Thursday, March 1, 2012

Queer Taxonomy

I'm planning to blog soon about the whole question of whether or not homosexuality is rightly conceived of as a psychological disorder by conservative Christians, but as a prelude to that I'd like to establish some distinctions. The blanket term "homosexual" has a number of different, related but distinct meanings: there are several groups of people who are covered by this term, and there are significant variations between them.

The simplest definition of a homosexual is a person who has attractions for members of his or her own sex: SSA. This is the meaning that the Vatican tends to use in Her documents on homosexuality, and it is the definition which most people assume when they hear the word. The word "homosexual" in this sense does present some problems: it assumes that people who engage in homosexuality have some sort of underlying sexual preference or inclination which directs their sexual behaviour. It assumes that a person who has gay sex does so because they are attracted to members of their own sex, and not for other reasons. The people of Sodom, for example, were probably not homosexual in this sense: their demand to have sex with the angels was probably not a manifestation of sexual attraction, but was more likely a form of ritual domination, or of politically organized violence designed to keep unwanted outsiders out of their city, to send a clear message to Abraham who was camped nearby with his men, and/or to exercise magical or religious power over potential enemies. Prison homosexuality, lesbianism in harems, and pederasty in single-sex boarding schools are other examples of homosexuality in which people are likely to practice homosexual sex without necessarily having any same-sex attraction. The term "homosexual" in this sense also tends to assume a bipolar sexuality in which people are either exclusively SSA, or exclusively OSA (opposite sex attracted), and it doesn't account for the fact that vast majority of SSA people have some degree of OSA as well.

A second possible definition, one that is fairly popular in contemporary discourse, is that a homosexual is a person who has an LGBTQ identity. A person who comes out of the closet as gay, is homosexual. That's straightforward enough. Certainly when studies or research into homosexuality are undertaken, the LGBTQ community is the primary focus -- both because it is incalculably easier to recruit people for studies when they are willing to identify themselves, and because people who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to access products and services which are directed towards a gay demographic. The problem with this definition is that it excludes all SSA people who, for one reason or another, do not want to identify themselves with the gay movement. Some people reject LGBTQ identities for religious or political reasons (Courage, Exodus and other Christian groups often explicitly discourage their members from identifying as gay, on the reasoning that it cements a link between personal identity and sexual sin, and that it may be a barrier to spiritual healing). Others reject LGBTQ identities because they reject gay culture, or because they have negative stereotypes associated with words like "gay" or "lesbian" that they feel do not apply to them. Still others reject an LGBTQ identity out of a feeling that labels are restrictive or artificial: they feel that their own sexuality cannot be adequately described or constrained by any of the available terms. Finally, SSA people may reject these identities because they want to keep their sexual preferences private, or because they don't feel that their sexual desires are an important part of their identity at all. On the other hand, people who are not SSA may identify as LGBTQ either because they wish to access gay culture and gay services, or because they feel non-sexual romantic attractions to members of their own sex, or because they experience some variant of gender-queerness without SSA, or because they routinely have sex with members of their own sex even though they do not have strong same-sex attractions. (This latter category might seem a bit bizarre, but think, for example, of the situation of an OSA woman who has been raped and is now too terrified to have sexual relationships with men, and who therefore seeks out lesbian encounters in which she employs heterosexual mental imagery during sex.)

Finally, a third definition of homosexual, also seemingly intuitive and straightforward, is "someone who has sexual relations with members of his/her own sex." The terms MSM (man who has sex with men) and WSW (woman who has sex with women) are often used in social studies research in order to precisely indicate this type of homosexual -- studies of HIV/AIDS, for example, will tend to focus on MSMs regardless of attractions or sexual identities because HIV is spread by behaviours, not by desires or labels. The problem with this definition is that it would exclude all successfully chaste SSA people from ministries directed at homosexuals, and it would exclude all non-sexually active (or exclusively heterosexually active) LGBTQ people from public services, anti-bullying strategies, political protections, etc. which are designed to help or protect sexual minorities. It also fails to address the problem, mentioned above, of opportunistic or ideologically motivated homosexual sex by heterosexual people.

The bottom line is that these three groups, SSA folks, LGBTQ people, and MSMs/WSWs, are all in some sense "homosexual," but they do not represent a homogeneous, or coterminous population. Any statement, study, or research about "homosexuals" must take this into account, it must resist the sloppy temptation to equivocate between these terms, to assume that statistical information or clinical observations of any one of these populations can be automatically applied to the others.


  1. Melinda:

    I really appreciate your acknowledgment of the problem of identity within the category of homosexuality. It does seem to me that one of the great problems in thinking about the various sexual identities and attractions and behaviors is in the language. Over the years that I have been observing and contemplating what is going on here, it has occurred to me that it is the extreme self-consciousness about sex and self that has caused most of the problems. It has always been true that we admire and relate to and even identify with icons or celebrities, movie stars or models or peers or close friends of our own sex. But a more recent phenomenon is the idea that sexual activity or libidinous stimuli should necessarily enter into the thoughts or idealization of the attraction. It occurs to me that the emphasis and constant reminders and deliberate suggestion that attraction must somehow involve intimate physical stimulation and sexual involvement in interpersonal relationships has tainted our natural affinities and close friendships with members of our own sex (as well as those with opposite sex). Intimate friendship is now almost automatically associated with sexual intimacy unless overtly denied -- the assumption is that some kind of sexual activity/attraction is part of the relationship. When I was young it was common for us girls to swoon over our favorite female stars -- because we wanted to be like them, not because we longed to engaged in sexual activity with them. Today's youth have been inculcated with the idea that attraction means sex.

  2. You said, "and it doesn't account for the fact that vast majority of SSA people have some degree of OSA as well. "

    I was not aware this is the case. I don't have the guts to ask my "homosexual" friends if they have ever had such attraction. Is this common knowledge in the gay community? How do you come by this opinion? Really interested.

  3. Mary,

    Broad-based studies of sexual orientation in which people are asked to rate themselves on a scale (the Kinsey scale for example) will tend to turn up more results for a Kinsey scale score of 2-5 (some degree of bisexuality) than for 6 (exclusive homosexuality) – though the 6s will generally outnumber, for example, the 3s (this is, of course, a property of the scale: the more that you multiply gradations of bisexuality, the more you subdivide bisexuals.) The number of SSA people who will claim some OSA increases if you separate SSA and OSA into two separate scales, that is, if you allow people to rate their SSA and their OSA as two distinct phenomena, instead of charting them as two diametrically opposed poles of the same phenomenon. Also, studies of young people suggest that adolescents with SSA are more likely to experience mixed attractions than are adults – perhaps because relationships and patterns of behaviour are less fixed at that age, or perhaps because teenage hormones are generally just going haywire so free-floating sexual responses are more likely. In any case, most people who have SSA have, or have had, some experience of OSA. The issue often has more to do with the intensity of SSA vs. OSA, or with factors that aren't directly sexual (emotional, romantic, aesthetic, etc.) but which impact the ability to carry on a successful long-term sexual relationship.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

  5. There are a lot of bisexual people out there.

  6. Melinda, as a Catholic who experiences mainly SSA now but in the recent past both SSA (to a lesser degree) and OSA (to a greater degree) and does not identify as either lesbian or bisexual I await with interest your forthcoming post. These two interelated topics of whether or not homosexuality is rightly conceived of as a psychological disorder and the difficulties of definitions are important on both an intellectual and practical level. Intellectually I think it is important in order to be able to make some sense out of the competing claims and debates on this topic, which in turn have an impact on how a 'homosexual' person views themself. On a practical level, definitions may have a significant impact on whether that person is considered suitable for marriage e.g. if SSA is mentioned in the course of an heterosexual relationship, questions may be asked by both partner and priest as to whether the person with SSA can really be committed to the opposite sex and perhaps urged to come to a decision on the matter of sexual orientation. Yet, this may force someone into defining themselves as gay unnecessarily!!!

    Btw I have been following your blog for a couple of years with great interest. I came to it after reading your book which has been a great help to me, so thank you.

  7. There are those of us who identified with gays before we were gay. I identified with an allegedly gay student who was brutalized at my Catholic school. I pitied him; I said to myself "That could be me." I would not let him suffer alone; I helped him shoulder his cross before I knew what homosexuality was. I was only 12.

    One or two of the other students said that we were sexually involved and described the relationship in terms of acts I had never heard of. I began to get the idea that what they were talking about had to do with my budding attraction for other males.

    I wanted to know how serious this was, so I read the words of St. John Chrysosotom from the Catholic Encyclopedia. He said that people like me were worse than murderers because while murderers destroy the body, gays destroy the soul within the body. He also said that gays are better of dead, and that God had given up on us (damned us). To a boy barely 13 this suborned suicide and gave him ample reason: Loving another meant inviting his damnation. Little did I know that the sermons of St. John Chrysostom were the most effective tools in getting German Christians to accept the Holocaust. Why this pornographer of hatred still appears in an encyclopedia available to minors is beyond me.

    I told know one, and, although I gave up on my salvation, I was suicidal for 3 years. Throughout all of it, I determined I would never harm another and, so, never have sex.

    During my senior year of high school, I broke down from nervous exhaustion and developed a (temporary) heart problem. I had to lie to avoid being committed so that I could continue my education and escape a city where I could live among those who expected me to do the right thing. Escaping the tyranny and brutality that was my Catholic school, I went to a secular college and breathed a sigh of relief given to me by anonymity. Five years of living with a scarlet letter had been difficult to bear.

    Given all the betrayals by the Church since then, the scarlet letter has become a part of me. I will not take mine off until the Church stops conferring this stigma on innocent children. Count me as one of the lepers.

  8. "Gay couples are going to get together. It's been happening since ancient times. Legal prohibitions didn't, couldn't and would never stop it. Isn't it better that gays conduct their relationships within the context of a well-defined marriage law, same as heterosexual couples?"


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