Sexual Orientation: a State of Being, Not Just a Sex Act
Today, June 16, 2003
1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22229
By Joan M. Garry
I get uncomfortable talking about sex. As a good
Irish-Catholic girl, public discussions of that most private of associations
bring out the prude in me. When my school-age kids bring it up, we don’t
talk about the mechanics, but about love, family, respect, safety, honesty and
responsibility. Otherwise, sex is a private matter between my partner and me.
So I’m always taken aback when people confuse sexual
orientation with what someone does in the bedroom—as if they could divine
what my partner and I do behind closed doors simply by knowing we’re
partners. And as a gay civil-rights leader, I spend a lot of time fighting
those who maliciously try to convince people that being gay is not a key
ingredient of who someone is, but simply what someone does in bed.
In an ideal world, the forthcoming U.S. Supreme Court
decision in Lawrence vs. Texas—the challenge by Lambda Legal, our
community’s legal advocacy group, to Texas’ discriminatory “homosexual
conduct law”—would put that asinine assumption to rest.
The underlying rationale of Lambda Legal’s
equal-protection argument is simple yet profound: Being gay or straight is
just that—a state of being. It’s not a sex act. Sexual orientation is as
fundamental as a person’s sex, age, skin color or fingerprints. Gay
people—and on some level, most straight people—know this to be true. And
our laws shouldn’t prosecute one group of people for something that’s
legal for everyone else.
Yet even if the Supreme Court finds that gays and
lesbians are entitled to equal protection of the law, it would not be leading
public understanding of our lives. Rather, the court would be following it.
Last month, Gallup’s annual values and beliefs survey
found 60% of Americans believe homosexuality should not be criminalized, up
from 43% when the question was first asked in 1977. A growing percentage (now
49%) favors legal recognition of our relationships. Meanwhile, visible gay
parents such as Rosie O’Donnell and former NFL player Esera Tuaolo show that
our children are raised with the same love, devotion and attention as those of
This new understanding and visibility contrast starkly
with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in 1986 to uphold the
constitutionality of sodomy laws based on Justice Byron White’s assertion
that “no connection between family, marriage or procreation on the one hand
and homosexual activity on the other has been demonstrated” in the case.
Back in 1986, that probably made sense to many Americans.
Sensational media coverage of AIDS was the primary filter through which our
lives were presented. Few if any laws reinforced all-but-invisible gay
17 years of progress
Today, our cultural landscape has changed
dramatically—and permanently. Gay Americans live openly as respected members
of their communities. Gallup found that 88% of Americans support workplace
protections for gays and lesbians, and 62% favor giving same-sex couples the
same health care benefits as straight couples.
How does this reconcile with the fact that 52% still
believe homosexuality is “morally wrong”?
The answer’s simple. People are coming to understand
that gay Americans are here to stay and that personal (and evolving) beliefs
about the morality of homosexuality should not impede the development of a
society where gay people and families are treated equally. Personal beliefs
and public respect can and do co-exist, just as straight and gay Americans do.
But neither our laws nor our popular culture yet fully
reflects the inclusion and respect suggested by Gallup. That is why the
Supreme Court case is so important. Gay people should no longer be defined by
what we do in bed, but by who we are. The focus must shift from a lurid
fascination with our sex lives toward a cultural understanding that we share
common values of love, family, respect, safety, honesty and responsibility.
A single court decision won’t transform how Americans
view our lives. But it would challenge those who try to slow our civil-rights
progress by treating us as sex objects. And it would underscore that the
fundamental principles of equality apply to us, too.
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