In his insightful new book, Out of the Shadows: Reimagining Gay Men’s Lives, clinical psychologist Walt Odets begins by asking “Are gay men homosexuals?” Who are we as gay men, and what happens when we identify ourselves as “homosexuals?”
Gay men have been called “homosexuals” since the late nineteenth century, when the previously little-used term appeared in a German psychiatry textbook that described “homosexuality” as a “disorder,” included among other such “perversions” as bestiality, pedophilia, and sadism. Previously, having sex with another person of the same sex had been considered a behavior – a socially unapproved behavior, to be sure – but the new medical model transformed it from a behavior into an identity, a pervasive condition that described who one was. This had far-reaching consequences. According to Odets, “The newly assigned identity was readily incorporated into the self-experience of gay men, giving rise to a self-perpetuating psychosocial dynamic of imposed social stigma and reactive, internalized shame that, in turn, bolstered the stigma. Gay men were being identified as homosexuals, and that is what they started to feel like.”
Words are powerful. When we accept the limiting concept of “the homosexual” as the foundation of our identities, our perceptions of who we are contract, with harmful consequences. Odets observes that “…many gay men find themselves bewildered by gay relationships, often having ongoing sexual encounters that, in the longer term, become unsatisfying. Such sexual experiences, however, are only rarely meaningless and casual. They are almost always a search for emotional connection to another man, an effort often conducted without the developmental experience that would facilitate and support the process. Many gay men have difficulty integrating sex into relationships, and relationships into sex, because the homosexual idea does not permit it.”
Our perceptions of other gay men also contract. “Over the years, one thousand gay men have said to me, ‘The only thing other men are interested in is sex, and that’s not what I want, it’s not enough.’ To this, I usually respond, ‘But the other nine hundred and ninety nine men I have spoken with have said the same thing. I think that many others share your feelings.’ The Castro and Chelsea are too often not social communities, but neighborhoods of people wandering the streets, all looking for something they are convinced is unobtainable because of who gay men are.”
The “homosexual” idea also drives devaluation of our lives by homophobic heterosexuals. Odets offers this vignette to show how that works: “A gay friend recently told me that he had asked his mother why she never inquired about how he and his partner were getting on. ‘Why would I?’ she responded. ‘I never ask your brother about what he and his wife are doing in bed.’” Research confirms that when heterosexuals see gay people as “homosexuals” they typically perceive our relationships as entirely sexual in nature, and thus devoid of the emotional significance that makes relationships “real.”
Some of us describe ourselves to straight people as “attracted to men, but otherwise just like you,” despite the fact that most of us have at least some awareness that being gay is about more than just sexual attraction or sex. Odets notes that, today, there are two perspectives on what makes a man a ‘homosexual.’ From the heterosexual perspective, a homosexual is ‘a man who has sex with men.’ The gay perspective is that homosexuals are ‘men who are attracted to other men.’ At first glance, this may not seem like much of a difference, but the two descriptions are worlds apart. The heterosexual perspective describes a specific, objective behavior, while the gay perspective acknowledges an entire internal realm of feeling. As Odets puts it, “For gay men, sexual attraction to other men is only one expression of something more fundamental, something that might be called a gay sensibility.”
Gay sensibility may not be easy to define, but at the very least it is something that allows us to form important emotional connections with other men. “A gay man is a man who is inclined to fall in love with other men.” In our own efforts at self-discovery, the sexual, emotional and spiritual contours of our “gay sensibility” are for each of us to define for ourselves. We need to be who we know and say we are, not what we have been told we are.