The Sexual Blur

Article excerpt

With straights falling for gays, lesbians dating men, and gay men in love with women, is anybody anything anymore? Just how important is sexual identity?

When Anne Heche sat down next to her girlfriend, Ellen DeGeneres, on The Oprah Winfrey Show and said, "I was not gay before I met her," many in Oprah Winfrey's audience--and Winfrey herself--were a bit bewildered. "That confuses me," Winfrey said. One woman in the audience asked Heche to explain what she meant, because "we're led to believe that people who are gay tend to know from birth, and you kind of disputed that." The only thing Heche could say in response was, "I didn't all of a sudden feel, I'm gay--I just all of a sudden felt, Oh, I love."

That wasn't a good enough answer for Winfrey, who decided to do a second show on "how someone becomes gay." Five days later Winfrey pitted scientists, psychologists, and journalists against each other in a debate over the nature of same-sex desire. Despite the sometimes belligerent, occasionally loud discussion about genetics, cultural anxiety, and the differences between men's and women's sexuality, not much was concluded, and vastly more questions were raised than answered.

The problem wasn't the idea that homosexuality is a biological, innate trait. That seems to be a well-accepted concept nowadays. Instead, what many people had a lot of trouble understanding and accepting is the sort of sexuality that Anne Heche represented to Winfrey's audience: fluid sexuality. This is changing sexuality,the sexuality that doesn't fit in a box, the sexuality that might reject labels, the sexuality that causes all sorts of political problems in a gay movement in which some spokespeople have for years been insisting, "We're born this way, we can't change, and--damn it!--if we could, don't you think we would have?"

The fact is that many people do change--or to be exact, they don't stay the same. "Gay," "lesbian," "bisexual," and "straight" are just labels, but the way people behave is a different issue entirely. "Whether you are homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual is not really important," says psychologist Adria Schwartz, author of the forthcoming book Sexual Subjects: Lesbians, Gender, and Psychoanalysis. "It might be appropriate to the way an individual experiences their sexuality but not appropriate for the way human sexuality works."

No one really knows how it works, but people such as Alfred Kinsey, the famed sexologist of the 1940s and '50s, tried to categorize it. While crude and simplistic, the Kinsey Scale is somewhat helpful in looking at the spectrum of human sexual behavior. On the scale a 0 represents exclusive heterosexuality, and a 6 exclusive homosexuality. The people who exhibit bisexual behavior fall somewhere between those two poles, making them, for example, 2s or 4s.

There seems to be some agreement that among women such sexual variability is as common if not more common than strict homosexuality, but the numbers for men are in dispute. Some argue there are just as many men; others say that male bisexuality is extremely rare. Nevertheless, few disagree that human sexuality manifests itself in very different ways and that it can even change at various points in a person's life. Ron Fox, a psychotherapist and researcher m San Francisco, says, "Some people have the same orientation all their life with the same kind of sexual fantasies, and other people don't."

Once you have settled into an identity and built a life around it, anything that doesn't fit can be disconcerting and upsetting. This is true not only for heterosexuals who come to the realization at some point in their lives that they are attracted to people of the same sex but also for people who have long identified as homosexual and who develop or begin to notice attractions for the opposite sex. Schwartz says that many of her clients, most of whom are lesbians, report sexual dreams and fantasies about both men and women. …