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.