THE BLOG

Beyond Sex: What Is Gay?

06/26/2015 11:54 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016
Olivier Douliery via Getty Images

Is "gay" a culture? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Let's start with what it means to be gay. If you asked Pat Robertson what it means to be gay he'd probably tell you that it means a person who is same-sex oriented. He'd probably mention recruiting and some sort of "agenda" too but that's beside the point. If you asked most gay people the same question, they'd probably tell you that it means a person who is same-sex oriented. But wait! That's the same definition Pat Robertson gave. And, yes, there is a major problem with that. There is a lot more to being gay than sex or sexual politics. We have allowed ourselves to be defined by what we do instead of who we are. But there is a very good reason for that.

Out of necessity, most ethnic and minority groups have to make the case that they are no different from the majority as the starting point for acceptance. This allows minority groups to establish equality based on the notion that "I'm the same as you except for this one minor difference" argument. It's an important first step toward equality. Indeed, the cycle has repeated itself throughout history where the minority transitions from marginalizing differences in the pre-acceptance phase to highlighting and celebrating the group's differences once acceptance advances. The case for gay equality is grounded in the notion that gay people are the same as straight people, with the exception of whom they love. It has served the gay community well, as it makes others feel more comfortable with gays and it has helped establish marriage equality in 37 states and counting. But as acceptance becomes pervasive, the gay community can now begin to assess the cultural differences and acknowledge that gays are different in many ways other than the one component that defines the group (same-sex orientation). Here's the twist: now that we gays have made and won the case that we are people just like everyone else, it's time to start acknowledging that we are not.

As a gay person, I know that we are VERY different in many ways, and I suggest that noticing and embracing these differences is a vital step in maturing as a legitimate, well-functioning, and celebrated minority with its own culture. Highlighting these difference is not only the key to strengthening our identity but also an important step in helping change the perspective from which our adversaries see us. Recently, a man in Oklahoma requested a personalized license plate that read "LGBTALY." It was rejected for being sexual in nature because from the evangelical right's perspective, being gay has everything to do with whom you have sex and nothing to do with who you are. Even when very accepting straight people ask me questions about being gay, it's typically about sex. I'm left wondering why they don't ask about my life as a gay person beyond the sex; why they don't ask about my favorite Broadway show, where I got my shoes, or if I'm caught up on RuPaul's Drag Race. And I do believe it's because our culture is not yet fully established. The conversation must start with us.

So what would that mean for us to talk about the gay culture now that we're reaching the point of recognition as equal to our heterosexual counterparts? For all groups, culture is defined by a set of shared beliefs, customs, activities and language. Culture is transgenerational and manifests itself through ways of thinking, food, clothing, art and a variety of behaviors and language that are in addition to the group's identifying definition. African-American culture is more than having a different skin color; Hispanic culture is more than coming from a Spanish-speaking region; Jewish culture is more than going to synagogue. Much like a brand, a culture conjures up a host of feelings, thoughts and ideas (whether true or stereotypical) about what it means to belong to that group, what they're about, and what they do.

A close Jewish friend told me that he knows with certainty what a Jewish household looks like. Without being told, he would know if a home were Jewish if he walked into one. Everything from the décor to the music to the food to the books on the bookshelf to the mannerisms would reveal the culture from which the household belongs, including language usage (even in English). So he asked me, "Would you know for certain if you walked into a gay couple's home?" It's an interesting question because I know I would know without already knowing. And, I know that if a gay person came to my house, that person would know it is a gay household. Why? Because there are many things that set my home apart from the homes of my brothers, other relatives or friends who are straight. Just as my Jewish friend knows when he walks into a Jewish home, I know a gay household when observing the décor, music, food, books on the bookshelf, mannerisms and language used in a gay household. Show me the Netflix queue and the Pandora playlist and I'd wage a sizable bet. In fact, my home has more in common with most any other gay person's home than any of my straight brothers' homes, and we were raised in the same household!

Defining and embracing a true gay culture, which goes well beyond sexuality, is the next stage. We see organizations like gay softball leagues, gay choirs, and gay running clubs. These organizations are not sex-focused, they are institutions meant to build strength and support between one another because we do share so much in common and we understand what it took to become who we are more than anyone else. And this is just the beginning. One day there will be more formal institutions like gay educational institutions, perhaps a united faith or spiritual doctrine, gay styles of cooking or music. Like other cultures, it will evolve and happen naturally over time. I believe that parents of gay children will not grieve that their child is gay but celebrate that their child is gay and encourage that child to learn about and become part of a beautiful and inspiring gay culture (and some already do!). Imagine, as Greek kids go to Greek school, Jewish kids to Jewish school, one day parents will send their gay children to gay school! All to learn about the culture of the group. Every day I notice the stunning accomplishments that gay people are achieving in the arts, science, business, etc. and I can't help but think that one day this culture will not just be accepted, but recognized as exceptional, brilliant, and even superior. As gay people, we are beginning a new chapter and as a society, witnessing the dawning of a culture. I couldn't be more thrilled!