#2 What role does romantic attraction play in identity?

Note:  As detailed elsewhere, children’s art invokes for me the curiosity, wonder, and “beginner’s mind” that makes for an especially productive conversation. “As children we fall in love with the wonder of being alive,” Tsoknyi Rinpoche taught, with “the things around us fascinat[ing] us” – inviting people to make space for mindful practices (including mindful listening) that move us towards, “falling back in love with the sheer wonder of being alive.”

“The attentive society is [a place] in which people listen seriously to those with whom they fundamentally disagree” and where is cultivated a “widespread willingness to give and receive assistance on the road to truth.”-Tinder cited in Dionne and Cromartie, Why the Culture War Debate Endures[1]

Surely one reason the conversation about LGBT rights has been so uniquely intense is that, at base, the discussion goes to identity itself: who are we?  For any one of us, this question is a big deal – and something that invokes a lot of passion.

For some, the questions involved seem obvious enough as to be simple on their face: “You’re you. And that’s what you’re supposed to be” (FB-A).

For others, however, the same questions are complex enough that years are spent grappling with them. Depending on different cultures, belief systems and personalities, more or less weight may be given to various aspects of our experience in the process of ascertaining who exactly we are.  This includes varied views of the body, sexuality, emotions, thoughts and spirit in relation to identity.

The intricate process of identity clarification and construction has become a focus of inquiry in sociology, psychology and other fields.[2]  In what follows, one strand of this larger question is highlighted:  What role does sexual/romantic attraction[3] play in identity? (Or) what role should it play?

At the outset, it’s worth recognizing that sexuality (and sexual attraction) is important on some level to virtually everyone.  Indeed, for most people, it’s also embraced to some degree as ‘who they are.’  Where meaningful differences arise is in what exactly that means and the details of how sexuality plays out alongside other aspects of our identity – or as John Gustav-Wrathall nicely puts it, “the ways we create identities on the foundation of our sexuality as we experience it.”

So how do understandings in this area meaningfully differ and how do those differences play out over time?

Considering Another Spectrum.  Scientists have come to describe sexual attractions of different kinds as existing on various spectrums. In “mapping” the various interpretations at play, another spectrum of interpretive dimensions also emerges. On one end of the spectrum are those who approach sexual attraction as a core and determining aspect of fundamental identity.

On a broader level, of course, it’s common to hear sexuality talked about as a core determinant of who we are as individuals – something often taken for granted by those who experience heterosexual or opposite-sex attraction (OSA).[4] Arianne Cohen once said, “Sex … or lack thereof … is at the center of everyone’s identity, and once you’ve cracked someone’s desires, you understand them in full.”[1]

And this is understandably how many come to experience same-sex attraction (SSA) as well.  One person, for instance, recounted growing up and “beginning to realize how different I was in some unexplainable, undefinable, fundamental way, which, you know, I have since learned is my sexual orientation” (FB-CH). Another person identifying as gay added, “I don’t know all the answers but I also know that this is who I am, that this is how I feel” (FB-TY) and a third, “It’s important for people to understand that it [sexual orientation] is a part of who we are as inseparable from us as the color of our skin” (FB-MA)

At this end of the spectrum, then, sexual attraction (of all kinds) is embraced and honored as central indicators of who we are and a core reflection of our essential selves. 

For others, sexual attractions are understood as an important contributor to who we are as a person, but not necessarily so core, determining or primary an aspect of self.  One man said, “I don’t feel like being gay is who I am; I feel like it’s a part of who I am” (FB-CO). Another person reflected, “Obviously sexual and physical attractions are important… but I don’t think they need to be the guiding force in your life” (VH-GB) – with a third speaking of “accepting that [feelings of same-sex attraction] are there and owning the fact that I have these feelings and that is okay,” while adding, “that doesn’t have to determine everything about my future…my feelings don’t necessarily define me” (VH-BLH).[5]

At this point in the spectrum, then, particular feelings of sexual attraction are understood to be meaningful and legitimate aspects of one’s life experience, with some de-emphasis on the centrality of these attractions: “I am so much more than just an attraction” (VH-JO) and “it isn’t all of me” (VH-KK).[6] Some take it even further, with one man describing same-sex attraction as “a part of me, but it’s a small part”(VH-KK) and another saying, “same-sex attraction is such a small part of my life…an attraction, nothing more, nothing less” (VH-JN).[7]

Living Out the Interpretations.  Depending on where one falls on this identity-attraction interpretive spectrum (completely who I am <=> partially who I am <=>small part of who I am), different implications arise.

For those who believe sexual attractions are generally central and determining of one’s identity, there is naturally more emphasis on embracing one’s sexual orientation as central to who one is.  After initially considering same-sex attraction as something secondary, one person wrote of concluding, “OK, no that’s not what it is. It’s just who I am, and how do I accept that?” (FB-CH).  

In this way, people move towards a deeper identification with sexual orientation – variously described as being “open about who I am” (FB-BE) “more OK with who I am” (FB-CH), “embracing their sexuality” (FB-MB), embracing “who I am… in all parts of my identity” (FB-AN) “taking ownership of who I am” and “actually being who I am in every facet of my life” (FB-CH). As another person described it, “It wasn’t a temptation and it was, you know, it was just a part of who I am and I’m finally okay with it” (FB-DA).

The choice of whether to fully embrace or not this sexual orientation identity becomes the central decision point.  For some, this process takes substantial time, “It took me probably a good decade to accept my sexuality” (FB-H).  Another spoke of leaving behind other views of identity:  “I had so many ideas of what I thought my life was going to be like, and who I was going to be, and how I was going to be that for the world and those people that I loved and had grown up with. And as I grew up and as I figured out more about myself and who I was, I began to realize that that person that I had been raised to be was not who I actually was.”  He added, “it took many years to figure out, to have to hear people talking about what it meant to be gay, and what a gay person was, and to have to come to that conclusion. ‘Is that me?’ was one that I was not readily available for, or willing to make” (FB-KA).

Another person said, “I think the hardest part was admitting to myself, initially what was going on, how I felt” – “finally saying, ‘This is me,’ ‘This is who I am.'” He continued, “I’m in a place where I accept myself and accept my relationships, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful things about me” (FB-L) Another person said: “I’ve had that peaceful confirmation that I’m fine just the way I am….I am is a lesbian and I’m a Mormon and it feels amazing to be able to just be me” (FB-BR)

The alternative to this process above is to deny one’s identity – two choices often presented to others as their main options:  “One [option] is attraction denied, suppressed, and just keep everything inside and pretend that you don’t experience same-sex attraction. That’s one option. The second option is to be open and live a gay lifestyle. Essentially those are your two choices. Anything in between is fake, it’s not real” (VH-BAO). Another person said, “On one end of the spectrum is be yourself, be who you are, don’t deny who you are….On the other hand I had other people saying you shouldn’t tell anybody; you should keep this to yourself and this is something you really just need to push down and stamp down and just try to hide, suggesting in essence that I lead the life that I had been living the fifteen years previous to that point. Neither of those things was going to work for me, and I knew that my answer was a little more nuanced and more somewhere in the middle, but I just wasn’t sure where” (VH-SB)

Others spoke of grappling with a middle ground:  “One thing that people say often is that it’s not who I am but honestly it is. It is as part of me as everything else. Yeah, it’s not the largest part and it’s not everything but it’s a big part of me and I think about it all the time and I’m okay with that now” (VH-ML). Another person spoke of hearing often, “You need to be true to yourself; this is who you are…and you need to be true to yourself” – then mentioning a movie-line from The Incredibles, where Buddy is talking to Mr. Incredible and he says, “You always, always say ‘Be true to yourself,’ but you never say which part of yourself to be true to!” (VH-GB)

Continuing his reflection he states: “There are so many parts of you, but you need to be true to the most important one. So before being gay and before being attracted to men I am so many other things that are so much more important to me. I am a child of God, I am a disciple of Christ; I am a son, a brother, an uncle, an actor, a teacher…There are so many other things that are more important to me so I think it is important to find out what those parts of yourself are that are important to you and those are the parts of yourself that you need to be true to” (VH-GB)

As reflected here, for those who see sexuality as important but not fundamentally core, it naturally becomes less important to embrace sexual orientation as a central aspect of one’s identity. Referring to his same-sex attraction, another says, “I’m starting to learn the main focus for me has slowly stopped being about this one thing. That is not the number one priority in my life anymore. It’s starting to be other things and that is something that I never thought would happen” (VH-JO).

Even while coming to a place of acceptance in terms of experiencing same-sex attraction, many may not feel right taking the acceptance further.  As one woman said: “I’ve decided to put aside my sexuality, put aside those feelings – be okay that I’m attracted to girls. I want to be close to God more than anything else…and I want to reach the goals I have to marry in the temple and have kids.  And be able to love a man – and raise a family together.  And that seems far away – it seems almost unattainable at times. But that’s what I want.  It goes against what I feel in attraction, but that’s what I feel in my heart” (FB-ME).

This woman acknowledges a “battle between those different wants that I have” (FB-ME)[8]  One man concludes, “God loves you, you have a reason to be happy – just be true to whatever part of yourself you want to be true to, and if you have to set things aside then you have to set some things aside” (VH-GB).  

Rather than only deciding between coming out or not, then, these individuals pursue a third option that embraces same-sex attraction as a legitimate, meaningful part of experience, but not one experienced as centrally defining.[9] 

Is that even healthy?  For those who embrace attraction as central to identity, of course, any setting aside of sexuality doesn’t even seem to be a possible – let alone healthy.   Indeed, each position can appear irrational and even harmful to the other side. On one hand, those who approach sexual orientation as core to identity may see others as inauthentic for not recognizing this part of self enough. Those who question this might also be accused of “straight privilege” for not ‘having to realize’ how central heterosexuality is to their own identity. Arthur, for instance, emphasizes how a heterosexual man is embedded “in a society that continually affirms your sexual and romantic feelings, you are ‘swimming’ in it, and so just don’t always realize just how much of your life is determined by your sexual orientation.”

Those who see sexual orientation as part of identity – but not core – can also see the other side as likewise inauthentic for seemingly over-emphasizing this part of self. Reflecting on a previous time in his life when he saw sexual orientation as more central to his core identity, another man said, “What I was doing was I was taking this small part of me and I was amplifying it, making it something so big…this is just one part of me” (VH-JN) 

Being ‘true to myself’?  As reflected here, depending on how central you see sexuality in relation to identity, very different answers may be given to the issue of “being true to yourself.”  On one hand, following same-sex feelings into a romantic relationship may be understood as a basic reflection of self-honesty and being true to oneself.  On the other hand, someone (with equivalent feelings) may decide he/she is being “true to himself/herself” by not embracing a same-sex relationship. To this latter group, the very act of ’embracing’ same-sex feelings may be seen as a step away from one’s core identity.

Describing a man featured in an NPR story who experiences same-sex attraction but chose to marry his wife, one commentator summarized, “he did not hold his sexuality as the primary characteristic that defines him. He does, however, give priority to his Christian identity, and it sounds like he is trying to be true to this. For him, that IS being true to himself.”

It is, of course, those who experience same-sex attraction who are left to grapple with the tension between these positions.  One person described fears of her friends as she decided to identify as lesbian, “that I’m going to become something that I’m not” (FB-AN). Another person recounted all the curiosity she got after returning to activity in the LDS Church: “I really feel like the way I’m living now as an active member of the Church is who I really am; this is me being authentic. It has allowed me to really connect with people and to feel that deep connection that I’ve been looking for.”  She went on to say, “I have been asked, ‘How can you really be happy when you’re not being true to yourself?’ I think there is this misconception that you have to act on your feelings to really be true to you are, but I feel like I’m being true to the most important part of who I am, and that is a daughter of God” (VH-KK).

Obviously, a lot depends on the interpretation reached: Is this who you are – or something you are experiencing?  Is this who that child is – or an important part of their experience?

Whatever larger interpretation is adopted, helps to shape an entire life centered around the particular narrative of identity. Other weighty decisions connected to identity narratives might include:  Is it even possible to do what my faith community expects of me?  Should I leave my current spouse and family to seek someone better?

Regardless of the disagreements over how exactly sexuality figures in to someone’s identity, there remains striking common ground as well.  For instance, people on all sides can acknowledge the nuance and complexity in any human being.  One man who identifies as gay mentioned gay stereotypes (‘they all like Broadway shows), then added, “I’m not a stereotype – and I don’t think anyone is.  I’m more than gay.  I’m follower of Jesus Christ and I really like ice cream and I and I love to sing and I love to dance and I really like books and I think the color blue or so beautiful and I’m wearing a leather jacket….and I happen to like guys you know I mean there’s so much more to me than just being gay so when being gay becomes all that I am in all that I am judged for” (FB-CO).

And that’s probably something that everyone can agree on!

Flirting with Curiosity Questions:

  • How comfortable (or uncomfortable) do you feel with the idea that thoughtful people might legitimately disagree on the questions above – namely, how closely to tie sexual attraction to identity?
  • Is it possible to respect various choices that people might make along this spectrum of interpretation in relation to sexuality and identity? If not, why not?
  • Might people on both sides of this conversation agree that it isn’t always so easy to determine when to embrace a sexual attraction as “you” versus “partially you” versus “not you”? If not, help us understand why not?
  • Would acknowledging the potential complexity of this decision provide more (or less) space and respect for people with same-sex attraction as they determine what path feels right to them?
  • Can we agree that it’s okay to disagree on who we are? If not, why not?
  • Is there any other common ground that exists here?



[1] Marie Claire Magazine, March 2008.

[1] Chapter in James Davidson Hunter & Alan Wolfe (Eds). Is there a culture war?: A dialogue on values and American public life. Pew Forum Dialogue on Religion and Public Life. (Washington, D.C.: Brooking Institution Press, 2006), 8

[2] See Cerulo, 1997, Alvesson, 2008, Dowling, 2011

[3] Sexuality, of course, is much more complex than simply thoughts, feelings and experiences – with many books, journals and research careers dedicated to understanding its nuances.  Acknowledging the innate complexity and richness, the aim here is simply to illuminate distinctions between how various political communities “narrate” the place of sexuality in identity, broadly speaking.  The effort is descriptive, rather than evaluative.

[4] From this perspective, it might feel baffling why it would even be a question as to how closely tied to identity same-sex attraction is. And yet it is a real question for so many!  The purpose of this essay is simply to map existing differences in interpretation, along the way to a more thorough, open exploration.

[5] Super interesting differences in Feeling Narratives exist as well. On one hand, feelings can be understood as a kind of essential and indivisible reality in themselves – held as a reliable and trustworthy indicator of one’s fundamental identity. One Mormon man identifying as gay writes, “I know that I am gay the same way that I know that the church is true, because I have this feeling deep inside that tells me so and I can’t distrust one without distrusting the other because it’s the same feeling” (FB-RY). From another perspective, something more fundamental than feelings is understood to exist – a deeper reality exists underlying whatever feelings are happening. From this vantage point, feelings may not be a reliable and trustworthy indicator of one’s fundamental identity – as reflected in that other comment: “I’ve been able to realize that who I really am is not defined by my attraction. I am way more than that; I am so much more than just an attraction” (VH-JO)

[6] As highlighted in the paragraph closing this essay, many in the gay community would agree with this statement – shared here, simply in the context of how central sexual attraction is to identity.

[7] Arthur’s response:  “Baloney!  Insistence on its being a ‘small part’ is, I think a more ideologically motivated characterization  than experientially motivated.  I don’t believe that the vast majority of people who choose to think of their sexuality as a ‘small’ part of who they are really experience it that way.  Your friends who identify with “SSA” are probably daily, maybe even hourly, involved in some activity that either reminds them of their sexuality, or that directly involves them in defending or explaining the choices they have made.  If they listen to the radio news, they will hear about their sexuality.  If they drive past a rainbow flag, they will be reminded… Every time a fleeting attraction surfaces in their consciousness, they will be reminded.”

To Arthur, I would say – what I am mapping here is interpretations of experience, not experience itself. To what degree any of these interpretations map onto actual experience is another question – one worth talking about? (My friends would, I think, agree and disagree with you on various parts of your answer).

[8] These stories also reflect an interesting difference in how “desire” is related to attraction.  For some, desire and attraction are synonymous – one and the same – while for others, they come to an awareness deeper than attraction.  From this place, they may find a desire to either embrace or not embrace this attraction. From the second perspective, there is a space to talk…wow, “who am I? these same-sex attractions – do I want to embrace them?” (VH-JN)

[9] Arthur points out that “many gay-affirming people also follow this option–they ’embrace their sexuality,’ and then move on….and live life, having relationships, pursuing jobs, having kids, camping, watching movies, etc.” Important not to overstate the differences here!

Another point:  Perhaps what sends the message of centrality is the labels often used – which is obviously a part of this interpretive picture as well. For those who embrace the first view, many taken on the core identification and label of being a “gay” individual. For those who embrace the second view, while some choose to still embrace the label of “gay,” others choose different labels (same-sex attracted) – or none at all.  For someone who doesn’t identify with their same-sex attration entirely, saying “I am gay” is too forceful of a statement.  One person who experiences same-sex attraction spoke of never taking on “gay” as a label:  “I’ve never viewed myself as that. I have come to the point where I have recognized that it is a part of me and it is a part of my life” (​VH-SMT)​.  One person who experienced SSA – but didn’t identify as gay said, “I’ve had a couple of friends and co-workers outside of the Church just straight up ask me if I’m gay…I say something like, ‘Well…kind of'” (VH-GB). For some, use of any other label than gay can be seen as dismissive.  One person said, “I wish the Church would drop the term same sex attraction” and Andrew Marin (Jul15 2010) writes, “the phrase ‘same-sex attraction’ and that is not liked within the LGBT community because it sounds like you don’t want to accept the word gay”).

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