Terri Murray says that Jean-Paul Sartre was simply wrong about gay people and self-deception.
Bad faith is Sartre’s conception of self-deception. Bad faith arises out of the human predicament – that is, our dread of freedom, of self-creation. According to Sartre, this predicament is unique to humans because, unlike other objects, which are fully whatever they are, we are ‘nothing’ at the core of our being. That is, we have no essential nature or ‘essence’ until we improvise one through our own choices and actions. This, for Sartre, is why humans are responsible for what they become, in a way that tables, chairs, plants and animals are not. Sartre envisions a single human life as analogous to a work of art. It is open to judgements about its worth only when seen as a whole, complete work, and even then there is no one standard by which one life can be judged relative to other lives, since there was nothing it wassupposed to be before the artist began his work.
Bad faith is an attempt to shirk this burden of freedom – to misrepresent ‘what we are’ as inevitable, to attribute what we have become to the agency of a secret self, an unconscious self that controls the conscious one. For Sartre, there are no excuses. We behave as we do always as free agents. Even when presented with painful dilemmas, we are never overtaken by external pressures to the extent that we do not have a choice, even if that choice is between life and death. Of course it does seem that much of our behaviour is motivated by ‘human weakness’ (in other words, some general condition, which is nothing personal) or some inherited personality trait (the inevitable, which is ‘just fate’ or destiny). To illustrate this, Sartre imagines a homosexual exploiting these ambiguities to deny that he has chosen his homosexuality. The homosexual who would impute the cause of his sexual orientation to ‘nature’, or an ‘essential condition,’ or (nowadays) his genetic make-up is acting in bad faith.
Sartre assumes that homosexuality and cowardice are alike in that both are misconstrued as being inevitable, or as having some cause other than the individual’s choice. Someone might say, “I couldn’t help running away – I’m a natural-born coward.” Likewise, says Sartre, the homosexual treats his ‘condition’ as determining his behaviour.
One problem with this analogy is that it rests on an unproven assumption, and one that has always been absolutely crucial to the rationale of homophobia (insofar as homophobia has any rationale). Imagine for a moment that instead of drawing the analogy between cowardice and homosexuality, Sartre had instead used cowardice and heterosexuality. Upon reflection, most heterosexuals do not think of themselves as having any choice about their attraction to the opposite sex, and hence do not award themselves any special merit simply for being heterosexual, as they would, say, for being ‘faithful’ to a partner. Heterosexual orientation is part of one’s make-up; it is a condition that is regarded as inevitable, in a way that being faithful to one’s partner or spouse is not. Sartre acknowledged that some things are not possible for us to change. These conditions which are not part of our freedom he called facticity.
One can nevertheless see how a heterosexual could act in bad faith by using his heterosexuality as an excuse for his behaviour. A rapist, for example, could claim that he was merely acting as a heterosexual, not as an individual, in committing the act of rape. In fact, in certain court cases this strategy has been deployed with more or less success in attempts to argue that “any normal heterosexual male” would behave in such a way if a female were to ‘flaunt’ her sexuality or ‘lead him on’. These types of arguments have a ring of inauthenticity precisely because the personal is absorbed into an abstract ‘essence’ of, say, ‘manhood’ or ‘normalcy’, while the freedom of the single individual male who chose to rape is all but denied. But what is under evaluation is not the authenticity of his claim to ‘be’ heterosexual in some inevitable way – the question is how he chose to act, given that fact.
To return to our original analogy, I submit that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a heterosexual who includes amongst his choices the mere fact of being attracted to the opposite sex. Cowardice, on the other hand, is something which deserves the negative connotations associated with it precisely because it is a choice. So why does Sartre imply that homosexuality is a choice in some fundamental way that heterosexuality is not?
The most likely answer is that whether homosexuality is nature or nurture is still a lively issue. Until there is conclusive proof that homosexual orientation is ‘natural’ (i.e. genetic and thus inevitable) in the same way that heterosexuality is so, there will always be many who regard homosexuality as the deliberate ‘deviant’ behaviour of an otherwise heterosexual person. Once it is conceded, or ‘discovered,’that homosexuality is inevitable (not particular homosexual acts, but the orientation itself) homosexuals will have to be judged on a level playing field. Just as women are now regarded as a gender in their own right, rather than as ‘deficient’ males, so homosexuals will be humans in their own right, rather than ‘dysfunctional’ or ‘defective’ heterosexuals. They will still be responsible, like heterosexuals, for their particular acts, but no longer will their sexual orientation per se be associated with moral agency. If heterosexuals acknowledge that they do not deserve moral brownie points just for being heterosexual, then nor can it make sense to give moral demerits to those who just are not.
The word ‘ex-ist’ is derived from the Greek and Latin words meaning ‘to stand out from’. What makes Sartre’s account of homosexuality so offensive to Queers is that the homosexual, in order to merely establish the true conditions within which he can be authentic in any significant way, must first ‘come out’ against the backdrop of a world that is presumably heterosexual in some universal sense. The most basic conditions, against which his existential freedom can be lived out, are denied to him before any more profound existential questions of choice and responsibility arise. As such, the homosexual bears an unusually heavy existential burden – negatively, he must reject the false conditions of existence assigned to him by his heterosexual culture, family, etc. before he can become even minimally authentic in any positive sense of choosing to become an individual. The homosexual is born into a society and culture that perpetuate the myth of universal human heterosexuality. Sartre’s view of homosexuality seems to be an inversion of the homosexual’s true situation – it is heterosexuality which is used as a cover for bad faith for the closeted homosexual who wishes to enjoy the safety and privilege of being just one of the crowd, into which one is absorbed into general categories. The flight from the anguish of personal responsibility is aided, even encouraged, by homophobic totem and taboo. To portray homosexuals as hiding in their ‘condition’ as a flight from freedom is entirely backwards. They are, rather, encouraged to hide in a condition which is not their own, but belongs to the herd or ‘the they’.
If a homosexual individual were to explain any one of his particular choices by saying that his homosexuality made him do it, then we would no more believe him than we would believe a heterosexual who said the same thing. Sartre’s analogy fails to capture this crucial fact because it assumes that freedom is germane to the orientation of the homosexual in a way that it is not.
One reason that the nature versus nurture debate continues unresolved is that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans-gendered (GLBT) community do not agree on the importance of ‘essentialism’ in making moral evaluations of human sexual behaviour. A large section of the GLBT community argue that the state has no business sticking its nose into people’s sex lives because of a fundamental human right to privacy. They argue that authentic individuals do not need to label themselves in relation to some sexual ‘category’ – because even if no one were essentially homosexual, that in itself would not give the state any legal justification to interfere with private sexual behaviour. The issue of ‘deviance’ – measuring what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms relative to the heterosexual ideals of monogamy, marriage and the missionary position – is not one for states to decide nor to regulate. Labels are seen as mechanisms of state power, control and categorisation much in the spirit of what Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish. Labels are irrelevant anyway, it is argued, since adults ought always to have freedom to choose which sexual practices (short of non-consensual, harmful ones) they wish to engage in. The burden of proof is rightly on government to show that atypical sexual behaviour is in some sense dangerous or harmful in a way that could justify legislation against it. But this section of the GLBT community, like their homophobic counterparts, wrongly assume that homosexuality is for everyone merely a label, the adoption of which gives cover to bad faith, sexual prudishness and the voluntary foreclosure of other sexual options.
Homosexuality is a part of some people’s facticity – the homosexual is ‘thrown into the world’ which contains his own homosexual orientation as one of its facts, and homophobia as another. The homosexual has as much as anyone else an existential burden to bear. He must still chose who or what he is to become as a single individual, and the inevitable fact of his sexual orientation has very little to do with it. If Sartre wasn’t homophobic (and, by the way, he wasn’t) it was because he didn’t believe that homosexuals exist as such. In typical French fashion, he viewed homosexuality in terms of sexual freedom, and homosexual acts were included amongst the choices open to the heterosexual person who had faced his freedom.
© Terri Murray 2002
Terri Murray is an American scholar who has degrees in philosophy and theology from Heythrop College, University of London.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by H. Barnes (London, 1958), pt.1, ch-.2.