I've got a theory that I truly believe will revolutionize the gay rights movement. By simply redefining what "orientation" means, we will change the way gays are perceived in society as a whole. Perhaps a better way to put that would be to say that we'll correct a misconception about being gay, just as we did when being gay was no longer considered an indication of a mental illness. But correcting the misconceptions of society is never an easy task.
Society for the most part assumes that everyone is straight. For example, a couple months ago, I was contacted by a company putting together a directory for the high school I attended. When I told the representative that I wanted my name listed differently, he congratulated me and asked me how long my husband and I had been married. He was quite apologetic when I explained that I was gay and my partner was another woman. Just the other day, I filled out an online survey and it asked my "marital status". I checked the "living with partner" option and on the next page, I was asked the occupation of both the male and female heads of household. (And this survey was conducted on a site that specializes in getting the opinions of the GLBT community!) This assumption that everyone is straight means that for heterosexuals, the issue of orientation rarely comes up until one encounters someone who is openly gay. I'd be willing to bet that if you had an individual ask 100 people what their orientation was, then asked those same 100 people what they thought the orientation of the individual who'd questioned them was and why, the vast majority would probably say that the questioner was gay for the simple reason that s/he asked the question in the first place.
The general line of thinking is that orientation is an issue only to gays, so anyone who asks about it must be gay. Because of this, most heterosexuals probably don't think of the term "orientation" with respect to themselves or their relationships. I can't recall one time when I've ever heard someone say, "My son/sister/friend is in a straight relationship" yet I can't count how many times I've heard, "My daughter/brother/friend is in a gay relationship." Most Americans— gay and straight alike— unconsciously associate the word "orientation" with being gay. The two have almost become interchangeable, which makes the task of correcting society's misconception all that more difficult.
The first step in the process is to drop the use of the word "sexual" when referring to orientation because it is misleading. Orientation has nothing to do with who you have sex with. Orientation is more appropriately defined by who you fall in love with. Heterosexuals are men and women who are only able to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. Gay men are only able to fall in love with other men. Lesbians are only able to fall in love with other women. Bisexuals are able to fall in love with either gender. (There's another misconception that bisexuals have to have a lover of each gender at the same time, but I'm not going into that any further in this article. Suffice it to say that many bisexuals are monogamous.)
Saying that orientation has nothing to do with who you have sex with is where most protest, saying something like, "How can who you have sex with not affect orientation?" It's relatively easy since there are so many situations where the current definitions of heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual don't work. Let's look at a few examples.
Jenny feels "different" growing up. While all her friends are talking about the latest male hunk on television or the latest boy band, Jenny's checking out the female lifeguards at the pool or the latest supermodels in magazines. But her family is fiercely anti-gay; her faith considers being gay a sin; her gay uncle was ostracized from the family and no one ever talks to him or about him. So Jenny goes off to college, finds a boyfriend and settles down. She has two kids, a house in the suburbs and she's a regular PTA mom— until Jenny meets the new school nurse and finds herself head over heels in love. Jenny suddenly remembers feeling "different" as a child and eventually realizes she is a lesbian. She knows in her heart that she's always been a lesbian but she's just been too frightened to say anything about it. She's lived in denial up until now. Jenny realizes that she never loved her husband like she loves the school nurse. That she never felt for any man what she feels for this woman. She knows in her heart of hearts that she is not bisexual— that she is a lesbian. Does that mean that she was straight when she was married and she "turned into" a lesbian?
John and Marilyn, both heterosexuals, decide to indulge in a fantasy wherein he watches her have sex with another woman and then both women have sex with him. Does that mean that Marilyn is now a bisexual simply because she had sex with another woman one time?
Frank goes to a bar, gets into a fight with his boyfriend, Gene. Gene leaves and Frank is there alone. He keeps drinking until he's really drunk. A lady comes into the bar. Gail's lonely, Frank's drunk, they end up going home together and having sex. Does that mean he's now bisexual since he had sex with Gail?
Jack is in prison. While serving out his 20 year sentence, he has sex with several different men, but when he gets out, he never has sex with another man again. Does this mean he was gay while in prison and straight before and after his incarceration?
The most controversial examples of the inaccuracy and inadequacy of current definitions are pedophiles. There is already a widely-held yet incorrect belief that gays are more likely to be pedophiles. There is no proof for this, in fact, statistics show the opposite. Yet groups like the Boy Scouts of America continue to deny membership to gays because of this outdated, prejudicial and incorrect view that gays are more of a danger to children than straights. The latest major institution to continue to perpetuate this incorrect belief is the Catholic Church, which seems to think that this child sex abuse scandal is a "gay issue" because male priests were molesting young boys. The "logic" being used is that since it was a male having sex with a male, that automatically makes the priest gay. WRONG!!!! Most of these abusive priests are not gay— they're pedophiles. To a pedophile, the gender of the child doesn't matter— it's their age that is important. Most pedophiles are white, heterosexual males— that's statistics, not an attempt to slam white, heterosexual males.
None of the above situations changes the orientation of the individual in question. Yet according to the current definitions of the various orientations, it should because the current definitions (or at least as they're commonly interpreted by the general public) are defined by who you have sex with. Ask the average man/woman on the street what they'd consider a man who had voluntary sex with another man and they'd probably tell you he was either gay or bisexual. It would never cross his/her mind that a straight man could have sex with another man and remain straight.
This brings us to another reason to stop using the term "sexual" when speaking of orientation. Barring rape/molestation, we do always have a choice with respect to who we have sex with. Therefore the term "sexual orientation" carries with it the almost subliminal implication that orientation itself is a choice. Since many subconsciously see "sexual orientation" and "being gay" as synonymous, the "logical" conclusion is that being gay is a choice. Society's refusal to grant equal rights to gays is therefore justified because they're seen not as equal rights but as special rights. To make laws that guarantee gays equal rights would be the equivalent of saying we should make laws that guarantee that artists don't starve— after all, both are choices in the minds of most.
But perhaps the most important reason for changing the definitions of the various orientations is that current definitions debase the true nature of every committed relationship, especially gay ones. A committed relationship— whether straight or gay— is not simply a sexual relationship. In the context of a committed relationship, sex is one of many forms of expression of the love between the two individuals. But with the current line of thinking which defines orientation based on who you have sex with, the subtle implication is that orientation is solely about sex, has nothing to do with love and therefore involves no commitment. Since most people associate the term "orientation" with being gay and use of the term "sexual orientation" implies choice, the subconscious arrives at the "logical" conclusion that a gay relationship is merely a sexual preference that involves no commitment. Again, if it's merely a preference, why should society create laws that guarantee equal rights? Such laws would be special rights if it were truly just a preference. It would be like creating laws that guarantee equal rights for people who prefer dating blonds over redheads. A preference is something you can control. Something you can change. A conscious choice.
The fact is it's not just a "preference"— for gays or for straights. A preference involves having a choice: "Which would you prefer?" is meaningless if you only have one option. Orientation is not about who you have sex with. It's about who you are capable of falling in love with. A straight woman can no more choose to fall in love with another woman than a lesbian can choose to fall in love with a man. Even if that love doesn't come with the first person you have sex with. Or even the tenth. A lesbian is still a lesbian even if she doesn't find love until she's fifty because she is only capable of falling in love with another woman. A gay man is still gay even if he experiments with having sex with women because he is only capable of falling love with other men. A straight man is still straight even if he experiments with having sex with another man because he can only fall in love with women. The sexual aspect of any relationship is merely an expression of the love within the relationship and you can't choose who you fall in love with. When people finally understand that orientation is about who you fall in love with not who you have sex with, they'll realize it's not a choice. They'll finally understand that gays only want the same rights that straights already enjoy: to have that protection of the law that forbids anyone from discriminating against you based on who you love.
The gay rights movement is slowly plodding ahead— in fact, just recently in Pennsylvania, gays won the right to adopt the biological/adopted child of their partner, which leaves only 29 other states whose laws have to change. But those fighting for gay rights are being hindered by subconscious associations that are reinforced every time we use the term "sexual orientation" and by the current definitions of homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual which are based on who you have sex with. Simply by dropping the use of the word "sexual" from in front of "orientation" and by informing others that being gay is not about who you have sex with but who you can fall in love with, we can change many of those subconscious associations. This will make the task of acquiring equal rights for gays that much easier as those in power— those who write the laws (who are, for the most part, heterosexual)— realize that gays aren't really asking for special rights. They simply want justice and equality.
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