Discrimination and persecution of homosexual and transgender people continues to be a major problem, and appears to be on the rise in many areas. A key reason for this distressing occurrence resides in how sexual orientation and gender are understood—discrete homosexual, heterosexual, male, female, identities. To simplify information processing we have a strong tendency to put things in discrete categories, such as gay, straight. The drawback of this psychological predilection is that it sets up in-group and out-group distinctions, a tendency derived from our 200,000 to 300,000-year evolution in hunting-gathering groups. Members of one’s group were usually genetically related and hence more likely to assist, whereas those from other hunting-gathering groups were unrelated and more likely to harm. Research has revealed that people automatically apply more positive evaluations to their in-group and negative to the out-group (Brewer & Miller, 1996; Sherif, 1961). The combination of our strong desire to place things in discrete categories and apply in-group/out-group distinctions, almost ensures bias against homosexuals and transgender people.
Attempts to manage discrimination and persecution related to sexual orientation and gender, take the form of encouraging leniency towards those impacted. While noble in its goal, such a strategy is almost certain to have limited results, because it has to overcome the powerful psychological tendencies to cluster things in discrete categories and make in-group/out-group distinctions. If sexual orientation and gender are truly comprised of discrete categories then this is all we have to work with, but what if our understanding of sexual orientation and gender is flawed?
While the human brain likes to cluster information in discrete categories, natural occurrences are almost always structured in a continuous fashion, such as from low to high on a given trait. For example, height and weight occur along a spectrum, as opposed to only short, tall, light, and heavy people. Behaviors also show this continuous progression as with aggression and nurturance varying in degree. As natural occurrences might sexual orientation and gender occur on spectrums? The answer is that they almost certainly do, as recognized by Alfred Kinsey for sexual orientation back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Kinsey Scale placed homosexuality at one pole and heterosexuality at the opposite pole. Although this continuous arrangement was revolutionary in import, it does not align with the realities of sexual orientation. Homosexuals and heterosexual must have a strong degree of the given sexual orientation, but varying levels occur within each type. Bisexuals must be placed in the middle, meaning less homosexual and heterosexual motivation than those with only one identity, however, many bisexuals have strong motivations of both forms. Then there are asexuals with little or no sexual motivation that cannot fit on the scale. Therefore, a bipolar continuous depiction of sexual orientation does not work.
What does work is separate homoerotic and heteroerotic dimensions of sexual attraction, motivation, and capacity. Each person has a level on both dimensions with “homosexuals” higher homoerotic than heteroerotic, “heterosexuals” higher heteroerotic than homoerotic, bisexuals equivalent levels on these dimensions, and asexuals very low homoerotic and heteroerotic motivation. Given its importance in reproduction the heteroerotic dimension is certain. A homoerotic dimension is equally likely based upon the presence of such behavior in numerous species of insects, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, mammals, and primates, serving diverse and important functions (Bagemihl, 1999).
Regarding gender, instead of discrete female and male categories, there are feminine and masculine dimensions of traits and behaviors. Those rating higher on feminine than masculine features tend to identify with female, while people rating higher on masculine than feminine features identify with male. Mostly this tendency aligns with biological sex and assigned sex at birth, but when it does not transgender feelings occur. This dimensional depiction of gender is consistent with how transgender people commonly describe themselves as non-binary or gender fluid, as opposed to just other sex.
From a perspective of discrimination and persecution, understanding sexual orientation and gender in dimensional terms will greatly reduce or even eliminate bias. This positive occurrence arises from how challenging it is to assign in-group and out-group designations when traits and behavior are shared. If we all have varying degrees of heteroerotic and homoerotic motivation, and male and female traits and behavior, then it is virtually impossible to make the in-group and out-group distinctions that underly discrimination and persecution. Bias is replaced by tolerance and compassion! Additionally, this revised understanding aligns with the apparent reality of sexual orientation and gender, and the truth often liberates us from bias.
In A New Perspective On Sexual Orientation: Theory Meets Reality (Cambridge Scholars, 2023), I present a perspective on sexual orientation based upon separate homoerotic and heteroerotic dimensions that we all have, essentially meaning that bisexuality is the norm. The dominant dimension in each person is preferentially active, but the non-dominant dimension can be activated by circumstances and internal states. Activation and deactivation of sexual orientation dimensions is consistent with how the brain largely works on the basis of activation and deactivation including to sexual stimuli, and how circumstances can trigger sexual orientation behavior. Erotic fantasy is a major activator of the homoerotic and heteroerotic dimensions, amplifying sexuality and sexual orientation behavior. The way that sexual orientation is understood—social construction—influences how it is expressed, with the current homosexual and heterosexual discrete categories tending to deactivate the non-dominant dimension, due to the psychological conflict that manifest with feelings and behavior conflicting with one’s sexual orientation identity. Of note, homosexuality and heterosexuality only arose in the nineteenth century, with sexual orientation understood in vastly different fashions prior to this.
The four-components consisting of homoerotic and heterotic dimensions, activation and deactivation of these dimensions, erotic fantasy, and social construction of sexual orientation, provides a comprehensive perspective on sexual orientation. The intersection of sexual orientation and transgender, understood as separate feminine and masculine dimensions, is also explored.