Aaron Harburg

Does “homosexuality” exist?

I have been sent this article by a number of people so it certainly has gotten some traction! I cannot say I fully agree with his conclusions.

Semiotics reveals that language provides a bridge for ideas between minds. It does this unlike anything else in the universe (cf. Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy). From a scholastic standpoint, words point to the form of a thing.

The question is whether or not a) sexual orientation as such exists b) whether labels can be applied to it as a real phenomena c) whether it is helpful to apply these labels.

If we’re talking about the phenomena whereby someone is sexually attracted to the same sex. That is, finds a member of their same sex to be an object (in the scholastic sense) of sexual gratification. An experience in which ones appetites are directed to that sex and physiological responses occur as a result. I can say with certainty this exists. Now if this occurs in such a way that it is continuous and predominant the label “homosexual” is applied. Obviously this is a made up word since it is a hybrid between the Greek “homo” and the Latin “sexualis”. There is no doubt that this term is not adequate to completely describe someone’s sexual inner life or experience. No one ever has claimed that it could. But back to the question, does the experience exist that this word is trying to convey? As I said before, I can state with certainty that it does. Not only that, but that it has for some time. Otherwise Aristophane’s speech in the symposium or comments by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics or even Aquinas wouldn’t make much sense. The phenomena clearly was there, regardless of whether they had a word for this. 

The framework in which one understands this certainly needs to be taken into account. I argue that this and similar labels can still work from a scholastic framework. Act takes precedence over habit. However, there are three things to keep in mind: 1) not all habits (in the scholastic sense) are chosen or even necessarily acted upon. 2) A habit takes its form from its object, its end, which in this case is an act. 3) A habit is a quality of the possessor.

On the first point this is simultaneously where the merits of modern vocabulary both is helpful and not so helpful. On the one hand, it is helpful because it recognizes and acknowledges that there is this phenomena (being predominantly if not exclusively attracted to members of the same sex). That it is shared by some and not by all. Therefore there is a class of individuals who experience this as everyday reality. The nature of this phenomena is in regards to the direction of certain human powers. In this particular case, the appetites, rather than the actual powers themselves. Hence “orientation”. There have been plenty of labels throughout history to describe this reality to varying success (invert, Onanite, etc..).

I argue that it is more proper to say someone is “homosexual” if they have the habit of it (that is an abiding disposition that is difficult to change) and never act on it, than to say someone is a “homosexual” if they don’t have the habit, but have only acted on it. Why? Because the context in which the word arose and is presently used is psychological. It was not intending to be moral. Which for some is a worthy contention if it was intended to REPLACE the moral. For the ethicist, act has precedence over the antecedent affective reality that precedes it. However, the ethicist, and more specifically the christian, must take this everyday experience into account. Refusal to do so is evidence of lacking empathy. Empathy, properly understood, is essential to charity. Thus that is where it needs room for improvement. There needs to be MORE terms to distinguish these situations.

On the second point, the word “homosexual” is a good start, in that it is identifying the power “sexuality” and the object “homo” (which if it were strictly Latin would mean “man” coincidentally). That is not enough. For three principal reasons, firstly the primary object should be which sex they are attracted to and what sex they are, not simply the relation to that sex. Secondly, because it does not denote degree or frequency of the attraction. Thirdly, because sexuality is only one small part of a MUCH broader and more interesting discussion of attraction & relationships. “Sex” might be where it starts and ends for some, but my personal experience and understanding, as a gay catholic, is that attractions to people of the same sex sometimes have a very different “end”. These can encompass far more, sometimes excluding sex. I am convinced these other experiences of attraction cannot be reduced to psycho-dynamic factors from childhood or vicious animal impulses due to biological configurations. The labels are a classifier focused on the habit or in terms more friendly to the modern, the people who have a shared experience of spontaneous persistent attraction.

On the third point, is where we answer the three questions I initially asked above. If this is indeed a habit (or collection of habits that interplay more likely) then it seems appropriate to give words to it. Thus it seems appropriate to me to label it which in effect labels myself. Is it helpful? I can’t make a judgement for everyone, but I don’t understand how we can progress in understanding if we can’t use words to describe a state of affairs that actually exists. Is it appropriate to self-identify? I think English fails in this regard. We are not like the French (or other romance languages) that employ the evolved Latin equivalents of habire, that is to have, (notice the root for “habit). In English we are accustomed to using labels of being to identify temporary states of being. Thus when I say “I’m hungry” I don’t think I can be reduced to my hunger. No gay rights activist believes that they can be reduced to their sexuality or orientation for that matter. They might think is their most important feature, but even that would be hard pressed to find.

It is therefore extremely bizarre to me how many conservatives seems to think they are making an “essentialist” argument when virtually all of the gay rights activists uniquivocally are constructivists. At best they are materialist neo-darwinian cartisian dualists who are simultaneously constructivists. At the very least don’t believe in a “form imposing on matter” in which this quality resides. Therefore, it seems disingenuous to me to completely discard all of this terminology and effectively discredit the assertions of this being an abiding aspect of their self-understanding. Especially on the basis that it happens to be socially constructed. ALL language is socially constructed. It’s origin happened not to be so great, but so was the origin of countless words.

While I lament the loss of the word “gay”. I think it in many ways is more accurate than “homosexual” because it does not reduce the phenomena to sex. It implicitly acknowledges a lot more is going on. Some say that lends itself to stereotypes etc… Nevertheless, I think stereotypes exist for a reason and it is worthwhile to examine why there is a correlation between typical “gay” things and “homosexual” feelings. 

Now the most particularly absurd assault on this terminology arises in the mistaken notion that including non-eternal sinful attributes in one’s present self-understanding is somehow damaging. Was it not the apostle Paul who said “I boast in my weakness?” Was it not the same apostle who called himself the greatest of sinners? In this vale of tears we have every right to say “I am a worm and no man.” Nevertheless, as I JUST pointed out gay encompasses more than just the vicious aspect of same-sex attraction. It also includes the proclivity to beauty, especially masculine beauty. It features a robust, and quite frankly, more accurate orientation towards friendship. Friendship, which the modern world has forgotten in favor of romance frequently conflating the two. This was a major point I made in my talk in 2012. Not only that, but if one was consistent in refusing to apply temporal non-essential labels to ones self would make life impossible to talk about. We couldn’t say: “I’m a doctor” or “I’m 20 years old” or “I’m a golfer” or “I’m a recovering alcoholic.”

In the words of my friend Melinda: “To label me is to negate me. But to refuse me the right to label myself is to erase me from the conversation.”