Homosexuality Is A Choice Essay
Choosing one’s own (sexual) identity: Shifting the terms of the ‘gay rights’ debate
By Brian Earp (Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.)
UPDATE: See HuffPost Live debate on this topic here.
Can you be gay by choice? Consider the following, from the Huffington Post:
Former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon says she is gay by “choice” – a statement that has riled many gay rights activitists who insist that people don’t choose their sexual orientation.
Nixon is quoted thus:
“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”
Karen Kaplan of the LA Times explains the problem:
The question of whether sexual orientation is subject to nature or nurture – or some combination of both – has been hotly debated for years. If it is not an immutable characteristic, that would imply that a gay person could be somehow transformed into a straight one. In other words, homosexuality could be “cured.” Which in turn implies that being gay is some sort of illness. Hence, the offense taken to this point of view.
I think the logic is a bit fuzzy in the above analysis, but we’ll set that aside for now. Back to Nixon, quoted in the NY Times:
“A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not.”
Her face was red and her arms were waving.
“As you can tell, I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.”
Some gay rights advocates find this explanation less than satisfying. Writing on AmericaBlog Gay, John Aravosis argued that Nixon “needs to learn how to choose her words better, because she just fell into a right-wing trap, willingly. When the religious right says it’s a choice, they mean you quite literally choose your sexual orientation, you can change it at will, and that’s bull.”
Now it’s my turn to weigh in. I think Cynthia Nixon is a lot closer to correct on this issue than her detractors. “Being gay” — as opposed to “feeling uncontrollably and exclusively attracted to same-sex individuals” — is a question of identity, and one’s identity is in many respects up to oneself. That is, it is a question of how one chooses to self-identify. If you think you’re gay, then you’re gay.
Now, if you find yourself overwhelmingly attracted to members of the opposite sex, and not at all to members of the same sex (obviously, these are oversimplifications; sex is not a simple binary), you would be a bad citizen of your language community to go on and apply the label “gay” to yourself. You’d be bound to cause some confusion. We don’t, as a rule, get to make up our own new personal meanings for words and expect others to play along.
But if you’re capable of feeling attraction to members of more than one sex, as many people are, and yet you orient your romantic and sexual behavior primarily around the “same-sex” side of things (by dint of your own free choosing), then go ahead and consider yourself gay. Who you “are” is not a metaphysical fact; it’s a self-constructed tag, used for convenience to dumb down the complexity of interpersonal judgements and communication. A tag is a placeholder for a longer conversation. “Gay” is a tag.
The question of who a person is chiefly sexually attracted to, across time and circumstance, is less up for debate, and is largely a different question — one much better answered by appeals to the determining pressures of both nature and nurture, as both factors undoubtedly play a role. Genes play a role. Early experiences (such as exposure to different hormones and hormone levels in the womb) play a role. One’s psychological relationship to one’s own body and desires plays a role. And for many people, those different roles conspire to push the weight of attraction very heavily to one one side of the sex-stereotyped physical appearance scale or the other.
For others it’s a bit more ambiguous. Chopping up the gradient complexity of human sexuality into a few nifty labels — “gay,” “straight,” “bisexual” — is the source of much confusion here. The labels are short-hand. If you want to really know about a person’s sexual attractions, you should be prepared to sit and chat for a while.
Here is what’s going on, according to a fairly basic account of human sexuality. Down at the level of the body, our physical organs respond to erotic stimuli in a way that is more or less sensitive to stereotypically male vs. female characteristics. This pattern of bodily response is a gradient across individuals: some people show no response to “opposite-sex” vs. “same-sex” stimuli; some people show a consistent and strong response. Others fall somewhere in the middle.
Now let’s move into the territory of the “mind.” We can start at the lowest level there, the unconscious. Unconscious drives — mating impulses — push us toward other human beings, again in a sex-sensitive way, and again, gradiently across members of the population. Then we have conscious impulses — sexual feelings we’re aware of to varying degrees, and again you have sex-sensitivity and gradience.
Then you have beliefs and values — your own considered views about sex, gender, attraction, how you think you should feel, or how you may want to feel. Then you have social and community pressures, and those are different depending on where you live and whom you associate with. And then you have historical context to top it all off.
All of these levels interact with each other and play against each other. The body’s stimulus-response does not occur in a vacuum, for example, but can be influenced by conscious and unconscious attitudes, which themselves may be shaped by community pressures, and so on. There are many forces at play in the realm of sexual attraction, and whether a person chooses to act upon certain impulses or others — at one or more of the above levels of analysis — can be “up to them” to varying degrees.
For some people, the weight of attraction may be very heavily “same” or “opposite” sex-sensitive, potentially across multiple levels of description; very consistent across time and circumstance, and controlled to a great degree by genetic factors and other determinants “out of the person’s control.”
For others, the weight of attraction may be distributed more widely across the scale, may be different at different levels of description or over time, and may leave room for comparatively greater personal choice in how to act, or in what orientation label to (coherently) apply to oneself, given the various conscious and unconscious sexual impulses that arise within their psychological, social, and wider cultural-historical context.
Finally, although it isn’t really possible now, future technologies might make it so that people can change even their “basic” sexual attractions (insofar as these are rooted in manipulable biological systems), by directly intervening in the relevant brain-level processes. Then you would have a direct and potentially powerful “choice” in your sexual orientation that would be hard to dispute, going beyond all of the points I’ve just mentioned (it would just be a matter of whether you decided to exercise it).
So how does this fit with the debate about whether a person can be gay “by choice” or not? Let me dramatize:
Socially conservative person: Homosexuality is an abomination.
Gay-rights advocate: But a person cannot choose their sexual orientation — they just are who they are, and so it’s unfair to call their identity “wrong” in some way. That would be like criticizing a person for being tall, or short, or for having dark skin. None of those things is under a person’s control, so they cannot stand as a basis for moral condemnation.
Socially conservative person: Hmmm. Well, I’ve heard of people who used to be gay, but then were turned straight through prayer and other interventions. What do you say to that?
Gay-rights advocate: Listen, the evidence shows that being gay is not a choice. Those poor people are probably really gay at heart, but are denying their true natures and simply acting in accordance with the strictures of a heterosexual lifestyle out of shame and pressure from social conservatives such as you.
Socially conservative person: Well, I maintain that being gay is a choice. And even if a person feels that they are sexually attracted exclusively to members of the same sex, that person has a moral duty to refrain from same-sex intimate activity, for such activity is an abomination.
This whole debate drives me nuts. The gay-rights advocate is making a big mistake in putting all of his chips in the basket about “gay is not a choice.” It’s like creationists who peg their belief in God on the falsity of evolution. A really bad idea, since the facts will not be friendly. For some people, there certainly is room for choice with respect to their “gayness” (which is, again, a question of identity–how one views oneself and how one acts in accordance with that self-perception); and Cynthia Nixon is one such individual. Indeed, for most people, although there is probably not much choice when it comes to their basic physical attraction “settings” (given only the
Indeed, for most people, although there is probably not much choice when it comes to their basic physical attraction “settings” (given only the current state of technology, which could change), there may be some flexibility, at least for some people, nonetheless; there is likely to be considerable room for decisions about how to act on the basis of one’s sexual feelings (without having to sacrifice one’s sexual well-being); and there is almost certainly a range of plausible options for meaningful self-identifications in terms of one’s sexual orientation.
So instead of trying to sweep all of that complexity under the rug (in order to press a moral point), why not change the terms of the argument? A better way to have the debate is like this:
Socially conservative person: Homosexuality is an abomination.
Gay-rights advocate: No it’s not. People should be able to have consensual sex with whoever they want. Identity labels are irrelevant to this discussion. Mind your own damn business.
That’s how I see it, anyway. But let me not be misunderstood. I’m not being glib about the efforts of gay men and women to secure the same civil rights enjoyed by those who identify as straight. The importance of this issue cannot be overstated. As my friend Mark Bailey has put it:
The timeline of events in history that led to the propagation of the “it’s not a choice” counter-argument clearly shows that this is not inherently a matter of gay-rights activism, but, rather, a necessary grasping unto something presented by a segment of the scientific community that simultaneously could enable a needed moment of relief from relentless attacks against the soul. “It’s not a choice” has been a way to survive.
In other words, many have had to endure endless abuse for their non-heterosexuality: daily bullying, loss of employment, public humiliation, discrimination, excommunication, loss of family and friends – sometimes murder or suicide. And then, finally, in the face of all this, struggling gay men and women had something to say that would cause some attackers to pause for a second by virtue of a few magic words: it’s not a choice. There are people who reclaimed their lives because of those magic words.
Whether, in the end, sexuality is truly a choice doesn’t matter. But if someone who has endured malice all his life for feelings he felt no control over, finally, can get up in the morning and face the world with confidence while others back-off, just a little, then maybe we can better understand this particular timeline of progress and not mistake it for irresponsible activism.
Mark is right that we should be mindful of this context. And I think he has stated, beautifully, just what is at stake in this discussion. But I give the analogy to creationism and evolution advisedly. If a group rests its beliefs (in the case of creationism) or its moral standpoint (in the case of gay rights) on a set of claims that are unlikely to be borne out by the evidence (or careful conceptual analysis), then it risks losing its beliefs, or sacrificing its moral standpoint, when the complex reality can no longer be denied.
Gay people — including those whose feelings of attraction are largely out of their control, as well as those who have some elbow room in terms of their feelings and/or notions of identity — deserve to be treated with love and respect. The moral goal is clear. But if that moral goal must rest on a false or confused premise, then undue risk creeps in for defending it. Specifically, once the relevant facts become widely understood (or when our technological capacities for altering sexual orientation improve), the right-wing persecutors of gay men and women will be able to claim victory, and harness the data to their side. That’s the danger Cynthia Nixon was referring to when she spoke of ceding the terms of the debate to “the bigots.”
It is precisely the importance of what is at stake for “gay rights” (which I see as being indistinguishable from individual rights) that compels me to argue for firmer ground on this issue.
UPDATE: See HuffPost Live debate on this topic here.
Follow Brian on Twitter by clicking here.
Homosexuality as a Choiceby Jonathan Wallace firstname.lastname@example.org
I received an email from a fellow named Ben, asking me to look over an essay he claimed he was working on for the New York Times Magazine. The essay was a paean to the effects of an "anti-effeminate" drug named Hetracil and an indignant attack on the efforts of an ACLU attorney named Rachael Sondheim to introduce a federal law named "Proposition 313" which would prevent minors from being prescribed the drug.
Nothing about this rang right to me, particularly the idea of a drug stamping out feminine characteristics in men which had already been prescribed, per the essay, to millions of Americans without any publicity. I went onto Google and found a scant eight references to Hetracil, of which four or five had Ben's name on them. Another was a Hetracil web site, supposedly maintained by the inventor, a physician with a long Indian name; but the site itself had a thin, unconvincing feel, with only four or five pages of information and no address or phone for the company allegedly making the drug. The site itself however was clear about something at which Ben only hinted in the essay: Hetracil was intended to cure the medical complaint of homosexuality.
Google also revealed no references whatever to an ACLU lawyer named Sondheim, and the only Proposition 313 I found was a municipal French measure of unrelated subject matter. Add to this the fact that the ACLU does not usually push legislation, and that proposed federal laws are not called "propositions", and the whole thing seemed quite clearly a hoax. If it was one, I thought I saw the motive too. Ben's blog, where the essay resided, seemed to have evangelical Christian associations. I thought Ben was shrewdly trying to provoke gay people into admitting that homosexuality was a choice, not physical destiny. He was waiting for people to deluge him with email which said that they didn't want to be "cured", that they chose to remain homosexual.
I had received Ben's email as one of a group of writers (fiction writers, which should have been a tip right there). I sent an email to the others pointing out the discrepancies in Ben's posting and stating my belief it was a hoax. Within minutes, I received an email from Ben, acknowledging that the story was fiction, positing however that it was a "thought provoking work of art" to which he had wanted to expose us, and apologizing for angering me. Ben wanted to know exactly what I was disturbed by, the story itself or the way he had presented it to us.
I referred Ben to the essay I wrote some years ago on lying, in which I argued that lying is theft, that you make a false claim of my time, money and attention by representing a falsehood to be true. That was exactly what Ben had done, with his sympathetic appeal for help in completing an essay for the Times with which he claimed to be struggling. He had treated the whole group to which he sent the email with disrespect, as if he were a different species from us: we were owed no obligation of honesty by Ben, while without doubt Ben himself wanted to be told the truth by the whole world. (Liars never want to be lied to, because then they would lose their own way.)
I had some follow-up discussions with Ben, continuing after this article was originally posted. Ben was angered by my assumption that he wanted to bait gay people and get them to make illogical or contradictory statements about choice and destiny. He said that his intention was to draw out the far right and make them confront some of their own prejudices; the fundamentalist links from the blog, in fact, the blog itself, were all part of the "story".
Ethically, Ben could have advanced his own views, whatever they are, with a hypothetical or a satire not represented as truth. I have written quite a few of these myself, and they have an honorable history going back to Aristophanes, with Swift's "Modest Proposal" as a grand example. Ben's essay would still have provoked a lot of debate, and probably a few of the responses that Ben is looking for. Ben undoubtedly felt that was insufficient, and resorted to a hoax, because he needed to go a step further and elicit knee-jerk, unconsidered reactions to his story.
Sadly, Ben's hoax muddies the debate over a very interesting ethical issue: whether homosexuality is a choice or a necessity, and the whole question behind that of what we mean and how truthful we are when we say "I had no choice."
In the history of human excuse-making, "I had no choice" stands at the summit. If one was forced to do something, if it happened outside of one's volition, then there are no excuses to make. "I had no choice" is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.
However, if you examine most of the circumstances under which humans say that they had no choice, you will find that this simply is not true. This language gets used a lot when people select a choice that is convenient, or avoid one which is uncomfortable or down-right disturbing. As such, "I had no choice" seems more often than not to be a deliberate conversation-stopper, a statement with no real content other than "I declare this discussion over."
There is an ongoing debate as to whether homosexuality is more psychological or biological in nature; whether particular people are predisposed towards it by their genes. While I find this a rich and fruitful area of science, I also think that it tends to be over-leveraged in political and social discourse. Certainly it is an area of which we have so far illuminated only a small space; there is a much larger country to discover. What we know so far about genes is that they create or contribute to a wide variety of predispositions but rarely seem to program us for particular behaviors all by themselves. Experiences in the world traumatic or otherwise, training, and social interactions usually take us the rest of the way to meet our predilections.
Here are two sections of a FAQ on sexual orientation from the web site of the American Psychological Association:
What Causes a Person To Have a Particular Sexual Orientation?
There are numerous theories about the origins of a person's sexual orientation; most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality. In summary, it is important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation and the reasons may be different for different people.
Is Sexual Orientation a Choice?
No, human beings can not choose to be either gay or straight. Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.
As a backdrop to this discussion, consider the pronounced trend, the last twenty years or so, to renounce Freudian psychology and to find chemical triggers for everything. This too seems to have a context, that we are responsibility-free, that we are nothing more than our genes and the chemical receptors our nerves react to, that there is nothing to analyze in the mind. Since Freudian analysis, whatever mistakes or myths it may partly be beholden to, is a process of taking responsibility for yourself, the anti-Freud movement seems clearly to me to be an anti-responsibility movement.
Homosexuality, like numerous other behaviors, seems to me to very likely be part biological, part psychological (like heterosexuality). Certain men may be more feminine than others, based on physical characteristics, or may desire men for genetic or chemical reasons, but in this world-view, there would still be a large component of choice involved. This brings us to the next line of discussion, whether anyone has a responsibility to live unfulfilled and unhappy, to force themselves to be heterosexual or to live without sex. Let's just note that this is a vastly different discourse than the one about having no choice whatever. Once you go down this road, it no longer is "necessary" for a particular individual to be gay, just vastly preferable to the alternative.
In an interesting essay on www.lesbian.org, Amy Goodloe argues that:
the position of those mainstream lesbian and gay rights activists who claim that homosexuality is a biological trait... does nothing to further the cause of sexual liberty, or the freedom of all people to express and explore the range of sexual identities. For lesbians and gays to be truly free in this society, so the argument goes, all people must be free from the bonds of compulsory heterosexuality, so that all sexuality becomes an individual choice rather than a cultural mandate. The impulse to claim biology as the source for homosexuality may, in fact, stem from the psychological need to justify one's choice to a world that is hostile to those who dare to differ from its norms.
Gay people who argue that sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice are responding defensively, therefore giving credence, to critics who accuse them of sin or societal harm. A stronger argument would be that, unthinking Biblical biases aside, homosexuality doesn't harm anyone, and therefore is a behavior that should be well-tolerated by society. All the energy we pour into debating "choice" could be better utilized debating "harm".
Most fundamentalist criticism of gays mixes the status of being gay with behaviors such as promiscuity, drug use, and the like. But fundamentalists want all gay people to exhibit such behavior, so they can keep them tightly defined; they are very unsettled when gay people endorse some of their own ideals, such as monogamy and marriage. The current "defense of marriage" charade across the country is exactly that: an attempt to keep gay people in the zone where they can be derided and criticized.
If we rid homosexuality of any social stigma, as societies like ancient Greece have done, then it is becomes simply a valid choice among others. There is then no need to argue that people are compelled to it by their own biology.