Our country has deep divides in opinion about sexual orientation and same-sex relationships.
Are gays born that way, and if so, is being gay a counter-evolutionary mutation? Is it a lifestyle choice to have same-sex relationships and are those relationships legitimate enough for marriage? Can one’s attraction to the same sex be changed or eliminated?
This national squabble over the legitimacy of a preference for same-sex relationships is reflected in our government’s hesitance and often fierce resistance toward changing public policy to honor the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
Homosexuality is not the problem in this debate, but heterosexism is. Heterosexism is the idea that heterosexual people are normal and good while any sexual identity outside of straightness is wrong and strange.
According to a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month, 53 percent of Americans now support gay marriage. This number shows an improvement in public opinion since the same poll conducted five years showed just 36 percent support. However, that means almost half of the nation still finds gays fundamentally different from straight people.
Those who oppose gay marriage or even gay rights are really in opposition to gay people. This pro-hetero prejudice is just as problematic as white supremacy was during the civil rights movement and is no different from efforts to keep Euro-Americans more politically and economically powerful than Americans of color.
The Obama administration has taken steps toward progress by publicly denouncing discriminatory federal policies like the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 bill that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
However, one president’s call for national toleration of non-hetero people is not enough. Some of our nation’s most influential people, such as politicians, religious leaders and business leaders are in opposition to letting gays, lesbians and bisexuals have access to the kinds of power that straight people have.
The Washington Post reported, “Republicans, conservatives and white evangelical Christians remain the groups most opposed to legalizing gay marriage.” Groups such as Focus on the Family and the National Organization for Marriage spend time and money to prevent gays, lesbians and bisexuals from the right to marriage.
The National Organization for Marriage argues they are not against gayness, but just want to protect traditional marriage. “Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose,? they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us,” according to their website.
This might be a plausible argument if being gay was truly a lifestyle choice, such as choosing where to live, what to eat, or what kind of career to pursue. Straight people had the privilege of having marriage defined to fit their needs and the opportunity to make the lifestyle decision to get married, whereas gays and lesbians do not in most states.
Their argument also wrongly assumes that gays, lesbians and bisexuals choose their sexual orientation.
But sexual orientation, defined by the American Psychological Association as “an enduring emotional, romantic, or sexual attraction that one feels toward men, toward women, or toward both,” is not a choice.
The APA and 12 other nationally recognized mental health and education organizations published a study in 2006 in opposition to religious and conservative groups’ efforts to change sexual orientation through sexual orientation conversion therapy. Groups such as Exodus International claim that same-sex desire is similar to addictions like alcoholism and can be controlled with the love of God.
But the APA study reported, “the potential risks of reparative therapy are great, including depression, anxiety and self-destructive behavior, since therapist alignment with societal prejudices against homosexuality may reinforce self-hatred already experienced by the patient.”
The study also stated, “the idea that homosexuality is a mental disorder or that the emergence of same-sex attraction…is in any way abnormal or mentally unhealthy has no support among any mainstream health and mental health professional organizations.”
Though our nation no longer upholds laws that punish people for not being born white, removing heterosexism from law is especially difficult today because of our national rejection of the legitimacy of being gay.
We should not merely tolerate non-hetero people as one would an unpleasant odor. Individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer are just as normal and socially legitimate as those who identify as straight, and should meet nothing other than complete acceptance.