April Herndon, Ph.D.

April M. Herndon Ph.D.

Dry Land Fish


What If Some of Us Aren't Born that Way?

The issue of choice may not settle the question of gay rights.

Posted Jun 11, 2012

Recently, Cynthia Nixon said that her being gay is a choice, prompting serious backlash — even from the gay community. John Aravosis, writing for AmericaBlog Gay went so far as to say that “every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights.” The truth is that sexuality is messier than most people would like it to be and resorting to “choice” doesn’t settle the argument about gay rights. Cynthia Nixon ought to be able to tell her own story about her sexual history without being accused of bringing down a whole movement, and her rights shouldn’t depend on the story she tells about why she’s in a relationship with a woman.

While the most mainstream personal stories about sexuality come from those who say they’ve known from an early age that they were homosexual, there are many people, especially women, who see their homosexuality as reflecting a conscious choice. When people tell me that they’ve always known they were homosexual in terms of orientation, I believe them. When people tell me they see their sexual lives as a choice, I believe them, too. Sex researchers, such as Lisa Diamond, Paula Rust, and Vera Whisman have documented these differences in the personal narratives of queer people as broad trends within the queer community.

Further, sex researchers have long recognized that sexual behaviors can often be at odds with one’s orientation or identity. Take, for example, men and women in same-sex-only environments, such as prisons. Many of them engage in sexual acts with same-sex partners, yet their orientation and/or identity remains heterosexual. In other words, we know that people can and do engage in sexual behaviors — for many different reasons — that suggest there is, in fact, an element of choice present. Many people who identify as homosexual have — at some point in their lives — engaged in heterosexual sex and vice versa. In short, this doesn't settle the argument about choice.

Thus, laboratory and life-narrative sexology both suggest that many women probably have more flexible orientations than many men and that people's desires and behaviors are complicated.  Denying that such differences and complications exist only alienates members of the very population for whom we’re seeking rights. After all, do we only want to give rights to the gay people who say they were “born that way,” to reference Lady Gaga?

And if we’re really being honest, there is always some element of choice in sexual behaviors. We are not, after all, flowers compelled to open by the sun or shed our seeds at a certain time of year whether we want to or not. Acknowledging choice shouldn’t mean that people are denied rights.

Historically, in fact, many groups have been granted human rights protections even when choice is involved. Practicing one’s religion is a choice, and it’s a choice that we’ve chosen to protect. I would hope that people on both sides of the gay rights argument would acknowledge that there are many indisputable choices people make that are and should be protected.

Many advocates for the rights of homosexual people seem to believe that if we can remove choice from the discussion, and suggest that sexuality is an immutable or inborn trait, that we will end discrimination and secure rights. Historically, however, we have plenty of examples that suggest choice isn’t the most salient political issue. People are born with darker skin but are still discriminated against. People are born female but are still discriminated against. People born with disabilities still face discrimination. Discriminating against people for inborn traits seems more the rule than the exception.

Furthermore, recent studies suggest that people’s opinions about sexuality and rights for homosexual people are not necessarily informed by evidence about origin. Sociologists who have studied the opinions held by the general population and political scientists who have studied legislative debates have determined that the issue of whether or not sexuality is inborn is nearly a moot point when push comes to shove. It rarely plays a key role in legislative debates.

And it turns out that most people shape their beliefs about the origin of sexuality not on what the science says, but on what they have already come to believe about gay rights. In other words, many people go looking for evidence to support their pre-existing conclusions. By the way, what does move people in favor of gay rights is personally knowing someone who is gay.

Finally, I don’t think those seeking rights should advocate from a position of powerlessness,1 and the constant refrain of “who would choose that?”2 flirts dangerously close with presenting homosexual people as worthy of pity. As a queer-identified woman, I don't want my sexuality to be seen as a lesser choice; I don’t want to be seen only as some hapless victim of biology. It’s not, after all, the person with whom I choose to go to bed with that makes my life difficult. Rather, it’s the homophobia I face that makes my life harder. If you want to feel bad for me, feel bad because I live in a society where people choose not to treat me decently. Don’t feel bad for me because I choose to sleep with a woman. I rather enjoy that choice.

One of my female partners was the kind of gay adult who knew from an early age that she was attracted to women. I don’t have a story about having always known I was queer. I'm much more like Cynthia Nixon.  But I hope that doesn’t mean that I will never have the right to marry my partner, or that I will never have the right to care for her if she’s sick, or that I will never be able to show her affection in public without fear.

 1.  In Vera Whisman's Queer By Choice, John D'Emilio is quoted as asking, “Do we really expect to bid for real power from a position of ‘I can’t help it’?” (6).  I draw inspiration from his quote for my reference here.

2.  Pro-gay activist Masha Gessen notes that always relying on “biological theories of causation” and asking questions such as “who would choose that?” offer only “descriptions of gay life as fraught with suffering, as riddled with lies aimed at hiding one’s sexuality, as devoid of love and joy” (qtd. in Whisman 30).