Optional

Tax forms, employment applications (however protracted), standardized tests: They all ask you to make choices that aren’t really choices in most people’s minds. I’m not talking about multiple choice questions with one right answer, but fields that quiz you on your ethnicity, gender, and so on. These fields seem as straightforward as asking what the local time of day is, but they’re more nuanced: is someone “white” if some of here ancestors were Native American? What about individuals like President Obama, with parents of different races? Even gender identity is ultimately fungible.

The resistance to blurring these categories of race and gender is, I think, all about identity politics. When someone has to describe who she “is,” well, she might fall back on her nationality (which is accidental, and could be renounced), her race (invariably mixed, if traced back far enough), her gender (changeable, both literally or conceptually), or her sexuality (I’ll talk about this in a moment). All of the accompanying labels and epithets – “I’m a proud American,” “I am a white man,” etc. – are not facts; they’re stories.

Over the years, the identity balloon has inflated with more possible categories. Race has, perhaps paradoxically, become increasingly important as a differentiator in multicultural societies. And then there’s sexuality. In late spring 2011, I was on the verge of my quarter-life crisis that would crest the next month at my sister’s college graduation. As I walked downstairs to the lobby of my apartment building one day, I heard the sounds of Lady Gaga’s then recently released album, “Born this Way,” leaking from someone’s room, and asked myself: was I?

I hesitated to answer, even to myself. My identity as a white guy was about as, well, white-bread as possible, and the only category that took me out of the “easiest possible difficulty setting” (the archetypally insensitive, nerdy way that I’ve heard white maleness referred to in “politically correct” tech circles) was, well being “gay.” If I wasn’t gay, then I had essentially no out of the ordinary talking points, no identity to seize in the quest to be an outsider. But it sure felt like I hadn’t been born that way and had instead acquired the preference over many years.

This post isn’t intended as an investigation of the science around sexual orientation; that’s not my specialty. It’s only about the feelings I have had toward the subject, which have changed dramatically since I was teenager. When I was in middle school in the late 1990s, many of my classmates reserved “gay” and all of its variants as the vilest of insults for someone they didn’t like or agree with. I hated how they verbally abused others using these words, but I never felt directly threatened by these attitudes since I didn’t feel, at the time, any attraction to other men.

The climate for LGBT was more or less the same when I was in high school, perhaps a bit calmer with each passing year but hardly welcoming. All of my conscious feelings were still toward women; if I was really gay from birth, then the trait was impeccably hidden. Sure, the environment was super heteronormative, but I had the Internet and I could have explored other sexualities and it never really drew me in.

It wasn’t until college that my outlook began to change, and even then it was the result of an accidental encounter and possibly some of the medications I was taking at the time. Throughout 2005, the year when my straightness was first challenged, I still thought of myself by the strange label “bi,” which some guy who stalk-friended me on Facebook in August of that year relentlessly mocked me for. He was absolutely sure that one was either gay or straight and that the identity was immutable. “No one ‘comes out’ as being black, do they?” he quipped over AIM one night. Yet he was still interested for a while.

His attitude, I think, encapsulates a lot of the identity politics around this subject. First, there’s the almost religious certainty – with an ironic resort to science as convenient – that orientation is predetermined and unchanging. At the same time, though, there’s the ability to put such ideology aside for physical convenience – who cares if I disagree with this person, at least we’re on the same page on something?

The certainty is a red flag, as it is with almost anything from the notion that there is definitely only one God who revealed himself to ancient Semites and was limited to fluency in Iron Age human languages, to the idea that drug addiction is always immoral. It’s compensatory. But then the notion of easily available, apolitical intimacy is also important, since I think it’s part of why the identity labeled as “gay” is so appealing and problematic for so many people who identify as “straight.”

In one of his books, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote:

“Nothing optional – from homosexuality to adultery – is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.”

That’s a powerful word – “optional” – to throw around, but it feels like he was on to something. For context, he wrote this sentence in a chapter explaining why various religions prohibit the eating of pork. He argued that this apparent hatred of swine was not due to any uncleanliness in pigs, but because pork tasted good and was uncomfortably similar to the flavor of human flesh. There was a tempting boundary to cross there, but it became repressed and turned into a prohibition.

Something had to be at stake, though, to drive the ban: people might eat pork and like it. I mean, what culture has prohibited the eating of shark flesh, cactus, or wheatgrass? Nobody secretly pines for these things or runs the risk of accidentally falling in love with the experiences of them. No one becomes a Hakarl addict beholden to the intimacy of the experience; there’s neither the human-esque flavor of pork nor the same gender closeness of homosexuality (which while totally different things, obviously, share in vicious prohibitions across multiple major religions and societies, as well as, I believe, a certain optionality).

A while back, Zach Howe really put my feelings to the page in an article for Slate about understanding homophobia:

“Clearly, men in America have grown up learning to be scared of gayness. But not only for the reasons we typically think—not only, in the end, because of religion, insecurity about their own sexuality, or a visceral aversion to other men’s penises. The truth is, they’re afraid because heterosexuality is so fragile. Heterosexuality’s power lies in perception, not physical truth—as long as people think you’re exclusively attracted to the right gender, you’re golden. But perception is a precarious thing; a “zero-tolerance” policy has taught men that the way people think of them can change permanently with one slip, one little kiss or too-intimate friendship. And once lost, it can be nearly impossible to reclaim.”

The last sentence is the key. Once the Rubicon of orientation is crossed, it is, well, crossed, making the non-straight identity seem, in retrospect, inevitable and absolute.

Not only is perception fragile, but the temptation – like that of eating pork for the ancient Semites with limited food supplies – is likely more powerful than we acknowledge. For men – I can’t speak to the female experience – homosexuality has a certain immediateness that heterosexuality often lacks. There are no “pick-up artists” among gay men, at least not in the way that there are desperate straight men trying to win over women. The creepy, imbalanced gender dynamics of heterosexual-focused dating sites doesn’t have a 1-for-1 equivalent in the apps for men looking for other men. The entire ritual is just different and more no-nonsense. Rammstein singer Till Lindemann described it as such, in a 2006 interview with Playboy:

“I envy the guys, their easy looking at each other in a pub and then pick each other up, without all the bloody nonsense with flowers and three times out for dinner together before you are allowed to do it. It’s so much easier for them.”

Homosexuality is also, in the most basic way, the most pleasurable and versatile emulation of one of the most defining interactions of our world. Here’s what I mean: Just think of how much of our world is the way it is because of men trying to show that they have more power over other men (talking about literal men here, not mankind that includes women under its banner) – how many wars and stressful board room brawls have been fueled by this urge?

But what if it could be satisfied in a much more carefree and less destructive way? What if the experience could also, depending on the person and the time and place, also replace the long-term relationship or marriage or, on the complete other end of the spectrum, be a one-off with so few strings that the parties involved could be friends after the fact, as if nothing exceptional had happened? I expect that what Hitchens called “the urge to participate” is everywhere, for these reasons and others.

It’s a powerful option, but is almost never regarded as such, despite what I expect is widespread curiosity and, more obviously, fear (“we just can’t allow gay marriage” – how much is this motivated by the rational expectiation that it could change and enrich people, rather than by any affection for an ancient Hebrew god?). Maybe it wasn’t an option for others who had a more certain outlook early on in their lives, but it was clear Rubicon for me and I didn’t have to cross it – but I’m glad I did.

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