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Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

To my irritation, everyone I meet automatically assumes that I am straight.

Of course, I am not actually bothered by this, except on a bemused and superficial level, since – having been out for some time – I am quite comfortable with myself, and anyway if I were concerned with what most people think of me, I would not be a columnist.

However, it is puzzling to me, since I have outed myself in this newspaper on five separate occasions (albeit, usually in fairly subtle ways), and still people who have read my column, and with whom I am otherwise well acquainted, continue to assume my heterosexuality. It seems that I neither look nor act like I should be gay, and this plays a nontrivial role in how some people interpret what I say and do. I wonder if my years at Notre Dame would have been more complicated if I had been less straight-acting.

It is because of these subtle biases, like those that people have about a gay person’s appearance, that I fear that the vast majority of people on this campus are not equipped to have a remotely profitable discussion about gays and lesbians, their emerging role in society and the pros and cons of contemporary gay culture. Some lack the proper vocabulary, or have only the most rudimentary idea of what being gay means to a gay person or worst of all, get their stereotypes from Bravo, Showtime or Genesis. Given all of this, it is no wonder that the level of discussion about gays in this paper almost never rises above dogmatism and heterosexist sophistry, with the occasional childish rant.

There is not a great deal that I can do about all this from the vantage of a newspaper, but at the very least I can give a basic lesson in vocabulary and then address one extremely common underlying misunderstanding.

First, for those who find themselves confused, the preferred terms for referring to persons who are attracted (physically, romantically and/or emotionally) to members of the same gender are “gay” (adjective), “gay person” (singular) and “gay people” (plural). These forms are useful because they are gender neutral and implicitly include bisexual subjects; however the gender-specific terms “gay man” and “lesbian” are also acceptable in any situation. The increasingly common term “queer” is slightly more dangerous, since it is still seen as offensive by some. It is usually a synonym for gay, however if used in reference to a person it can also mean “gay in an undefined way.”

Obviously terms like “fag,” “homo,” and “dyke” are always highly offensive. However, the term “homosexual” is also derogatory and should never be used, as many – myself included – increasingly find it offensive. Likewise avoid any propaganda terms like “gay agenda,” “avowed homosexual” or “gay lifestyle,” which are laced with false assumptions.

Probably the most common, and unfortunate, assumption that people have about gays is that their lives revolve around sex, and that accepting oneself as gay is a fundamentally erotic definition. One would think, to read the opposition, that gay rights is a matter of fighting over who gets to [have sex with] whom and how, and possibly the right to post pornography on billboards outside of grade schools. (Mind you, some of the opposition would consider two women holding hands to be pornography…)

Accepting oneself as gay is a sexual definition, but only for a given value of “sex.” Sexuality is a profoundly holistic concept that touches every aspect of life. For example, Notre Dame’s basic social building block is the gender-segregated dorm, and the most intimate passages in the Hebrew Scriptures frame spirituality as a conjugal union with God. Sexuality runs more broadly and more deeply through the human person than many are willing to admit.

It is also more complex. Consider the definition of a gay person I gave earlier: someone who is physically, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to the same gender. Psychologists distinguish between physical and emotional attraction, which together make up most of a person’s sexual orientation. Emotional attraction is the desire to build a lasting and intimate relationship with another person.

It may surprise you to learn that there are a growing number of people, some of them gay, who refer to themselves as asexual and who are not physically attracted to others in the classical sense. Yet these people are still compelled to seek out lasting and intimate relationships with others – certainly ones that go beyond mere friendship – even though the relationships have little, if anything, to do with physical sexuality. This is an example of emotional attraction operating independently of physical attraction.

My point in all of this is that the landscape of human sexuality, for both gay and straight people, is more complicated than is usually appreciated. It defies simple or narrow definitions and touches many different aspects of a person’s life.

On a side note, Tuesday, Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day. If you are planning on making an entrance, I wish you the best; if you are not – well, consider it.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. His column appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at comments@tidewaterblues.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.