Opening Up Sexual Orientation to Choices

Prologue I: Opening Up Sexual Orientation 
by Wendy Sanford
with special thanks to Loraine Hutchins and Rebecca Rabinowitz

excerpted from
Our Bodies, Our Selves for the new century

Many women today are moving beyond narrow definitions of sexual orientation and feeling freer to decide whom we want as sexual and romantic partners for brief relationships or for a lifetime. Some of us who choose relationships with men are finding that the choice feels freer when it's not the only socially acceptable choice. More women who have sexual relationships with women are being open about it, and some who have been lesbian for a decade or more are entering relationships with men. Bisexual women are insisting on recognition and acceptance. Some young women in high school have joined gay-straight alliances and proudly prefer to remain label-free. Some of us choose to call ourselves "queer" asd an inclusive term that allows for many possibilities.

This fluidity in sexual orientation may be confusing at times, but it's promising, too. Despite a continuing backlash from people in conservative poltical and religious groups who believe heterosexuality should be the only norm, and resistance from some lesbians and heterosexual women who distrust bisexuals, this fluidity seems to be here to stay because it allows women (and men) to be more of who we really are and to love
ourselves and others more fully.

More than 30 years ago, research by Alfred Kinsey showed that most people experience attractions to both women and men. Yet, in many of our families and schools, people either didn't mention lesbians, gay men, or bisexuals at all or joked cruelly about them. We were made to feel hesitant about some of our closest friendships.

When I was seven or eight, I had this friend, Susan. We loved each other and walked around with our arms around each other. Her older sister told us not to do that because we looked like lezzies. So we held hands instead.

In experiences like these, our culture teaches us to fear and hate homosexuality in ourselves and others. This homophobia hurts all of us, whether we are heterosexual, lesbian, or bisexual. It makes us reject aspects of our own personality and looks that are not "feminine" enough (assertiveness, muscular build, body hair, deep voice), because we are afraid that people will think we are lesbian. It turns us against friends and family members who have sex with women, depriving us of important relationships. It causes us to deny attractions that may be natural to usand it may prevent us from choosing the sexual partners who are right for us. It prevents us from publicly acknowledging our friendships with lesbian and bisexual women. It divides us from each other as women.

If we are lesbian or bisexual, homophobia puts us at risk of individual acts of antilesbian violence and discrimination. Heterosexism, the institutionalized assumption that heterosexuality is the only normal orientation, denies us legal, religious, and social privileges. We are prevented from getting married, filing joint tax returns, and being covered under a partner's health insurance (except in the rare companies and cities that allow coverage for domestic partners); we face job and housing discrimination and invisibilityin the media. Homophobia and heterosexism are politically useful tools for those who want to preserve the "traditional" forms of family life and to suppress any alternatives.

When we see the price women pay for being lesbian, we can understand that for many of us heterosexuality is perhaps not so much a natural choice as compulsory. If we were free to be with men, or women, or both, or to stay happily alone, many of us might choose to be with men, but we would be responding to what we genuinely want not to what society tells us we ought to want. 

With time, sincerity, willingness and friendship, we can unlearn homophobia. 

Copyright  © 1998 by the Boston Women's Health Book Collective. All rights reserved.

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