|Posted on March 6, 2017 at 11:30 PM|
By Dennis Stone
Is Tom Cruise gay? How about John Travolta or Jake Gyllenhaal? Was Abraham Lincoln as gay as Larry Kramer assumes? How about Napoleon? William Shakespeare?
We’ve been asking these questions for a long time, and continue to do so. There is one big problem with these inquiries and these debates, however. They assume that sexuality is a binary condition. If Tom Cruise is just pretending to be straight then the rumors are true and he’s gay.
Yes, we intellectually know there are bisexuals out there (though some of us think they are just people not yet brave enough to be fully out), and we are aware of the Kinsey scale. But we ignore that knowledge when we consider the sexuality of famous people (or co-workers, relatives, etc.). No one asks: Is Tom Cruise something other than a zero or a six on the Kinsey scale? No, he’s either straight or gay.
I was thinking of this issue while reading Out’s recent piece on Birth Of a Nation, Nate Parker’s movie about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. The subtitle of the piece was: “Was This Icon Of Black Liberation Gay? Not On Nate Parker’s Watch.” Turner’s gay identity comes solely from his portrayal as such in William Styron’s 1968 best selling novel, The Confessions Of Nat Turner. As a slave Turner has almost no historical record, leaving him a largely blank canvas for novelists and activists. Some scholars, hoping to debunk Styron’s characterization, have searched for a wife or children. They have unearthed possibilities, but nothing conclusive. Again, the binary: was Turner gay or straight?
While reading the piece it suddenly struck me as absurd to try to put into a specific box someone about whom all we have is speculation or rumor. Nat Turner (and Cruise, Lincoln, et al) might have been straight, or gay, or anywhere in between. There is no way for any of us to know. That is the reality, and we should adjust our thinking to reflect that reality.
There are far more people somewhere on the spectrum between gay and straight than are primarily or exclusively gay. Most scientific studies or surveys have put the percentage of self-identified gay people between 1.6% (from the CDC report issued in 2014) to about 3%. Even if we assume that a significant number of people hide their identify even on confidential surveys, the true percentage is much less than the long debunked 10% figure from Kinsey’s work in the 1940s. However, other studies using ingenious “veiled” or indirect methodologies have shown that perhaps about 20% have some attraction to their own gender.
A few years ago a long time friend called to ask if he could come to my house to discuss something. A half hour later he arrived with the astounding suggestion that we have sex. No, he isn’t gay, but he is a bit of a libertine, and he was curious what gay sex would feel like. I don’t do casual sex, so I turned him down. If he were a celebrity and that story got into the media, the gay rumors and speculation would swirl. Many would just assume that of course he’s gay. But I’ve known him very well for many years, and he’s a straight guy with curiosity and few inhibitions.
The Lincoln rumors took off after publication of Charles Strozier’s 1982 book Lincoln’s Quest For Union, in which the psychoanalyst and history professor talked about the future president sharing a bed and intimate feelings with another man. But that was a very different time, with very different customs about how men could relate to each other, and Strozier himself has concluded that Lincoln was not actually gay. It seems likely that he was somewhere along the spectrum rather than at either of the poles. Nonetheless, we insist on the binary question of whether Lincoln was gay or straight.
Our perception of sexuality as binary strikes me as odd considering how we approach the concept of gender. We EXPECT people to see gender as non-binary, to recognize the large number of gender identities that have been described and embraced, and to avoid assumptions about people. Some have seen the need to attach names to each of these many possible gender identities. We must avoid binary thinking about gender, but at the same time we speculate as to whether Tom Cruise is either straight or gay.
There are far more people with sexualities not at one of the poles than there are people with genders outside of the binary construct. If we stress the importance of not being locked into binary thinking about gender should we not do the same about sexuality? Should we simply stop asking the question - regarding both current celebrities and historical figures - about whether they are straight or gay? Historically, gay people have felt the need to validate themselves by claiming or identifying as many famous people as possible. I am suggesting that we have reached the point where we no longer need that validation.
Let’s take this discussion a step further. We think it’s important to grant people the freedom to choose their own gender identity, and then to respect that chosen identity. Perhaps it is time to grant people the same freedom regarding their sexuality. We don’t investigate or press people on their gender identity, trying to make sure they are being honest. It’s none of our business. Is it time to apply that philosophy to sexuality as well?
I personally think it is time for that change. If someone wants to identify as straight even though they have the occasional (or even regular) gay fling, that’s fine with me. It’s their identity, and I have no desire to police that. If someone wants to identify as bisexual even though they’ve never had a same sex experience, who am I to argue? Sexuality can be changeable over time, and for a large percentage of the population it’s non-binary. There are no absolutes regarding interpretation of feelings or significance of actions. Since that is true we should have the same freedom to choose our sexuality identity as we do to choose our gender identity.
Is Tom Cruise gay? That’s the wrong question. Where is he on the Kinsey scale, or any other scale we could devise? I don’t know and I don’t care. Neither should you.