Preferences, sexual and otherwise

I’ve just read this post by Heidi Cullinan on the subject of writing about socially marginalised communities. As ever, there are things here I agree with, but there are also a number that I disagree with quite strongly. I should probably say from the outset this isn’t really about Cullinan and I respect the fact that she pays attention to these issues, and feels they’re worth talking about. But, having read her post, I feel that we’re coming from very different places.

The elements that I had particular trouble with were her blanket condemnation of the term “sexual preferences,” particularly the authority on which she made it, and her assumptions about the activities necessary or sufficient to avoid offensively appropriating the lives of others.

On Sexual Preference

Let’s start with sexual preferences. Cullinan explains that she not only refused to read a book on the grounds that it contains the phrase “sexual preferences” in its blurb, but that she feels the author is morally obliged to ask their publisher to change it, even in existing print copies. She cites the GLAAD Media Reference Guide in support of this position. Here’s what GLAADMRG has to say on the subject:

Offensive: “sexual preference”
Preferred: “sexual orientation” or “orientation”

The term “sexual preference” is typically used to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can and should be “cured.”Sexual orientation is the accurate description of an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex and is inclusive of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, as well as straight men and women

The thing is, I flatly disagree with this. I’ve written about this topic before, but I feel that a major problem with the dialogue surrounding queer activism and queer rights in general is the extent to which it is defined exclusively by American interests in response to a framework dictated by the American Christian Right. To be fair to GLAAD here, all they are saying is that the phrase is used by unnamed parties to suggest that being lesbian, gay or bisexual is a choice and therefore can, and should, be cured. They aren’t saying that it logically carries this connotation.

At least I hope they aren’t saying this, because that would make no sense whatsoever.

As I pointed out in my earlier post on GFY, the public discourse about homosexuality is—to my mind harmfully—dominated by the question of whether homosexuality is a choice. My perception is that this stems comes from a very American context and one of the things to recognise about the Anglophone internet is that it is disproportionately dominated by American voices. The reasoning cited by GLAAD for objecting to the phrase “sexual preferences” is utterly logically inconsistent, so much so that I may have to resort to bullet points:

  1. Preference does not imply choice. I prefer tea to coffee. I have not chosen to prefer tea to coffee, I just do. This leads me to choose to drink tea, but it does not imply that my desire to drink tea rather than coffee is something I have actively selected.
  2. Choice does not imply curability, and non-choice does not imply incurability. If it did, the vast majority of medical research would be utterly wasted. We devote billions to seeking cures for cancer. We don’t do this because we believe cancer is a choice. Indeed, it is extremely unclear how a “preference” could ever be seen as curable. I don’t like football, but I’ve never had anyone try to cure me of it.
  3. Curability does not imply undesirability. This is my biggest source of concern with the doctrine that queer rights can only be served by the assertion that homosexuality is immutable. Are we really saying that the only reason it is wrong to try and cure homosexuality is that it wouldn’t work?

If a decade of arguing on the internet has taught me anything, it is that you lose a debate the moment you let the other side define the terms of that debate. By grounding our entire moral, ethical, and practical argument for acceptance in a falsifiable and religiously-derived assertion about the origins of sexual orientation (or, if you prefer, sexual preference) we are accepting the world view of the enemy, and specifically of the most extremist, most religiously bigoted branch of the enemy.

To massively oversimplify, sexual orientation can have a finite number of sources. It could be genetic, it could be environmental, it could be a personal choice, or it could – in essence – have a supernatural origin: that is to say it could come literally from god. If it is genetic, it should be treatable by gene therapy. If it is environmental, it should be treatable by behavioural therapy, or at the very least it should be amenable to environmental controls. If sexual orientation has any material cause then our inability to change it is merely a technological limitation. If, on the other hand, it is a personal choice, an individual will always be free to choose whatever sexual orientation they desire. The only source that sexual orientation can have that is necessarily immutable is for it to be granted at creation by an omnipotent deity. If we make axiomatic the notion that sexuality is fixed at birth, and cannot be changed, we implicitly accept a model of sexuality which centralises a being very much like the Christian god. And we make the argument purely about whether God wants gay people to exist or not.

Speaking as an agnostic, I strongly believe this is not the argument that we should be having. The argument against trying to cure homosexuality is not that it is impossible to cure, it is that it simply does not need to be cured. Any more than left-handedness needs to be cured.

On Terminology and Usage

For what it’s worth, I do think there is a difference between sexual orientation and sexual preference in that I feel sexual preference encompasses everything about your, well, preferred sexual behaviour (whether you’re straight or gay, whether you’re kinky or vanilla, whether you have a low sex drive or a high sex drive, whether you’re a serial monogamist or sleep around a lot). By contrast, I see sexual orientation as referring specifically to how you self-define with regards to your sexuality. As for the use of “sexual preference” in the blurb in question, honestly I think it’s a tricky one, especially because I haven’t read the book, and I don’t really know what it’s about.  But, given the little information available from Cullinan’s post, I can see some circumstances in which the term “preference” might be, well, preferable.

Cullinan mentions that one commenter defended the term on the grounds that the character is deeply in the closet. Cullinan’s response is that this would be acceptable only if the character’s use of language was challenged and shown to be wrong over the course of the book. This strikes me as reductionist and overly prescriptive. Again, I would argue that sexual orientation is a question of self-identity, whereas sexual preference is a question of just that: preference. A character who is unsure of their sexuality would, to me, be best described in terms of their sexual preferences rather than their sexual orientation. Indeed, the sexual orientation of a person who is questioning their sexuality could be seen as being in a state of flux. Again, I recognise this is a slightly unpopular attitude to take because the prevailing discourse of queer acceptance is that orientation is unchanging, and you merely discover it, but I don’t think the way people choose to articulate their identities and experiences should be policed on the grounds of political convenience.

And, obviously, we’re talking about a fictional person here, and while real humans should be assumed to have authority over their own lives, fictional humans are created by writers who are fallible beings. So it is very possible that this particular author just made a careless word choice and that “orientation” was the term they were actually looking for. But, to me, the appropriate word to use is the one that best describes what the author is trying to describe – that is, orientation would be correct if they were attempting to describe a facet (innate or otherwise) of the character’s identity while preference would be the correct term to use to describe things the character wanted or was drawn to, independent of the way they currently identify. This is very different from Cullinan’s argument, which is that orientation is the “correct” term and that “preference” is not merely incorrect, but morally wrong.

I should probably stress that I feel Cullinan has exactly the right attitude here: when you are talking about groups of which you are not part, it is important to pay attention to what members of those groups say, and to adjust your behaviour accordingly. I would absolutely rather people were over-cautious about their language than under-cautious about it. And, if nothing else, the fact that some people will be offended by a term is a reason to avoid it, although depending on the situation it may not be an overwhelming reason. For example, I tend to use queer as a catch-all term for marginalised sexualities and sexual identities and, while I’m aware that some people find it offensive, I’m aware that other people feel included by it.

On Appropriation

Where Cullinan’s conclusions don’t work for me is that they seem to treat social justice and social inclusion as being about a set of prescribed and proscribed actions derived from a perceived external authority. Again, I should stress I’m extremely pleased that Cullinan cares what queer people think, but I’m a little concerned that her post fails to distinguish between objective facts that can be researched (for example, how epilepsy works or the technical details of being a long distance truck driver) and more subjective issues of experience, like what it’s like to be gay or transgender or autistic. To me, these are very different things. And you could almost say that it is marginalising to treat a person’s identity as something that you can “get your facts straight” about. Human beings are messy and other people’s lived experiences are infinite in their complexity and diversity. Writing about a person who belongs to a group of which you are not part is not something you can ever really get “right”. There is no list of facts you can memorise and then walk away saying “now I know what gay people are like.”

In this context, I find her emphasis on research, and specifically on the perceived authority of organisations like GLAAD, profoundly troubling. In particular, I was deeply bothered by her assertion that:

marginalized groups often publish media guides and leave easily Google-able clues as to how they’d like to be addressed and dealt with.

Because, no, “marginalised groups” do not publish media guides or leave easily Google-able clues. Individual people with marginalised identities may publish media guides or, indeed, form groups that publish media guides. But GLAAD does not speak for all queer people, and treating it like it’s the homosexuality pope is as marginalising as, if not more marginalising than, simply not choosing to reference GLAAD’s Media Guide when you write your blurbs.

This shit is complicated.  Writing about a marginalised group to which you do not belong inherently runs the risk of appropriation but, to me, the crucial thing to recognise is that it is for members of that marginalised group to decide whether they feel appropriated. And it is very likely that different members of that group will disagree with each other, and this is okay, and it doesn’t mean that people should stop writing, or stop reading, or stop expressing themselves. And, obviously, it doesn’t mean that writers have no responsibility whatsoever to try and engage sincerely with the people about whom they write, but it isn’t as simple as following a few guides off Google, or getting the okay from your token marginalised friend. And perhaps more importantly it’s not just that these small steps aren’t sufficient, but that nothing is sufficient, and nothing is necessary. Writing about a marginalised group is not carbon offsetting. It’s not like once you’ve done so many hours volunteering at a charity for group [x] you’re allowed to write whatever you like about group [x]. You don’t even necessarily have any greater insights into group [x]. You just happen to have interacted with some people.

It is for individuals to decide whether a particular text marginalises and alienates, or accepts and speaks to them. And neither what the author does in their spare time nor what other people say about their work have any bearing on this. The fact that Michael Moorcock ran the rape scene in Gloriana past Andrea Dworkin does not affect the way other women react to the book, nor does it either support or invalidate people’s positive or negative responses.

Appropriation, at its core, is problematic because it denies the reality of the appropriated group, treating the people in that group as decorations, tools, or metaphors. An approach to appropriation that focuses on universalisable rules that can be internalised and applied uniformly only exacerbates that denial of reality. Rote adherence to a set of taboos and shibboleths does not substitute for, and can in fact detract from, an appreciation of the full humanity of your subjects.

All people have authority over their own experiences, and no people and no groups of people have authority over the experiences of anybody else. GLAAD does not get to define which terms are offensive, or the correct way to talk about human sexuality. It can only express its opinion as a single organisation which operates within a specific, and specifically American, context. When you are writing about a group of people to which you do not belong, you can never “get it right” for the simple reason that there is neither an “it” to get nor a “right” to get it. And to imagine there are erases the individuality of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people.

Writing about socially marginalised groups is at once simple and impossible. It is simple because you don’t actually have to do research or volunteer at charities, you just have to sincerely remember that the people you are writing about are human beings. And it is impossible because human beings are unique and complex and, no matter how much work you do or how closely you feel you empathise, you can never know what it is to live in someone else’s world. The good news is that there are no dues you have to pay or boxes you have to tick. The bad news is that you can never say you’ve paid your dues or ticked your boxes.

And there probably aren’t any cookies either.


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