By Chris Janousek (also visit his blog agaybiologist.blogspot.com)
As I’ve accepted my sexuality as a gay man over the last several years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to think about my attractions and ponder and discuss how they may or may not compare to those experienced by others. Since I almost always kept my sexuality at an emotional and intellectual distance while growing up and during young adulthood, the last few years have challenged me to reconnect my sexuality with the other parts of my personality. This hasn’t been the most comfortable experience (who wants to grow up all over again in their 30s?), but it has been a transformation that I know I cannot turn back on.
As gay people with connections to Mormonism, during our journeys we may have encountered a lot of voices that attempted to define our sexuality for us. When we were in the closet, many of us probably tended to let others tell us what homosexuality meant. We often believed them when they concluded we should live a life where we controlled or negated our attractions. There are a couple of arguments we might have heard.
First, some voices, perhaps well-intentioned, may have tried to argue that sexuality is just one small piece of the human puzzle. While it is true that a human being is much more than his or her sexuality, sometimes the intent behind that argument was to diminish the importance of gay attractions, to reduce them in scale to some minor component of the human experience. In this kind of narrative, homosexuality is no more than a footnote in a gay person’s biography, a few words in small print drowned out by facts like education, career, and favorite pizza toppings. Those who attempt to diminish the importance of sexuality may do so because it is then easier to argue that gay people should live a life that they think is best for them.
Other voices may have tried to simplify homosexuality, focusing only on sex. From this point of view, homosexuality is simply a behavior, not a state of being that needs attention and cultivation to create a healthy and thriving individual. Because homosexuality is just an act, there is no homosexuality absent sexual behaviors. Intentionally or not, those arguing for this very narrow definition of sexuality undermine the idea that there is a gay identity, or at least that being gay is about more than just sexual acts. If there is no gay identity, then homosexuality can always be kept at a distance, never fully integrated with the mind or the heart. For those that believe homosexuality is sinful, compartmentalization is a positive outcome.
But what is sexuality? How does it relate to the other features of a human personality? Is heterosexuality just a small part of what makes up a straight person? Is heterosexuality just about straight sex? Is there no such thing as a heterosexual identity?
It is pretty clear that human sexuality is much more than simply sex. A long list of words related to human attractions indicate how much of our life experience is tied to sexuality, though potentially having little to do with the actual mechanics of sex: pairbonding, romance, marriage, soul mate, nesting, dating, and falling in love. Many human behaviors illustrate the broad reach of sexuality too. For example, how many hours a week are spent daydreaming about a special someone or planning a romantic activity? When two people meet and become a couple, do they only spend time and energy on sex, or do they devote much more time and effort to pairbonding behaviors such as cooperation, building an emotional connection, and working towards shared goals? In short, most people probably spend a lot of time thinking about sex, but no one gets as much action as their libido might hope for.
All of these other components of sexuality show that sexual orientation reaches deep into other aspects of the human experience, like the arteries and capillaries that carry blood to every part of a human being. There are emotional components to sexuality such as finding comfort and security in the love offered by a significant other. There are spiritual components to sexuality such as learning to sublimate one’s own needs or ambitions for a spouse. There are social components to sexuality such as fulfilling a role in a family or a community. If these arteries are cut off from the body – as when a gay person is told that gay relationships are evil – the whole person suffers, or may even die. Losing the emotional, spiritual, intellectual and social aspects of sexuality would greatly diminish the human experience.
Perhaps many straight people take this comprehensive view of sexuality for granted. Of course sexuality encompasses romance and identity and social roles. That is obvious because so much of human culture is structured around heterosexual norms. But for various reasons – fear and misinformation being among them – I failed to apply this broader view to homosexuality, at least to my homosexuality.
Some who misunderstand same sex attraction may fail to realize (or admit) that many gay people are not gay in their genitals only. For the years I was in the closet, I believed that my attractions were something external to me because they were taught to be sinful and I did my very best to avoid anything even remotely resembling homosexual behaviors. When I gave up much of the shame I held about my sexuality, however, I was finally able to understand that there was a deep emotional component to my attractions. I comprehend now, for instance, that when I fell in love with a close straight friend in high school, I wasn’t looking just for friendship. I was looking for an emotional and romantic connection to another person that naturally comes to almost all of us as we grow up. In transforming my perspective over the last few years, it was necessary to first accept that my sexuality was good, because then it ceased to be foreign to me. I could own it and be proud of it and listen to what it might be telling me.
“Sexual orientation” is a poor term. If one gets to the heart of human attractions, we could just as easily describe a “romantic orientation” or an “emotional orientation”. For many people, these different aspects of attraction tend to align in the same direction. But whether they do or not, recognizing their existence and importance speaks to the complexity of sexuality. In my mind and heart, being gay is as much about sharing adventures, holding hands and cuddling, and laughing and crying with someone of the same sex as it is about sexual contact. If I live the rest of my life without having sex again, I will still be gay. Deep down inside I will still feel most comfortable and fulfilled when I can share human intimacy with someone of my own sex.
Put simply, sexual orientation is really just about who one falls in love with. It isn’t everything about a human being, but it touches on so many important aspects of life, that to artificially sever it from the rest of a person’s life is to almost guarantee a diminished human experience. Sexual orientation doesn’t need to be the sole defining characteristic of a person, but it doesn’t need to be downplayed either. So, perhaps if I am to put a label on myself, I should just say that I am homophilic*. I’m homosexual, but I am also homoromantic and homoemotional. I fall in love with guys, and the amazingness of the opposite sex notwithstanding, my brain is just wired for men.
So, in my mind, here is the key question we must ask of homosexuality and of the expectations we have about how gay people live their lives: If being heterosexual is as much about emotions and personal and social identity as it is about having sex, why would anyone think that the experiences of the average gay person are any different? I think that as straight people think deeply about what their sexuality means to them, they are more likely to compassionately believe that LGBT people deserve an unfettered opportunity for similar fulfillment as well.
*Though of Greek origin from “philia” indicating a friendship-like love, I’m using the suffix as we would in modern English to simply mean “an affinity towards”. The Greeks had multiple words to describe different aspects of love, and many of them are applicable to the feelings I describe in this post.