Beyond Gay or Straight: Understanding Sexual Orientation

Publishers: Philadelphia, PA) 1996, $12.95 PB, 160 pp.

Reviewed by Eleanor J. Bader

I thought that we would be friends
forever. Although she and I had never wavered outside the bounds
of platonic love, we were always together. Our arms were often
affectionately draped around each other and we routinely engaged
in a conspiracy of whispered words, loud guffaws, and intimate
glances. We giggled over our crushes, told tales about the women
we’d slept with, and shared the girl-meets-girl dreams that
consumed our passions.

Then I met, and started to fall
for, a man. Without ever discussing it, my friend and I started
to drift, she toward the lesbian feminist community she had
previously danced around, and I toward the man I would eventually
marry. That was almost 13 years ago. I have since heard that
she’s moved out of state and lives with her lover of nearly a
decade. Via the rumor mill, I have heard that she is successful
and happy. I also know, thanks to some mutual friends, that she
believes I violated some basic precepts of loyalty and honor when
I chose a man over a woman, heterosexuality over lesbianism.

Despite the passage of time, I
have not completely accepted the schism that occurred and am
continually startled by her periodic appearance in my daydreams.
Since we no longer speak, I occasionally find myself wondering
about her day-to-day life although, oddly, I do nothing to track
her down. On one hand, I miss her style, charm, and humor. But on
the other, I am angry at what I feel is her betrayal of our
friendship, furious that her close-minded definition of
acceptable sexual conduct slammed the door on our relationship.
For what, after all, is the struggle about if not the freedom to
love whomever we want, in public as well as private? Jan
Clausen’s Beyond Gay or Straight: Understanding Sexual
Orientation, the 28th book in Chelsea House’s series on lesbian
and gay issues, is a wide-eyed look at current debates
surrounding sexual identity. The fixed and permeable boundaries
surrounding sexual orientation are explored, and a cross-cultural
assessment of sexual mores and expectations provides a jumping
off point for analysis. Thorough and concise, if at times densely
written, the volume asks essential questions:

  • Is sexual orientation an
    inborn trait, or does it somehow develop in the unfolding
  • Is it an unchanging
    characteristic, or one that is liable to shift over time?
  • Is it present in all
    cultures, even those that appear to organize sexuality
    quite differently from the way we do, or is it simply the
    way in which certain societies (especially Western,
    urbanized ones) currently think about sexual identity?

Clausen openly describes her own
movement within and between "queer"and

communities, and ultimately
concludes that just as experts cannot "end the political
crises caused by bigotry and unjust power relations, they cannot
say how desire connects to identity. They cannot tell us what we
desire, what our desires mean, which of them are real or
authentic, if and how to act on them, whether they will change in
the future, or how best to move from desires and behaviors to
descriptions of our selves."

Yet despite this lack of
knowledge, a whole slew of people are shouting, and their words
and deeds have dramatic implications for those struggling to
create a climate that tolerates gender nonconformity. There are
the essentialists, people Clausen defines as believing "that
there exist some core defining characteristics of homosexuals
that are the same in all times and places," and social
constructionists who believe that sexuality is " a fluid,
changing phenomenon, defined by social contexts that establish
not only the meaning but the very texture of what we call
experience, including bodily experience."

The scientific community has also
been vocal and prominent researchers continue to look for gay
hormones, brains differences, and genes to explain behaviors and
drives. "One is left with evidence that biological factors
have something (but not everything) to do with at least some
instances of male homosexuality," Clausen writes.
"However, this knowledge has no value in helping to predict
or explain the orientation of particular individuals. While it
suggests that human beings may not start their lives as entirely
blank slates, it says next to nothing about the process whereby
whatever is written on the slate to begin with turns into the
complex phenomenon we call sexuality. It does not, in other
words, provide a causal explanation." LFurthermore, Clausen
astutely points out that current scientific research "treats
homosexuality-not heterosexuality or bisexuality–as the
phenomenon demanding explanation … The research focus continues
to suggest that opposite-sex behavior is the yardstick by which
all other behavior is to be judged."

The absurdity of this measurement
becomes incredibly clear in the book’s most engaging chapter,
"Bodies and Meanings Across Cultures." In it, Clausen
offers examples of cultural variation regarding sexual propriety.
For example, in ancient Greece "sexual fulfillment for women
was considered appropriate only for courtesans, who could, if
they wished, have recourse to either males or females."
Similarly, Greek citizens–by definition non-slave males–were
encouraged to have relations with young men who had not yet
reached citizenship age. "Such relationships were expected
to co-exist with the older partner’s marriage; the younger man,
in his turn, would probably be married to a woman and take his
own young male lover," Clausen writes.

In more contemporary life, certain
Melanesian cultures expect sexual activity between older and
younger males since masculinity is believed to be acquired via
the ingestion of semen. And in Suriname, "women known as
mati or matisma enter into sexual relations with other women but
may simultaneously or subsequently maintain relationships with
men with whom they often have children. The same-sex pairings are
frequently intergenerational, with the older woman exacting
unconditional devotion" from the younger in exchange for her
attention, gifts and mentoring.

The lack of interest with which
many cultures view sexual-object choice should lead us to be
suspicious of the Euroamerican obsession with that particular
dimension of desire and behavior," Clausen concludes.
"People’s orientations can and do change, which is not to
say that everyone’s can change, that people make changes at will,
or that there is any positive value to be attached either to
changing or not changing … In the poetic formulation of Chicana
lesbian writer Gloria Andaldua, ‘identity is a river.’

Indeed, as my own identity had
flowed from incarnation to incarnation, a variety of people have
come and gone, yet the "mystery of desire" has kept
things interesting. My former friend continues to invade my
thoughts, and I continue to debate whether or not to get in touch
with her. For now, though, I am content to keep that particular
door shut. But who knows? Tomorrow is another day and I may feel