Can you be gay by choice?

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, 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 both sexes, as many people are, and you orient your romantic and sexual behavior around the same-sex component 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 play a role. One’s psychological relationship to one’s own body 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 gender 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 Brian’s Personal Theory of Human Sexuality (backed up by science, but I’m leaving citations out of this post for simplicity). Down at the level of the body, our flesh responds to sexual stimuli in a gender-sensitive way. The 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 gender-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 gender-sensitivity and gradience.

Then you have beliefs and values — your own considered views about sex, 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 upon 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 is influenced by conscious beliefs and 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 gender-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 apply to oneself, given the various unconscious and conscious sexual impulses that arise within their social, historical, and psychological context.

I can’t imagine how the above picture could be controversial — I think it’s quite clear that that’s how human sexuality works. So what is this big debate about whether a person can be gay “by choice” or not? Let me dramatize:

Social and religious 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 fair of skin. None of those things is under a person’s control, so they cannot stand as a basis for moral condemnation.

Social and religious 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 religious conservatives such as you.

Social and religious 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 to put all 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” — possibly quite a bit of room — and Cynthia Nixon is one such individual. For others, there is less choice about their attractions, though perhaps still some room for decisions about labeling. Those are just facts. So rather than cover up the evidence to press a moral point, why not change the terms of the argument? A better way to have the debate is like this:

Social and religious 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 stakes here are very high. 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 which cannot be borne out by the evidence, then it risks losing its beliefs, or sacrificing its moral standpoint, when the facts 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 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, 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.

 

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25 Responses to Can you be gay by choice?

  • Leesa says:

    Like all things human, sexuality can not be defined by terms that are black and white. Sexuality lives on a continuum for every single person and what turns you on when you are 16 may not be the same thing that turns you on when you are 46. Or 86. And so what?
    To say that sexuality is ONLY about sex is to completely disregard what it means to be human – the interaction of sex, the intimacy, the feelings of love and belonging that often go hand-in-hand with sex are about way more than how the act is performed. Sexuality is a brain thing, sex is a parts thing, and while some people can turn off their brains in order to have sex (just ask Snooki) MOST people want both. However they choose to find that is up to them.

  • Chris Monsos says:

    <blockquote>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.</blockquote>

    I think this paragraph is where you're right on the money — however, I'd want to make a comment about another statement:

    <blockquote>The gay-rights activist is making a mistake to put all his chips in the basket about “being gay is not a choice.” </blockquote>

    This is exactly where the usage of the shorthand fails us… I think the gay rights movement is simplifying a message of "your CURRENT place (and your places in the future) on the broad spectrum human sexuality is not a choice" into a better-on-bumpers-stickers line of "being gay is not a choice."

  • Christine Macdonald says:

    Fantastic article.

    I fall in to the "B" in the GLBT world. I've been with women, men, and my last boyfriend is a "T" (he was born female and is transitioning, identifying as a male).

    I had a heated debate with one of my best friends (very conservative) recently and we ended up just agreeing to disagree. This article helps me open my mind more, realizing that perhaps some people in the gay community do have a choice (bi-sexuals like me, and Cynthia Nixon, perhaps – because we are attracted to a broader spectrum of human beings).

    The bottom line though – like you say in your last line here – people should be with you they want to be – the label is irrelevant.

    I still believe that we don't have a choice in who we are attracted to though. Our body, mind and souls are attracted to whomever we are drawn to. And you can't fight chemistry, no matter how wrong certain people think it may be.

    Live and let live, people. As long as no one is hurting anyone. Live and let live. Love is too precious to try and figure out the "WHY". If you are lucky enough to find it, just enjoy the "WHO", whomever that person may be.

    • Pat says:

      This is so true. Many women have had such a horrible time with hetrosexual experiences…not that they can't happen with same sex relationships. These women are able to have healthy relationships with other women but have a difficult time, making the same bad choices with men.
      It is difficult eneough to find a soul suitable person. Does it really matter what the sex is?

  • Mark Bailey says:

    Dear Brian,

    I find it hard to disagree with your “mind your own damn business” punch line, all things being equal. The problem is that all things aren’t equal – or at least they haven’t been for countless men and women who have suffered over this issue throughout their lives.

    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. To equate them – these survivors – with activists and to brush them aside seems oddly insensitive and ignorant of the battles fought and bloodily won to enable a much different and better situation today — at least in some places.

    You’re right. 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.

    • Brian Earp says:

      Thank you, Mark, for your powerful and thoughtful remarks. I understand entirely your point of view. But I gave the analogy to creationists and evolution for a very important reason: if you rest your moral case on non-facts, or a subset of facts construed in a tenuous way, then you risk losing your moral case when the facts can no longer be denied.

      Hence it's the case that a person who rests her belief in God on the falsity of evolution has to face the terrible choice between denying facts or relinquishing her belief in God. If she grounded her belief in God on something firmer, she'd be in a better position. I think the same goes for gay rights. Gay people — including those whose feelings of attraction are largely or entirely out of their control, as well as those who have some elbow room for how they identify themselves linguistically in the public sphere — deserve to be treated with love and respect. I agree with you, emphatically, on the moral goal. But if that moral goal must rest on the idea that sexual identity (as opposed to a certain cluster of forces shaping one's sexual feelings) is completely deterministic, then the moral case is on shaky footing, since factually that's not true. I'd prefer to put so important a moral goal on firmer footing. Once the facts can no longer be denied, the right-wing persecutors of gay men and women will be able to claim victory, and harness those facts to their side … And then what happens??

      The same issue comes up with feminists who shouted down primate researchers who demonstrated that chimpanzees commit rape and that rape occurs in nature. Their view was that people might think that "natural implies good" and hence that we wouldn't be able to object to men who rape woman. But that's false. Lots of things that occur in nature are bad — like cancer. Our values are separate from our natures. So it's a terrible idea for feminists to rest their anti-rape case on the naturalistic fallacy, since hard facts then undermine their moral view.

      You have stated beautifully, emotionally just what is at stake in this debate — and if any of my post came off as glib (I certainly didn't mean to equate gay people and gay rights activists, nor do I disparage gay rights activism per se — I admit I'm unsure why you thought this) then my heartfelt apologies are due. However, it is precisely the importance of what is at stake that compels me to argue for solider ground for the position that supports the civil rights of gay women and men.

      • Mark Bailey says:

        Thanks, Brian. Agreed. I just wanted to make sure that the timeline of events that contextualize and explain the evolution of the "it's not a choice" counter-argument weren't being ignored or misunderstood.

        But, here we are today, and what do we do about it now? I certainly appreciate your thought-provoking essay in that regard. And, of course you're right: some religious groups have already begun to post "it is a choice after all" scientific (or neo-scientific) information to fight back. So, yes, finding stronger ground is important. And perhaps today, one can begin to say, "who cares if it's a choice?" and take it from there. I'm all for it. My point is that there simply wasn't any way to say that and expect positive results ten or fifteen years ago.

        I do wonder, however — with no data at my disposal either way — whether most people who say "it's not a choice" mean it in a completely deterministic way, as you stated, or whether they've simplified the phrase to mean that it _feels_ like it's not a choice, and that's what really matters to them.

        In any case, solid ground is a good starting for the next phase of things.

  • Brian Earp says:

    REPLY EMAILED IN:

    Brian,

    While the blog post is interesting, in my view it misses the central point entirely.

    Whether a person can or cannot change their sexual orientation is entirely irrelevant; reality is what it is and is not determined by a popular vote, but is instead elucidated by empirical study via appropriate scientific methods, and the real situation is entirely unaffected by whether religionists fervently wish sexual orientation to be a choice so as to legitimize their persecution of it, or whether the gay person wishes it to be biologically fixed so he can avoid same.

    Science can study the problem from the perspective of the science of sexual orientation; Kinsey first, who claimed that it appeared to be fixed, and subsequent research seems to have verified that general assertion, but with the additional complexity that how the questions are asked and under what circumstances is clearly also important. Bottom line: it appears to be mostly fixed for both sexes, but with some flexibility for both as well, with clearly more malleability for women than for men. The biological influence is clearly provable from both physical and genetic heritability studies; the only debate is the extent.

    But from an ethical standpoint, all that is entirely irrelevant, and that is what I find lacking in that discussion. If the believer chooses to believe that sexual orientation is a choice, and that homosexuality is a sin, that's between him and his priest. If the gay man wishes to assert that it is fixed and immutable, that's between him and his therapist.

    From an ethical standpoint, for the best social cohesion in the community, neither the twain should meet.

    For the believer, his personal beliefs are his business and his alone; the gay man has no responsibility to him to go out of his way to make the believer comfortable with his objection to homosexuals being present in the community. On the other hand, the gay man has no right to assert authority over the believer regarding his personal beliefs either, just as the believer has no right to demand a say in the gay man's believes or responses to the beliefs of others. One has every much a right to privacy of beliefs as one has in his choice of what porn he prefers to use when jerking off in the privacy of his own bedroom.

    Having said that, I must also assert that bigotry and intolerance has public consequences, and from whichever side it comes.

    And therefore I would also have to vigorously assert that bigotry and intolerance are bigotry and intolerance, regardless of whether they are dressed up in religious dogma or not – putting lipstick on a pig doesn't make it any less a pig, just the same as wrapping homophobia up in Levitical scripture doesn't make it any less homophobia.

    So when the religionist goes into the community and asserts that homosexuals should change in order, in effect, to make him comfortable with his bigotry just because it is religiously inspired, I must protest – and loudly. Equally, if a gay man chooses to exhibit intolerance for the religious views of the believer whether he is affected by those views or not by deliberately flaunting his homosexuality knowing it will make the believer uncomfortable, that is equally unacceptable, and neither will gain support from me.

    For this reason, I believe that the believer should keep it in his home and his Sunday School, and the gay man should keep his shirt on and his pants up in public, as much as anyone else would be equally expected to do.

    There. I've said my practical-ethics piece, post it if you like.

  • Chet says:

    Mitt Romney and his part in the radical homosexual agenda! http://romney4president.us/RomneyGays.html

  • Sophie says:

    This may come across as glib, for which I apologize in advance: I think that "straight" is a choice, as well as "gay"! Because I think a human's true sexual nature is *bi*sexual. However this is repressed to the point where we completely forget it; since "straight" is the most societally accepted, it becomes the standard, leaving being gay as the only other identity. I think that if society were more aware of bi-sexuality, it would not be punishing or rewarding any orientation. "I've been straight & I've been gay"? No, Cynthia, you've been – and are – bi. Feel free to love men whenever it seems right. Feel free to love women whenever your nature needs to.

    I am bi and content with it. Like many others, however, my own experience is very limited when it comes to "intimate" relationships w/women. I don't think I'd know how to act beyond "platonic" (she says, w/some chagrin). Relationships w/males are easier because there's more exposure (pardon the pun) to how to relate to them sexually as well as in other ways. (Note: I'm *not* referring to the availability, or lack thereof, of pornography! That's not an option or a point of reference, at all!) But if I become truly inspired by a woman whose beauty I'd love to experience at every level, I intend to.

    • Jaime says:

      This is exactly the argument I make to all of my friends – gay, straight and in between. Not so much that it's a choice we make but that most of us, to some degree or another, have the capacity for attraction to people of both the same and opposite sex. To what degree we accept that capacity within ourselves and to what degree we act on it and define ourselves by it is entirely up to the individual. Sexuality is a spectrum and we all sit in our own place within that spectrum, no two people or experiences are the same and with that diversity it's simply ludicrous to categorise them into what amounts to YES, NO and SORT OF. Am I gay? Amongst a thousand other things, yes I am; along with being straight.

  • Jennifer says:

    This is awesome.

  • Ginger says:

    Having read this article it just made me think why do we have to apply labels at all? Why can't we just be who we are and not have to fit into a defined category?

  • Saregos says:

    here's my personal conversation, usually:

    Social and religious conservative person: Homosexuality is an abomination.

    Me: So is your religion.

    Social and religious conservative person: But my religion is a fundamental element of who I am!

    Me: … and sexual orientation isn't?

    Social and religious conservative person: But they're choosing to be gay!

    Me: And you're choosing to be a homophobe. Why, precisely, is your choice so much more legitimate than theirs is?

    But… I'm a sacrilegious sort of person. I just find it amusing how the religions that are supposed to teach "love thy enemy" and the like are also those most vehemently adversarial.

  • Meredith Chivers says:

    Hi Brian,

    Very nice post. I'm happy to see more discourse on disambiguating sexual identity from sexual attraction. One comment:

    "Down at the level of the body, our flesh responds to sexual stimuli in a gender-sensitive way. The 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."

    My research has shown that, for women, the level of the bodily response to sexual stimuli is not so straightforward. For example, exclusively opposite-gender attracted women show physical sexual arousal to both female and male stimuli. Same-gender attracted women show greater physical arousal to women, but also have substantial genital responses to male stim too. It's a very well-replicated gender difference in what I've called the specificity of sexual arousal. To learn more:

    http://www.queensu.ca/psychology/sage/CurrentResearch.html

    Cheers,

    Meredith

  • Gregory Lewis says:

    It strikes me the "it's not a choice" stuff only has bearing if you think 'homosexuality' or gay sex is immoral.

    If gay sex is morally okay, then it is irrelevant whether people can choose to be homosexual or not. Gay sex would be licit between Adam and Steve if their homosexuality was imprinted in our early development, or something they thought they'd try yesterday. Mutantis mutandis with if it turned out there was a 'stamp collecting gene' or whatever.

    But if we pretend gay sex is morally wrong, then whether homosexuality is a choice is more relevant, as it would work to diminish responsibility. Not to recapitulate the neuroethics field, but if we can show a group of people are at higher risk of this immoral sexual act because of various changes to their sexual arousal circuitry which they can do nothing about, then if they do 'commit' this 'sexual crime', they deserve less moral censure than someone just 'deciding to' do the same.

    This might help to explain why the 'it's not a choice' line can help: even if you're against homosexuality, it might lead you of it more like 'mental illness' than 'crime', which is (marginally) better for those who are gay. My gauge of how it is popularly deployed is more along the fallacious line of "Homosexuality is involuntary so it can't be wrong". I don't think we should particularly mind: anyone with a passing grade in epistemic virtue will think homosexuality is fine, and if presenting fallacious arguments will stop people with low epistemic virtue doing and believing damaging things, they should be presented.

    Aside: I don't buy the 'live and let live' attitude of Brian's email correspondent. I agree that it is probably better for society that we accept those with immoral attitudes rather than going out of our way to make life difficult for them, but that only goes so far. If getting 'in their face' is the best strategy to convincing them to be less anti-gay, then that is a good reason to do it: society surely benefits with more of their population having the right moral attitudes. And so long as persuasion vaguely correlates with merit (so 'correct views' have a persuasive advantage), having a perpetual culture war is a much better way of getting to the right answer than balkanizing our discourse and tiptoeing around those we know disagree. If *I* held some deeply immoral opinion, I'd rather my detractors try to persuade me otherwise.

    And of course, as the correspondent noted, those who are anti-gay tend not to keep it to themselves either, and prompt all manner of toxic social consequences.

  • Andrew Draper says:

    "It’s like creationists who peg their belief in God on the falsity of evolution."

    This is a bit of a straw man argument (or other type of specious comparison). I've never heard anyone argue that God is real ("peg their belief") because evolution is false. Also, people believed in God long before Darwin came along.

    • Brian Earp says:

      Hi Andrew — My argument wasn't that anyone DECIDES to believe in God for the REASON that evolution is false; I'm saying that many people view belief in God and acceptance of evolution as incompatible; hence, to maintain their belief in God, they must reject evolution. Those are two very different arguments — sorry for any ambiguity in making the point!

      Cheers,
      Brian

  • Jeannie says:

    Visiting the Liberace Museum here in Las Vegas, the Guide who had worked with him for years stated that Liberace had told her many times that he wished he weren't gay, because he could have had any showgirl he wanted, but that's just the way he was born. Because he brought so much entertainment to the world, I'm just glad that he made himself happy..

  • Jonathan Weintraub says:

    Brian,

    Thank you for this measured and well-thought-out article. I agree that the essentialist notion of "not a choice" may apply to many people, gay, lesbian and straight, but it doesn't represent the entire spectrum. Change of orientation is possible and should be respected, if the individual chooses to change for good reason. For example, the Christianpost reported the <a href="http://global.christianpost.com/news/couple-renews-vows-after-husband-has-sex-change-66768/">story of Jayne and Anne Watson</a>, a formerly straight couple who renewed their vows after Jayne's male-to-female sex change. Is Anne a lesbian? It doesn't matter does it. She chose to stay with her spouse, and the external world will view her as a lesbian. She just lost her heterosexual privilege and will find herself fighting for marriage equality in spite of the fact that she considers herself a conservative Christian.

    I refer to people like Anne as "ex-straights", and people like Anne who believe that change is possible, may be among the strongest allies imaginable.

  • David G. says:

    Brian,

    Thank you for your thoughtful perspective.

    Regarding your post, I find one area that receives too little attention is around labels/tags. As you stated:

    "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."

    Scientifically, the tags of "gay, straight, bisexual, transvestite and transexual" would be best be defined with clear thresholds (i.e. is a tag defined by sexual contacts only, real or desired contacts, by attraction, romantic attraction, etc.). Similarly, these tags should be clearly denoted as backward-looking (past behavior, desire, etc.), present tense or forward-looking (today's tag always applies in the future or not). Without such criteria scientifically, the tags are useless as we would not be able to have a conversation about the simplified data. (i.e. does past behavior being exclusively heterosexual, present behavior being exclusively homosexual warrant the tag "bisexual"? Is this tag "factually correct if then talking about the future of that person, particularly if their behavior remains unchanged going forward?).

    Regardless of what scientific definitions exit for a tag, I believe we, as individuals, impart meaning to the tag to "define" a mixture of past, present and expected future versions of ourselves and how we compare to others around us and in the wider world. In fact, I believe most of us tend to tag others first and then tag ourselves based on desire to belong to or to separate ourselves from a particular group or groups.

    Practically, it's important to understand the difference between scientific tags and the tags we assign to ourselves and others for the sake of simplifying a story. Case in point is related to some of the woman I know in same-sex relationships. Many were formerly romantically and sexually happy to have relationships and/or marry men. However, after one or more poor heterosexual relationship experiences with men, they found themselves moving into same-sex relationships. Practically, I do not see them as "bisexual" if they currently do not have sexual or romantic desire for men and do not anticipated having future desires for men.

    Similarly, I know that when I identify myself as "gay" I do so to give an indication that my recent past, my present and foreseeable future will (predominantly) include sexual and romantic desire for men. The term "bisexual" seems inappropriate if a) I am clearly not having significant thoughts and desires for both sexes in the present moment and b) my past experience has shown that desire for the opposite sex does not result in acting on the desire. I think of it as similar to someone tagging themselves as "monogamous" simply by virtue that, even though they are sometimes aroused by someone other than their partner, they do not act on it.

    Difficult discussion. However, I believe that having clear scientific criteria, coupled with accepting the more nuanced, subjective criteria we each use for self-tagging is the best option to avoid discrimination and it's un-beneficial results.

  • Suzy says:

    I agree with you about this, but the analogy to creationism completely fails. Creationism is trying to make claims that have no basis in science whatsoever, and pass them off as scientifically true. Those who argue that science shows homosexuality is not a choice actually do have scientific data on their side, it's just that the picture is complex. We can't simply say that, "everyone is born this way and stays the same way forever", but many of those who argue that being gay is not a choice would acknowledge this, when pressed on the details. What's more important in general, though? The basic insight that biology determines sexual preferences in a way that cannot be "cured" out of us? Or the equally valid insight that some people's sexual orientation cannot be fixed for all time according to the standard labels we use? Can't we have both? Can't we say "born this way" as a shorthand, knowing that some edges are fuzzy? I realize that won't satisfy religious fundamentalists who think homosexuality is immoral, but since when have they accepted anything either nuanced OR contrary to that notion? The rest of society is very swiftly passing them by.

  • Jules says:

    Nixon's remarks would make sense if we lived in a neutral world where there is no discrimination aganist different sexualities. But the fact is we live in a heterosexist world, where people of different sexualities are brought up heterosexual and presumed heterosexual unless otherwise declared.

    So, if we are brought up straight while gay, and "trained" or conditioned or expected to feel attraction towards the opposite sex, it would seem that being gay might be a choice. The very decision to make a choice, would indictate it is what one feels more comfortable with and what one prefers, like I prefer vanilla ice cream over chocolate.

    So Nixon to me, might be a gay or bisexual woman who was brought up straight, married, had sexual relations with the opposite sex and ultimately, CHOSE a life with someone of the same sex. Seems very much like a choice to me, if seen from her perspective.

    Those of us who came to an understanding, an awareness or the knowledge of homosexuality earlier may not have gone through that path. I think sometimes gay people deny the feelings of attraction towards another person of a different sex.

    I identify as a butch lesbian, but I remember when I was in school, I was attracted to both boys and girls. To the boys who were good or cool (to me). But ultimately I never went beyond that, because I liked girls more and had the privilege of being able to act on that, as well as the greater drive to act on that.

    But I think of the thousands of men and women (like in the days of Brokeback Mountain and even earlier) who was not as lucky. I know men and women who are married with kids, and who, had they been given the opportunity to make a conscious choice, would be with someone of the same sex.

    It is, to me, a journey and a process of coming out, in different times and different ages. Though I think it might have been a tad irresponsible of her to make a political statement for the community.

  • DJ Shiva says:

    Very interesting article. I am one of those people that believes that the "choice vs. born this way" argument is a false dichotomy that sets us up to argue between these two sides (as if they are the only options), while ignoring the fact that it's irrelevant why we're gay because we're still humans that deserve the rights and dignity of any other human. Choice or not, love is something that every human deserves to feel, without explanation or justification.

    It falls into that mode of black and white thinking that is so core to the conservative mindset, and, as Cynthia Nixon pointed out, lets them set the terms of the debate. Like the author of this essay, I think human sexuality and attraction is far more complex and, frankly, far more interesting than simplistic definitions would allow, and I refuse to fall into the trap of picking the "born this way" argument simply to feel validated for living in a way that is not accepted by complete assholes. I don't need to be validated by them, nor by some reactionary adherence to biological absolutes.

    I'm not the problem. I don't have to explain myself in their narrow terms. THEY are the problem. Their stunted understanding of life and love and spirituality is a burden that they place on us without our consent, but we don't have to accept it. And we certainly don't have to let it be the base upon which our own perceptions of ourselves rests.

  • Andy says:

    A person is capable of loving any other person, romantic, sexual, or platonic.
    A bisexual person may choose to refrain from romantic involvement with either gender.
    Like a person can refrain from eating meat, and eventually become a vegetarian and not even desire meat anymore, a person can similarly refrain from involvement with a specific gender. The motives and frequency of success can vary as much as those endeavoring to become vegetarian.

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