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Article No. 117

Living a lie?

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Between March and August 2003 the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene conducted a survey to collect information about health and health risks among the residents of New York. The results have just become available and they make for very interesting reading. Apparently many men who label themselves as heterosexual are in fact having sex with other men.

However we must note two important provisos. The first is that it is a comprehensive health survey rather than a focused sexual behaviour survey. This is important to note because arcane aspects such as the order in which questions are addressed by the participants affects the answers given. This survey should lead on therefore to another survey focusing on sexual behaviour before full reliance can be placed on its findings. The authors of the survey are urging such further research to be done.

The second point is that, of course, it was a survey of New York men - and how representative of the rest of the country - or of Britain - are they? For one thing the population of New York contains a high number of foreign born men who might have a different attitude towards homosexuality than the average American.

Apparently sexual experts (according to an article in the Times today) say that the results would probably be similar to the rest of America and to Britain. They also believe that the number of men who regards themselves as heterosexual but who have sex with other men (the target issue of the survey) could be two or even three times the number as shown up by this survey. A point we will return to later in this article.

The figures produced by the survey are very interesting. It took in a cross section comprising 4193 men from New York City. Just over 91.3% of this figure identified themselves as straight. Of the remainder 3.7% were gay, 1.2% labelled themselves as bisexual, 1.7% were ‘don’t know or not sure’ and 2.1% declined to answer the question, making a total of 100%.

Of the total men who responded about 12% said that they had had sex with another man in the past year. This 12% included men who were gay and those who listed themselves as straight.

Almost 10% of those who self identified as straight had had sex with a man in the previous twelve months. Interestingly these men also said they had not had sex with a woman in the last year.

Overall, 73% of those who had had sex with a man considered themselves to be straight.

The conclusion drawn by the authors of this survey is that the advertisements for HIV and STDs that were targeted at gay men were missing out on a lot of men who were having gay sex. This has significance for those who are concerned with the sexual health of New Yorkers. A rethink about their approach seems to be needed. All figures approximate.

Overall I think that there is one clear conclusion that we can make, irrespective of the good or bad points about the manner of the survey. It seems quite clear that a lot of the men in this survey who labelled themselves as heterosexual do actually have sex with other men. Despite this, they still regard themselves as - or at least call themselves - straight. It is also fairly obvious that the vast majority of these men, whether married or not, are in the closet. It has been called by some the Brokeback Mountain effect or the SMSS (straight men same sex) effect.

Although this survey may prove to be skewed in some way, it appears to have produced similar results to previous studies - one in Mexico and one in Latin America. Assuming it’s conclusions to be broadly valid, what significance does it have for us?

My first reaction was to question whether the pattern would be repeated elsewhere - in America or here. But I think we may assume that the experts are knowledgeable about this and that similar figures might be forthcoming here.

A figure of 10% or more of men who call themselves heterosexual having sex with other men is something to ponder! It raises all sorts of questions - are they married? why do these men feel the need to remain in the closet? why do these men wish to have sex with other men? are they heterosexual? are they homosexual? are they bisexual? How do we explain the phenomenon and what is our reaction to it?

I am not as sure as the lead author of the survey when he calls these men who have sex with men ‘homosexuals’. I prefer to use the word ‘gay’ which for me includes bisexuals as well as homosexuals. Maybe when we know more about human sexuality we shall be clearer about the causes of homosexuality and bisexuality, and the differences between them and, perhaps, better able to understand what is happening here. Until then we have to use labels with great care.

I would suggest that there are many men - whether we call them homosexual or bisexual by nature -who are able to go one way or the other. They may choose early on to be married to a woman or they may decide to go down the gay route. Some may not even be aware of their gay bias until later in life.

We also have to remember that a person’s sexuality may change over his or her lifetime. That means that someone who is a convinced heterosexual male at twenty can become a gay man at fifty. Or vice versa.

If a man is a heterosexual male but for some reason finds that twenty years later that he is becoming deeply attracted to other men, while his desire for sex with a woman has diminished to vanishing point, it is perfectly possible to imagine him beginning to have sexual encounters with other males. If he is married he may still love his wife and he may not wish to disturb his well established and comfortable heterosexual life style. But he may find himself drawn to explore the gay side of his nature.

If, as experts quoted by the Times suggest, the number of apparently heterosexual men who have sex with other men is actually two or three times the figure that shown in this survey, then this surely becomes a significant figure. Whether these men are married or not, we surely need to take account of such a wide practice. It speaks volumes about our society and its morals and the veneer of respectability that covers us all. It shows an urgent need for open Christian discussion about sexual morality for gay and straight men, whether Christian or not, and whether married or not.

This survey shows that there are far more men doing this than previously thought. The time has surely come for we Christians to face the reality of this and to be open in discussion about the whole subject of sexuality. It has been a ‘no go’ area in Christian circles for far too long - made worse, not better, by the huge opposition of fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Christians.

I have argued in previous articles that gay people may have a need to associate with other gay people because they are not attuned at the deepest level to be at one with heterosexuals - their gay side may need some nurture from time to time by association with other gay people. Because heterosexuals live in a heterosexual society and therefore mix with their own sort all the time, it is possible that they do not always realise that gay people also need to associate with other gay people from time to time in a similar way.

The nearest parallel to illustrate this need that I can think of is someone over here from a distant country. Lets say China. They enjoy the company of English people and they are perfectly happy to spend most of their time with them. But sometimes they pine for someone from their own country. If there is a gathering place for Chinese in their neighbourhood they will go there periodically just to be with their own countrymen. To share time with people who have the same background and the same interests as themselves. I think it is the same for gay people. They benefit by being with other gay people from time to time.

This desire to associate with other gay people does not mean that there has to be sex. They may just have that sort of free ranging talk that you can have with someone with whom you are completely at one.

Of course such friendships can lead on to physical contact and love, and so may develop into a full sexual relationship. Or not. It does not have to happen. In many cases it does not happen.

So there are probably at least 10% - and maybe 30% - of men who are apparently straight but who have enough of a gay side to their nature to push them to at least seek time with other gay people from time to time. Maybe drinking time with the boys down the pub is a good enough substitute for some men.

Why do men stay in the closet? Because society does not yet acknowledge or accept the normality of homosexuality. It is still thought of by some as wrong, or evil, or perverted, or at least strange. In other words there is still a strong social stigma attached to being gay in parts of our society.

Is it any surprise that this is so when so many in our major religions have been so deeply homophobic for centuries, and are now themselves in turmoil about whether or not it is acceptable?

It is obvious that the backing of the Government is clearly needed to keep up the pressure for more toleration of diversity. Time is going to be needed to change the attitudes of many people about homosexuality. It may take a generation or two.

We are in a transitional phase. The old ways are passing and hopefully will never return - although we should take nothing for granted. The new attitude of openness has come and must be continued so that eventually there is no social stigma or condemnation of any sort about being gay. One can even hope that Christians will be at the forefront of new thinking about sexuality, and that they will move the discussion onto a new level of understanding. Maybe Christians will come to see sexuality in a new light and become clearer about what Christ wants from us in this day and age.

I don’t think that any person who is gay or bisexual is wrong to mask their sexuality - to ‘live a lie’ as the heading to the article in the Times puts it. Living a lie is one thing - not divulging your sexuality is another. There are many occasions when in my opinion it is right for a gay person to simply go along with those who are straight. Why should anyone invite the possibly negative response they would get if they were to disclose their sexuality? Whose business is it anyway? Better far just to let the matter lie. ‘Don’t ask; don’t tell’ is a very potent piece of advice for all those people who see themselves as straight but who also have a gay side to their nature. How they proceed in this transitional phase that society is going through is between them and their God. Just let them realise that there are millions more just like them in their own country, never mind America.

Tony Cross

October 2006

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