Homosexuality post 2: What is Homosexuality?

What is Homosexuality?

 Simply put, homosexuals are those who primarily desire and/or form sexual relationships with people who are of the same sex as themselves. But homosexuality is not a simple concept.  Are we talking about conscious desire? Are we talking about an inborn and perhaps unconscious orientation?  Are we talking about a lifestyle?  Are we talking about a specific set of sexual behaviours?  Are we talking about a particular self-concept or identity?  Are we talking about a life-long phenomenon or do we include brief episodes in our definitions?  How do we talk about ‘homosexuality’ with any clarity?

What is the difference between attraction, action, and identity?

‘Attraction’ refers to sexual desire.  It is a psycho-biological fact, related to the functioning of our brain and the rest of our body.

‘Activity’ refers to the behaviours that we do.  As many of us know, it is possible to behave sexually without feeling much attraction, for a variety of reasons, and it is possible to feel attraction, but not act upon it, so it is important to distinguish these.

‘Identity’ refers to the sort of label we adopt; it is our self-concept and shapes how we see ourselves as individuals and in relationships with others.  This is a socio-cultural fact with important psychological results.

Throughout this paper I use the words ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ to denote those who consciously identify themselves as such, but usually I will talk far more cautiously about ‘homosexual attraction’, ‘activity’, and ‘Identity[1]’, without committing myself to specific concepts of homosexual ‘orientation’.  Besides the fact that the concept of homosexual orientation is neither clear-cut nor universally accepted, this is a simple recognition of the fact that people with homosexual attractions /identity /activity are very diverse, and having one of these doesn’t necessarily imply having the others.  It is quite possible to experience homosexual desires, but not participate in homosexual activity, or identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.  Conversely, it is quite possible to identify as ‘lesbian’ or ‘gay’ and not feel sexual desires of any sort, or engage in any specific sexual behaviours.  Questions about how many people have same-sex erotic relationships get different answers to questions about how many people identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’[2].  Finally, we should always be careful about labelling ourselves or each other.  To describe a person with a mental illness as a ‘schizophrenic’ is to hide the human being behind an illness.  To describe a person as a ‘black’ or a ‘white’ is taking something literally skin-deep and making it definitive for our understanding that person.  Behind every prejudice[3] is a label.  Without labels, prejudice can’t exist.  As cardinal Ratzinger said, “The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, can hardly be adequately described by a reductionist reference to his or her sexual orientation.[4]


[1] I don’t discuss homosexual ‘lifestyle’ for two reason; one is that there is substantial overlap between those who adopt a gay identity and a gay lifestyle –both are deeply communal concepts – but also because there are different gay ‘lifestyles’ and it is beyond our scope to explore those differences here.  See (Lee, No, I’m Not in the Gay Lifestyle and Neither is Anyone Else 2012) for a useful reflection.

[2] For example, a report from the NZ Mental Health Survey by the University of Otago, interviewing 13 000 people, found that those identifying as homosexual were 0.8% of respondents.  A further 0.6 identified as bisexual, and 0.3 as ‘something else’.  However, 2% of people reported that they had been in a same-sex relationship, and a further 3% reported having experienced a same-sex encounter (Booker 2010).  These figures are similar to those of a Christchurch study (Fergusson, Horwood and Beautrais 1999) which found 2.8% of their sample (1007 people born in Christchurch) either self-identified as Gay, lesbian, or bisexual (2%), or identified as heterosexual, but had had a same-sex relationship in the past (0.8%).

[3] “Prejudice” is ‘pre’ ‘judice’ literally, ‘before law’ or ‘prior to judgement’.  In other words, it’s the judgement we make before we exercise our judgement.

[4] (Ratzinger 1994, 46)


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