Lisa Diamond, a psychologist at the University of Utah, deserves credit for bringing a controversial idea to the academic surface. Here’s the Boston Globe Ideas section:
In this country, we tell a certain story about homosexuality: We believe that people who come out as gay almost always stick with that gay identity for the rest of their lives. Diamond’s research reveals that – at least for some females – that story might be wrong.
She followed dozens of women for 10 years, as they graduated from college, worked their first jobs, fell in love, changed their minds, and tumbled into the arms of new partners. Most women’s behavior had little to do with the “gay for life” story. Some switched their sexual identity many times. In fact, when asked to define themselves as “gay,” “straight” or “bisexual,” a number of women refused to take any label at all. Others invented their own labels; for instance, one interviewee called herself a “reluctant heterosexual.”
About one-fourth of the women reported that their choice of sexual partners had nothing to do with gender. “Deep down,” said one woman, “it’s just a matter of who I meet and fall in love with, and it’s not their body, it’s something behind the eyes.” These women often had no words for the way their hearts were wired.
As soon as Diamond began publishing in academic journals, she discovered just how controversial – and easy to distort – her findings might be. Christian-right groups have trumpeted her data as proof that homosexuality is optional. Her research has become fodder for therapists who claim to be able to “cure” gay men by turning them straight.
Obviously, it’s a shame that the reaction of some homophobic idiots has managed to stigmatize legitimate and interesting scientific research. Last year, when I wrote that profile of Joan Roughgarden, I got several angry emails from people complaining about this passage:
At first glance, it’s strange for most people to think of themselves as naturally bisexual. [Which is that Roughgarden argues.] Being gay or straight seems to be an intrinsic and implacable part of our identity. Roughgarden disagrees. “In our culture, we assume that there is a straight-gay binary, and that you are either one or the other. But if you look at vertebrates, that just isn’t the case. You will almost never find animals or primates that are exclusively gay. Other human cultures show the same thing.” Since Roughgarden believes that the hetero/homo distinction is a purely cultural creation, and not a fact of biology, she thinks it is only a matter of time before we return to the standard primate model. “I’m convinced that in 50 years, the gay-straight dichotomy will dissolve. I think it just takes too much social energy to preserve. All this campy, flamboyant behavior: It’s just such hard work.”
Diamond’s work suggests that women, at least, are more “sexually fluid” than we normally assume. That seems perfectly logical to me. Given the fact that there is no single homosexuality switch, no distinctive network of genes or neural anatomy that makes somebody gay or straight, it seems much more likely that sexuality is a biological continuum. I wonder, though, if this “sexual fluidity” is really limited to women. My guess is that men are capable of being just as sexually fluid, but that our culture gets in the way. In general, I think we are much more accepting of bi-sexual women (as Howard Stern notes, everybody likes lesbians) than bi-sexual men, who are automatically parceled into the homosexual category.
But it wasn’t always so. The 19th century, for example, was, at least for American men, a type of striking sexual freedom. Here’s Walt Whitman:
“Once I pass’d through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casualy met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together — all else has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous.”
I think there’s little doubt that Whitman loved men, and yet he never thought of himself as homosexual. Even if such a label had existed back then, Whitman wouldn’t have wanted it. He hated labels.