Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Why I Am Not Gay

Until recently, men having sex with men was disapproved of in American culture. Actually, “disapproved of” isn’t really the right word — it was immoral, illegal, disgusting. People who did it lived in secrecy, under the constant threat of blackmail for their actions.

In the tumult of the 1960s, various out-groups — blacks, Chicanos, Native Americans — begun organizing themselves and demanding to be respected and given their due. And men-who-had-sex-with-men decided that they were an out-group — they were gay — and they deserved rights too.

In doing so, they transformed an action (having relationships with someone of the same gender) into an identity (“being gay”). And, using the normal human mechanisms for distinguishing between people in your club and those not in it, they closed ranks. Gay men didn’t have sex with women. Those who did weren’t gay, they were “bi” (which became a whole new identity in itself) — or probably just lying to themselves. And straight men had to be on constant guard against being attracted to other men — if they were, it meant that deep down, they were actually gay.

This new gay identity was projected back through history — famous historical figures were “outed” as gay, because they’d once taken lovers of their own gender. They truly were gay underneath, it was said — it was just a homophobic society that forced them to appear to like the opposite sex.

Along with the identity went an attempt at justification. Being gay wasn’t “a choice,” they argued — it was innate. Some people were just born gay and others weren’t. To a culture that tried to “correct” gay people into being straight, they insisted that correction was impossible — they just weren’t wired this way. (They even provided a ridiculous genetic explanation for how a species with a small percentage gay people might evolve.)

This might have been a good thing to say — maybe even necessary in such a homophobic culture — but in the end it has to be seen as simply wrong. Having sex with other people of your gender isn’t an identity, it’s an act. And, like sex in general among consenting adults, people should be able to do it if they want to. Having sex with someone shouldn’t require an identity crisis. (Nobody sees having-sex-with-white-people as part of their identity, even if that’s primarily who they’re attracted to.)

People shouldn’t be forced to categorize themselves as “gay,” “straight,” or “bi.” People are just people. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to men. Maybe you’re mostly attracted to women. Maybe you’re attracted to everyone. These are historical claims — not future predictions. If we truly want to expand the scope of human freedom, we should encourage people to date who they want; not just provide more categorical boxes for them to slot themselves into. A man who has mostly dated men should be just as welcome to date women as a woman who’s mostly dated men.

So that’s why I’m not gay. I hook up with people. I enjoy it. Sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. I don’t see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.

You should follow me on twitter here.

September 8, 2009


I think you’re mischaracterizing what happened to say that out groups created their own identities, and it borders on blaming the victim. The concept of ‘gay’ existed long before ‘gay rights groups.’ It must have because the discrimination that lead to the formation of such groups relied on such an identity. It was not, as you suggest, merely an action that was (is) discriminated against; it was an identity associated with that action.

posted by Scott Reynen on September 8, 2009 #

Having sex with other people of your gender isn’t an identity, it’s an act

For you it is an act, for some it is very much an identity. Particularly those who choose to settle down and get married with a member of the opposite sex.

I appreciate your sentiment, but for some people it is very important to give themselves a label, if only to show the world that the label is perfectly acceptable and not scary. And it isn’t.

posted by Steven Chabot on September 9, 2009 #

Isn’t one source of the action having sex with someone an identity, i.e. some facts about you which aren’t up to you? People at least partly discover their own selves, they don’t create them purely by choice. Who one has sex with - and who one likes, is attracted to, loves, wants to spend time with, etc. - is grounded in, and helps make, important discoveries about oneself. So, to answer your question about why it needs to be more complicated than that: because it is more complicated than that. We’re not the self-creating creatures you imply. (None of this is at all to suggest that there’s anything wrong with having sex with people of your own gender, or with being gay. There isn’t, and homophobes can fuck off.)

posted by Sam C on September 9, 2009 #

I wonder if we’re using ‘identity’ to mean different things. Let’s make a distinction (I’m a philosopher, I make distinctions compulsively): identity(1) is a way in which people are labelled and pigeonholed – soccer mom, goth, juvenile delinquent; identity(2) is a deep unchosen fact about oneself – I’d say that sexuality is one such, but even if not, there are such (I like humors as rough guides here: some people just are melancholic). You’re right that ‘having-sex-with-white-people’ isn’t currently an identity(1) for me or you, although it could become one, and maybe even is one: one name for it would be ‘race traitor’. I’m inclined to think it isn’t even a possible identity(2) for creatures like us, given how fascinating, including sexually fascinating, humans seem to find difference. Identities(1) and (2) can fail to match: I can be misperceived by others, and damaged by that misperception. And in general – I think – it’s better for us to have identities(1) and (2) which do match – to be seen as we are. That’s why it’s valuable that there is a recognised, non-hateful identity(1) ‘gay’ to match some people’s gay identity(2). That doesn’t stop there being people for whom sexuality isn’t a part of identity(2) – who enjoy having sex with people of both sexes, but don’t feel that anything deep in themselves is engaged when they do. I think they’re unusual people, to be honest; I know I’m not one of them.

posted by Sam C on September 9, 2009 #

Sam’s right that ‘having-sex-with-white-people’ very much was an identity. And just like ‘gay’, that identity was forced on a group of people by another as a means of disapproving of the people, not just their actions. In both cases, you can now afford to bypass the identity precisely because others before you have worked so hard to remove the power it once held. That you not only fail to value that work, but even blame it for creating the divisive identity it actually destroyed is … frustrating … sad … I don’t even know.

posted by Scott Reynen on September 9, 2009 #

Steven Chabot says, “For some it is very much an identity. Particularly those who choose to settle down and get married with a member of the opposite sex.”

As someone who is married to a member of the opposite sex, I challenge the connection you are drawing here. Although I’ve never “hooked up” with people — sex is too personal to me for that — I see my sexual history very much as Aaron sees his: historical claims, not future predictions. My identity has many facets, but none of those facets includes a category such as “heterosexual” — even though, as it happens, all of the small number of people I’ve had sex with are female, and given that I’m in a monogamous permanent marriage, that seems likely to remain true for many more years.

I do think that Aaron’s just-so story is historically incorrect in the following sense: the concept of “a homosexual” predates the gay rights movement by quite a bit. Although the first edition of the OED doesn’t list it (the H volume came out in 1901), according to Wikipedia, it was listed as a disorder in the very influential Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886.

posted by Kragen Javier Sitaker on September 9, 2009 #

At least you have some idea where you’re at on the Kinsey scale, no?

posted by Mike on September 9, 2009 #

I like your argument but I don’t think sexual identity can be written off until all are liberated. It’s easy to argue against identity politics, but people coming together under various labels is useful as an interim measure. I enjoy “queer” but use “gay” as well to be more specific, since I’m nearly always attracted to men and am familiar with its cultural implications.

posted by backspace on September 9, 2009 #

Huh, that’s (almost) exactly what I always say about sexual orientation/identity. The one thing I’m not sure about is if it’s completely correct to say “These are historical claims — not future predictions.” I think in most cases it is both. From a probabilistic perspective, if 100% of the people you’ve previously been attracted to (or hooked up with, or fallen in love with, etc.) have been, say, men, and the sample size is large enough, then that is strong evidence, given that you are attracted to somebody, that they are male; and the converse, given that someone is male, stronger evidence that you will be attracted to them than it would be if they were female.

Still, things can change, and people shouldn’t need to identify with probabilities. (I think the “you’re born with your sexual orientation and it never changes” meme has outlived both its usefulness and any evidence for it.) I tend to be more attracted to women than to men; but I can’t call myself bisexual or heterosexual (which both sound too exact), so if I must call myself anything, I use a word coined by a friend of mine who feels similarly: “wtfsexual”. We’re not trying to seriously promote it as a new word, but it does tend to make people curious to understand it. It is essentially what you said at the end: “I hook up with people. I enjoy it. Sometimes they’re men, sometimes they’re women. I don’t see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.” I usually state it as: “I am attracted to whomever I’m attracted to.” There may or may not be clear patterns in my sexual attraction, but so what? This way, if I end up (for instance) being more attracted to men at some point, then I can skip the identity crisis and get on with my life.

I do think, as a practical matter, that the gay identity and gay rights movement will still be necessary for some time to come. Maybe someday the idea of sexual orientation/identity will become unnecessary and fade away, but if it suddenly vanished today, people would still hate men who have sex with men, and women who have sex with women, even without that identity. And having a shared identity is a fairly important aspect (or perhaps a natural consequence) of having a cultural movement against those attitudes.

posted by Adam on September 9, 2009 #

Ow ow ow … where to begin untangling this … let’s start with identity politics.

1) Identity politics is somewhat arbitrary - true. However, it is fallacious to then conclude all social relationships are utterly arbitrary (lots people make this mistake) - “I don’t see why it needs to be any more complicated than that.”

2) Homophobia - you have a really garbled tale here, which pretty clearly comes from seeing current intellectualizing, and not where it came from (“In doing so, they transformed an action (having relationships with someone of the same gender) into an identity …” - you have this very much reversed in terms of history.

I’m going to leave it at that for the moment.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on September 10, 2009 #

“Until recently, men having sex with men was disapproved of in American culture. Actually, “disapproved of” isn’t really the right word — it was immoral, illegal, disgusting. People who did it lived in secrecy, under the constant threat of blackmail for their actions.”

Not true. You really have not done your research and I think based on your interest in the subject that you should. Here are two great books off the top of my head that talk about this specifically in a historical context as well as other things:

Chauncey, George - “Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940”

Michel Foucault - “History of Sexuality”

posted by non on September 10, 2009 #

You are being from the future. A very good future. A future I hope is more now as a result of people saying things like this.

Mike: my problem with the Kinsey scale is that it’s so static. I know I’ve slid around it in my life, and hell, I think it’s moved on some long days. That said, I really do appreciate that it was an incredibly powerful way of looking at things for its time.

We aren’t attracted to men, or women, categorically. If we are that’s a whole ‘nother level of mental illness. We are attracted to people, individuals who may have consistent features. Makes us laugh. Brunette. Dimples. A set of genitalia is just another feature.

posted by q on September 10, 2009 #

The Kinsey scale is valid. It’s fine that you’re not gay. Nothing wrong with being a man who has sex with men (and women). However, just because you are a 2 or 3 or 4 on the Kinsey scale, does not mean that 1’s or 5’s don’t exist. Some people really are gay or straight — or to take away the identity, which you are correct to minimize, some people are exclusively sexually and emotionally attracted to people of the same sex, and some only like the opposite.

posted by Kevin on September 10, 2009 #

It only needs to be “more complicated than that” when one is isolated and unoccupied. Homophobia’s root: storytelling.

posted by Pablo on September 10, 2009 #

God bless you Aaron, but this sounds exactly like the drivel from immature young men who don’t understand the history or the struggle that many of us go through on the path to accepting ourselves, much less having anyone else accept us (or try to hurt us, as it was where I grew up). Without any research, or facts, I hear this kind of prattle from young entitled omni-sexuals who think that these “identities” as shackles when they have no concept of their history or how hard those before them struggled to make it ok for you to “hook up” with any gender and be ok with it and not be lynched.

Maybe this is my midwestern sensibilities … I did not grow up in a more accepting area of the United States, and had a massive struggle with defining my identity to myself, knowing that I was damning myself to potential isolation and harm from those in my community. One of the major reasons I moved far away to college, and eventually New York was so that I could freely embrace my identity as a gay man without fear of repercussion. However, until all sides see that gay, lesbian, straight, bi, anything is the same as being “color blind” when it comes to race, coming to grips with your identity was and remains a path to personal growth for certain people that cannot be abolished lest we leave some of our brethren behind to drown in the deep end with no support.

Conversations like these are more meant to express to your friends your desire to justify your particular lifestyle … they should not be raised as an argument to discount a movement and an identity that defines and enhances a generation. If you wanted to postulate this as a serious argument, then I would expect a guy as smart as you to do a little more research instead of making sweeping statements with no factual basis.

The simple fact is, as someone who is proud of my identity, I get so tired of hearing this same story repeated to me by the same people: “Don’t label me, labels are wrong, there should never be any labels, etc.” This may be fine for you and your ilk, but if you refuse to acknowledge why those labels exist and why OTHERS may need them, then you are being as closed minded as the people you claim are “labeling” you.

I am a 28 year old, computer programming, music theatre loving, cranium playing, gay male who is an all around awesome guy that is so proud of how I had to struggle and how those struggled before to make it OK for me to say that. Don’t dilute my identity because you don’t agree that it may apply to you

posted by mb on September 10, 2009 #

mb, You didn’t mention your race and nationality. Shouldn’t those be important parts of your “identity” too?

It seems to me there are are too many variables involved in creating a coherent and universal identity. I don’t even really know what “gay” male means. In the same way, I don’t know what black male means. Or white male. Or American. They’re empty terms that seem to put limits rather than remove them. Several times, I’ve used language to describe myself in detail. Even after 200 pages of self-reflection, I couldn’t do it justice.

One thing I do know is I enjoy connecting with other people on an emotional level.

posted by fairykarma on September 10, 2009 #

I’m by no means a prude on this — in fact, the “hook up” is one of the great joys of life. But your focus on “hooking up” ultimately leads to unhappiness. It is the curse of gay men / promiscuous anyone — the relative difficulty in structuring the long term monogamous relationship that seems to induce the most happiness in the most people.

Not all people are happiest with monogamy; but most people — gay and/or straight — are.

I do wonder how happy YOU are with this “hey, that’s cool man” lifestyle you have. If you are truly happy then I envy you. I really do. But I wonder…

(Finally, I want to emphasize that as I say the above puritanical sounding statements I am by no means a moralist or a puritan. In fact, I’m amoral — I just believe in creating maximum happiness even at the expense of morality.)

posted by on September 11, 2009 #

I think people like to be part of a group, to have other like-minded people around. Of course there is some prejudice here and there, but we are not made of glass, are we?

posted by Romulo on September 11, 2009 #

I’ve always been uncomfortable with identifying as “gay,” more, I think because I’m uncomfortable with the unspoken “man” part at the end of that sentence. Not because I’m particularly effeminate, but because of all the crap that’s tied up in “being a man:” not talking about your feelings, being introverted, misogyny (even for gay men), and so forth. That doesn’t really suit me. I think the biggest “advancement” in queer/gay stuff in the last twenty years is the understanding that you can’t really talk about “gender” without talking about sexuality stuff and vice versa. There’s also this paradox about “coming out,” where although we couch it in terms of “becoming free” and what not, being “out” is totally not freeing, because you say “I’m this,” which always implies a bunch of things that you’re not.

At the same I mostly have sex with male/menfolk, but I totally agree that it’s as much about habit and history as it is about some transcendent notion of desire. So despite hating “gay” as an identity and disliking “being out,” I really delight in the company of the queer community—such as it is.

My real gripe with “gay” and “bi,” is that it splits hairs, and it means that people who do the homo thing 40% of the time get shunted into another category from the people who do the homo thing 80% of the time, when really such things are largely irrelevant.

Ah details. Having said that, I do quite enjoy finding queerfolk in non-queer settings. I came to technology geek/hacker culture via a round about course, having spent a lot of time being a social science/queer/feminisms geek, and finding the places where queers+hackers mash up is always a good thing.

posted by tychoish on September 13, 2009 #

I think this is easy to say for someone who just sees sexuality as hooking up with people. It’s this same kind of person who thinks that “marriage” is also an artificial construct and that it’s more natural to have open relationships. I’m not really judging you, but I don’t think you can apply the same opinion for labeling yourself to everybody who identifies themselves as a gay person.

To me being gay is one facet of my identity, but it’s as much a part of who I am it is for someone who’s black. It affects a lot of things in my life. Besides just affecting how I actually physically have sex and the chunk of the population that would be my potential partners, personally I think I think differently than a heterosexual person (in the same way that men think they think differently from women, except I think I think differently from both straight men and straight women) and because I’m gay when I have sex I don’t don’t have babies which means I would have to consider adoption or surrogacy or to not have a kid at all.

I’m engaged to my boyfriend of 5+ years and because we’re gay a lot of aspects of our engagement/wedding will be different (besides the fact that we have to deal with legal issues at the moment). And I think just being two males also affects the balance of our relationship differently than it does for a male/female couple. Even the expectations men and women have for frequency of sex and frequency of orgasm affect that couple’s relationship as a whole in the long-term.

There’s just so many factors that make someone who’s gay and in a relationship different from a straight person that “gay” as an identity is perfectly acceptable for me. And I think that’s perfectly fine. Perhaps someone like you shouldn’t choose to have gay or bi or anything as an identity because it doesn’t define as much of who you are as a person and how you spend the day-to-day moments of your life (besides when you’re hooking up with someone), just like someone wouldn’t identify themselves as a Jewish person if they don’t believe in the religion and don’t practice all its rituals/etc. But an orthodox Jew who comes from strong Jewish blood who lives in a community with other orthodox Jews and only buys things within their community sees it as more than just a label (although I think they can still break free from that religion but being gay isn’t something I can “break free” from).

posted by Bart on September 13, 2009 #

You said at the end “If we truly want to expand the scope of freedom, we should encourage people to date who they want; not just provide more categorical boxes for them to slot themselves into.” I have always been very careful of the different use for the word freedom. In the in the statement above I don’t see the behavior you mention as expanding freedom, I see it as promoting aberrations. As for the use of the word freedom, how about we call it “expanding the scope of libertinism” This is really not a gray area at all, but it is convenient to see it that way. How is it that we have become a society that considers everything gray, even murder? You and I can think of many cases where in the court of law it was considered murder under special circumstances. The fact that even murder in our society has special circumstances is actually outrages. So really, it is no surprise that sex with the same gender is considered a right, not degrading. If the case for being gay is uncontrollable, D.N.A. factor, natural, I am sure that even priests can say that they have the same factors acting within themselves when they violate children. If we are not able to control our desire to do anything we will become animals, thats why I think that religion exists, if its not a tool to try to achieve becoming better, it at least serves as restrains for doing bad. But again you might say whats bad? Again we go back to the gray, and I would venture to say that there is nothing bad (Im being sarcastic, hope you can see the point). In closing I believe that we have become a society that is humane beyond its intelligence level. I hope that we go back to more defined morals and lets expand the scope of ethics instead, we have too much freedom and lost its value along the way.

posted by Levi on September 14, 2009 #

Levi, your rights get restricted by society where they violate those of others. Thus, murder or violating children, whatever the supposed motivation, is illegal and immoral.

Consensual relationships, sex, and even marriage with the same gender does not restrict the rights of anyone. (In fact, prohibiting it does.)

posted by Mike Kale on September 15, 2009 #

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