What is gay? Mind if I ask?

Amidst the hubbub over Elena Kagan's sexuality (or lack thereof), there's a question which isn't being asked by anyone, which I would call the question about the question.

What is gay?

Think it's easy to define?

I'd be willing to bet that if you polled most people, their answers would vary. Even the readers here might give different answers to the following questions:

What is being gay?
The public acknowledgment of one's homosexuality
Being in a sexual relationship with a member of the same sex (whether acknowledged or not)
Having ever had sexual relations with a member of the same sex (whether acknowleded or not)
Having ever been in a homosexual relationship in the past
Having ever had so much as a single homosexual sexual encounter
Being attracted to occasional members of both sexes (regardless of actual experience)
Having ever been sexually attracted to any member of the same sex
Looking "obviously gay" regardless of actual sexual practices
Being exclusively heterosexual or sexually abstinent despite having had same sex attractions
Being exclusively homosexual
Any of the above
pollcode.com free polls

The point here is not to grind an axe or start an argument, but to point out the difficulty posed by asking whether someone is gay. There's a long Wiki post about the term, and the closest thing to an actual definition seems to come from the American Psychological Association:

"Sexual attraction, behavior and identity may be incongruent. For example, sexual attraction and/or behavior may not necessarily be consistent with identity. Some individuals may identify themselves as homosexual or bisexual without having had any sexual experience. Others have had homosexual experiences but do not consider themselves to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Further, sexual orientation falls along a continuum. In other words, someone does not have to be exclusively homosexual or heterosexual, but can feel varying degrees of both. Sexual orientation develops across a person's lifetime-different people realize at different points in their lives that they are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual."[20]
So what does that mean? Is whether someone is "gay" to be determined by the individual, or by others? Who gets to decide these things? Isn't that relevant? At some point, a certain number of people make the decision to call themselves gay, or acknowledge to themselves that they are. So in that respect, it's like deciding that you're a member of a certain church, or an atheist. Or is it more like being Jewish, where you're born with the "Jewish-ness" whether you believe in the religion or not? I'm one of those people who believes in maximum individual freedom, and I come down against the strictly determinist view of these things, and while I do think some people are "born that way," it is wrong as well as tyrannical to insist that all are. Allowing self definition to be the only definition, though, is problematic, because just as people can say they are straight and be lying, people can also say they're gay and be lying (as was alleged in the case of a Philadelphia politician who said he was gay). But even there, what and where is the lie? While we would normally think of it it as a lie for someone to not do what he says he does do, or to do what he says he does not do, in cases involving inner thoughts, how is this to be determined? Is a bisexual person gay? If so, if gay includes bisexual while straight does not, is that not both illogical and hegemonic? Could a celibate person legitimately claim to be gay? Or bi? Or straight? Or have such people by being celibate forfeited all claims to having a sexuality? Again, who gets to decide what these people are, and what it is that constitutes honesty or dishonesty? And how? Are we to literally invade their minds?

So "Are you gay?" is a very easy question to ask.

But what is being asked is not so easy.

Damned if I know.

What I do know that simple logic -- and simple fairness (if that matters in politics) -- dictate that the question "What is gay?" ought to be settled before the "Are you gay?" question is asked.

MORE: Please note that in light of complaints, the poll was revised to include an additional choice:

Being exclusively homosexual
That would probably not describe many of those who consider themselves gay.

My apologies to those six people who already answered! Please feel free to answer again.

(I think this illustrates the difficulty of the question, though.)

posted by Eric on 05.12.10 at 10:24 AM


Why didn't you have the option "You are attracted exclusively to members of your own sex"?

Veeshir   ·  May 12, 2010 11:06 AM

Yeah, that would be the one I'd pick.

John S.   ·  May 12, 2010 11:10 AM

OK,I'll add it now! With apologies to the five or six people who answered so far!

Eric Scheie   ·  May 12, 2010 11:12 AM

Bear in mind that the added choice would disqualify a number of gay men (and perhaps even more lesbians) from being allowed to call themselves gay.


And now that I have added that, I'm wondering whether it should say "Being exclusively homosexual, and having always been exclusively homosexual."

Eric Scheie   ·  May 12, 2010 11:25 AM

I consider my brother gay, so does he.

When he was around 14 until he was around 18 he screwed everyone he knew except, I assume, family.
I knew he was screwing all the girls, I didn't realize he was screwing all the guys in the neighborhood too and going to the local gay bar.
He has a son and two grand-kids. He got a girl pregnant when he was 18, they were going to give it up for adoption but she wanted him and he wanted a kid so.....

But now he's 50 and has been with the same guy for 15 years and, since he was around 22 or so, he's been with men exclusively.

People who screw both sexes are "bi" so far as I'm concerned.

Again, I long for the day when this is not an issue, but it is and not least because of gay activists.

Eh, if it's not color, creed or sexuality people will still find a reason for others to be The Other.
People are scum.

Veeshir   ·  May 12, 2010 12:33 PM

"Being primarily sexually attracted to persons the same gender" seems the best definition I can come up with.

(And bisexuals would thus be those attracted to persons of both genders without either one being primary.)

I can't imagine that sexual activity could be definitional, as virgins almost always (just as people who have had sexual congress) know what they want in a sexual partner.

Sigivald   ·  May 12, 2010 2:38 PM

The crux of the near-universal disdain of homosexuality is the threat that active, visible homosexuality poise to the reproductive success of one's own offspring.

A poor or middle class parent makes their biggest investment in the future by having and raising children. the goal is the propagation of their genes.

Having your kids "turned" to an exclusive homosexual relationship is a real threat to your investment.

That's why DADT was a reasonable compromise. I'm happy enough if they just stay back in the closet. Start making the moves on my children and you'll have pushback.

Since homosexuality has a genetic component, its rates in a society reflects the degree to which it is expressed in successful bi-sexuality.

Evolutionary science is still working on the problem.

Whitehall   ·  May 12, 2010 4:40 PM

I can't imagine why it would matter to anyone except the person involved and those contemplating a romantic relationship with them. Okay, so I prefer if my friends tell me in advance to avoid awkward moments when they show up at the party with a same-gender partner (though this is only an issue when partners' have certain names.) Other than that, it's their business. So... why would the question be asked at all?
OTOH if someone asked me because they were trying to figure out themselves I would say "Falls in love exclusively with members of the same sex." I have known a few gay people who were aroused by either gender but only fell in love with their own gender. And to me that's definitional. However, if you put up a poll on "how do you define falling in love" I'm going to crawl under the sink and cornrow my hair until you give it up.

Sarah   ·  May 13, 2010 5:52 PM

The Wiki writer is an idiot, especially with the bit about "sexual attraction and/or behavior may not necessarily be consistent with identity."

The very interesting thing, to me, is that very nearly everyone in this thread -including the author- focused on sexual attraction & relationships. Ok, Sarah is the lone exception just above my comment. :)

First point: orientation is not related only to sexuality, but emotional relationships. This is frequently ignored in public discussions.

Second, the original post relates more to confusion & sloppy thinking instead of orientation. It's not that complicated. A man who is physically & emotionally attracted to other men is a homosexual. A woman who is physically & emotionally attracted to other women is a lesbian. Both are now colloquially referred to as "gay."

Someone who is attracted to both sexes (and one presumes is capable to romantic relationships with either) are considered "bisexual," although it's not always a 50/50 split. Veeshir provides an excellent example. The percentage varies widely according to the individual.

Heterosexuals -just in case someone out there is still confused {g}- are men or women who are physically & romantically attracted to the opposite sex, and are deemed "straight."

In summary, we have the homosexuals, the heterosexuals, and the in-betweens (famously referred to in Kinky Boots as "those of you who haven't made up your minds yet").

"Gay" colloquially refers to people with a same-sex orientation.

Now, was that hard? It's not my fault so many people can neither think clearly nor comprehend the English language.

There's going to be some smarta$$ who will object "but what if they're 99% gay and 1% straight?" Easy. Strong gay orientation with rare flashes of hetero-experimentation. Same thing with straight people who got drunk one night, did something they most likely won't discuss with anyone else, ever.

Casey   ·  May 21, 2010 1:27 AM

Post a comment

April 2011
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


Search the Site


Classics To Go

Classical Values PDA Link


Recent Entries


Site Credits