The Gap Between Gay and Straight

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A strange, unspoken assumption about human sexuality runs through the current debate on gay rights. Both sides agree, without saying so explicitly, that the human race consists of two types of people: there are heterosexuals and -- on the other side of a great sexual dividing line -- homosexuals. Heterosexuals are assumed to be the majority, while gays and lesbians are thought to be a "minority," analogous to African Americans, Latinos or any other ethnic group. Thus we have Gay Pride marches, just as we have St. Patrick's Day parades or Puerto Rican Day. Gay militants have even rallied, in some cities, around the idea of a "queer nation."

There are ways in which this tribalistic view of human sexuality is useful and possibly progressive. Before the gay-rights movement, homosexuality was conceived as a diffuse menace, attached to no particular group and potentially threatening everyone, at least in its "latent" form. So, naturally, as gays came out, they insisted on a unique and prideful group identity: We're queer, and we're here! How else do you get ahead in America except by banding together and hoisting a flag?

A few recent studies seem to confirm that homosexuality is as genetically based as being blue-eyed or lefthanded. And heterosexuals, whether out of tolerance or spite, have been only too happy to concede to gays a special and probably congenital identity of their own. It's a way of saying, We're on this side of the great sexual divide -- and you're on that.

& There's only one problem with the theory of gays-as-ethnic-group: it denies the true plasticity of human sexuality and, in so doing, helps heterosexuals evade that which they really fear. And what heterosexuals really fear is not that "they" -- an alien subgroup with perverse tastes in bedfellows -- are getting an undue share of power and attention, but that "they" might well be us.

Yes, certainly there are people who have always felt themselves to be gay -- or straight -- since the first unruly grade-school crush or tickle in the groin. But for every study suggesting that homosexuality is innate, there are plenty of others that suggest human sexuality is far more versatile -- or capricious, if you like. A 1989 study by researchers affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences found 20% of American men had had sex with a man at least once. Interestingly, in other studies, men who had served in the military reported somewhat more same-sex encounters than men who had not. Either "bisexuality" is a very common condition, or another artificial category concealing the real overlaps.

In some cultures, it is more or less accepted that "straight" men will nonetheless have sex with other men. The rapid spread of AIDS in Brazil, for example, is attributed to homosexual behavior on the part of ostensibly heterosexual males. In the British upper class, homosexual experience used to be a not uncommon feature of male adolescence. Young Robert Graves went off to World War I pining desperately for his schoolboy lover, but returned and eventually married. And, no, he did not spend his time in the trenches buggering his comrades-in-arms.

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