I was having dinner with a friend recently and the subject of homosexuality came up. “I don’t approve of the lifestyle,” she said.
Perhaps I should have asked what she meant, what aspect of the style of life of a gay or lesbian person was objectionable because all of the gay people I know live pretty much the same style of life as she does. They get up, go to work, come home, check e-mail and watch TV.
I have been thinking about this word a lot. We don’t use it that often really. My main association, besides the expression “lifestyle choice” is “lifestyles of the rich and famous” with Robin Leach.
We talk about a rock star’s drug infused lifestyle, the lifestyles of young Hollywood starlets and the uber-rich swanning around on boats. It is charged with the concept of things people do for fun, thrills or self-gratification. It is less common to talk about the “lifestyle” of someone who works five days a week and goes to church on Sunday.
The Oxford dictionary gives a second definition for lifestyle: “denoting advertising or products designed to appeal to a consumer by association with a desirable lifestyle.”
So the idea of marketing and consumer choice is also incorporated into the word. Today we shop for lifestyles off the rack.
In my experience, people who speak of not liking “the gay lifestyle” are trying to suggest that they have no problem with the individual, simply how he chooses to live his life.
(In reality this is a false objection. The speaker does not actually object to the “style of life,” which is probably quite similar to his own, but to who the gay person chooses to live his life with. If this were not true one could not consistently object both to same sex marriage and to “the lifestyle” because allowing gays to marry makes their “style of life” more consistent with that of the heterosexual.)
Upon further research, I learned that the word “lifestyle” was coined by the psychotherapist Alfred Adler. He used it in almost the opposite manner. Adler’s “lifestyle” was not a choice about how to live, rather it was the individual’s personality that determined what his goals and therefore behavior would be. The life style, according to the web page A Tribute to Alfred Adler, is “one’s personality, the unity of the personality, the individual form of creative opinion about oneself, the problems of life and his whole attitude to life and others.”
Adler wrote, “If we know the goal of a person, we can undertake to explain and to understand what the psychological phenomena want to tell us why they were created, what a person had made of his innate material, why he had made it just so and not differently, how his character traits, his feelings and emotions, his logic, his morals, and his aesthetic must be constituted in order that he may arrive at his goal. If we could infer the individually comprehended goal from the ornaments and melodies of a human life and, on this basis, develop the entire style of life (and the underlying individual law of movement), we could classify a person with almost natural-science accuracy. We could predict how a person would act in a specific situation.”
But it would make no sense to approve or disapprove of a lifestyle in this sense— as the natural result of a person’s personality. There is no point in objecting to something that is not a choice. It would make no more sense than to object to the “lifestyle” of left-handed people. (All that weird dragging of hands across ink.)
The word “lifestyle” as it is used to refer to gay people, therefore, suggests that the speaker believes homosexuals are oriented essentially like straight people but choose different behavior.
This brings up an obvious question: Why would they?
It seems to follow this stream of logic that if people are choosing something (rather than being born that way) that there must be something appealing about it. There must be something that is, in fact, kind of hard to resist. Otherwise it would hardly be worth the bother of disapproving of it.
It may be that a large segment of the so-called heterosexual population can indeed imagine experimenting with gay sex once or twice for kicks. But because they, themselves, are essentially wired for intimacy and love with those of another gender, they project and imagine that what a same sex encounter would be for them— a sexual experiment— is what it would be for all people. Ergo, all gay encounters are focused on the sex and are in their very nature a form of promiscuity. (This is, in fact, what I believe the authors of the Old Testament had in mind with those two references in Leviticus. But that is a history discussion for another time and for people with better scholarly credentials than I have.)
Objecting to “the lifestyle” seems to be objecting to sexual experimentation without love, intimacy and commitment.
Yet this isn’t entirely true either because the same people who object to “the lifestyle” tend to oppose same sex marriage (which is the opposite of promiscuity) and to settle down with a bowl of potato chips to watch a marathon of Sex and the City.
In short, I have to conclude that the word “lifestyle” is code for “I’m creeped out by the idea of two dudes kissing.”
Fair enough. There are a lot of people I don’t want to imagine having sex either, but I don’t think it should be illegal for them. I can’t say I “disapprove” of the lifestyle of ugly people who have sex.
This brings me to my final thought on disapproving of a lifestyle. What does it mean to disapprove? People who live bohemian, non-mainstream lifestyles may not like the way the typical people who they see as boring and conformist live, but they rarely express it in terms of disapproval.
Disapproving is more than not liking or opting out. It assumes, in essence, that your opinion matters. It assumes that you get a vote. You can really only “disapprove” from a position of power and security and the assumption that society is on your side.
In general, we do not welcome the views of others when it comes to our “lifestyle choices.” How would you feel about someone who said she disapproved of your choice of religion or how many children you had or what you did on the weekends or how many hours you worked or what kind of career you had or how you spent your money? These are all “lifestyle choices.”
Would you thank such a person for her thoughtfulness and concern for your well-being or would you instead reply with something along the lines of “well who asked you?”
Openly expressing disapproval of another’s life choices is generally considered to be a serious social no-no, isn’t it? Sometimes, apparently, we make exceptions.