Thoughts on “sexual identity” and “gay marriage”

The gay movement and its allies constantly use the phrase “sexual identity.” The phrase seems to be taken for granted, and is rarely explained and justified. It seems, though, to refer to the notion that our sexual habits and inclinations are fundamental to what we are, more so than (say) religion. That’s why it’s religious “preference” or “affiliation,” but sexual “identity.”

But why treat sexual inclinations as untouchable and authoritative? One possible reason is that active sexuality is thought to be an essential aspect of our most intimate and intense personal relationships. Since such relationships are what link us most effectively to others and thus constitute us as social beings, sexual acts with persons of the same sex might be thought essential to full realization of the humanity of those inclined to them. An attack on such acts would then be an attack on the humanity of such persons.

That line of reasoning isn’t adequate to the gay cause, which is a defense not just of “long-term committed relationships” but of a gay culture that includes an essential promiscuous and sensation-seeking element. The point of the homosexual movement is sexual liberation, the free expression and development of human sexuality, which is understood to be a fundamental aspect of human liberation. If that weren’ so then NAMBLA would have been excommunicated by other gays long ago. In the end, the gay movement stands or falls on the value of transcendence through intense experience, and the destruction of the given in human life and human nature in favor of the chosen.

Still, more moderate, moralistic and sentimental arguments, like the argument from intimate relationships, appeal to some people. The latter argument is an odd one, though. The problem is that it implies that the connections that constitute us as social beings are simply a matter of the subjective attitudes of those involved — that the essence of the social is the private and idiosyncratic. In order to claim that homosexual relationships have a moral status like that of marriage, the argument must turn marriage into “a relationship” — a complex of feelings and commitments between two parties — rather than an institution constituted in part by things as objective as the functioning of the human body and the reproduction of the species. It must turn the public aspects of marriage into a mere recognition of something that in its essence is purely a matter of the subjective inclinations of the parties.

Such a view of marriage does not work. The point of marriage is that it is not simply what is called “a relationship,” that it is an enduring and objective institution, basic to human society because of what it is, and carries with it rights and obligations that the parties and others must respect regardless of how they feel. To the extent marriage becomes simply a “relationship,” defined by the parties as they wish, it becomes unclear why other people should give it any special recognition. The notion of “gay marriage,” as well as the related notion of “sexual identity,” thus suffers from an internal conflict. It tries to combine the modernist view that the essence of man is that he has no essence, that he creates what he is through his desires and choices, with an authority that can be justified only by reference to objective standards that precede and condition all choice.
Posted by Jim Kalb at April 30, 2003 02:56 PM | Send


If one wants to engage freely in activities that society has condemned for millennia, “sexual orientation” must be an awfully convenient fig leaf.

Words have power; words that everyone has been persuaded to use without wondering if they mean anything can have great and perverse power. In recent years, all sorts of laws have been passed affording protection to “sexual orientation” … as if (1) it were an inborn human characteristic, when there is no scientific proof for that assertion; as if (2) it were immutable, an equally undocumented proposition; and as if (3) all “sexual orientations” (assuming they exist) are equally valid, a proposition that could only seem plausible to people who are used to thinking in utopian terms. Marxists, the Khmer Rouge, and American liberals. Unfortunately, the “born that way” argument seems to have been so catchy, it’s even been accepted by Dr. Dobson, who must have read too many press releases from the American Psychological Association.

Not long ago on this blog it was reported - Surprise!! - that some homosexual activists were now deviating from the party line about “orientation”; instead of “honoring diversity” they had switched to honoring the quest for diversity as an orientation in itself - endless sexual experimentation was to become the new norm.

Actually, that is closer to the truth.

What has passed for “sexual orientation” really is a choice; it is as much a choice as the desire of hard drinkers for alcohol, or of smokers for the next one after dinner. This has been well-documented: see

Probably all of us have known a few homosexuals, if for no other reason than that they like to be conspicuous. I’ve known one who had been married and had children, but after his wife died and he retired, he thought the gay arrangement was a convenient solution to his urges. As I understand it, this was the “sexual identity” of the late Leonard Bernstein as well.

Another homosexual I knew very well, a musician, had been “seduced” by his piano teacher when he was a boy; he had later married and had a son, but (according to him) his wife didn’t like sex and he gradually reverted to homosexual liaisons, any number of them. After he divorced, he continued having those but also had a relationship of some length with a widow, and participated on some multi-whatever orgies. What orientation is this? The only description that rings true is the Liberal Leitmotiv of perennial experimentation; the eternal dare.

Posted by: Wim on April 30, 2003 7:34 PM

I always thought the term ‘sexual identity’ referred to what one understood their gender to be. Of course, even in that context a certain deviance was inferred — as if there should be any question whether a man is a man or a woman a woman.

The term itself seems intended to raise a provocative and leading question, sort of like a serpent asking, “Yea, hath God said…?”

Posted by: Joel on May 1, 2003 9:48 PM
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