Am I a Sexual Minority?
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright c 1992, 1999, 2007 by William A. Henkin.
[This article was originally prepared as a contribution to a panel discussion presented at Sexual Diversity, the Western Regional Meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex,1 May 1992, in Palo Alto, CA. In 1999 it was reprinted as part of a special issue of Growing Pains, the newsletter of the Society of Janus, devoted to my writing .]
When Carol Queen invited me to participate on this panel she told me we would be speaking about Alternate Sexual Lifestyles, and I prepared some notes to address that topic. But organizations have minds of their own, and when I received my program for the conference I found that my assignment had changed: we were now a panel called “Voices from the Edge: Sexual Minorities Speak Out.”
Me, I thought? Am I a sexual minority?
In Another Country James Baldwin wondered how a person could be a traitor to a cause, or disloyal to people, he did not believe in: treason to what? his novel asked; loyalty to whom?
I paraphrased Baldwin to myself, wondering, Voices on the edge of what? Minority in relation to whom? For despite my active and visible participation in the leather and gender paracultures, and my fondness for 1970s disco‑boy bath houses, my self‑concept is more or less traditional and even conservative; mainstream, even; even, by my definition, straight. Am I a sexual minority?
I hear voices in my head, suggesting I provide my definition. So: because I regard myself as straight, I hold anything I do to be an example of what straight is. If I want to play with men, playing with men must be straight. If I go in for whips and high heels, it must mean that whips, and high heels on male feet, are straight. If I like the baths, the baths must be straight. If I go in for holding hands on the first date, holding hands is also straight. I am not Noah Webster. But am I a sexual minority?
For me, “minority” and “majority” are fundamentally statistical concepts that define EXclusion rather than INclusion. I prefer to think of sexual behavior on a continuum that defines differences by degrees and which, by its nature, is all‑INclusive. I had, therefore, to work hard to identify my sexual minoritiness. And I did so, after a fashion, twice.
First, however much I pass, my politics and consciousness tend to be queer: again, not in the dictionary’s sense of being strange, odd, peculiar, or eccentric – I’m straight, remember – but in my own idiosyncratic sense of being fond of the inner Edge, even though it sometimes frightens, sometimes eludes me. Queer in that I am generally receptive to alternate ways of understanding and of being. Queer in that I think politics as usual bodes ill for most of what I hold dear. Queer in that my lover says I am a private exhibitionist.
By queer, I should make clear, I do not mean gay: I know plenty of “straight” gays, by the better accepted, colloquial definition of the term: pre‑Harry Hayes guys whose lives are modeled on 1950s middle‑of‑the‑road het lifestyles. As a dear friend of 35 years’ duration told me recently, “I’m homosexual; you’re queer.”
So I’m bi and then some: a queer het who sometimes plays with men, sometimes femmes up, and has a taste for leather, and I take that to be a sexual minority.
Second, I’m a sex therapist – not in the Masters & Johnson mold, or on the Hartman & Fithian model, but in that much of the therapy I do revolves around issues of sex and gender, or is done with people whose lives revolve around concerns of sex and gender, and in that capacity I often serve sexual minorities. For that reason I think of myself as something of a sex worker, and I certainly think that rates sexual minority status.
In both my personal and professional lives, then, I see a lot of what Jesse Helms, William Dannemeyer, Lou Sheldon, and the rest of that group of radical thugs might consider sexual minority attitudes and lifestyles. And it has come to my attention that to be a member of a sexual minority is to increase the likelihood that a person will become conscious in the New Age sense of the word that implies some movement toward freedom, which I infer entails a step toward enlightenment. That is, if you are a member of a sexual minority you must sooner or later reflect upon your sexuality and, therefore, yourself, in ways you would not otherwise have to do.
As Baldwin, a gay black man who came to adulthood in 1940s America understood, what I’m talking about has some parallel with how racial minorities – or indeed, how any outcast or disenfranchised group of people – may understand something about prejudice and stigma that people in the enfranchised mainstream simply cannot know. This difference does not make politically disenfranchised people into more astute political analysts, nor does it make members of sexual minorities into better lays; but it does give members of both groups privileged access to understanding who they are in their contexts, because of the ways in which their outer‑world experiences are tied to essential components of their internal self‑identities.
To be a member of a sexual minority is also different from being a member of a racial minority, in part because participant status is not necessarily so obvious. A member of a racial minority is almost always already “out” in both senses – visible and outcast – and can only choose how to deal with the cosmic fait accompli. But a member of a sexual minority must identify herself sexually: must, therefore, wrestle with questions of belonging, if not of nature; of the confusions about cultural stigmas that arise when it seems (at least at first blush) that she can pass, and may actually have some choice about her predilections.
In this context, to be a member of a sexual minority enhances the possibility that a person will improve his communication and negotiation skills, and increases the likelihood that he will be able to give and receive information and informed consent both in sexual and other sorts of matters. Information travels, and when it travels enough it becomes knowledge. When knowledge travels enough it becomes – ah, well. But knowledge rarely travels to that extent.
To be a member of a sexual minority also enhances the likelihood that a person may find that sex itself can be a path to freedom and enlightenment. From my perspective – personal prejudice – such a path is inherently spiritual; and though it may wend its way through political, artistic, and other sorts of thickets, on the sexually spiritual road everyone is a sexual minority, because the path must be individually discovered and individually lived, even if it’s trod within traditions as receptive and nurturing as those often found within sexual minority communities.
What I have learned, then, as a bi‑partate sexual minority – queer bi-het and sex therapist – is that minority status does not really say anything about a person’s actual sex practices or activities. Instead, it addresses consciousness.
As Gurdjieff and other gnostic philosophers have pointed out repeatedly, most people are asleep most of the time. So if you do whatever it is you do without deliberate awareness, it does not matter what your practices are: you are willy‑nilly in the mainstream, the majority. And if you do whatever it is you do with deliberate awareness, you become a statistical deviant, a member of that most subversive minority: those who know a little something about who they really are.
In other words, it all depends not on what you do, but rather on how you do it.
Since I am asserting that many people who think of themselves as straight are not – and vice‑versa, of course – I will conclude by addressing what remains of my assigned topic, Speaking Out.
The famous quotation that follows comes from Martin Niemoller, who was a German hero in World War I: an anti‑Semitic U‑boat commander who was awarded the Iron Cross, then ordained a pastor in the German Protestant Church in 1924, and a patriotic best‑selling author who greeted Adolf Hitler’s rise enthusiastically in 1933. But because he believed that German Christians betrayed the Scriptures and their faith by failing to speak out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Niemoller was arrested for sedition in 1937 and spent the remainder of World War II at Dachau and elsewhere as Hitler’s personal prisoner.
I hope we in this Society will always remember that the Nazis not only murdered Catholics, Gypsies, and Jews, but that they also destroyed Magnus Hirschfeld’s research on sexual minorities; that they not only made Jews wear yellow stars, but that they also made homosexuals wear pink triangles, and sex workers wear black ones.
Said Niemoller, “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out, because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.”
Am I a sexual minority? Are you?
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