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Distinguishing labels

Letter to the Editor | Monday, October 10, 2005

Discussion about homosexuality is often heated. Even the language used – whether in conservative condemnations of the “gay lifestyle” or liberal celebrations of “gay rights” – is often chosen more for political effect than to enhance understanding.

I doubt I am the first to be confused by the ambiguous message of those well-intended “Gay, Fine by Me” shirts. What does it mean to identify oneself as “gay” or “lesbian”? Does the word refer to attractions to one’s own sex? To men and women who experience such attractions? To acting on these attractions in sexual activity? We need to find terms that communicate more clearly than those we currently use.

Virtually all human beings experience sexual attraction. For most people, these attractions are directed toward the opposite sex. Sometimes, they are directed towards the same sex. Does experiencing same-sex attraction mean you are gay?

No. Sexual orientation appears to be spread along a continuum. Some are predominantly or exclusively attracted to members of their own sex, others have some attractions to both sexes, while most are predominantly or exclusively attracted to the opposite sex. Moreover, especially during adolescence, many experience same-sex attractions or question their sexual orientation, only later to conclude that they are predominantly or exclusively heterosexual.

Is our sexual orientation set in stone? For some, attractions do not seem to change much. Others, however, attest to shifts in attractions over time. In fact, I personally know such people. Rather than dogmatically asserting what degree of change is or is not possible, we should be open to listening to these stories – both the stories of those whose attractions have changed, and the stories of those who have not.

Are people born gay or is it a choice? Certainly, we do know that sexual orientation is not chosen – although of course, all of us can choose how we respond to sexual attractions. At this point, however, we do not know what causes one to have same sex attractions. Identical twin studies that attempted to find the “gay gene” may have identified a genetic component or predisposition, but the researchers themselves acknowledge that environment also plays an important role. Other researchers think that family dynamics are the most crucial factor. But at this point, we have no conclusive evidence, and perhaps different reasons will be more important for different individuals.

Here at Notre Dame, the official voice for those with same-sex attractions is the Standing Committee for Gay and Lesbian Student Needs. Why are the words “gay” and “lesbian” used? For some, “gay” and “lesbian” just indicate the fact that one is attracted to the same sex. But the words also carry a lot of political baggage – baggage from which the Standing Committee does not necessarily distance itself. For example, on Oct. 11 of this year, the Standing Committee will sponsor a National Coming Out Day event. National Coming Out Day is sponsored by gay rights groups – groups openly hostile to the Catholic perspective on human sexuality.

In the summer of 2004, Notre Dame Magazine published an article by a same-sex attracted Catholic man who had chosen to live a chaste life. On a campus that supposedly values a “spirit of inclusion,” would the National Coming Out Day event or the CommUnity events for incoming freshmen include those Notre Dame students who experience same-sex attraction, but, like the author of the Notre Dame Magazine piece, embrace the Catholic vision of human sexuality? In my experience last year, this possibility wasn’t even considered on a serious level.

I am not seeking to marginalize those Notre Dame students who have trouble accepting Catholic teaching on gay issues, nor do I object to their having a place at the table in dialogue on issues regarding homosexuality. But I would like to see a more open discussion that is less polarized, in language that appreciates some of the nuances of the issue: the distinction between sexual attraction (which is not chosen) and behavior (which involves choice and should be governed by moral norms); the variety of experience when it comes to changing orientation; and the fact that not everyone with same-sex attractions wants to identify themselves with labels like “gay” and “lesbian.”

Brad MattansophomoreKeoughOct. 9