Freedom to Be Gay Isn’t Freedom to Do Gay




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Last week, continuing a long tradition of papal foot-in-mouth syndrome, the Bishop of Rome said something controversial about homosexuality. Except that this time, for the first time in my life as a born-and-raised Catholic, the Pope has said something positive about “the gays.” (And not just something pathetically tepid like “They’re basically alcoholics” or “What pretty hats they’ve made me.”) Per CNN: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Liberals squealed and conservatives blanched. To American liberals and liberal Catholics, this might be a sign that the Church is loosening up on its old, hard-line anti-everything-fun attitude. To conservatives, Catholic or Protestant-and-preachy, this means that the beacon of the social conservative conscience in the West (cue child molestation jokes) finally “gave ground on gays” by saying “gay” instead of the much more accurate “homosexual,” or “god-awful pervert,” or “Brett Easton Ellis.” But why are the cons all of a sudden so against what is, admittedly, just a tidied-up version of the Church’s party line? That line being: It’s okay to be gay, as long as you don’t do anything gay. In other words, it’s fine to have a gay identity, but gay acts are still a big no-no.

Clearly the party line is not what it appears to be. The liberal claim that gay people (to say nothing of bisexuals, asexuals, and trans* people) are “born this way” has led only to conservative compromise on bigotry, with no substantive ground given. We need to break down the artificial barrier between identity and act, and ditch the tired “argument from immutable identity.” Because, in reality, no identity is 100% immutable—and there is no freedom of identity (to be) without freedom of action (to do).


Born this gay?

Mounting evidence from geneticists, biologists, neurologists, and a slew of other –ists continues to show a possible genetic or hormonal origin for homosexual inclinations. Simon LeVay began this whole hullabaloo with his 1991 study on neurological differences between gay men and straight men. LeVay found that the anterior hypothalamus (the part of the brain which governs sexual attraction) of a gay man tended to be smaller than that of a straight man. In fact, it was more the size of a straight woman’s. Bingo, immutable difference, right? Perfect guarantee against discrimination, political, economic, or otherwise. Of course, that’s ignoring the problematic facts that LeVay (1) only studied the corpses of (supposedly) gay men who’d died of AIDS, (2) seemed to have forgotten entirely about bisexuality, and (3) basically said that homosexuality is really just heterosexuality in different clothes.

But in any case, why is “immutability” the criterion for legal protection? Why do you have to be “born that way” before you can be considered a full human being? Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini write in Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance (2004) that “[o]pponents of lesbian and gay rights have overwhelmingly depicted homosexuality as a behavior-based identity, as a lifestyle choice only, and a bad choice at that. Proponents of lesbian and gay rights have responded by portraying homosexual identity as innate, in some way rooted in an individual’s essential nature.” Maybe it’s only natural: someone tells you that your sex life should be under the purview of government power, and you react, quite logically, by trying to pull your sex life out of the social realm. It has nothing to do with culture—God made me a muff-diver! But this strategy is limited and even dangerous, because grounding sexual identity in nature doesn’t preclude religious bigotry, as we’ve seen with the conservative reaction to the Pope’s “pro-gay” comments. Religion can be both pro- and anti-nature. Anyone who’s been in an argument on religion and homosexuality can attest to this. The first argument tends to be: Homosexuality is unnatural. When this claim is answered with, “Well, actually, all sorts of animals have non-reproductive sex—homo and hetero,” a second argument emerges, contradicting the first: God expects us to be more than animal, to rive above our baser instincts. “Religion can have it both ways,” Jakobsen and Pellegrini write. This is how we are able to live in a culture which views homosexuality as unnatural and aberrant, but goes to every extent to train children to be “normal,” to grow up heterosexual, and to look on homosexuality with revulsion. How is heterosexuality natural and normal if it’s also so fragile that watching an episode of Glee is enough to eradicate it from the planet? Clearly, then, it’s not about natural or unnatural, mutable or immutable. It’s about keeping power in some hands, and out of others.

Freedom to do gay

In truth, no human identity is natural, immutable, or normal (except if by “normal” you mean “typical”). Every identity, every psychological and social reality, could have been otherwise. This is what Simone de Beauvoir meant when she wrote that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” The biological fact of femaleness is not enough to make one a woman in the full, cultural sense of that word. Womanhood entails a certain mode of dress, sexual behavior, physical aesthetic, and perhaps even political viewpoint—all of which vary from culture to culture. (Before you deny this, you may want to look over the long history of male writers rhapsodizing on the qualities of “real” women, qualities which are not limited to “has a vulva, breasts, and two X chromosomes.”) Race, likewise, is largely cultural, as anyone of color who’s been told they “act too white” can tell you. Sure, there are identities you may personally feel more comfortable in. But this comfort doesn’t emerge directly from your brain chemistry, skin tone, or genitals. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

As a result, we have to concede that no identity can exist without a corresponding act. Each identity is enacted, not just experienced internally. It’s not enough to be able to say to yourself, “I’m a woman,” or, “I’m black,” or, “I’m a black lesbian,” if you’re forbidden from doing anything that those identities may entail (including declaring your identity to others). As Jakobsen and Pellegrini put it, “‘Born that way’ arguments can have the unanticipated effect of separating identity from practice. Such arguments may create a space for homosexual identity, but they can also allow for the regulation of what is often euphemistically called ‘homosexual conduct.’” In other words, be gay, but don’t do any of that gay shit. That’s how we get such court cases as Romer v. Evans (1996), which ruled that homosexual identity isn’t of itself grounds for government discrimination, and Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), where the court found that homosexual conduct is actionable. That’s because the former is immutable, and the latter is something you choose to do. Or, in conservative Catholic terms: having gay feelings is pitiable; having gay sex is disgusting. But if identity at least is secure, then how did Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell—a policy which forbade the mere mention of one’s sexual identity—pass muster? Apparently “homosexual conduct” includes a variety of things beyond having sex, like saying “I’m gay” or “I think Mark Wahlberg is a good actor.” This is how impoverished “freedom of identity” becomes without “freedom of action.”

As I’ve implied, this doesn’t just apply to same-sex attraction. What happens when we view race as just an internal, immutable identity, with no corresponding freedom of action? In Rogers v. American Airlines, Inc. (1981), an African-American woman named Renee Rogers was fired for violating her employer’s policy against braided hairstyles. The policy technically applied to people of all races, so the Supreme Court denied Rogers’ demand to have her old job back. Setting aside the question of whether the government should be involved in hiring and firing decisions at all, this is a perfect example of freedom to be with no freedom to do. Jakobsen and Pellegrini explain: “Renee Rogers may have been protected from being fired for ‘being’ black and for ‘being’ a woman, but the court did not see fit to protect her from being fired for the way she expressed her identity as an African American woman.” In this case, freedom of identity comes with a caveat, requiring assimilation and the internalization of differences.

In this light, the Pope’s comments, and the subsequent backlash, make much more sense. And it’s a very disturbing sort of sense. The kind of freedom created by a “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude, or its liberal “born this way” equivalent, is no freedom at all. Clearly, freedom of conscience is impotent if unaccompanied by free exercise, to use the language of religious freedom. When approached from this direction, the identity/act dichotomy is easily resolved, at least in a political context. The libertarian non-aggression principle is an obvious starting place: any identity is acceptable, legally and socially, if it isn’t coercive. You’re free to be gay, trans*, black, Christian, a socialist—but as soon as you start claiming the identities of “arsonist,” “rapist,” or “child molester,” your free exercise is justly limited, not because of the supposedly natural or unnatural origin of your particular proclivities or inclinations, but because of the coercive actions you commit while “performing” those identities. Jakobsen and Pellegrini may not call themselves libertarians, but it’s hard to see the following as statist: “Rather than depending on dubious appeals to innate differences, we argue for the positive value of freedom with regard to social difference. By eschewing a reliance on biology, it is possible to connect rights to freedom, thereby expanding the reach of movements that are now narrowly focused on gay ‘rights.’” A synthesis of libertarian thought on non-aggression, and left-leaning scholarly analysis of identity politics, might just do the trick and defuse the power of statist anti-sex policies.

Photo by [nivs]

Brendan Moore is a current undergraduate at Coe College, studying feminism, zen deconstructionism, poetry, Amanda Palmer, and Tori Amos. He currently lives in Las Vegas, and would like to help you smash the patriarchy.



  1. Plato's Beard

    “After all, the way of thinking, there are only preferences, not as Plato thought, divinations into the nature of things. Preferences are value judgments, and value judgments cannot be reasoned about, let alone judged. Judgment, which was one of the most cherished of the intellectual virtues, has become a vice, which we recognize when we call someone judgmental. This change may or may not contribute to a more tolerant society, but it surely provides a ready excuse for scanting that most valuable kind of judgment, the judgment of oneself. Even the old motive for making an argument about sexual tastes provided by the laws forbidding many of them, has disappeared. And people no longer have a compelling need to search in literary and historical sources for ‘role models’ in erotic activity. We’ve got it all, and need neither justification nor encouragement. All this tends to reduce sexual acts to their bodily and brutish expression and to repress a natural need to celebrate them in speech, while encouraging thoughtlessness about things that are of capital importance. Such thoughtlessness may seem to make things easy, but it robs us of more than half of our pleasure. Nothings so dear to one’s heart as love, with its far reaching influence on all one’s tastes, can be experienced without opinions about its high significance. To abandon the attempt to articulate those opinions is to decapitate experiences, The most splendid speech we know concerns love as it was once talked about by the poets. The Symposium(Plato) can help us to regain the saying, ‘This is what I do, and this is why it is so great!;”-Allan Bloom

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