Last edited: February 13, 2005

Sexual Orientation: a State of Being, Not Just a Sex Act

USA Today, June 16, 2003
1000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22229
Fax: 703-247-3108

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.

Support rises

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 straight parents.

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 families.

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.

  • Joan M. Garry is executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

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