The Professor knew, of course, that adolescence grafted a new creature into the original one, and that the complexion of a man’s life was largely determined by how well or ill his original self and his nature as modified by sex rubbed on together.”
— Willa Cather, The Professor’s House
It’s easy to throw around words like gay, straight, lesbian, bisexual, same-sex attracted. But what do these words mean? What is sexual orientation? What does it orient?
The most reliable place to start is not in theory but in experience. And, of course, the experience I know best is my own. So I will start there.
I was a bit of a late bloomer, so hormones didn’t hit until my freshman year of high school. And until that time, I had no reason to even consider the possibility that I would turn out to be physically attracted to guys. I assumed that I would marry a woman and have children, and I thought about which of my female acquaintances would make a suitable match.
I think it’s worth recognizing that the desire to marry a particular person is much more complex than just the desire to have sex with that person. It also involves emotional connection, the desire to become a father (or mother) and to raise a family together. So even though I didn’t feel any physical desire for any of the girls I knew, I could still daydream about the possibility of a future together. And I think this is relatively common—most children think about marriage long before they know what sex is or have any desire for it. (Indeed, I sometimes wonder whether children may not understand marriage better than adolescents.)
During my freshman year of high school, however, my hormones began to awaken, and I realized with some shock that I was fantasizing about my male friends. (Prior to recognizing this desire in myself, I don’t think I’d even realized that it was possible for two men to have sex.)
I’d heard insults like “fag” or “homo” tossed around at school, but I never really figured out what they meant. (Unfortunately, they get tossed around certain so-called Catholic publications, as well.)
I thought of them as generic terms of abuse, not words that referred to any specific desires. And, in fact, these words are more often used more to indicate the abuser’s contempt for the victim than to make accurate observations about the victim’s sexual orientation.
Fortunately, I don’t recall them ever being directed at me. I had carved out a very solid niche for myself as a nerd, which was a much more socially acceptable form of outcast. In the late 1980’s, it was relatively easy to comfort yourself about being exiled onto the same island as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
But though I heard words like “fag” and “homo” used as insults, I certainly never thought they had any connection to me.
My dad sometimes warned me about the danger that “queers” posed to young boys; but I don’t think I had any clear idea of what a “queer” was (some kind of wild animal, perhaps?). I heard pastors at church condemn the “homosexual agenda” as an abomination to God and a threat to America, but again, I didn’t connect the “homosexual agenda” specifically with the idea of two men having sex.
One day, right around my fifteenth birthday, I had an epiphany: these fantasies meant I was attracted to men the way most of my peers were attracted to women. These attractions were what words like “fag,” “homo,” “queer,” and “homosexual agenda” were about.
You might think that I would have been horrified to realize that I belonged to a group despised by my peers and my church.
Actually, however, my response was to marvel at how stupid everyone I knew was when it came to homosexuality.
The condemnations I heard growing up simply did not resonate with my own experience of being gay.
For several years, I had an unrequited crush on a friend I met when I was about 11 years old. Looking back, I can recognize what I felt when we met as a kind of love (or at least infatuation) at first sight. But at the time we met, I hadn’t even the slightest inkling that I was sexually attracted to other guys. I thought of the warmth I felt in his presence as a kind of intense friendship. Mostly, we talked about shared interests in science.
If I try to recall those years, I remember my daydreams about him being connected primarily with daydreams of creating a new aerospace company which would build the first American supersonic transport, and eventually take the role of lead contractor in the United States first manned mission to Mars. (I’m embarrassed to say that my sketches for the global headquarters of this future conglomerate were in the International style; my sketches for the SST, on the other hand, actually looked pretty good. If you saw them, you’d probably feel sorry we didn’t achieve our dreams.)
It sounds kind of silly looking back, but it was an intense desire to share life together, a kind of desire that I never felt for any of my female friends. However, it would be more than three years before I recognized any overt sexual attraction to him.
So when it hit me that I was sexually attracted to other guys, I had already been in love (in a typically immature, puppy-like fashion) for several years. And when I realized I was gay, those feelings were the best evidence I had about the nature of homosexual desire. When I heard pastors speaking about the “gay lifestyle,” I compared their words with my own experience, and my own experience with that of my straight peers.
Was I tempted by promiscuity, casual sex, and the other things my pastors condemned? The most direct answer to that question is: I was a fifteen-year-old human male. But I knew my straight friends well enough to know that such struggles were hardly unique to me. And many of my straight friends were significantly more sexually adventurous than I was (though the fact that they had more opportunities than I did may have played an important role in this).
Even as a teen, when hormones were at their most intense, casual sex was not my heart’s desire. I wanted to find happiness in a relationship with another man. And while sex played a part in this desire, the most important thing was to be loved and to love. I wanted to know that there was someone in the world who loved me more than anyone else, and I wanted to love him more than anyone else, as well.
I wanted a man who understood the long loneliness I had experienced growing up gay, and who I could talk to when I faced prejudice and misunderstanding. But I hoped the world was getting better, and that our relationship would gain greater acceptance as people came to understand gays and lesbians better.
I wanted to be able to take him home to meet my parents, and introduce him as the one whom I loved more than anyone else in the world, and have him welcomed into the family. I wanted him to introduce me to his parents as the one he loved more than anyone else in the world, and be part of his family. I wanted to exchange vows in front of our friends, family, and church, and celebrate our vows by dancing together at the reception.
I wanted to buy a house and make a home together. I wanted to go to garage sales and second-hand shops together, and pick out furniture and decorations for our home. I wanted him to be there when I came home at the end of the day. I wanted to find a Tiffany lamp to hang over our dining room table, and I wanted to cook romantic Italian meals that we could share by candlelight.
I wanted us to adopt children together—I thought four children would be a good family size—and change diapers and go to little league games and graduation. (I suppose we might have had to argue over which one of us got to escort our daughters down the aisle when they got married, but that seems like a minor obstacle in the larger scheme of things.)
I wanted to worship God together and share with each other the insights we gained into our faith along the way. I wanted a church that would welcome our family the way they welcomed every other family.
I wanted to be able to walk down the street holding his hand and kiss him goodbye at the airport without having to worry about stares and comments.
I even wanted to grow old together, to know that he would still be there to come home to as our hair fell out and our bodies wrinkled and grew fat. I remember wondering what love would be like in old age, and imagining running my hand over his now-bald head. It was strange to imagine as a teen, and yet somehow deeply satisfying to think that as we approached the sunset of life, we would be able to sit in armchairs by the fire, or on rocking chairs on the back porch, and reminisce about the life we had cultivated together, the friends we had shared, the children we had raised, the memories we had created, and the heirlooms we had collected.
I began a few moments ago with the question: what does sexual orientation orient?
Freud thought that the libido, or desire for pleasure, and particularly sexual pleasure, was the very most basic human motivation. Following the sexual revolution, something like this idea became more and more part of the unquestioned background of our cultural understanding of relationships.
My own experience has taught me that that desire is much more complex than the Freudian account. That kind of immediately sexual desire certainly plays a role, and often a very significant role. But I don’t think the kind of desire for shared life which I just described was really just a dressed up way of trying to have sex as often as I possibly could.
But in my teens, I often heard homosexuality condemned as if it was just a kind of life entirely dominated by an unchained Freudian id. But that bore little resemblance to my experience. For several years after I realized I was attracted to other men, most of my emotional energy remained directed toward the friend I mentioned earlier (entirely uncommunicated and unrequited, I might add).
Some (Incomplete) Concluding Thoughts
I believe that gay sex is sinful, and that the desire for gay sex, though not itself sinful, is a temptation that cannot be regarded as morally neutral. But what I have just described is a desire that is much more complex than simply a desire for gay sex. Unless we are dumb enough to accept the Freudian picture of human desire, there is no good reason to think that my feelings for my friend were derived primarily from disordered sexual desires. (Aelred of Rievaulx’s model of friendship seems like a much more promising place to start.)
Melinda has recently begun to explore the complexities of attraction in her marriage to her husband, and we will have likely have other posts exploring same-sex attraction in marriage in the near future, as well. All of these point to a picture of sexual orientation which is more interesting than the simplistic picture often offered in the clashing slogans of the culture war.
We will continue to explore these complexities in upcoming posts, but for now, I just want to emphasize that the subject is more complex than it seems, and deserves more careful thought than it often receives.