In his column for the Southern Voice, Paul Varnell looks at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention's coinage "MSM" (short for "men who have sex with men.") He acknowledges the utility of the term MSM for including men who don't identify themselves as gay but nevertheless engage in homosexual sexual behavior. The impetus for Varnell's look: a recently published telephone survey of more than 4,000 men in New York City discovered that MSM who deny the gay or bi labels are actually more numerous than self-acknowledged gay or bi men. That's a lot of "straight" dudes getting it on with blokes!
I agree with Varnell's conclusion that "maybe after more than two decades it is time for the CDC to start calling us by our own name." In other words, public health officials should use at least two discrete terms of analysis in combatting sexually-transmitted diseases: gay men and MSM.
What really struck me about Varnell's column wasn't his discussion of the survey in the news or his recommendations. Rather, it was his reflection on why he once opposed the CDC's creation of the term MSM. He wrote:
It seemed like a social conservative attempt to deny that men could actually be constitutionally oriented toward love and sex with other men, instead treating our orientation as just a succession of sexual acts.
Even more, it rejected our self-affirming label “gay.” After all, one of the first steps of the ex-gay process is to persuade gay men to stop thinking of themselves as “gay” or “homosexual” — i.e., to reject the identity.
Conservative religionists deny that gay or homosexual (etc.) should be adopted as an identity; they equate gayness with behavior. True, so far as it goes. But Varnell errs at a crucial point--perhaps the most critical point in understanding authentically integral gay spirituality. He says that he rejected the CDC's rationale because it might "persuade gay men to stop thinking of themselves as 'gay' or 'homosexual,'" thus discouraging against gay men identifying weakly or not at all with their sexual identity.
Yet refusing to admit that personal identity is the peak of self development is not merely a trait of ex-gays; it's also a cornerstone of all major developmental models of human potential and ancient spiritual wisdom (the Buddha would have said that a gay identity or straight identity is an obstacle in the path to Enlightenment). Also, (inadvertently, I assume) Varnell implicitly rejects the notion that gays should identify their self with a higher sense of identity. That is, in spiritual terms resonant with a variety of spiritual and mystical traditions, an identity with All Being, Spirit, Buddha Mind, Christ Consciousness, etc.
Varnell appropriately rejects the conservative religionist take on gayness as merely sexual behavior and appropriately recognizes the importance of developing a solid, healthy sense of healthy identity that includes sexual behavior but transcends it into a stable sense of personal identity. However, after you've identified with gayness, there are higher stages of identity in which a distinct sense of being gay is ultimately transcended and included. The next stage of identity--immediately after the emergence of a gay personal identity--is the integral stage (the turquoise altitude). It's the stage of identity of which I speak when I use the term gayness--an identity as a human being who owns all his inner deep structures: masculine, feminine, heterophilia, and gayness.