This article was taken from a TED talk given by Peter Tatchell, which can be viewed here.
As we all know, in Western societies, although certainly not in many non-Western societies, there is ever-greater acceptance of LGBT rights, sexuality and gender identity. We've moved to a much better place in terms of public understanding of the human rights and dignity of LGBT people.
If this trend continues towards the ever-greater acceptance of LGBT people, what will it mean for the future? Where will it lead us in the end?
We know that human culture evolves. Human sexuality is part of culture, and therefore it too is evolving - and will continue to evolve in the future.
If we transition towards a post-homophobic society where human sexuality is no longer an issue, how will this transition to equality, dignity and respect affect the expression of human sexuality?
As we journey to a more sexually enlightened society, where there is greater acceptance of diversity, what changes will this cause in terms of the manifestation of same-sex identity and sexuality?
We already know, through a host of different surveys, that bisexuality is a fact of life, and that a significant and growing portion of the population are open to both opposite-sex and same-sex attraction. If this is the case, where will this lead us?
If we go back in time, back in history, Dr Alfred Kinsey in the United States in the 1940s was the first person to produce major statistical evidence that the categories of gay and straight are not watertight and mutually exclusive. He discovered that for many people sexuality is a continuum, between people who are 100% heterosexual and those who are 100% homosexual. A lot of people, he found, are somewhere in between, to varying degrees. They are a mixture, an amalgam, of different sexual desires and attractions – both same-sex and opposite-sex.
Now these diverse desires, of course, may or may not be acted upon, but in his respondents Kinsey found substantial levels of bisexual attraction in significant proportions of the many thousands of men and women that he interviewed. Indeed, 37% of men admitted to having at least one same-sex encounter leading to orgasm. This is much higher than his finding that around 10% of the male population is exclusively or predominantly homosexual for three or more years of their lives.
An Observer poll, here in Britain in 2014, documented an emerging trend towards sexual exploration and experimentation, which seems to coincide with the decline of homophobic attitudes. It found that among 16 to 24-year-olds, 22% had had a same-sex experience. This is much higher than the national average and much higher than in years and decades past. This would indicate to me that already a lot of young people, in fact a very significant proportion of young people, are recognising their capacity for both hetero and homo desire – and acting upon it.
A YouGov poll in the UK in August 2015, found that 49% of 18-24 year-olds said they were not 100% heterosexual and 23% reported having had a sexual experience with a person of the same sex. This appears to be part of a longer-term trend, with 27% of 25-39 year-olds also saying they’d had a same-sex experience.
This sexual fluidity is something that's also been documented by anthropologists. Clellan Ford and Frank Beach wrote a book entitled Patterns of Sexual Behaviour in the 1960s. It documented surveys of pre-capitalist tribal societies, mostly in Asia, Africa, the Pacific and parts of the Middle East. They found that of the 76 societies surveyed, homosexuality was considered normal or acceptable in 49. That's nearly two-thirds.
They also recorded that in some tribal cultures, all young men entered into a same-sex relationship with an older unmarried warrior, as part of their rite of passage into manhood. The older warrior taught them the skills of hunting and other manly activities. Their ritual bonding included a sexual relationship, where the passing of semen from the older to younger male was deemed to make them men and give them strength. However, once the passage to manhood was completed, the men ceased to have homosexual contact and later married. In other words, they went through a period where they were sexually engaged with another male and then resumed what we might call the traditional heterosexual marriage path for the rest of their lives.
Ford and Beech concluded that this would indicate that human sexuality is much more malleable than many of us acknowledge. That there's a cultural element, of expectations and mores, that influences the expression of human sexuality. They posited that if sexual orientation was pre-programmed at birth, if it was biologically fixed, it would not be possible for people to be bisexual or, in the case of the Papua New Guinea tribes, to switch between males and females with such apparent ease.
Ford and Beech concluded that heterosexuality, bisexuality and homosexuality are fundamental to the human species. They are part of a natural spectrum of human sexual desire and they are very substantially influenced by cultural rules and values.
So this leads me to conclude that, if culture changes in our society, surely manifestations of sexuality will also change over time. The crossover between hetero and homo will, I believe, become more commonplace. Bisexuality may be the new normal.
I am talking, so far, only about conscious sexual desires. As we know from psychology, many people have hidden, unconscious desires that they don't acknowledge or accept. If we reached a state where it didn't matter who was gay, straight or bisexual, where sexual orientation wasn't an issue, maybe more people would become aware of suppressed feelings that they've hidden or repressed.
This is a picture of human sexuality that is more complex, diverse and blurred than the traditional, simplistic binary categories of hetero and homo, which are not only loved by many straight moralists but also clung to by many lesbian and gay people too.
My view is that if sexual orientation has at least an element of indeterminacy and flexibility based on culture, then surely the present forms of heterosexuality and homosexuality are conditional and temporary. They are not likely to remain the same in perpetuity. As culture changes, so will expressions of sexuality.
In a future non-homophobic society, as the taboos around same-sex relations recede, I suspect, as the various sex polls already indicate, that many more people are likely to have gay sex and relationships, even if only temporarily or experimentally.
Interestingly, the demise of homophobia is likely to make redundant the need to assert and affirm one's LGBT identity. From my study of history, gay and lesbian identities are largely the product of homophobic prejudice and repression. They are a self-defence mechanism against homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Faced with the persecution we have suffered because of our sexuality we’ve had to assert our right to be LGBT. Hence the emergence of an LGBT identity and the LGBT rights movement.
But if, in the future, one sexuality is not privileged over another, if defining oneself according to one’s sexual orientation is no longer necessary, then surely the need to assert that right, and that identity, will decline? If no-one cares who loves who or who has sex with who, the need for an LGBT identity will diminish over time. A person’s sexual orientation won't have the social relevance and significance that it has today. The need to affirm one's heterosexuality will also become redundant over time. With the demise of straight supremacy, the impulse and rationale for asserting sexual orientation differences and boundaries will disappear.
As we evolve into a more sexually enlightened and accepting society, homosexuality and heterosexuality will begin to fade as separate, exclusive orientations and identities. The vast majority of people will be open to the possibility of both opposite-sex and same-sex desires, even if they never act upon them. It simply won't be an issue.
People will no longer feel the need to label themselves as gay or straight, because in a post-heterosexist society no-one will care. It won't matter individually, culturally, socially or politically. Desire and love will transcend sexual orientation.
That's the hope I have: That one day it will be unnecessary to affirm and defend different sexual orientations and gender identities, that ‘love and let love’ will prevail and that people like me will no longer have to fight for LGBT rights. We’ll all be just human.
For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns, to receive his campaign e-bulletins or to make a donation: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org