Published in National Review, 5/30/94
Gay Male Tendencies
Comments & Examples
|P icnic activity||Sunbathe||Play softball||Softball has been the lesbian game since WWII|
|B ar activity||Dance||Shoot pool||AIDS has decimated choreographers|
|Opinion of perfume||Enjoy||Resent||“Scent-free zones” at lesbian-feminist venues|
|Interest in fashion||High||Low||Versace, Perry Ellis, Yves Saint Laurent|
|Sense of humor||Campy, self-deprecating, waspish||Satirical, political||You don’t see many lesbian drag king shows|
|Fantas y job||Entertainer||Pro athlete||Lesbians about 30% of golf/tennis touring pros|
|Leadership drive||Low||High||Male vs. female officer corps|
by need for
|Attention & adoration||Leadership & domination||Gay figure skaters vs. lesbian army officers|
|Distinctive trait||Gay||Resentful||“We’re not gay, we’re angry!”|
|Sex||Gay Male Tendencies||Lesbian Tendencies||Comments & Examples|
|Ravaged by AIDS||Untouched by AIDS||But breast cancer hits lesbians hard|
|Promiscuity||Monogamy||Lesbian bathouses in S.F. were ig flop|
|High sexual activity level||Low sexual activity level||“Lesbian Bed Death” syndrome|
|Fascinated by beauty||Resent male fascination with beauty||Death in Venice, Billy Budd and other operas by Britten|
|Avid for pornography||Outraged by porn||But verbal erotica popular with some lesbians|
|Often have sex in a semi-public spot||Sex at home||It’s dangerous to bring many strange men home|
|Fantasy & degradation||Less adventurous||Leather/S&M vs. cuddling|
|Gays absent from hetero porn||“Lesbians” a staple of hetero porn||See Penthouse|
|Ideal sex partner||Young, thin, handsome||Looks not too important||See newspaper “Personal” ads|
|Masculine stranger||Feminine friend||Only narcissists want lovers like themselves|
|Careers||Gay Male Tendencies||Lesbian Tendencies||Comments & Examples|
|Staff||Line||In army, gays go into medical corps|
|Frequently serve women||Seldom serve men||Gay hairdressers outnumber lesbian barbers|
|Like working w/women||Dislike working w/men||Olivia Records boycotted merely for hiring woman who used to be a man|
|Upscale, creative||Downscale, blue-collar||AIDS obituaries reveal gay job patterns|
|People-oriented jobs||Machine-oriented jobs||Gays big in PR, hiring, church, spying|
|Little interest in military||Great interest in military||3x more lesbians than gays expelled|
|Gentrify risky districts||Form rural communes||Men can live safely where women can’t|
|Gay Male Tendencies||Lesbian Tendencies||Comments & Examples|
|Cognitive orientation||Visual||Verbal||Reflects typical orientations of male/female toddlers|
|Ensuing jobs||Art critic||Literary critic||English Depts., especially 7 Sisters|
|Photographer||Journalist||Schizo fashion mags: gays’ images, feminists’ words|
|Antique-store owner||Bookstore owner||Big growth in “women’s” bookstores|
|Musical||Wordy||In UK “musical” is euphemism for “gay”|
|Ensuing jobs||Choir director/organist||Folk singer||Womyn’s music favors sincere lyrics|
|Opera, ballet, B’way, disco||Conciousness raising|
|Cultural tastes||Arts||Crafts||Camille Paglia is exception proving rules|
|Classical & avant-garde||Folksy, traditional||Winckelmann, Pater, Blunt, Acton|
|See humans as art objects||Resent objectification||Greek sculpure, Wilde’s Dorian Grey|
|Snobbish, hierarchizing||Sensitive to lesser talents||Lesbians big on “Expanding the Canon”|
|Idolize Classical Greeks||Resent dead white European males||Greeks made gay traits central to Western art|
|Music||Lyrics||In UK “musical” is euphemism for “gay”|
|Politics||Gay Male Tendencies||Lesbian Tendencies||Comments & Examples|
|Unpolitical, hedonistic||Political, activistic||Where is gay MLK Jr. or Malcolm X?|
|Don’t claim to speak for all men||Claim to speak for all women||Patricia Ireland, lesbian leader of NOW, titled her memoirs What Women Want|
|“Why I’m gay: Nature”||“Why I’m a lesbian: Nurture”||Feminists see orientation as a political choice|
|Frequently persecuted||Frequently ignored||Lesbianism legal in Victorian England & Nazi Germany|
|Estimated 1% to 6% of population||Estimated 0.5% to 3% of population||Lesbians maybe half as common|
A warm Saturday afternoon in late May brings all of Chicago to the lakefront. In the Wrigleyville section of Lincoln Park, softball teams with names like “We Are Everywhere” and “The 10 Percenters” compete with an intensity that could shame the Cubs. Girded for battle with sliding pads, batting gloves, and taped ankles, the short-haired women slash extra-base hits, turn the double play, and hit the cutoff woman with a practiced efficiency that arouses admiring shouts from the women spectators.
Meanwhile, on a grassy lakeside bluff a few blocks to the south, the men of the New Town neighborhood bask, golden, in the sun. If ever a rogue urge to strike a ball with a stick is felt by any of the elegantly sprawled multitude, it is quickly subdued. This absence of athletic strife is certainly not the result of any lack of muscle tone: many have clearly spent the dark months in thrall to SoloFlex and StairMaster. But now, the sun is shining and the men are content for their sculpted bodies to be rather than to do.
What are we to make of all this? What does it say about human nature that so many enthusiasms of the average lesbian and the average gay man diverge so strikingly? What broader lessons about current social issues can we learn from this contrariness of their tendencies, this dissimilarity of lesbian and gay passions that has been dimly observable in many cultures and ages, but that now in the wide open, self-fulfillment obsessed America of the 1990s is unmistakable? Well, apparently, we’d be best off not thinking too much about this fact. Better yet, we should avoid even noticing any of these curious details.
At least, that’s been the implicit message of most of the recent news coverage of homosexuals, an outspilling enormous in extent, but peculiarly limited in analytical depth to endless rehashes of: “Gays: Sinners Against God or Victims of Society?” The ongoing media hubbub may actually be clouding the public’s understanding: so many of today’s auto-pilot articles and paint-by-the-numbers newscasts depict homosexuals as merely one dimensional martyrs to prejudice. There are of course obvious political advantages to blandly glossing over just how heterogeneous are homosexuals. Yet, this media stereotyping probably stems more from the natural urge of journalists to reduce complex and unsettling questions about human nature to just another fable starring good guys/gals we all can identify with (in this case, “gays”), who are discriminated against by bad guys (“homophobes”) we all can feel good about looking down upon. Whether portraying homosexuals as perverts in the past or as victims today, the press has always found it less taxing to preach morality rather than to try to understand reality.
As with any other large collection of people, numerous fault lines divide homosexuals, but the most remarkable is the one separating gay men from lesbians. (I use “gay” to refer only to male homosexuals. The media’s habit of applying the word to female homosexuals is male chauvinism at its most blatant: “gay” is just about the last term lesbians would have invented to describe themselves. As one lesbian activist succinctly put it, “We’re not gay, we’re angry!”) The current fashion of lumping together as “gays” everybody from Liberacé to Martina Navratilova does something less than justice to the individuals so categorized, to one’s own intellectual curiosity, and to the productiveness of public discourse.
This handy table of tendencies will of course be denounced as reflecting stereotypes. In the through the looking glass world of contemporary social comment, the more true a statement, the more meticulous its delineation, the more people from the more societies who have observed it to be a fact, then the more automatic the cries of “Stereotype!” Many journalists today write as if they are unable to distinguish between perceptive observations about the average traits of a group and blanket assertions about each and every group member. Thus, even carefully worded summations of the obvious like, “Men tend to be more aggressive than women,” are triumphantly refuted with, “So, you think Mister Rogers is more aggressive than Mrs. Thatcher? Huh? Huh?”
Conspicuously missing from current debates is that most useful of all conceptual tools for thinking about both the similarity and the diversity of human beings: the probability distribution (more roughly known as the bell-shaped curve). Rather than help educate the public to think in terms of bell-shaped curves and individual variances, the press instead warns us to abstain altogether from noticing average differences between groups. Such knowledge, according to the media’s theory, might bias our treatment of individuals. Of course, these proponents of unsullied individualism are so often the same people who, for their own professional or political ends, rhetorically clump humans into the grossest possible stereotypical categories (e.g., Gays, People of Color, Minorities, Third Worlders, Anglos, Homophobes, the Marginalized, the White Male Power Structure, etcetera etcetera). Worse, this taboo endorses ignorance. Now, benightedness certainly makes life more surprising (in the words of Homer Simpson, “Life is just a bunch of things that happen”), but know-nothingness does have its drawbacks, as has been pointed out on various occasions stretching back to the Ice Ages. Of course, few “social critics” actually try to practice this idealistic ignorance in their private lives. They merely publicly urge it on others.
Since the media spend so much time telling us to be oblivious to facts, it’s not surprising that they themselves are suckers for frauds, like that long-lasting media cliche, “10% of all men and women are homosexual.” This canard has been based on little more than gay erotic daydreams. One defender of the 10% number, the gay critic Bruce Bawer, has written of how he can know from momentary eye contact that a young father pushing a baby carriage past him on the street is “living a lie.” If the 10% concoction were true, there would be four to five times as many homosexuals as Jews!
Are homosexuals fairly common, like, say, tax-cheaters, lefthanders, or tithe-givers? Or are they fairly rare, like prison inmates, identical twins, or clergy? This is certainly an interesting topic, but why this purely empirical question is thought to possess such moral consequence that many people feel compelled to lie about it is beyond me. Of course, there is much in modern media morals that I am not sensitive enough to understand. On the other hand, the fact that there are relatively few homosexuals answers a common type of objection to my table of tendencies: e.g., “You claim lesbians like softball, but most of the women softball players I know are straight.” In response, let’s assume lesbians are, say, ten times as likely as heterosexual women to play in an all-woman adult softball league. If 10% of the population was actually lesbian, then a majority of the players would be lesbians. More realistically, however, if only 2.5% of women were lesbians, then straight softball players would outnumber lesbians about 4 to 1.
One of the cruelest effects of ignorance about homosexuals’ propensities is the heartbreak it causes both a homosexual and his or her parents when the adult child finally reveals the Surprising Truth. We are told that if only the parents hadn’t been socialized to hold outdated prejudices, the surprise would not be disappointing. Disappointment, however, is inevitable: the desire to pass on your genes to grandchildren is bedrock human nature. What is far more avoidable, though, is the surprise. A more worldly awareness of those enduring likes and dislikes that tend to correlate with sexual orientation, and which so often manifest themselves early in childhood, could quite frequently allow the parents of children who turn out to be homosexual to have already spent years slowly getting used to the likelihood that this child won’t ever make them grandparents, but can still make them proud and happy in many other ways.
It’s important to note that the different inclinations of gays and lesbians do not follow easily predicted lines. In roughly half the traits, homosexuals tend to more resemble the opposite sex than they do the rest of their own sex. For example, many heterosexual men and lesbian women are enthusiasts for golf, as well as other hit-a-ball-with-a-stick games like softball and pool. Lesbian-feminist sportswriter Mariah Burton Nelson recently estimated, not implausibly, that 30% of the Ladies Professional Golf Association women touring pros were lesbians. While such estimates are hard to verify, it’s clear that the marketers at the LPGA desperately wish they had more mothers-of-three like Nancy Lopez, the most popular woman golfer ever: i.e., a victorious yet still feminine champion with whom other heterosexual women enjoy identifying.
In contrast, pre-menopausal straight women and gay men typically find golf pointless. For example, despite incessant socialization toward golf, only one out of nine wives of PGA touring pros plays golf herself! And gay male golf fanatics are so rare that it’s difficult to even come up with an exception that proves this rule (which might explain why golfers wear those god-awful pants).
Yet, for many other traits, homosexuals exhibit their own sex’s tendencies to a heightened degree. For instance, all great classical composers have been male. At least since Tchaikovsky, though, an impressive number of leading composers have been gay or bisexual (e.g., Britten, Copland, Barber, Poulenc, Corigliano, and Bernstein). In comparison, although “Women’s Music” festivals play an important role in lesbian culture, their audiences distrust dazzling exhibitions of musical virtuosity, instead preferring simple folk songs with sincere lyrics. Overall, lesbian culture is intensely verbal, a bias that seems to stem from the verbal superiority of women in general, that general feminine superiority with words that is measurable as far back as toddlerhood.
Has anyone yet deciphered a Unified Field Theory that would explain all of these complex patterns? Not that I’m aware of, but we can’t begin to look for one without laying out all the facts first.
The best criticism of this article’s gay vs. lesbian dichotomy would be that it doesn’t go far enough. For example, people raised in Latin countries might think it peculiar that Americans insist on labeling as “gay” both Truman Capote and that exemplar of murderous masculine charisma, Alexander the Great. Latins are inclined to care less than Americans about whom a man goes to bed with and more about what he does there. Although this dominant vs. submissive distinction has evaporated from America’s polite discourse, it remains the main theme of our impolite discourse (as any male motorist can testify who has ever triggered the obscene wrath of an NYC cabbie).
Gay vs. lesbian distinctions are also important for thinking about public policies. Homosexual-related issues like gays in the military, AIDS, and same-sex marriages cannot be discussed realistically without acknowledging the wide differences on average between gays and lesbians. For example, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and the newsweeklies have been trumpeting, despite the highly preliminary nature of the findings, evidence that homosexuality has biological roots. Generally overlooked, however, is that most of the research was performed on gay male subjects by gay male scientists and then hyped by gay male publicists. Going largely unreported is the lesbian population’s profound ambivalence about this half-scientific, half-political crusade. (For example, an attack on the theory that lesbianism has biological causes is one of the main themes of Lillian Faderman’s fine history of American lesbians, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers.) This media reticence is noteworthy, considering that the press otherwise so assiduously keeps us informed of the views of the lesbian-dominated National Organization for Women’s on child-rearing, marriage, beauty, men and, of course, What the Women of America Want — subjects upon which lesbians might be presumed to have rather less expertise to offer than on the question of why they are lesbians.
Many lesbian-feminists deny that their sexual orientation is biologically rooted, attributing it instead to what they perceive as our culture’s decision to socialize males to be domineering. They may claim this simply to avoid contradicting feminist theory, which is, well, “biophobic.” (Yes, I know that this trendy practice of insinuating that those who disagree with you politically must suffer from a mental disorder is reminiscent of the imprisoning of Soviet dissidents in psychiatric hospitals, but, hey, once you get the hang of it, it’s kind of fun.) On the other hand, the lesbian-feminists might be right and the gay researcher/activists wrong about the nature of homosexuality. Or, homosexuality might not have a single nature: at minimum, there could be a fundamental difference between lesbians and gays.
We would all profit from hearing this question openly hashed out. The ensuing brouhaha could help unshackle American intellectual discussion from the polite fictions about human nature that currently suffocate it. Although the prestige press devotes more than a little ink to scientific discoveries about human nature, it carefully avoids mentioning the political implications of these findings (except, of course, in the case of gays). When discussing all other social controversies, the serious media instead pay mindful lip service to the dogma that socialization is the root of all differences between people. (Fortunately, though, the unserious media like the Fox Network, Dave Barry, and stand-up comedians blithely carry on the court jester’s job of telling irreverent truths about humanity.)
While emotionally comforting to many, this faith in the omnipotence of nurture remains unproved, to say the least. By now, it seems inevitable that this strict constructionist creed eventually must be washed away by the ever-growing torrent of scientific evidence to the contrary (of which the research on the possible genetic causes of male homosexuality is the merest and least certain rivulet). Yet, the single event most likely to speed the day when it is politically and socially acceptable to openly discuss the broad relevance of this fast-solidifying scientific consensus that biology plays an important role in human behavior would be a public donnybrook between gay men and lesbian-feminists over nature vs. nurture.
Beyond homosexual-related issues, this gay vs. lesbian dichotomy can cast new light on many social questions. Fundamentally, as Thomas Sowell has pointed out, almost all American social controversies rest on conflicting assumptions about human nature. Is it infinitely malleable? If not, what are its constraints? Whatever other purposes there are for our existence, we know evolution has shaped human nature to promote reproduction. To study reproduction is to study sex and sexuality. To understand heterosexual men and women is difficult without studying homosexual men and women as a frame of reference.
For instance, honest discussion of the differences between lesbians and gays would also generate fresh insights into what feminists imperialistically call “women’s” issues. While feminist theory is largely immune from radical questioning in most of the prestige media, few people actually take it seriously . . . especially feminists. They seldom pay their own theory the respect of treating it like a scientific theory and testing it against the evidence. If feminist theory is truly an attempt to make accurate predictions about reality, rather than simply an elaborate rationalization for blaming your troubles on somebody else, then feminists should welcome a frank appraisal of the contrasting longings and ambitions of gays and lesbians, since this offers fascinating new perspectives from which to assay feminist hypotheses.
For example, feminists tirelessly denounce the fashion and beauty industry for brainwashing American men into craving skin-deep feminine beauty. But which is truly the cause and which is the effect? Luckily, the curious analyst can study people who have rejected heterosexual socialization: among homosexuals, the distinctiveness of men’s and women’s basic sexual urges is especially vivid. Since “Women Seeking Women” don’t need to entice men’s visually-focused desires, their newspaper personal ads tend toward wistful vagueness: Attractive SWF, bi, seeking SF, feminine & discreet, any race, for friendship and possible rltnshp. In contrast, the “Men Seeking Men” classifieds bristle with statistics quantifying appearance: John Wayne-type (41, 6’3″ 210#, C 46″ W 35″, brn/grn) seeks Steve Garvey-type (muscular, str8-acting, 20-30, under 6′ & 185#, blu eyes a +).
Even more egregiously swept under the rug by feminists like Naomi Wolf (author of The Beauty Myth) is the central creative role of gay men in the fashion business. Thus, feminist pundits routinely portray the current fad in haute couture for “waif” models (young girls lacking in the more popular secondary sexual characteristics) as a conspiracy against women hatched by . . . yes, you guessed it, The Male Power Structure. This accusation always conjures up for me a vision of Alan Greenspan, Bill Gates, and Colin Powell resolving in secret conclave to put uppity women back in their place by ordering Vogue to print a lot of pictures of girls who look like boys.
Feminists’ widespread (though hushed-up) exasperation with gay men probably originates in the perennial struggle of the “women’s movement” to enlist enough Indians for its ample supply of chiefs. In this battle for the hearts and minds of the female masses, it is the gay imagination that so often crystalizes the misty yearnings of femininity into those beguiling baubles and alluring images that help seduce heterosexual women away from the stern precepts of feminism. Would bridal magazines be 800 pages long without the endlessly creative genius of gay men who make their livings subverting and sabotaging feminism’s war on femininity.
The second helpful table summarizes the contemporary issues that the media insist on stereotyping in “victim” vs. “oppressor” terms, but where a frank exploration of the differences between gay men and lesbians offers new angles from which to slice through the cant.
We can never eliminate stereotypes. Instead, we should constantly search for more and better stereotypes, ones that more narrowly and accurately describe reality. The alternative is not some utopia without stereotypes, but our current intellectual dystopia, where the broadest, stupidest, and most dishonest stereotypes reign.