The Right To Identify

By Patricia Nell Warren

Originally published in A & U Magazine

A recent book, "Apples and Oranges", gives us new reason to debate the role of choice in being gay. Author Jan Clausen tells of falling in love with a man after 10 years of identifying as lesbian and feminist. Backlash from sisters was swift, devastating. Some of her friends cut her dead. Her books were removed from lesbian/feminist book lists. Clausen became the latest in politically incorrect.

These reactions show how debate over the "nature" of homosexuality is being polarized into absurdity. Many religious righters insist that being gay is a matter of choice; gays can avoid "sinning" if they choose. But many gay people insist they don't "choose." They feel that sexual orientation is matter of genes-even though a genetic basis for homosexuality is still not proven.

It's no wonder that young people feel confused and irritated at seeing this war over what "labels" we will all wear.

Whatever happened to a simple right that we Americans cherish in other areas of our lives? The right to have your declaration of identity be respected by the law, and by society? Whatever happened to the right to change that identity at will? In other words, the gay community and the religious right shouldn't have to argue whether homosexuality is taught or inborn. A simple statement that you're gay or straight should be enough.

Several years ago, the debate was kicked off when some Americans left the gay community, unhappy with what they had experienced there. For whatever emotional or religious reasons, they sought counseling or therapy in order to live as heterosexuals again. So-called "ex-gay ministries" sprang up to serve them and even used controversial ad campaigns to urge the entire gay community to "change." But Jan Clausen didn't make her big move for religious reasons. She did it because loving this man felt right. She saw herself as having a right to change directions, and to announce this changed identity in a book.

The United States has evolved to a point where a person may openly profess any religion under the sun, and hope not to be harassed. In my own life, I have been successively a Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Existentialist, SunDancer, Goddess-lover. Today I identify simply as somebody who thinks for herself. Indeed, a person can belong to a hundred religions in a lifetime, and society protects all those changes of belief.

The same goes for political conviction. U.S. law respects my right to be successively a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green Party member. I can even X the box on my voter registration that says my party affiliation is nobody's business. Society respects my right to change parties at will, even for frivolous reasons, or belong to no party at all. My votes in the next Presidential election may weigh more heavily on America's destiny than my choice of whom to sleep with, yet I can split my ticket any way I please.

Today, people are freer in their choice of ethnic identification. The law even respects your right to hide part of your background if you choose. Some identify as "African American" or "white" even if they have a Cherokee grandma. Many enrolled tribal members are only 1/16 Indian, yet they legally identify as "native American." On loan applications, the row of boxes to check has gotten long; you can identify as a variety of races and stocks, or simply as "mixed heritage" (which is what I now do).

Newer trends push the envelope on respecting diversity. People are viewed as having the right to stay heavy, and celebrate their weight. To be or not be circumcised. To have or not have a sex-change operation.

All these trends are breaking down that dreadful social conformity, where people get machine-pressed into identical molds. More and more, as we study the world and the people in it, some of us realize that humanity can be expressed in a thousand different ways, all of them equally human. Yet when it comes to sexuality, American respect for diversity still vanishes in a hail of gunfire.

Deadly disrespect for declarations of sexual orientation start in our schools, our armed forces, and seeps through the health-care field, where many ignorant people still believe that AIDS equals "gay." A simple declaration that you are HIV-positive can still result in loss of job, friendships, insurance, business, credit, community standing. For heterosexuals, it can prompt lethal assumptions by others that you are gay. The fallout can destroy the lives of an entire straight family with an HIV+ adult member or child. All because of our society's fixed idea that sexuality-alone of all attributes-does not merit respect under the law.

Ironically, both sides of the debate fiercely deny that there is any "right" to identify yourself as you please, or to change your sexual identity if you choose. Indeed, the same Christians who insist that the only moral sexual choice is heterosexuality would scream bloody murder if denied their right to change churches at will. And the same gay people who hotly argue their right to make a range of personal choices-from monogamy and safer sex to wild barebacking and deliberate self-infection with HIV-will defend to the death their belief that they didn't choose to be gay.

For 25 years I have been out in America, watching a lot of people going through their real-life transmogrifications-including honest false starts and experiments-that don't conform to the letter of what either side wants. Grethe Cammermeyer's late-in-life commitment to a changed vision of herself is just as valid as that of the lesbian who knows at age 10 that she prefers females exclusively. But just as valid is the changed vision of a Jan Clausen...or a lesbian who decides she'd rather be a heterosexual wife and mother.

I've been through my own sea-changes, which included 16 years of heterosexual marriage, love of several men and several women, even being celibate. I've been told haughtily that I'm "not gay" by people who don't even know me.

Why does each side demand its empire of monolithic sex, when diversity is triumphing elsewhere? Maybe it's because the desire to control others' sex lives goes back to post-reformation Calvinist tyranny, when preachers raided couples' bedrooms to make sure they were coupling in scripturally approved ways. Regrettably, these old structures of thought survive even in the gay community. Lumber of old, demolished closets is re-built into the ultimate closet-one where an LGBT person might tremblingly conform to the dictates of political correctness, for fear that she or he will be rejected by friends and colleagues.

If a person's simple declaration of sexual identity had the same weight as other declarations of identity, a lot of uproar over LGBT issues would simply melt away. It is frightening to see the time and money that heterosexuals spend on controlling people's sexuality (recently the Alabama legislature took time to outlaw vibrators!), while our health-care system goes bankrupt, and our schools become black holes of violence. Likewise, in the gay world, the energy expended on a Red Guards-style purge of Clausen is equally frightening.

For either side to continue this absurd argument about "choice" is to fiddle while Rome burns. If the American people sent a message on the Clinton impeachment, it is this: they're tired of obsessive sex debates. They want attention to bread-and-butter issues. For young people in America, the issue is more a simple human need to "be yourself".


Copyright (c) 1999 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

Author's note: Patricia Nell Warren is the author of several bestselling novels, including "The Front Runner". Her recent book, "Billy's Boy," is set in L.A. today and tells a story of gay teens. She is a youth advocate, and serves on the Human Relations Education Commission of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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