[Note: this was originally the seventh and last post of a much longer essay. The entirety will soon appear on a separate page of longer pieces. I have kept this part on the main page as I feel it is self-contained.]
In the comments section to the piece which inspired this entire polemic six long posts ago … the most frequent line of thought contained some variation on the following: “Did you choose to be straight? What an idiotic, hateful, ignorant thing to say, that people “choose” their sexuality. Only a homophobic moron could ever even think such a thing. How completely reactionary and stupid.” Complete with various forms of sarcasm, mockery, and so on.
So, how would I answer such a person who asks me how anyone could possibly choose their “sexuality?” I would say something like this:
The question itself is very much flawed. And it is set up to beg one possible answer.
Let’s focus on the notion of “attraction” first of all, then come back to “sexuality,” which is actually a much bigger idea.
Did I wake up one morning and “choose” to love tea, or spinach, or world dance music? I think simple “choice” is a philosophically problematic concept. From the standpoint of complete interdependence (the Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has some helpful exercises in his books for working with this view empirically), we can’t actually contain in our consciousness anything even close to all the different factors involved in making such a decision – all the innumerable past perceptions and experiences which leave cognitive and emotive traces of all kinds, many of which are even unconscious. This isn’t like making an ordinary day-to-day decision – “do I have time to fit this appointment in tomorrow?”; “shall I apply for this position?”; “am I treating this person the right way?” – in which the relevant factors can usually be much reduced, contained.
So on one level I wouldn’t say that I literally “chose” to find (some) men attractive, or (some) women attractive. I think there are areas of life where it is not unreasonable to say something like that. For example, I don’t especially enjoy the prospect of working out, but I think it’s very possible that if I form the intention to stay open to it and am able to establish a discipline of practicing it, I at least theoretically might become one of those people addicted to the gym. Is there something fundamentally different about physical attraction, physical taste? Possibly. It is of course hard to justify saying that a person wakes up one morning and “decides” that they are going to be attracted to something. And yet … there is a flip side. I do experience all my tastes and attractions as part of a complex and ever-developing creative process.
There was definitely a time when I didn’t like spinach. The process of coming to like it involved a number of attempts throughout childhood and my teen years. I can’t remember the day it occurred to me that spinach was actually delicious, but it was certainly preceded by lots of judgments going the other way. Likewise it took probably three or four attempts before I began to truly appreciate scotch. When I first smoked a cigarette I thought it was absolutely vile. Alas, over time I became a smoker and grew to love the habit (until I hated it again and gave up for good – yay).
However, if I never can remember a moment growing up when I “chose” to find (some) boys or (some) girls attractive, neither can I remember a time when it chose me, as it were. In other words, I experience all attractions evolutionarily. None of them has come to me fully formed, ready-made, solid and unchanging. “Attraction” is not some one-pointed, unitary thing. Ask a thousand people what specifically attracts them about women or men or both and you will receive a thousand different answers. (See the end of Post 5 for a half-dozen or so other ways we might conceptualize “orientation,” if we insist on doing so.)
But all this has to do with cultivating tastes/attractions not already present. What about those that are? And here, I am in complete agreement: I don’t think powerful likes or loves or attractions ever go away, or very rarely. So let’s be clear about this. I don’t believe you can beat out of someone an already experienced deep attraction. But herein lies the first logical flaw in the rhetoric we daily hear. One can most certainly condemn “ex-gay organizations” – and should – on these grounds without needing to jump to any metaphysical construct whatsoever. If I’ve already developed a taste for tea, you’re not going to easily beat it out of me. With enough aversion torture therapy, yes, it’ll probably go away, at least for some time. But I don’t need to be a “tea-er” for this to be the case. I only simply need to love tea – whether in addition to coffee, or whatever. It doesn’t matter what pathways my consciousness took to affirm, “yeah, I like that, tea is awesome.” It’s the liking that deserves respect.
The crucial and really only relevant thing that needs to be said is: these feelings are good, period. They are fine. They are life-affirming, life-nourishing, centrally important to the person concerned. And it’s absolutely beyond your right to try and coerce such feelings out of anyone. (Again, short of prolonged torture aversion therapy perhaps, you’re not going to succeed anyway.)
But here’s the practical, political point in this: I hate to break it to the most idealistic, but many of the folks you’re trying to convince really don’t even care about the notion of etiology (“causation,” origins). From their point of view it is perfectly acceptable to say: well, okay, then there’s this special 2% or so who are blessed by God, for their affliction renders them more sensitive than the rest of us, but still it is wrong to use one’s genitals outside of male-female marriage, as ordained by the Lord, so their choice is to marry and be relatively disappointed, or joyfully embrace celibacy and serve humankind more fully.” Now, we might think anything we like about such a point of view, but we need to recognize that our cherished argument of innateness and immutability will not turn such a lock.
So again, just to be quite clear: 1) We do not require the notion of “innate and immutable” to counter the arguments of those who seek to (try to) erase same-sex love from others, any more than we need such a notion to argue a person’s right to prefer dogs to cats, late night to early morning, tea to coffee.
2) Not only do we not need such a notion, I have been arguing throughout these posts that it is not a supportable one. As such, it actually dilutes our case, and the opposition knows it, and doesn’t ultimately find it relevant anyway (see two paragraphs above).
Throughout all human history people have made less than stellar marriages – for that matter, often arranged marriages, where one had no choice of partner whatsoever. I have to say that one of the sadder “jokes” I hear (often by late-night comedians) hinges on the supposed literal, physical impossibility of people to have any kind of sex whatsoever with the “wrong” sex. You know, like, there are no gay-identified people who have and raise children, and guys have never, ever messed around with each other after a certain number of drinks. Please. (I’m not even going to dignify that with a reasoned response!) From the standpoint of people for whom sex is dubious at the best of times (cf. St. Paul: “it is better to marry than to burn”), all that matters is that sperm and egg find a way to meet. Your plea for the right to a happy sex life will not reach people who don’t view the pursuit of a happy sex life as a basic human right in the first place.
So now we can move onto the notion of “sexuality,” which, as I hope I’ve shown in the previous six posts, is something else again. “Sexuality” is a construct inescapably shaped by culture. Same-sex love and expression, for example, take a huge number of cultural forms (see Post 3). For the most part we think within the paradigmatic constructs we have come into contact with, because it takes time and much contemplative space to form overarching critiques, move into larger perspectives.
So I would say that at the level of “attraction,” the notion of choice is problematic, although – and this is a crucial point – attractions and tastes definitely can expand if we wish to cultivate them. However, I argue that we do in fact choose our “sexualities” – with the crucially important proviso that we choose them from among the options we have been taught. If we grow up in a culture in which more-or-less no stigma attaches to a man having sex with men provided he maintains a dominant “male” role (see Post 3 again), his “sexuality” options will differ from ours, because the ways in which the realms of sexuality are carved up differ. Likewise, the ancient Greeks too, to take just one other example, would have found our notions of “straight” and “gay” incomprehensible.
Personally, I’ve most definitely chosen my own “sexuality,” though my choice has been to reject the options on offer as not reflective of or truthful to my experience.
Today we live in a world where for men especially the pressures to fall into either a simple “straight” or “gay” box are almost insuperable. We have made it extremely difficult, practically speaking, for anyone to express same-sex feeling in any way, to any degree, without identifying themselves as Gay with a capital G – whether or not they actually feel separate in this way or culturally at home there (many do, a great many others don’t). That’s not a lot of choices, to put it mildly, and so it is completely understandable that many aware of strong same-sex feelings will embrace the specific identity of gayness with such a sense of relief, such joy.
But again: being aware of strong attraction for the same sex is not the same thing as “being gay.” It only seems that way because we are taught that men especially must be either G or S, and that this simply must be the fundamental category of “sexuality.” But there is nothing “natural” about this idea, and as I’ve suggested in post 5, there are many other equally valid ways to create sexual categories than by simply mapping them onto gender.
Awhile back I reported on the vote in New Zealand equalizing marriage. The day after my post I came across part of a speech in favor of the proposition, which disappointed me. Its argument was (you guessed it): people who “can’t help whom they love” shouldn’t be discriminated against. Well, if that’s literally the argument, then I’m literally not included in it. And no one is who doesn’t identify specifically as gay. No bisexual or pansexual or human sexual or what have you is included in it, quite literally. Let me put it another way: “can’t help it” simply isn’t the point. The point is and can only be: it’s good and right.
I believe we are currently stuck in the middle of a profound paradigm shift, which is why there is such enormous turmoil over a question concerning supposedly a tiny minority. A certain very ancient paradigm has been crumbling before our eyes and we don’t know what to do about it. On the one side there is fear, and retreat to the fortress of fully reified Gender. On the other side there is still fear, maybe a little less of it: here, Gender is still being propped up, but via brain organization theory (Post 5) and an extraordinarily reduced, deterministic, static view of sexuality.
But there is an alternative. That alternative is the view that the human race has actually been rapidly moving towards a genuine transcendence of gender, that is, gender as limitation. I’m not talking about procreative role and childbearing, but literally everything else. This process is already so far along and has been occurring at such a breathtaking rate that it has left a good deal of confusion and anxiety in its wake – as witness the growth in fundamentalist movements around the world, which are always exercised about gender and sex most of all.
As part of this, we have the capacity to begin to recognize that sexuality is both one and innumerable, but not two, not either/or. It’s “one” because there’s a tremendous amount we share in being human together, and it’s “innumerable” because we are each in fact unique. One aspect of this view is that, as even Freud noted, it’s hard to see how human beings would not have a basic bisexual potential – like our evolutionary forebears the fully bisexual bonobos. After all, again, women and men are not simply one-pointed dots of attractiveness, not even close to “opposites”: we are hugely, hugely more alike than different – physically, and in every other way.
In that case, what we’re going through at this point in time is a phase towards a larger and more liberated understanding of human potential and relationship. And yes, this is a scary prospect for us in certain respects. So a good deal of reaction has set in – from both sides. It’s not coincidental that the women’s and gay movements blossomed more-or-less simultaneously in the ’60s. Ultimately I believe neither of them will be seen as minority movements, but rather as the human race as a whole moving into a larger View.
We need to be able to advocate with full confidence in the truth. Not treat same-sex attraction and love as if they are a “condition” people are afflicted with. We’re mortgaging security with the shaky currency of etiology, when only the full truth will do now. We simply have to make the case that human beings are entitled to love whomever they like, consensually share their own bodies with whomever they like. Etiology is both endlessly disputable and also irrelevant. It doesn’t matter why you think I prefer tea to the more “normal” American beverage of coffee. The choice is morally neutral if not positive (tea seems to be healthier), enriching to some, harmful to none, and therefore it is mine to make.
Finally, I’d like to address an even more extreme form of the question. Often one hears this: “Why would anyone choose gayness if they could help it, given everything one must go through along the way?” This always puzzles me even more, because it is such an oddly negative way of thinking about things.
The answer can only be: why does anyone choose any path that is difficult? Because, of course, it’s viewed as valuable enough. Why for example do people become heroes, sacrificing their own well-being and even lives for the truth? Because they were simply born heroes?
Everyone knows that loving others, and for most people physical and sexual closeness with others too, are amongst the very best things around. So people will naturally be willing to go through quite a lot in their name. But there are also limits, which this argument forgets. When there’s no hope and the situation is too dangerous, most people throughout history don’t in fact try. It’s an individual trade-off. The notion of being able to “help it” or not is irrelevant. The only question is whether or not we should have to. And the winning of that argument is the only route to some real security.
My own feelings for men and for women are many and various, and a huge amount of what I feel for people – emotionally and physically – cannot be reduced to a checkbox, a label. I used to be a baseball fan as a child and only occasionally watched football. Now I watch neither but enjoy soccer when I have the time. Likewise, I rarely drank tea growing up, almost entirely coffee. Later I drank both (coffee with cream and no sugar, black tea in teabags with milk and sugar) and now it’s almost entirely tea (loose-leaf greens, oolongs, and blacks, no milk, no sugar). My tastes in food, music, film, and everything else have grown over the course of my life, and my sexuality has too. Gender “object choice” is different in certain ways, for sure, but mainly in how profoundly charged the subject of gender itself is. Despite this being so, for me sexuality has most definitely evolved and subtly expanded along with everything else. Because I want it to.
There are all kinds of same-sex feelings that people have without wishing to give themselves a separate “identity.” Let’s stay open to it all. The crime is in forcing people to shut down. And this is what we essentially do today. The anti-gay do it in one way. But the current rigidity of our discourse – and the “political correctness” of it – does it too.
I do not believe our “innate and immutable” argument can ultimately save anyone, even were it more coherent than it is. The only safe and stable argument to make and win, long-term, is that love is love. Same-sex love and attraction take various cultural forms, but they are human, universal, and precious. Period. That, I believe, is the progressive way forward. We must own our love.
Continuing on from the preceding post, two more exhilarating moments from The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out:
As for myself, I am a Khampa, but I do not like to take an aggressive stance or oppose others at all. People who watch out for my interests sometimes advise me to be less earnest and to go on the offensive more. They caution me against being so open and trusting. They warn me that people can have all sorts of different motivations and ulterior motives, and may be out to deceive me or use my name for their own ends. Even though I have heard this advice clearly, I cannot change. Actually, I don’t want to.
In this era of global communication and weapons of mass destruction, rather than impose our will on others by force, we urgently need to find ways to accommodate divergent wills. It has been a long and gradual process, but I believe the world is slowly coming to realize that what we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen. Especially with the unthinkably destructive power of the weapons we have at our disposal, it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.
The times call on us to look at others with the attentive and loving eyes of a mother, rather than with the hostile eyes of a warrior in battle. If we are going to divide up qualities as masculine or feminine, I think we have to say that the qualities we need today are qualities more often described as feminine. We need communication and sensitive listening to others’ needs – qualities that are likelier to be identified as feminine than masculine in most societies.
It is time we truly recognize that the era of the hunter is past. This should be a more “feminine” era…
The previous post here talked a bit about the Karmapa’s new book The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. The chapter I find the most remarkable of all has to be the one on gender – “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.” This is so because Tibetan culture, as is true of traditional cultures in general all over the world, has maintained a strongly gendered view of psychology and society.
Nothing in this chapter hasn’t been said by various western teachers of buddhism, and stray remarks can be found – increasingly so in recent decades – coming from other Tibetans, but this chapter surely represents the most direct and sustained presentation of the emptiness of gender from within the Tibetan world. As such I feel it to be a genuinely epochal moment.
A couple of examples:
Gender identities permeate so much of our experience that it is easy to forget that they are just ideas – ideas created to categorize human beings. Nevertheless, the categories of masculine and feminine are often treated as if they were eternal truths. But they are not. They have no objective reality. Because gender is a concept, it is a product of our mind – and has no absolute existence that is separate from the mind that conceives of it.
Societies take the distinction between masculine and feminine qualities very seriously indeed. Whole industries reinforce gender ideals, such as, for example, boys should be brave and girls should be sensitive. Society promotes the idea that people with Y chromosomes should exhibit only “masculine qualities,” and people with X chromosomes should exhibit “feminine qualities.” This holds us back, limiting men and women to socially constructed boxes, and causing a great deal of suffering for everyone [my emphasis].
In my own personal case, I do not always feel clear about this distinction between masculine and feminine qualities. People have told me that I have more feminine qualities than masculine. I do not know quite what that means. I have a sense of what these qualities feel like, but I have no labels of “feminine” or “masculine” to go with the feelings. I simply experience them.
For me personally, knowing how to define and categorize such things is not important. What matters to me is being able to connect with others heart to heart, with real feeling. What I value is the ability to speak from my heart, and to be tender and caring. I hope I have some of these qualities. Certainly these are the qualities I aspire to have. It does not strike me as at all relevant whether they are categorized as feminine or masculine.
I’m very grateful for the new book by the 17th Karmapa, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out.
I first became aware of him via his “Aspiration for the World“. Not long after, he issued an edict mandating vegetarianism in all centres within the Kagyu lineage – of which he is the head. (Many people assume buddhism to require vegetarianism of its practitioners, but this isn’t so, particularly within Tibetan buddhism.) These statements appeared when he was twenty or so, around 2006.
The Karmapa lineage is one of the oldest reincarnating lineages within Tibetan buddhism, older than the Dalai Lamas by a couple of centuries, and the current Karmapa’s immediate predecessor – the 16th – was one of the most revered buddhist teachers of modern times.
So, I began to take note of him. However, honestly it had been some time since I’d been able to feel hopeful about institutional Tibetan buddhism. Long story, but suffice it to say, for those lacking experience in this area, that power does seem to corrupt everywhere, and the greater the power, the greater the danger of this. So even a certain amount of despair had set in with me regarding the question. (Cf. even the Karmapa controversy itself, there being two rivals – though all of the lamas whose teachings I’m acquainted with, including the Dalai Lama, recognize this one, whose name is Ogyen Trinley Dorje.)
I must say, though, that this book truly heartens me. I feel that with the 17th Karmapa we have our first fully 21st-century lama. Have a look at some of the chapter titles: “Social Action: Caring for All”; “Environmental Protection: Cultivating New Feelings for the Earth”; “Food Justice: Healing the Cycles of Hunger and Harm”; and, most startlingly from a Tibetan teacher, “Gender Identities: It’s All in the Mind.”
Of course, it’s not a political book, reaching far deeper, but the point is that the Karmapa represents the first Tibetan lineage holder I’ve come across whose mind seems fully at home in the ecological View, who sees our predicament and understands that there is no room anymore for any kind of duality between personal practice and practice for our Earth and for the world.
The talks in this book in fact came out of meetings with American college students. It’s funny to remember too: back in 2006 I participated in a week-long program with the great Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and one of the things he said in one of the question-and-answer sessions was that powerful teachers manifest and develop in particular ways in the world in part due to our aspirations, so that if, for example, we yearn hard enough for “an ecology buddha” (his words), someone who will be of special benefit in this way, we might get one. And it was around this time, in fact, that the 17th Karmapa began to come into his own distinctive voice as it were.
I remember hearing somewhere also that Thrangu Rinpoche, his personal tutor, said of him around this time that he’d thoroughly mastered everything he had to teach him. And within Tibetan buddhism this is an extraordinary thing to say of someone of that age, given the immensity and depth of philosophical learning on the one hand, and actual practices on the other.
My feeling, and that of many others, is that the 17th Karmapa may well become a world leader in the decades to come, comparable to the Dalai Lama today. Judging by this book, which I am about halfway through now, he has much to say that we desperately need to hear and work with.
May as well try to “measure” music in order to say it’s one “thing” or the “other.”
Music, of course, has multiple layers/dimensions – four major ones: rhythm; melody (to one degree or another); timbre; and (in all but monophonic music) harmony. (Each of these in turn are multi-layered: melody can be contrapuntal to any degree of complexity, timbral possibilities are infinite, and so on.) We can’t simply take and reduce it as a phenomenon to just one of those, then reduce that to a choice of two dots.
Of course, that’s what Stalin’s cultural goons did, according, apparently, to Shostakovich: they at one point started counting the number of major and minor harmonies in a piece, and those whose ratio was too skewed to the minor got their composer condemned for insufficient revolutionary joy!
But of course even harmonies can’t be reduced to two. They exist within larger systems of key. And then, even major and minor keys are only two of seven traditional Western modes. The music of other cultures encompasses a great variety of modes also, including microtonal ones. And then of course there is modulation into other keys, and atonality too: neither major nor minor nor modal in any other way.
Sexuality, like music, is multi-dimensional. Immeasurable.
However, these days we have become so locked within an extraordinary – not to mention extraordinarily dogmatic – paradigm that it is almost impossible even to discuss “sexuality” in the true, vast meaning of the word. For various historical and cultural reasons, our vision has become utterly one-pointed, and grotesquely disfigured, in this regard.
And just how much pounding on square pegs to get them to fit into round holes thus has to go on can be demonstrated every single day with new material. Today, for example, there is this report on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, beginning: “We’re slowly getting a sense of how many TGBQLX people there are in America. I.e. how many homosexuals, lesbians and transgenders there are in the population.”
That “i.e.” is revealing. What comes after an “i.e.” of course is meant to be a definition or exemplification of its antecedent, so here Sullivan is saying the following: 1) transgender identity is practically speaking congruent with “sexual orientation,” like the “L” and “G” categories. He makes this clear by the next sentence: “When I was a newbie gay, the mantra was 10 percent.” But of course when he “was a newbie gay,” that meaningless 10 percent figure was meant to relate just to the categories of “L” and “G.” People weren’t talking about the other ones.
And 2) we can simply ignore the “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s,” because they too are really the same basic “thing” as the “L’s and G’s” (and, of course, “T’s”).
So, all the usual problems apply. Firstly, those who identify as trans have innumerable “sexual orientations,” and these are not possible to map onto the ones we have: if one biological male becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively (for the sake of simplicity) with men, clearly she is in not the same but the very opposite category of “sexual orientation” as the biological male who becomes a woman and then invests her sexual life exclusively with women. One of those two categories has to be considered – according to the logic we have harnessed ourselves to – as precisely “straight.” In other words, transgender simply can’t be used to bolster figures of “sexual orientation.” At all.
Secondly, the categories “Q” (by which is usually meant “queer,” an explicit rejection of the system as a whole), and “X,” which I’ve never seen before in this context but which can only be referring to something like “none of the above,” actually have nothing logically to do with the idea of “G” and “L.” But if one wishes to think that they (along with “B” of course) are really just variants on “L” and “G,” then of course the former can, and practically speaking are, more or less always ignored.
They’re even mentioned at all, in that case, so that wishful thinking and a desire for hygienic, stable, absolute categories can feel as if it is being true to “diversity,” while at the same time resolutely closing its eyes to it at every turn.
For it is precisely those “B’s,” “Q’s,” and “X’s” – amongst many other phenomena internally contradictory within our constructs of “gay” and “straight” themselves – which reveal the instability of our contemporary regime of “sexuality.”
In a time when the category of race has finally come to be understood – by more and more at least – as ultimately incoherent, that of something we are calling “sexuality” gets more reified, reductionistic, and rigid every year.
And of course there are a number of cultural reasons for this, about which … much more over time!
From an interview published yesterday (my emphases).:
“The men in Chabon’s books all come in pairs … in every possible permutation: fathers and sons, business partners, collaborators, lovers…. These permutations interest him mostly because, in real life, men have so few options for how to relate to one another. ‘It’s your buddy or your business partner or your romantic partner,’ Chabon says. ‘Or your enemy. That’s it. That’s all we’ve got.’
“Chabon envies women’s relatively greater emotional freedom, he says. And he believes that ‘a lot of the things men feel in terms of confusion and frustration and lack of emotional connection and fulfillment is because the accepted possibilities are so paltry.’ With his books, he says, ‘ultimately the question I’m asking is: What does it mean for two men to love each other? Do male friends love each other? And if they do love each other, what kind of love is it? Do they say they love each other? Do they even know they love each other?’
“Chabon does love men. He has written, in his nonfiction, about sleeping with one man and falling in love with another, and although he’s close to many women, he says his mental category of ‘best friend’ is, by default, male. (‘If I were casting the part, I’d call in men.’) But he is profoundly frustrated by how men behave, or rather by how they misbehave, a problem he sums up as ‘dickishness.'”