Michael Crawford

What Does it take to be Gay? Open Thread

Filed By Michael Crawford | January 13, 2008 11:14 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: gay identity, gay men

I came across comment while reading Andrew Sullivan's blog. It got me to thinking about what it means to be gay. It's clear from the nearly overwhelming diversity of LGBT people that there is more than one way to be gay.

What do you think?

What exactly does it take to be gay? It depends on the person, and how willing he is to actually be one.

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To "be gay," one has to adopt "gayness" as part of one's identity. Fucking someone in the ass doesn't mean you're gay (*cough, Larry Craig). If you're not willing to identify with our community, you're not gay.

I am gay because I like woman, and I identify with the community because of the complications arising from my sexual orientation. For the longest time I have struggled with the idea of whether or not I am "gay enough." I went to high school with one openly gay girl and I couldn't wrap my head around how confidently she expressed her sexual orientation. In my understanding, she was the epitome of lesbianism. (You could probably tell that I had a huge crush on her.) Being "gay" myself, I agree with what Serena said, "To 'be gay,' one has to adopt 'gayness' as a part of one's identity."

However, I think that accepting one's sexual orientation without reservation is equally important.

Other threads on Bilerico have argued the inadequacy of the word "gay" to describe all of us. But Sullivan's comment goes more in the direction of how we perceive ourselves.

For starters, Sullian uses the word "he" instead of including women under "person." How typical of the gay men in the movement who think it's all just about them. (Thank Goddess that most gay men don't think that way.)

How sad that some are mired in the inability to respect and empathize with others in the movement, or work with them politically. I'm talking about gay men who have no use for lesbians, and lesbians who have no use for gay men. Oh, and the lesbians and gay men who despise bisexuals and insist that there's no such thing as a bisexual.

And I'm baffled at Sullivan's phrase "how willing he is to be one." That wording seems to imply that we CHOOSE to align ourselves somewhere in the LGBT universe. This is exactly what the religious right thinks -- that we CHOOSE an immoral lifestyle and therefore we can CHOOSE to leave that lifestyle and live the way the religious right demand.

I've always been convinced, from my own experience and the thousands of people I've talked to for the last 34 years, that everybody in the LGBT alignment is born with something innate that that recognize -- something that makes us unable to conform happily to the strictures of hetero culture. Call it genetics or biology, call it a difference in your brain...call it what you will, because science is still working on this question. This innate factor determines how we see ourselves, as well as the gender or genders that we're sexually attracted to.

Yes, there is a choice factor in how and when and why we decide to come out. Some of us come out as teens, while others wait till later in life. But the torment of the closet comes from the fact that we are fearful to step out there and live the way our heart and spirit is telling us to live. Indeed, some people choose to spend their lives in the closet, but they're miserable there. So we know there is something innate in us, something deep-rooted and unchangeable, whether we're "willing to be" that way or not.

Persons that many of us lump under the T letter (which includes an enormously diverse grouping in its own right, making the word "transgender" inaccurate and inadequate for many) certainly recognize that they were born that way. In the cases of those with certain chromosomal or physical characteristics, they are definitely born that way and can prove it with their medical records. These are people that the bible-thumpers would bar from the right to have realignment surgery and change their legal identity, even though it could be argued from the Christian standpoint that God allowed them to be born different.

In fact, all of us who march under the LGBT banner are so diverse that the one thing we all have in common is that need to openly assert the inner and innate sense of a different personhood...who we really are. We also share a common goal of confronting intolerance in our society, and changing the laws that unjustly prevent us from enjoying the same civil rights and privileges of personhood that heterosexuals enjoy.

So -- to get back to Michael's question, What does it take to be gay? Well, I think that, for each of us, it takes an awareness about who we really are. From that point on, what we do about it is up to each of us.

I agree with you, Patricia. It takes more than sleeping with a certain someone, it takes more than identifying as part of a community - it takes an awareness of difference as well.

I'm going to defend Crawford's blockquote as well. It's not from Andrew Sullivan, it's actually from Rich Juzwiak, a freelance NYC writer, and he wrote it in response to a, let's say, less-than-aware magazine editor's request that he write an essay on what being a gay man means with a deadline less than 21 hours away. Some more interesting parts from that rather lengthy post:

So, whatever, it was a no-brainer: physical impossibility meant a quick reply of, "Thanks for the consideration, but I will not be able to turn this around by the deadline you gave." And that was that. Except, it wasn't. After I sent the email, I thought about the gig some more and I started to get really offended. Not as a person, not even as a gay person, but as a gay person who prides himself on being...well, not Carson Kressley. It seems to me that this editor could have written the story herself: clearly, she knew exactly what she wanted, right down to the writer's point of view. My ideas, at the very least, were unnecessary. What if, for example, I didn't think that all there was to being gay was sleeping with men? What if I already had considered homosexuality and its implications in a non-bedroom context? Most importantly, what if the very idea of spelling out "exactly" what it takes to be gay was inherently offensive to me? (For the record, to answer my own questions, I didn't, I had, and it is.) Since the idea was so clearly laid out, I don't think that she was calling on a gay man for an insider's perspective, per se. I think it more has to do with finding someone that could pigeon-hole his brothers on behalf of a publication and then take all responsibility away from said publication because: HA! He can't be homophobic; he's gay! "Pansy" is but one letter away from "patsy," and that's the kind of bitch I'm especially not trying to be.[...]

See, the more I think about it, the more proud I am to have turned down that piece. The editor didn't want a gay man but a gay, a human handbag that would do what she wanted (much like the way Kathy Griffin would call on her gays for fashion advice or to accompany her to see CĂ©line Dion), including the legwork to support her idea. I may be taking the proposed gig and/or myself too seriously here, but representation is such a vital thing, I think, and that's not the way I want to represent myself. If you're distilling your very being down to just sexuality, you're dehumanizing yourself before anyone truly hateful can get to you. It's a defense mechanism, maybe, but it's so so harmful.[...]

And don't get me wrong: my sexuality informs so so much about me and, especially, what I do. I feel nothing less than quintessentially gay all of the time (and especially when I use the word "quintessentially"). But really, if there's not anything more to me than stereotypes and predictability, I might as well quit communicating now. Obviously, since I haven't, I have faith that I have at least a little more than bitchiness and girl-worship to offer. And that's the thing about the How To Be Gay class that I think may miss the point (although I obviously haven't taken it, and I do think that despite some semantic problems, it's well-intentioned). The gay experience is actually so splintered that about the only across-the-board common factor we share is the option of picking up whatever splinter we want, in terms of interest and behavior. From a taste standpoint (which is clearly the standpoint I'm most concerned with always), we're allowed to like whatever we want to like, without really getting bogged down by the stigmas that straight men might be more inclined to care about. We can watch football and coo over Mariah. We can drink beer and have a side of no-fat Cool Whip. Sure, some gay guys are concerned with being as masculine as possible (the conceptual paradox of hyper-masculinity be damned), but I think that largely, we don't have to worry about being persecuted for our interests because we're already persecuted. We've already been beat up for wearing high heels, whether they're actually in our closet or not, you know? There's a whole world of possibility that we have the unique situation of being privy to. It seems to me that to not take advantage of that, to merely stay within what is considered typical behavior and interests, to uphold this queer status quo, is to revoke your cultural birthright as a gay male.

What exactly does it take to be gay? It depends on the person, and how willing he is to actually be one.

I should also add that one of the funny parts about this is that Juzwiak's opinion is light-years away from Sullivan's thoughts on gay identity (it's not formative! it informs nothing but bedroom choices! it has nothing to do with experience, rhetoric, politics, or anything but sex, and actually it's not really even about sex! gay marriage and DADT will magically end all gay discrimination!), and yet Sullivan just quotes him and says he likes the last line.

I think that since what Juzwiak says can at least be described as informed by post-modernism, and Sullivan always talks about how he hates post-modernism, that Matthew Yglesias's observation that Sullivan doesn't really know what post-modernism is has some further proof.


Well, it's better than Sullivan linking to articles about any gay bar closing, for whatever reason (zoning, owners retiring, other gay bars driving one out of business, who really cares!), and calling it the "end of gay culture."

Andre R Boulanger | January 13, 2008 4:56 PM

I agree with Serena.
I accept myself as homosexual and am comfortable with it. But, I sometimes struggle with applying the label 'gay' to myself. It's mainly a cultural thing.

Andre's post brings an important point into this topic: the intersection between ethnicity and insight into one's sexual/emotional identity.

I can see his point about being apprehensive towards calling himself "gay". In South American cultures, the word often implies effeminacy, which translates into weakness. Most men prefer to call themselves homosexual despite the fact that the label also has negative connotations because at least "homosexual" does not have the direct effeminizing implications, which is the result of a fairly more sexist culture.

Can we truly develop a concept of what being gay is? Is there a chance that there could come up another term which we would adopt as "more fitting"?

Good hair and fabulous shoes. *grins*

This question is very close to one that was tossed about at length in the late 70's and early 80's, "Is there such a [real] thing as a 'gay sensibility'?" --- Forests met their doom while we discussed it (pre-blogosphere), but nothing crystal clear ever emerged.

I do follow, though, what Patricia is saying: More than the gender of our sexual partners, more than identity with "gay community", being "gay" intrinsically carries an awareness of being in a sexual minority relative to most of humanity, plus an ultimate willingness, glad or stoic, to accept and embrace that difference.

Contrast it with the "MSM" phenomenon that occurs in all cultures, but which we are most aware in recent years in the Latino and African-American populace. Without passing any judgment on them, I believe such men are correct when they say, "Yes, I have sex with other guys, but I'm not gay [or queer or faggot or whatever]." The term "gay" evokes a certain consciousness, a certain awareness, a certain acceptance and even approval of one's sexual nature ... and indeed maybe even a certain sensibility --- meaning a particular perspective on the world that those who feel "mainstream" can never completely experience.

Bil~ That's one of the funniest comments all week.

Allen~ I agree. I think that's why many minority LGBT groups will often include terms like "same-gender loving", "MSM", or "SGA" in their mission statements, etc. Those words don't always cross cultural boundaries that easily.