Thursday, July 13, 2006

Preference vs. Orientation

One of the keys to understanding the current legal impasse over gay marriage is the distinction between “sexual preference” and “sexual orientation.”

In last week’s ruling on same-sex marriage, the New York State Court of Appeals defended its decision to uphold the status quo by arguing, “A person’s preference for the sort of sexual activity that cannot lead to the birth of children is relevant to the State’s interest in fostering relationships that will serve children best.”

Let’s ignore for the moment the fact that heterosexuals indulge in many sexual practices that “cannot lead to the birth of children,” and even, by means of birth control, intentionally thwart the procreative capacity of vaginal intercourse. I want to focus on the use of this word “preference.”

I have a preference for Diet Coke. Now, when I go into a store, there are many beverage options available to me. But I almost always have Diet Coke. It’s what I like.

I think there is something wrong with people who like Diet Pepsi. Yes, I have tried Diet Pepsi, and I didn’t like it. I suspect people who drink Diet Pepsi either have never tried Diet Coke and, therefore, don’t know what they’re missing, or, there is something wrong with them that could probably be cured by therapy. They were probably raised by parents who gave them Diet Pepsi. Or possibly they came from broken homes, or were abused by priests. Or maybe someone gave them Diet Pepsi while they were at camp as a teenager. Any or all of these explanations are plausible.

But sexual attraction is much more complicated than that. I might have a “preference” for certain activities, sure, but I don’t really have a choice when it comes to a partner. My interest in men is innate and is part of who I am as a person. It’s not like I’m dining in some sort of sexual restaurant and can decide whether I’d rather have the Penis or the Breasts & Vagina Combo. Where I’m sitting, the Combo isn’t even on the menu.

I suspect heterosexuals feel the same way. Many heterosexuals might enjoy the kinds of activities that can’t lead to conception, but they’re not interested in doing them with a partner of the same gender. A choice is not really a valid “choice” if one of the options is something you would never, ever want.

18 comments:

little-cicero said...

I don't understand, do you prefer "sexual orientation" to "sexual preference"?

It would seem to me that "orientation" is simply "gravitating towards" or "drifting innately towards". So it seems like you're saying that you are homosexually oriented, not just "preferring penises".

I think that's what you're saying, but you didn't say that specifically.

Aethlos said...

this post is fucking brilliant, and very funny. And i understand exactly what you're saying, and little cis, 'orientation' in no way implies moving or drifting anywhere in any way - rather implies a fixity, a location (on the sexual continuum), etc. sexual orientation means 'sexual wiring'. so there is no "drifting towards" rather "located at". But then again, i'm a comedian - what do i know.

little-cicero said...

That may have been what I was thinking. Good push in the right direction!

Jeff said...

One thing many anti-gay people don't understand is that we don't just like having sex with people of the same gender; we're attracted to people of the same gender. That's why someone can be gay without ever having had sex. Physical attraction is visual, hormonal. It's not just about the penis but about liking the entire person's body from head to toe. (Not just the "package" but the "whole package," if you will.)

Because they don't get it, they see homosexuality as a choice: something we do rather than as something we are. They incorrectly think it's a compulsion to do some sort of activity - they don't understand how attraction plays any role in it.

kr pdx said...

Hi-lar-i-ous :).

Future Geek said...

Diet Coke, eh? I'm taking you off my blogroll...

Anonymous said...

Good analogies. The GLBT communty need to be putting out more of this type of logical argument out there. This of course is not always easy to do when you are discounted and marginalised. Even the Democratic leaders while largely apparently sympathetic to the plight seemed to be worried about the cost of support.

Consciousness raising may help get more supportive politicians on board.

Anonymous said...

The other issue that gets lost in all this is that GLBT people, like every other human being has the innate capacity and need to be loved and to love – not just in a sexual way. Couple that with the sexual orientation and you get the need to have our relationships supported to help us live our humanness. To not do this is abusive and inhumane.

Jarred said...

The only issue I have with this is that it ignores the underlying fact that whether homosexuality is a "preference" or an "orientation" (and I agree it's the latter) is irrelevant when it comes to civil rights.

The Bill of Rights is set up to protect our choices as well as our in-born traits. In America, religion is seen as a matter of choice, yet it's protected. In fact, the founding fathers found that particular choice so important, they put protections for it into the very first amendment to the Constitution.

To be honest, I feel that allowing those who oppose equality to draw us into the whole "preference vs. orientation" argument is in effect letting them set the stage for an irrelevant and nearly unwinnable argument.

Matthew said...

Good post, Andy, and a funny analogy.

I do agree with Jarred, however, in that whether or not being gay is something people are born as or they simple choose to be is irrelevant, and shouldn't be used as a crutch for attaining civil rights.

I also agree with Jeff, in that being gay is much more than what two men do with their penises or what two women do with their vaginas. It's a broader picture sort of thing. We fall in love with people of the same sex. We are attracted to them physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Keep up the great work, Andy.

little-cicero said...

Unfortunately for your community, in order to pursue your agenda (I mean the word in the most precise, non-offensive way possible) you must first put across this sort of point, but at the moment, Same Sex Marriage is just about the only thing on your priority list. Wouldn't temporarily settling for civil unions give you a chance to clarify unto the populace such important concepts as these? If there's one thing the black community discovered, it's that you don't get acceptance through litigation alone.

Andy said...

I'm sure we would love to have civil unions as a step on the way to full marriage equality, but most places aren't offering. Just the opposite, they're passing amendments to ban not just same-sex marriage but any legal recognition for same-sex partnerships.

I'm curious, what do you think should be on our agenda?

I'm also really curious about your comment on the black civil rights movement. What do you think they did we're not doing?

little-cicero said...

An end to violence against homosexuals is the most important thing for your community- eliminating the fear that some feel every day just for being attracted to those of the same sex. That should be priority number one. Priority number two should be to educate the public, through means which do not reach children (no billboards!) that homosexuality is not a choice. Next, concentrate your efforts on gaining the right to civil unions. Like a race horse, put blinders on and you will reach this objective rather easily. Next priority, same sex adoption- don't try to convince us that it's better or equal than mother-father adoption, in fact, use the common ground of the fact that a child deserves a mother and a father to silence the fundies, then move in for second-priority adoption when no good mother-father couples are available (even Rosie O'Donnel believes that children should have a mother and a father). Finally, it should be a priority to ban "colorful individuals" from gay pride parades. You know the ones I'm talking about- they are setting your community back more than any fundies!

That's my gay agenda! I don't expect you to like it, but that's it!

I actually believe that you're making many of the same mistakes of the black community. Through infamous gay parades you cut out an exclusive culture for your community, though it doesn't apply to most people in your case. Through litigation against the boy scouts you've made yourselves the scapegoats of the fall of American values in America, as with blacks. And of course, by aiming your anger against Christian Fundamentalists, you have magnified significantly the degree to which being pro-homosexual is being "anti-Christian". Finally, as I mentioned, you militantly focus on changing minds through law, when in fact LOVE is the only key to doing so. Could you imagine the impact of an organization called "F*gs for Falwell" (I honestly have no idea how offensive that is to anyone- bear with me) would have on gay-fundie relations?

little-cicero said...

An end to violence against homosexuals is the most important thing for your community- eliminating the fear that some feel every day just for being attracted to those of the same sex. That should be priority number one. Priority number two should be to educate the public, through means which do not reach children (no billboards!) that homosexuality is not a choice. Next, concentrate your efforts on gaining the right to civil unions. Like a race horse, put blinders on and you will reach this objective rather easily. Next priority, same sex adoption- don't try to convince us that it's better or equal than mother-father adoption, in fact, use the common ground of the fact that a child deserves a mother and a father to silence the fundies, then move in for second-priority adoption when no good mother-father couples are available (even Rosie O'Donnel believes that children should have a mother and a father). Finally, it should be a priority to ban "colorful individuals" from gay pride parades. You know the ones I'm talking about- they are setting your community back more than any fundies!

That's my gay agenda! I don't expect you to like it, but that's it!

I actually believe that you're making many of the same mistakes of the black community. Through infamous gay parades you cut out an exclusive culture for your community, though it doesn't apply to most people in your case. Through litigation against the boy scouts you've made yourselves the scapegoats of the fall of American values in America, as with blacks. And of course, by aiming your anger against Christian Fundamentalists, you have magnified significantly the degree to which being pro-homosexual is being "anti-Christian". Finally, as I mentioned, you militantly focus on changing minds through law, when in fact LOVE is the only key to doing so. Could you imagine the impact of an organization called "F*gs for Falwell" (I honestly have no idea how offensive that is to anyone- bear with me) would have on gay-fundie relations?

Jeff said...

Litigation alone is not enough for a social movement. Court decisions can result in social and political backlash, and courts have no power to enforce their decisions, and constitutions can be amended. One of my law professors says that Brown v. Board of Education did not advance the civil rights movement by itself, and that in fact it caused a backlash. Here are some excerpts from an interview:

"Brown had such an effect on southern politics, though I also believe that the violent backlash produced by Brown ultimately generated a counterbacklash when northern audiences watched peaceful black demonstrators being beaten by law enforcement officers on television."

He also says:

"I think Brown mattered in a variety of ways: it gave much greater salience to the school segregation issue; it gave blacks reason to be hopeful about the future; it motivated blacks in the South to litigate against school segregation; and it mobilized southern whites to resist progressive racial change. I think that most whites outside of the South agreed with Brown in the abstract from the very beginning. What changed between the mid 1950s and the early 1960s was their willingness to actually do something to implement that abstract commitment. It seems pretty clear that what finally motivated northerners to demand civil rights legislation was the violence used to suppress civil rights demonstrations at places like Birmingham and Selma."

kr pdx said...

How many Matthew Shepherds will it take this time, though, you know?

Fucking stupid. (That sort of violence, "fucking stupid," not you all.)

Hopefully "the black community" isn't the only "community" that sees that that way of dealing with social change
SUCKS.
Be nice if we could get it together on this set of issues a little less destructively.

Jade said...

Jarred - The constitution does protect our choices, but only to a certain extent. I may choose to dispose of my Idiot Sister, but that doesn't mean I had the constitutional right to do so just because it was my choice. Even free speech has limits (not yelling fire in a crowded theater just for fun...)

The point of bringing up the difference between orientation and preference is not just semantics... one of the arguments Anti-Gay-Union people have is that "this is your choice, why should you change the definition of what I have to suit your choices?" and the answer to that is... "this is not a CHOICE, this is who we are, why can't the state/county/whoever recognize the partners we fall in love with?" The point is to showcase that the GLBT community is not looking for what some are calling a "new right" of their unions to be recognized, they are looking for the rights that are equal to what hetero couples have. The whole religious argument is moot to me, regardless of what the Bible might say regarding religious ceremonies there is no logical reason for same-sex couples to not be allowed that magic piece of paper from the state. Legally recognizing a union has nothing to do with religion, and "the Bible says..." arguments have no place in the discussion.

Jarred said...

Jade: You see, I would offer a different response to that question:

"I am not changing the definition in a way that will negate or infringe upon your choices. Your own marriage will remain the same as it's always been. I'm merely expanding the definition to make room for my relationships too. Can you give a legitimate reason for preventing that? Can you prove that this expansion of definitions will negatively affect your own marriage? If not, then what possible reason can you give to deny me the right to marry my boyfriend?"

You're right to say that there are limits to certain rights. But those limits have to be based on solid grounds. Forcing those opposed to come up with solid grounds for limiting marriage to opposite sex couples (and as the justices in New York have proven, their best arguments are weak and flawed at best) or admit they have no good reasons is a better approach in my opinion.