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Back You are here: Home GLBTIQ GLBTIQ Gay and lesbian rights not served by 'sexual preference'

Gay and lesbian rights not served by 'sexual preference'

Defining people by their sexual preference is hindering queer rights. It's time to take 'sex' out of the debate, writes Sally Swift.

Gay sex is finally out of the cinematic closet and into mainstream movies. Not only accepted, it's praised, celebrated. Sean Penn in Milk. Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain. Recent, obvious examples. There are others. There will be more. And I'm not sure that's a good thing. Yet.

Hear me out before you brand me a homophobe. Or even worse, a right-wing Republican. 

Our culture has come a long way in all areas of personal expression. Some say to far. I disagree. I don't like the overkill of gratuitous sex and violence in movies, TV, music, video games, the Internet. But I'm even more opposed to government censorship of same.

We can decide for ourselves. We don't have to watch or listen. We can--and should--police our children. We can make choices. Because the barriers are down to stay. Graphic sex is mainstream. Nudity is mainstream. And now, gay and lesbian sex is mainstream.

Which could be hurting the cause more than helping it. Like it or not, the US is still a heterosexual country. It's a Christian country too. Which doesn't mean the Bible should dictate interpersonal laws. Except that of course it does. Mostly based on lockstep heterosexual attitudes about homosexual sex.

We've made some progress. Not enough. While it's still illegal for gays and lesbians to marry, it's also illegal to deny voting rights, employment, housing and many other services on the basis of sexual preference.

And there it is. The elephant in the room. That phrase: sexual preference. It implies a citizen is defined by the manner in which he or she has sex, and with whom. It allows people to be identified, and discriminated against, by virtue of a label ... about their sex lives.

That label is incredibly powerful. And probably the biggest barrier to fully realized gay rights. Heterosexuals in power don't want anything to do with anything sexual that creeps them out. Messes with their psyches. Overwrites their heterosexual complacency, and fantasies.

Ask those opposed to gay and lesbian rights and what will they tell you? It's unnatural. Gays will poison our society. We must deny them rights because they represent a danger to the state, they will damage our way of life. Destroy our future. Yeah, right.

Excuse me, but a bunch of predominately Christian heterosexuals have been doing that for 8 years. America's in tatters. Not as a result of anybody's sexual preference. Because of greed, hubris, arrogance and abuse of power by avowed heterosexuals. And by the way, it's irrelevant if they're gay or straight.

None. Of. Our. Business.

Sexual preference should be private. Personal. All acts associated with it should be too. I don't want the government in my bedroom dictating my consensual adult behavior. It's irrelevant what I do in private. As long as I obey public laws and pay my taxes, then my lifestyle--my sexual preference--belongs only to me.

But how to replace that conflagrant term and help people come to terms with everybody's right to legal commitments and benefits? I don't know.

I do know that even liberal, liberated, fervent supporters of gay rights have trouble dealing with gay sex. Heterosexual men who are truly enlightened find most portrayals of gay sex very uncomfortable to watch.

I don't think the same is true for women and lesbian sex. We are more culturally accustomed to hugging and kissing, walking arm in arm, sleeping in the same bed, seeing each other naked and even comparing notes.

My husband hugs and kisses my gay brother and has seen him and his partner hug and kiss, yet he squirms at male love scenes in movies. Maybe it's the fact that the actors aren't necessarily gay and he identifies with them. Maybe that's why hetero men in general have trouble watching too. 

I wonder if gays and lesbians have the same reaction to depicting or watching scenes of heterosexual sex. I'd guess less so, because it's always been "out". It's not an unknown. Can somebody tell me?

Here's my thesis in five words: Remove. Sex. From. The. Debate.

Gays and lesbians contribute to society in countless meaningful ways that should accord them the same legal and fundamental rights and privileges as straights, without reference to who has sex and how.

Our predominantly Christian society and government are still hung up on sexual behavior, even heterosexual sex. So when homosexuals define themselves by affirming their sexual preference, it's a no-win situation.

There's no earthly reason not to be proud of who you are. But if the definition is getting in the way of your freedom, what should we do?

I say remove sexual preference and change the debate to "civil partnership," not marriage. A current marriage license doesn't include wording on sexuality or procreation, it asserts a legal union. It's a partnership agreement, a contract that provides protections for both parties.

Marriage is in fact legally a "civil union." So why not lobby for legislation creating a "civil partnership" (or whatever term) that includes the same legal rights and protections as a marriage license? It shouldn't matter what it's called. Only who it legally protects.

A marriage ceremony--and more important, a marriage--can then be whatever you want it to be. 

I'm certainly no expert, and welcome discussion and debate.

Sally Swift is an American writer with a broad background in both traditional and new media. As a journalist, documentary producer and Editorial Director for CBS News, Sally has covered local and national politics, civil rights, corporate media, medicine, religion, feminism, lifestyles and entertainment. As Architect of Community for America Online, she developed techniques and strategies to program content and build community for AOL and its partners, including iVillage, match.com, netnoir, oxygen media, planetout and theknot, to name a few. Sally has contributed to a number of books on Internet development, user behaviors and how-to's.

She received the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Award for Journalism, the American Medical Association Medical Journalism Award and Associated Press Broadcasters Award for Editorializing, among others.

Sally graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and its Annenberg School of Communications with advanced degrees in Business and Mass Media. Now a website development consultant and freelance writer, her work appears in a variety of online and traditional media. She blogs
here.

 

Comments   

0 #6 Sally Swift 2010-02-21 12:23
I'm confused. Apparently my position, which seems very clear in the headline and in body of this piece, is that the term "sexual preference" is WRONG. Yet everyone here is trying to educate me on that very point.

1. I know LGBT is Not a preference, it's an orientation. I do not confuse the two terms. But, many others do. Especially those who would deny LGBT the rights heterosexuals take for granted, who believe that all lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders have *chosen* to be who they are... i.e. sexual preference. Which I know is ludicrous.

2. I am also offering an honest reality check about heteros who support LGBT rights. Even many of those supporters are uncomfortable with the raw sexual aspect. Don't tell me they shouldn't be, that's not the point. They are. Do they need more education? Of course! But it's a tough sell and frankly, it's none of anyone's business. Plus, the sell should be about RIGHTS, not sex.

3. Sexual behavior of any kind (not talking about child or any other abuse here) is private. Especially in our puritanical, hypocritical country, where sex sells in the marketplace but nowhere else. I didn't make that up. I am not the enemy. But causes cannot be won without understanding "the enemy." You can't overcome objections and devise strategy and change laws unless you 'get' who you're dealing with.

4. So, I am specifically proposing that the LGBT cause is not well served by including "sexual" in any description. It doesn't matter to homophobes, or those who want their votes, whether the terminology is "preference" or "orientation." It only matters that Sex is part of the equation. That's the elephant in the room. It scares them. It needs to be brought down to a size and shape they can handle.

And btw, "sexual preference" is the term used in the existing laws providing protection to the LGBT community. It will be hard to work around that regardless. But we will continue to fight for LGBT rights.
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0 #5 Margaret 2010-02-20 13:01
I think this semantic wrangling about "sexual preference" versus "sexual orientation" misses the point a little. There are a couple of things that made me squirm about this article - though I was glad to read a sensitive heterosexual engagement with queer politics. The main point is that Gays and Lesbians are being reduced to a 'minority', or a special class of citizen, that is marginalised, for whatever reason, and is asking for civic equality. Under that formulation of course it does make sense to take the sex out of homosexuality and restrict it to a question of civil rights. However, I think that this approach denies what is powerful and scary about homosexuality, and neutralises it to a simple question of identity politics, and furthermore it fractures all of those people who are marginalised by heteronormative society (ie one that promotes fixed positions of male and female, inevitably aligned into a single type of relationships) into specific labelled groups that then after claim their own little piece of the civil rights for minorities pie. Hence we have the the GLTBIQ (have I missed any letters here?) phenomenon.
All sex is scary, confusing, ambiguous and powerful. Sexual and gender identity is also powerfully ambiguous for all people. Most heterosexuals manage to make the heteronormative model fit them, or to conform to this model in certain situations, but not all, and it doesn't mean that the heteronormative model itself shouldn't be challenged. Queer politics offers a powerful way in which to challenge the standard assumptions of heterosexual family life and its relationship to broader society, and the expectations that men should be a certain way and that women should be a certain way that come with it. To reduce this challenge to a model of civic tolerance of marginal identities misses the point, and sadly won't address the pain that a heteronormative society causes to people.
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0 #4 Anthony Venn-Brown 2010-02-18 06:07
OMG.....I too cringed when i read the term sexual preference....a nd had to comment. It always get the reaction from me when I hear it because its usually only used by people who are ignorant about the fundamentals of sexual orientation.

Sally I am really surprised that a person with all your experience is not aware how offensive that term is to many gay and lesbian people. It implies that our orientation is a choice. Like what would you prefer......chi cken or the beef. Well white meet is my preference..... but if you dont have any left I can eat beef. As a gay man I dont have a choice about whether I prefer male or females.

I appreciate your support though.

as you'll see below from the GLAAD media guide ..sexual orientation is the correct term as it encapsulates so much more than sex. Our orientation is is towards the same sex. This means we will seek affection, romance, intimacy and partnering with the same sex.

http://www.glaad.org/Document.Doc?id=99

Sexual Orientation The scientifically accurate term for an individual’s enduring physical, (also Orientation) romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual (straight)
orientations. Avoid the offensive term “sexual preference,” which is used to suggest that being gay or lesbian is voluntary and therefore “curable.”


Regarding your husband cringing at a male to male sex scene. thank god for this. It means he is straight.....an d not bi or bi-curious (whatever that means). Most heterosexual men are repulsed at the thought of or expression of male to male sex. Its natural. they are straight. I'll let you into a secret......I find heterosexual sex repulsive. Some of the things you do to each other disgust me. Watching a late night at for mobile downloads of girls gone wild makes me want to ring up the station and say "why do you have to subject me to that filth. its the way I'm wired.....as your husband is also wired oppositely.

Glad to hear that your husband hugs and kisses your gay brother and his partner. I'm sure they appreciate that level of acceptance. This is call affection which with have with friends family and children. Its not sex.

An Ambassador for the GLBT Community
Award winning author of 'A Life of Unlearning - A Journey to Find the Truth'
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0 #3 Novi 2010-02-17 22:42
While I wholeheartedly agree that the government should have absolutely no place in people's beds, your article misses two crucial points:

Firstly, it's not simply a 'debate'. It is a campaign, in some places closer to a movement, for real change in people's lives, and, taking into account the massively increased rates of suicide and self-harm among (especially younger) LGBTI people as a result of the homophobia, inequality, abuse and derision we endure constantly, to reduce it to simply an abstract and respectable 'debate' is incredibly belittling to all of those impacted by the inequality embodied in the denial of same-sex marriage (and the legal equality that would come with marriage rights), and to those who have dedicated themselves to fighting to end that inequality.

Secondly, same-sex marriage is more than a civil union. There is a reason why the demand is marriage and not civil unions - because marriage rights, and the denial thereof is about more than the legal contract. It's about being able to publicly celebrate our relationships in the same way that heterosexual couples are able to without even thinking about it. It's about our being denied the very existence of our relationships in large chunks of our lives. It's about our being continually denigrated, and constantly informed and reminded that our relationships don't count - that they mean less and are lesser than those of heterosexuals. Anything short of full, equal marriage rights continues our status as second-class citizens. It shows our relationships are different, lesser, than those of heterosexuals who can proclaim in any and all situations (just as you did in your article) that not only are they in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex, but that they are married - an institution in society which is held up as the zenith of all relationships, a pinnacle to which all should aspire.

We don't want just legislation which technically gives us rights on par with those of heterosexual couples. We want equality in every aspect of our relationships. Civil unions do not achieve this. And debating the nature and validity of our (and our relationships) existence only serves to push us backward over ground already covered by the homophile and gay liberation movements of the 50s-70s.

Whether it's a preference or an orientation is ultimately irrelevant. What is relevant is that we're here, we're queer, and we're fighting for our rights.
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0 #2 mendelson 2010-02-17 14:31
As puppy says, 'sexual preference" is NOT the same as "sexual orientation". Please brush up on the basic concepts of sexuality.
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0 #1 ProgressivePuppy 2010-02-17 09:05
My first impulse was to tackle this column on my blog, with a few acerbic asides, but I feel that your motives are good so I'll just comment here. With all due respect (and I'm surprised your gay brother hasn't mentioned this to you), the problem with "sexual preference" - and what harms the LGBT community about that term - isn't the "sex" part, it's the word "preference." The term you should be using, of course, is "sexual orientation." I may have a preference in food, or in music, or in the sort of same-sex partner I choose (I've been with the same fella for 27 years - and receive no benefits from the government, like the ones you enjoy) - but there was never any "preference" about which gender I was attracted to. As for your husband (and other straight guys) squirming during films like "Brokeback Mountain," I think you're correct about it being a matter of exposure. I've been gay all my life and never felt the uncomfortable watching heterosexual displays of affection. Does he feel this same revulsion when watching two women kiss on screen? Probably not. No, I don't think you're a homophobe. But I think you need to learn a bit more about LGBT Americans. I can't imagine why your gay brother wouldn't correct your usage of the word "preference." That in itself diminishes the immutable nature of our lives - sexual and otherwise. Regards, Max
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