orientation is important because it is utilized as a tool of social oppression (a social constructionist belief).
Arseneau and I, along with Dr. Joe Miles of the University of Tennessee, are continuing to develop the validity and reliability of her survey to assess what people believe about sexuality. This research helps to explode the nature vs. nurture debate. We believe that complicating the binary of essentialism/constructionism helps us to better account for the complexity of people’s ideas about sexuality. It’s not that some people don’t believe that sexual orientation comes from within (e.g., genes) or without (e.g., society), but that these positions intersect with lots of other ideas in sometimes unusual and unpredictable ways. Is it essentialist or constructionist to belief that one chooses their sexuality? What about the idea that sexuality is innate but also subject to change over time?
I think the question of why I’m queer is about as interesting as the question of why I like plaid. I think the question of how and why people think that sexual orientation is a useful way to group people and to understand identity is an infinitely more compelling inquiry.
Patrick R. Grzanka holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and is appointed at the Arizona State University. His teaching interests lie in the areas of affect, identity and attitudes, race, gender and sexuality in contemporary American culture, feminist science & technology, and intersectionality and critical social theory.