It used to be easy. You were either gay or you were straight. Maybe certain oddballs belonged to that category known as “bi,” especially in the 70’s. But for the most part, you got to identify yourself as one thing (heterosexual) or the other (homosexual), and that was that. That was O.K. But how about this: Just how gay are you? What percentage?
“I guess I’d have to be way down,” said John Seabrook, a writer for The New Yorker , in a phone interview. “I guess 3 percent comes to mind. Three percent gay. Three percent gay means that when I was 12 years old, I had a crush on Phil Blantan for three months, who was like this kid in my dorm. At St. Andrew’s. My wife’s giving me a hard time, though. Do you think that’s bad, that I’m saying I’m 3 percent gay? She’s giving me dirty looks.”
Editor-turned-novelist Kurt Andersen, author of big summer book Turn of the Century , described his own gay quotient. “I often talk to certain friends of mine, certain heterosexual friends, I might add, I often say, ‘Well, that’s because I’m gay’ as a jocular explanation of, for instance, the fact that I don’t like sports, to take the coarsest example of my gayness,” he said.
So what’s the percentage? Mr. Andersen asked if he could assign himself two separate percentages: “If I could give myself two scores, one on the sexual, one on the cultural, I would put myself much higher on the cultural,” he said. “I’d say 0 to 1 on the sexual and, like, 20 on the cultural, or maybe more.” As evidence of his cultural gayness, Mr. Andersen offered: “I do all the cooking in my household. I dress up in women’s clothing most nights. That’s a joke. I read Rules of Interiors with an unseemly degree of interest.” Architecture? “Yeah, architecture, there you go, that’s a gay interest. What else? I actually like gay people. I would say if you gave me 10 random heterosexuals and 10 random homosexuals, I would like more of the homosexuals than the heterosexuals.”
Later in the interview, Mr. Andersen revised his level of sexual gayness: “I have never had, faintly, a sexual feeling about a man, I don’t think,” he said. “So ‘1’ if you want to be P.C., but ‘0’ if I were going to be honest.”
All this artful hemming and hawing brings to mind the great Henry James, God rest his probably gay soul. If he gazed upon his own era and saw in it The Awkward Age , let us look at our own and declare it the Ambiguous Age. Even the greatest, most solid American historical personage of all, Abraham Lincoln, the railsplitter himself, is entering the terrain of sexual uncertainty. Two upcoming biographies–one by sex researcher C.A. Tripp and one by gay firebrand Larry Kramer–will argue that Lincoln had a homosexual bond with his dear Illinois friend, Joshua Speed. The two men shared a bed, upstairs of Speed’s general store, when they were struggling bachelors. There have already been some homoerotic hints in the beautifully made 1998 biography Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln , by Douglas L. Wilson. Mr. Wilson reported that Lincoln and Speed “regarded themselves not only as close friends but as something like soul mates” and that both were miserable upon getting married.
“When this shall reach you,” Lincoln wrote in a letter to Speed in 1841, “you will have been Fanny’s husband several days. You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting–that I will never cease, while I know how to do anything.”
This touchy area is the kind of thing that interests scholars now. In the Bill Clinton era, during which one cultural hero after another has been revealed to be frail and human, people can accept shades of gray. There was a lot of hooting, but Mr. Clinton managed to stay in office–and with an approval rating higher than Jimmy Carter’s.
Mr. Clinton’s behavior in the West Wing has struck some expert observers as, if not gay, then at least gayish. “He acted like a person who was outed,” said Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote an article on his own sexual grapplings called “The Post-Gay Man” for Esquire in 1996. “I felt sorry for him and related to him. It was very gay to me, that whole thing. I think gay people who are in danger of being outed, they lie and they’re almost totally absolved of their lying.… It also felt a lot like gay male public sex in a way, like, ‘Let me just go get my dick sucked in the bathroom and then I’ll see you later.’ And she was such a willing participant in that, which is what most women aren’t willing to do. Straight men always say to me, ‘You’re so lucky, you can just go have sex with a guy and nobody cares afterwards.’ But straight men can’t do that–you can’t pick up a girl in the subway and fuck her and then go home in five minutes.”
Mr. Van Meter describes himself as 90 percent gay; and the admission that something other than another man may get the boat to rocking has not always been kosher in the gay male community, which has wanted to present a united front given its disdainful opposition. His “Post-Gay Man” piece drew guffaws in the tenser atmosphere of ’96–but such an acknowledgment of the multilayered texture of human sexuality may not get the same reaction in the sexier ’99.
“I have moments that kind of surprise me from time to time,” said Mr. Van Meter. “Like I’ll either have a dream or I’ll see a girl that I just find really sexy every once in a while, and think, ‘Wow, look at her!’ Some lesbians I find really sexy, that are sort of slightly boyish, but still kind of curvy and girlish.”
Oh, boy. In the Ambiguous Age, the pinup boys come complete with … interesting questions. The latest heartthrob, the Latin singer and New York magazine cover boy Ricky Martin, has told members of the press: “What I say about sexuality is, I leave it for my room and lock the door.” That didn’t stop The Advocate , a gay magazine, from trying to break that door down, with a cover story titled “Ricky Martin: The Gay Connection.” And yet the girls are still screaming; they’re comfortable in that sexual gray area. Another case: Movie star Brad Pitt is exposed in a 30-page photo spread in W . The pictures show him with his mouth wide open; lying on a cement floor, face down, with his naked buttocks visible; standing near a grizzly bear in a holding cell; with his hands in his pants; and making various ecstatic facial expressions.
“They had a photo of Brad Pitt the other day,” said Bob Grant, the very conservative talk-show host on WOR-AM. “I said, ‘Gee, I wish I had that waistline, I wish I had that chest.’ But that doesn’t mean I want to go up to Brad Pitt and give him a big hug .”
He was asked if he might be 2 percent gay.
“I couldn’t even quantify it,” he said. “It’s nonexistent. I’ll tell you one thing: I can admire a good-looking guy, I can see somebody like Tom Cruise, somebody like that, and say, ‘Gee, I wish I looked like him.’ That doesn’t mean I want to take him to bed.”
Sexual theorist Edward Stein is working on a book called The Mismeasure of Desire: The Science, Theory, and Ethics of Sexual Orientation for the Oxford University Press. Mr. Stein, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at M.I.T. and is now working toward a law degree at Yale Law School, believes those mid-1990’s notions of sexual identity will soon seem stale. That elaborate University of Chicago survey from 1994 that found less than 10 percent of the adult male population to be gay? “Take it with a grain of salt,” he said. And he will seek to cast doubt on the ideas that sexuality is genetically or neurologically based.
“Most of that research of which I am critical assumes that sexual orientation is like a light switch–either you’re gay or you’re straight,” said Mr. Stein. “Or it assumes that it’s more like a dimmer switch, that either you’re strongly attracted to either men or women. But, in fact, it might turn out to be much more complicated.”
“What percentage are you?” he was asked.
“It depends on whether you mean behavior or fantasy life or identity, but in the end … roughly 85 to 90 percent.”
Mr. Stein may be onto something in his research, but in the case of sexual identity, anyone is an expert, anyone who has paused to examine their own thoughts and feelings on the matter. So let’s go out now into the great teeming city, where we find Jeff Denning, a 34-year-old stagehand, in the back of Jack Dempsey’s, an East Village bar.
“Can you work it out in terms of percentage?” he wondered. “I don’t think so. When you’re dealing with percentages, you’re dealing with, like, mathematical quantities. It’s like, are you a 6 percent seafood-enjoyer, or a 20 percent seafood-enjoyer?”
Soon enough, Mr. Denning said he was 10 percent homosexual. “I’m sure there’s a potential there,” he went on, “because I don’t think that structurally speaking I am so different a person than the average gay person. I have more male friends than female friends, but the friendships you have there, they aren’t sexual.”
He is attracted to his male friends, right? “Attracted … not sexually, though. A sexual thought might occur there, but it’s so disturbing–and I’m sure it’s because of a hang-up that I have, who am I as a person? Et cetera. I’m very disturbed by watching two men kiss, not so much by watching two women kiss.” He sipped some of his pale ale. “It’s not my taste,” he said.
In Central Park, on a sunny Saturday, there was Zoe Anderson, a fashion student from the South Bronx who was listening to her Walkman and strutting around by the in-line skaters. She had dreadlocks and knowing eyes. “I think everyone’s inherently bisexual,” Ms. Anderson said. “Everyone. I think you learn, you’re taught to suppress that–that that’s evil and you’re going to burn in hell. I think for everyone there is that one person that might come into your life and you might go, ‘You know what? If there wasn’t such a stigma attached to being gay, I might actually cross over.'”
Miss Anderson said she’s never done “that lesbo thing” and described herself as 100 percent heterosexual, but …
“Let me put it this way,” she said. “I watch porno movies with women. That, I think, is arousing. I think that’s incredibly sexy.”
At Doc Holliday’s bar on Avenue A, Heather Santa, a 24-year-old squatter, was sitting at a table with her boyfriend. They were going through black-and-white nudie pics of Ms. Santa and friends that were for sale. “I think all women are bisexual,” Ms. Santa said. “I’d say it’s a 60-to-40 ratio, women to men. But women are bitches, I just like to have sex with them. I get along really well with men.”
Chuck Salloum, a 27-year-old Web site designer, was ruling the Doc Holliday’s pool table. Goatee, Harley-Davidson T-shirt, jeans, black boots, gear hanging from his belt, big biceps. “I don’t think anyone’s 0 percent,” he said. “I mean, I never want to be with a man. I never have, I doubt I ever will, but I like to experiment with other things, but never that , but who knows?”
“Sweet Home Alabama” was playing loud.
“Would I never, ever be with a man?” he said. “In my head right now, I don’t think I ever will. But then again, let’s say I wind up in jail and let’s say some guy makes me do something–I’ve done it. Am I gay? I’m not gay, but I did it. Maybe I’ll be like, ‘Wow, this is great! I wish I met Bubba before!’ But I don’t think that’ll ever happen. I’ll give myself 2 percent, sure.”
Here was Katherine, who works at a SoHo art gallery. Ten percent gay. “I’ve kissed girls, but that’s about it,” she said. “Women kissing women is hot. Men kissing men is different. With my 10 percent of attraction, I kissed a girl and made out with her and that’s it. It was wonderful. It was years ago. I was in Paris. She was a lovely woman. Mutual attraction and mutual respect and many bottles of red wine were involved. We were 22 at the time and it was lovely. Physically, it was lovely. Socially, I freaked the fuck out. That night. I didn’t go home with her. I was too chicken.”
The next day, a Sunday, my “gaydar” went off when I saw Luke Mayes. He was walking with some friends up Ninth Avenue after beers at the White Horse. His tight T-shirt alone made him look 110 percent gay, plus the fact that he was in Chelsea. But it turned out he was originally from New Zealand and he considered himself just 2 percent gay. He said his countryman Peter Urlich was 30 percent: “I think I’ve got feminine qualities,” Mr. Urlich said, “but is that gay? I guess if you even it out, I’m probably a 10 percenter.”
Ever been with a man? “I tried it when I was at school. I think everybody had a go, then it took a left or took a right. My bus definitely ended up on the hetero highway.”
“Any public figures you wonder about?”
“Yeah, Ricky Martin!”
At G lounge, a clean and crisp, well lit, minimalist gay bar on West 19th Street, everyone was drinking frozen Cosmopolitans.
“I don’t think anyone’s a 100 percent,” said Rick Kruse, a 39-year-old bank auditor, who put himself at 96 percent gay.
“I’d have to say I’m probably like 90 percent,” said his boyfriend, John Strauss, 45, who does environmental work for the city. “I had a girlfriend many years ago, and I already knew I was gay at the time, but I did have this girlfriend. I don’t think that would happen again, but it’s not impossible.”
Also drinking a frozen Cosmopolitan was Ronnie Britton, writer, translator and contributor to the New York Times Arts and Leisure page. He put himself at 100 percent gay and declared that he did not like this line of questioning. “To me people are either gay or they’re not,” he said.
“So you’re 100 percent?”
“Yeah, of course, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t find a woman attractive or wouldn’t have sex with a woman.”
“Wouldn’t that make you less gay?”
“No, not at all. Not at all. Mostly because that’s what I want. You know, it’s funny because the ancient Athenians did not have a word for gay or straight, because they understood very well that people can respond to both stimuli at different points in their lives.”
Outside, Steven Sander, 39, was on his way to G, but stopped to chat. “I’m a happy boy,” said Mr. Sander, who added he was 101 percent gay. “I can appreciate a beautiful woman but I have no desires. Can I ask you something?”
“I’m 6 percent,” I said.
“Have you ever been with a man?”
“No,” I said. “I talk in a high-pitched voice to my cat and I like Joni Mitchell a lot.”
“Why’s it make you 6 percent? Culture and sex are two different things. There are big faggots who live a very gay life style and their whole lives are gay. Being gay to me is what I do in bed. I live a good life, I have an excellent job, I do cool, hip things–whether you’re gay or straight is irrelevant.”
The next night at the Loeb Boathouse there was an American Foundation for AIDS Research benefit. Fashion designer Betsey Johnson said she was 49 lesbian, 20 percent “gay man” and 51 percent straight. O.K., so it didn’t add up–that’s ambiguity for you. Singer Foxy Brown was “100 percent heterosexual.” Chris Eigeman, who played the Wildean wit in Metropolitan and a gay nightclub promoter in The Last Days of Disco said he was 0 percent. Why? “Because I’m married, obviously,” he said. Lisa Ling, the new, 25-year-old addition to ABC’s The View said she was 1 percent gay. And actress Liv Tyler, whom the paparazzi caught mid-smooch with Drew Barrymore at the Oscars? “That’s my business!” Ms. Tyler said. “I love everybody–man, woman, I find women beautiful, I find men beautiful, I find animals and trees–I’d like to shag a tree sometimes!”
A bemused Jay Shaffer, the owner of Shaffer City Oyster Bar and Grill, was taking it all in. “We’re all a little gay,” said Mr. Shaffer, 46. “We all look at a man and say, ‘Gee, that’s very attractive–he’s got great biceps, he’s got great muscle structure.’ We’re not necessarily looking at his manhood.” He put himself down for 20 percent gay. “That means you have enough control and understanding of your femininity, that you can cry, you can create, you can go like this”–he flipped his hand up and down–”like some sort of flaming faggot.”
At a restaurant called Baby Jupiter on Orchard Street, a 23-year-old woman from London, who did not want her name used in this article, said she, too, thought we all have a little gayness in us. “I’ve never slept with a woman but I’d say 7 percent,” she said. “I can’t say I’ve never thought about it, so it doesn’t make me 0.”
When she was 14, this woman was a tomboy, and her mother made her take ballroom dancing classes. Her best friend attended the class, too. “I’ll never forget that girl,” she said. “In the dance sessions you had to have a partner, so, of course, Lisa was my partner. We would dance together and spin each other around. I was still a virgin, I didn’t even know what sex was. We danced together very closely, and it was like a form of communication without speaking. Dancing is a very intimate thing … so we got very into the closeness of it all, and we’d practice dancing very close and no one else was in the room. It was just the two of us. I remember feeling something that I’d never ever felt before, like everything passed through my body, moving, like it never moved before, like feelings and areas, and we never said anything but we danced very well together, and every time she came up close, we’d nearly kiss each other, and she would just touch my breasts, touch my bum, or move around the front. She would just do that, and I would do the same to her. I’ve never told anyone this story. We would touch each other and then after the weeks went on, I remember volunteering to go back there, not just being forced to go back there. We tried to take all our clothes off. It was showing each other parts of our body we’d never shown each other before, and experiencing parts of our lower regions without really knowing. I just remember her touching me down below and feeling like this warm, and I’d do the same to her. We never said anything–that’s the weirdest thing. I was overwhelmed. At 14, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be with a girl. I felt naughty, I felt dirty, I felt wrong. But I’m glad it happened.”
Another believer in the continuum theory of sexual orientation is Brad Gooch, author of Finding the Boyfriend Within . “I think now with the whole gay liberation movement, people are getting to the point that the relief of coming out as gay isn’t really the total answer or the end of the line or something. There’s more to it than we think,” said Mr. Gooch.
I reached Michael Thomas Ford, the 30-year-old author of Alec Baldwin Doesn’t Love Me and That’s Mr. Faggot to You by phone. He was at home, on his bed. “When you grow up, people give this either-or scenario, so when you pick one there’s this intense pressure to stick with it, like taking piano lessons or something. I would say I’m 99 percent gay, but I would like to reserve that 1 percent if Gillian Anderson, the X-Files girl, decides she wants to call. And Xena, who wouldn’t want to sleep with Xena?”
What’s with Alec Baldwin?
“Until I wrote the book, I thought I was the only guy who thought Alec Baldwin was really hot, and then I got hundreds of letters saying, ‘Stay away from him, you bitch, he’s mine.'”