You’re walking down the street. A stranger stops you, and asks, “What does it mean to be gay?” How do you answer? Something very similar happened to me not too long ago. I was caught up in the back-and-forth of an online discussion about gay marriage. I generally avoid the ego trap of blog “discussions,” but on this particular day, my justice-wielding keystrokes got the better of me.
During the yammering in question, one decidedly irksome commenter posited that gay marriage is not a civil or human rights issue, because gayness, unlike race, for example, is a behavior: “When you can convince anything nearing a majority of people that a behavior is like skin pigment, you’ll be on a roll.”
I politely suggested that when he discovered being gay goes well beyond any particular “behavior,” perhaps he’d like to join us here in the 21st Century.
Far from being stunned into enlightenment by my witty retort, my newfound Interwebular foe upped the ante: “If you can name one—just one—trait that defines homosexuality other than the desire to have sexual relations with a member of the same sex, I will admit that gay rights are equivalent with ‘human rights’ in the broader sense.”
Great. Suddenly, I’m on $25,000 Pyramid, and this guy is June Lockhart. Still, not one to freeze up in the face of a challenge, I bit. Name one trait that defines homosexuality other than sexual behavior. How about love?
Not only did I not win the jackpot on this round, but also I unwittingly launched my opponent into a state of near apoplexy: “I love my brothers. I loved my Dad. I love a few lifelong friends. But I don’t want to have sex with any of them, because I’m not homosexual. Love is not a singularly defining trait of homosexuality. Sexual behavior is the single defining trait of homosexuality.”
I began to get the feeling I was tilting at windmills. For starters, most gay people I know don’t want to have sex with their brothers, dads, or lifelong friends, either—unless, of course, their lifelong friends are hot. Second, I began to wonder where our friend had become such an expert on the defining traits of homosexuality. I would’ve asked, but I was afraid I’d hear something like, “Some of my best friends are homosexual.”
It would be easy to write off the ramblings of our friend in this instance as merely the ignorant blithering of a hapless bigot—his logic easily harpooned, his credibility on the subject beyond suspect. Nevertheless, he did send me away with something of value to think about.
What does it mean to be gay? What are the defining traits of homosexuality? Are we merely the sum of our parts—or, rather, where we want to put some of our parts?
I can’t remember the last time I thought much about what it means to be gay, but perhaps it’s time we all gave it a little more thought. For, if indeed society sees us as little more than our sexual behavior, I don’t imagine equal treatment under the law will be ours anytime soon.
For my part, I’m content to answer the question as I did at the outset. What does it mean to be gay? Simply put: love. Just as my sparring partner loves women, I love men. No more, no less.
How do you answer?