Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Gay, Straight, or Lying

Posted by Neal on January 4, 2012

A few weeks ago I listened to an episode of the “Stuff Mom Never Told You” podcast about bisexuality. (Sorry, I can’t seem to find it on the SMNTY site, which is hard to navigate.) The hosts talked about a widely held belief to the effect that bisexuality does not exist, and those who identify as bisexual are “gay, straight, or lying.” They kept using this phrase to describe the situation, and after doing some Googling, I find that the phrase seems to have made it into wide circulation with the 2003 publication of J. Michael Bailey’s book The Man Who Would Be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. On pages 95-96, he wrote:

[Gay men] have a saying: “You’re either gay, straight, or lying.”

The phrase gained even wider currency after a July 5, 2005 New York Times article by Benedict Carey, who wrote:

People who claim bisexuality, according to these critics, are usually homosexual, but are ambivalent about their homosexuality or simply closeted. “You’re either gay, straight or lying,” as some gay men have put it.

Both sources attribute the phrasing to gay men, and imply that it’s been around for some time, but these sources are the earliest that I’ve seen it in written English. However, being the literal-minded kind of guy that I am, my question about this phrase is: Why isn’t it gay or straight and lying?

Let’s assume that the or in this phrase is intended to be exclusive or, since it’s coordinating the mutually exclusive properties of gayness and straightness. Furthermore, let’s assume that in this phrase, lying doesn’t refer to lying about any old thing, but to lying about being bisexual. In that case, gay, straight, or lying means that there are three possibilities:

  1. You’re gay.
  2. You’re straight.
  3. You’re lying about being bisexual. That is, you’re either gay or straight.

The third possibility is just the union of the first two possibilities. Why bother saying it, then?

Well, the idea is to include the part about lying. If you identify as bisexual, you’re lying. You’re either gay or straight.

It seems to me that you could state this meaning more straightforwardly (if you will) with the phrase gay or straight and lying. But that’s certainly not what people say. I get exactly three hits when I search for “gay or straight and lying”. (And only four for “straight or gay and lying”.)

Maybe gay, straight, or lying is more appealing because it has a less complex structure — the nice flat kind of structure you see just below.

Gay or straight and lying has the two-tiered structure you see in the middle diagram, not to mention an extra word.

Worse, this phrasing could also be interpreted to have the structure in the bottom diagram, which to my ear makes lying want to scope not over bisexual, but over straight or gay. That gives us two unintended and hard-to-decrypt meanings:

  1. “gay, or lying about being straight; i.e. gay or closeted gay”
  2. “gay or lying about being gay, i.e. gay or gay-acting straight”

Which do you think is easier? Separating the intended compositional meaning from a few unintended compositional meanings in gay or straight and lying? Or skipping compositionality and simply assigning the intended meaning to gay, straight, or lying as an idiom?


10 Responses to “Gay, Straight, or Lying”

  1. I think the point is, the idea behind bisexuality is that it’s a ternary setting (though there is also the possibility that it’s more a continuous spectrum). Thus, you are either gay, straight, out bisexual. That is, you are either gay, straight, or the third option.

    But the critics are claiming that there isn’t a third option. So if you pick the third option, you’re actually lying. In other words, you’re either gay, straight, or lying.

    So, it’s not really two binary coordinations, at least pragmatically. Rather, it’s a single ternary coordination. It just so happens that the semantic value of the third option is equal to a disjunctive coordination of the other two. Essentially, it’s a coincidence.

  2. dw said

    I interpret as, you either
    * admit you’re gay
    * admit you’re straight, or
    * are lying

    Applying Boolean logic, this is equivalent to: “If you don’t admit to being either [exclusively] gay or [exclusively] straight, then you’re lying”.

  3. Agree with DW.

    The original construction is meant to mirror “gay, straight, or bi” with the substitution of “lying” for bisexual to emphasize that that isn’t a legitimate option (in the speaker’s view).

    The other constructions are very messy and don’t convey the same meaning.

    “Gay or straight and lying” sounds like you mean there are only people who are gay, people who are straight and claim they are gay, or people who are straight and claim they are bisexual, leaving out people who are actually straight and not lying about it. I’m sure that’s not the intended meaning. I don’t hear this one as diagramed in the middle (gay or straight) and lying, but that would mean everyone’s lying (gay and lying, straight and lying).

    I think the original construction is clear; the others are not.

  4. I agree with the other commenters. As you quote them, neither of the examples you give says people who identify as bisexuals are gay, straight or lying. They’re saying people are gay, straight or lying.

  5. lukas said

    As a wise man once said, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

    As I understand the phrase, there are really three instances of the copula, and the third one is used in a very different way from the first two. So someone is [= identifies as] gay, is [= identifies as] straight or is [≠ identifies as] lying.

  6. Glen said

    I don’t think any of the constructions is perfectly clear. “Gay, straight, or lying” has the problem that Neal identified. But “gay or straight and lying” only works if you append “if you say you’re bisexual” to the front of it. In any case, I think Thomas is correct about the origin of the syntax: they started with the established phrase “gay, straight, or bi” and then substituted ‘lying’ for ‘bi’.

  7. David Craig said

    It can’t reasonably be parsed as “You’re either (gay or straight) and lying.” We don’t have an “EITHER X AND Y” template in our language. It would have to be “You’re either gay or (straight and lying).” This would seem to imply that everyone is really gay, which is probably why it’s so rare.

  8. As DW points out, you need to apply boolean logic, and (gay OR straight OR lying) (gay or (straight AND lying)) (gay or straight) AND lying). Your first diagram leads therefore to a wrong conclusion.

    To cover the three possibilities you mention, the correct English would be “You’re either gay or straight, or you’re lying,” ((gay OR straight) OR lying))

    An interesting twist is that applying boolean logic, the “OR” is not exclusive (you would have to use XOR for that), so the statement, if written as I have done above would allow mathematically to be also gay AND straight AND lying. The proper way to express it boolean logic would be ((gay XOR straight) XOR lying)). Unfortunately, English cannot be as subtle as that….

  9. David Craig said

    Colloquial English and Boolean logic do not necessarily have any convenient transform to each other. The standard OR in colloquial English is potentially ambiguous. Usually context clears up the ambiguity, but not always. There are a couple of ways to obviate ambiguity; one is “X and/or Y”, which codes for the inclusive OR and the other is “X or either Y, one”*, which codes for the exclusive XOR. There is, however, no standard way that I know of that codes for the XOR with more than two inputs allowing for a TRUE return for an odd number of TRUE inputs. In the case of “You’re either gay, straight, or lying” we have to consider the audience, which is probably people who claim to be bisexual. In this case the ambiguity just evaporates.

    *This option is only available in a few dialects of English, notably working class Southern dialects.

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