The Gay Option

Same-sex love is a choice—and it’s time LGBT activists start saying so
by Stephanie Fairyington, from Dissent
May-June 2010
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I came out to my mother in a letter. I was 28. “I was born this way,” I wrote, following with the most shattering high note of self-loathing I can think of: “If there were a straight pill,” I lamented, “I’d swallow it faster than you can say the word gay.”

I didn’t mean either of these things. I said them because I knew they would elicit pity and absolve my mother of the belief that her parenting was to blame for my same-sex attractions.
It worked. Five years later, my mother continues to talk about my lesbianism as if it were a genetic defect like Down syndrome—a parallel she’s actually drawn—because clearly, in her mind, no one would choose such a detestable and challenging state of being.

This is not a message I’m proud to have sent. Contrary to how I actually feel about my sexuality, it suggests that I’m drowning in a sea of self-disgust, desperately grasping for a heterosexual lifeboat to sail my way out of it. But would my mother have been as sympathetic and tolerant if she thought I had a choice in the matter? Would conservative allies support us if they believed we could help it?

If the answer is no, and I believe it is, what does it say about our self-worth and status in society if we, as gay people, must practice a politics of pity to secure our place in the world? It says, for one, that we don’t have a place at the table. It says that we are tolerated, but not accepted. It says, ultimately, that it’s time to change our rhetoric.

Until homosexuality is cast and understood as a valid choice, rather than a biological affliction, we will never rise above our current status. We will remain Mother Nature’s mistake, tolerable (to some) because our condition is her fault, not ours.

By choice, I don’t mean that one can choose one’s sexual propensities any more than one can choose one’s personality. What I mean is that it’s a choice to act on every desire we have, and that acting on our same-sex attractions is just as valid as pursuing a passion for the Christian faith or Judaism or any other spiritual, intellectual, emotional, or physical craving that does not infringe on the rights of others. And it should be respected as such.

As a firm Kinsey 6—with 6 being the gayest ranking on sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s 1-to-6 scale of sexual orientation—I understand the resistance to putting choice and homosexuality in the same sentence. My same-sex attractions were awakened in me at such a young age that they felt as much a part of me as my limbs. In the late 1990s, when I was coming out, had someone told me that I had chosen my deepest, most tender and passionate affections, it would have been like telling me that I had chosen the arms and legs I have.

But I have plenty of desires, like throwing my fists in the faces of conservative Republicans, which for one reason or another, I don’t act on; my desire for women is not one of them. Biology is not destiny, and I am the architect of my own life, as is everyone. My point is not to challenge or even enter the debate about whether or not some combination of nature and nurture contributes to the formation of an inclination toward one’s own sex. My point is that most inquiries into the origins of homosexuality are suspect, and their service to us is limited, if not perilous.

A politics of choice would be one that regards same-sex desire enough to announce it as a conscious decision rather than a predetermined abnormality. No matter how bumpy the ride or long the journey, choice as a political strategy is the only ride out of Freaksville.

Forty years ago, gay activists had a similar view, taking their cues from radical lesbian feminists who believed that heterosexuality and homosexuality were products of culture, not nature. “In the absence of oppression and social control,” writes historian John D’Emilio, gay liberationists believed that “sexuality would be polymorphous”—fluid, in other words. Back then they talked about “sexual preference,” which implies choice, as opposed to “sexual orientation,” which does not.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the mental health establishment and its gay allies put forth the view that homosexuality is a permanent psychological condition and debunked the notion that it was a mental illness in need of a cure. Then came the 1980s and 1990s and a slew of shoddy and inconclusive scientific research on the biological origins of gayness, reinforcing the belief that sexuality is predestined. Both psychological and medical dis­courses formed today’s dominant paradigm, which insists that sexuality is inborn and immutable.


The LGBT activists  who have helped construct this sexual framework are neither lazy nor naive in their thinking, as D’Emilio points out in his essay “Born Gay?,” a crisp case against the politics of biological determinism. As a political strategy, it has helped reap enormous benefits, from antidiscrimination legislation to adoption rights in some states and civil unions in others. The reasons this model of sexuality is politically expedient and effective are threefold.

First, if sexuality is understood as predestined and therefore fixed, it poses less of a challenge to the hetero monolith than does a shifting spectrum of desire. It protects straight people, in other words, from the threat of homosexuality. Second, by presenting homosexuality as a biological fact as firm and absolute as race or sex, gay activists have formed an identity the law can recognize and can follow in the footsteps of civil rights legislation. Third, it’s conceptually easier to understand sexuality as a permanent trait rather than the complex, ever-morphing mess that it often is.

But for all the success this politics has had, in the end, it’s not only shortsighted but rife with limitations—and dangers. As lesbian activist Joan Nestle told me, it’s not good politics to cling to the “born gay” edict because “the use of biological ‘abnormalities’ was used by the Nazis when they measured the nostril thickness of imprisoned Jews to prove they were an inferior race; and when colonizers measured the brains of Africans to make a case for their enslavement; and when doctors at the turn of the century used the argument that the light weight of women’s brains proved their inferiority to men. I do not want to enter into this sad history of biological dehumanization as the basis for gay rights.”

All the studies that gay sympathizers and activists invoke to justify our right to same-sex love cast homosexuality as a loud hiccup at the dinner table of normality. As such, we’re put on par with other undesirable deviations from nature’s norm, taunting eugenics with the keys to eliminating us. This is the ugly underbelly of our biology-centered claims to human rights.

The typical conservative assault on homosexuality casts it as a sinful choice that can be unchosen through a commitment to God and reparative therapy. And the left usually slams into this simplistic polemic by taking up the opposite stance: Homosexuality is not a choice, and because we can’t help it, it’s not sinful.

By affirming that homosexual practice and identity are a choice, we can attach an addendum—it’s a good choice—and open the possibility of a more nuanced argument, one that dismantles the logic of the very premise that whom we choose to love marks us as sinful and immoral and interrogates the assumption that heterosexuality is somehow better for the individual and society as a whole.

In my conservative Republican family, signs already point to a kind of readiness to engage homosexuality as a legitimate decision. Recently, I called my mother in California to throw out my “born-gay-pity-me” garbage. She didn’t swallow my pill of choice with ease, but managed to cough up an exasperated, “Well, whatever makes you happy.” That’s one down and a nation to go.



Stephanie Fairyington is a freelance journalist who writes on gender and sexuality. Excerpted from Dissent (Winter 2010), a provocative, opinionated journal of politics and culture since 1954. 

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Post a comment below.


7/31/2010 4:06:34 PM
The author is comparing apples and oranges. Holding back your anger at Republicans, or refusing to eat cheesecake at the dinner table is not equivalent to "opt" out of "acting on" your homosexuality. The equivalent comparison is not eating or not expressing your opinion. Does she ever look at heterosexuals and say to them, "Nice expression of your heterosexual option" when they date? Making a bad argument for "choice" is just handing ammo to the opposition. While we may not enjoy the biological argument-- it is what works for heterosexuals too--they are born to love the opposite sex. I see nothing wrong in claiming it for myself. The author's nightmare dystopia of eugenics is a slippery slope argument based on homophobia, and feeds into fear. It's as if she's saying, "We better come up with something better, or they'll get us!" If she wants a better argument than biology, she needs to base it on the legitimacy of every person to be who they are--not on the suppression by the majority, or the fear that they will hurt us. She needs to remember: Heterosexuals who "opt out" of sexual expression are nuns and monks. Certainly a calling by very few. The majority of heterosexuals would never think of calling their dating a "choice." Neither should we.

7/31/2010 3:48:09 PM
This article is trying to make homosexuality and heterosexuality equal, and yet if the reverse argument were made for heterosexuals, no one would say that anyone "chooses" to act on their heterosexuality. They merely get to date, kiss, marry, and do other things that signify they are "acting on" their sexuality. While I understand that "I was born this way" may be rife with counter arguments, and may not be the best to hold our legitimacy-- certainly heterosexuals say the same thing. "I'm straight because I'm straight," they might say. "We marry the opposite sex because we marry the opposite sex." Certainly they don't say--oh, we just decided to "act on it." In reality, I agree with other commenters who say that there is only a choice to be who we are, or to not be who we are--- and that's not a legitimate choice. When the author can hold heterosexuals to the same kind of "choice" mentality that she's thought up here, I'll believe it more-- but it breaks down when you look at the straight "option."

Jonathon Edwards_2
7/12/2010 6:16:38 PM
Self contradictory bunk. Sexual orientation isn't a choice. It doesn't change. It's not fluid. When it looks that way in a individual, you're either seeing bi sexuality or someone coming out of the closet late. I have never met anyone who could convincingly argue otherwise. . Even this author agrees with that in this article. What she's really suggesting is that we play word games for political advantage, which is dishonest and seedy. She also creates a false dichotomy. There is a third option she ignores: to say its not a choice, but if it were I would choose to be gay. This accomplishes her political goal without compromising science and our lived experience. The 'its not a choice' argument doesn't have to be followed up by self loathing assertions that we would choose differently if we could. I wouldn't. That's where we all need to be, not in this linguistically false la la land she proposes.

6/24/2010 8:41:17 AM
One more thing to consider: Karma. I've always felt that one's DNA is actually Karma that has taken a physical form. Not really a defect - but still something that you have carried with you - for whatever reason. It doesn't matter to me what sex a person might have (or whom a person might have sex with)- it just is.

5/12/2010 11:34:41 AM
Thank you. This is a lot of what I've been trying to get out of my head and put into words. I also have to say that "Well, whatever makes you happy," was really sweet even if it was hard for her to say, haha. When I told my mom I'm bisexual, the first thing was "Are you sure?" Then it was, "What if the media's brainwashing you?" (You Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl"). But eventually, after crying, and watching MTV's True Life: I'm Bisexual, she's been really, really accepting. I knew she would too, I just had a feeling. Anyways, great article and I totally agree. I obviously can't speak for anyone else but I always wondered if everyone was mildly bisexual and it's just been so repressed and depicted badly that everyone denies it. Of course that could be just as ignorant as someone saying everyone's straight. I don't know.

5/11/2010 10:21:08 AM
I take issue with this article. Humans are generally sexual creatures. We cannot control the type of people we are or are not attracted to, and by saying that I choose to be gay is really saying that I have a choice to express my natural sexuality, or repress it. So long as the sex that I engage in is consensual, it is okay sex to have. Yes, I 'choose' to act on my sexual urges, but if I am attracted to people of the same sex, and they are attracted to me, my choice is not if I should be gay or not, it is a choice of whether to be celibate, to force myself to have sex with people I do not find sexually attractive and with whom sex is unsatisfying and maybe undesirable or unpleasant, or to engage in healthy and normal sexual relationships with the people I am attracted to. The final option is the the one that I make, and that I hope other people with 'same-sex desire' make. It is not about the roots of same sex desire. It doesn't matter if it is biological, social conditioning, or some complex combination of the two that creates my sexual desires. What matters is that I have the right to engage in consensual sexual relationships with others, regardless of what our bodies look like, and that I am not persecuted or denied other rights and privileges for acting on my sexual desires. There is a choice, but it is a choice between acting on my human desires and needs, and repressing them, which can totally destroy a person. It is NOT a choice to be gay or not.

R Cree
5/11/2010 9:22:12 AM
In my science fiction studies of Keylontic Science, they talk about sacred sex and in those discussions of sacred sex in a God World---a world not screwed up like this one, you have hetero, homo and asexual beings who have the choice of being in hetro, homo, bisexual and asexual relationship. As you can see, there are lots of possibilities of different sexual relationships in a God World---God/Source does Love all of the infinite potential in every kind of sexual relationship. Why would God/Source want to limit Love to just a heterosexual relationship--God/Source LOVES IT ALL by definition of an infinite and all loving being? So the type of relationship is a choice, but I think that each individual has a natural tendency that is easier to maintain whether hetero, homo or asexual---and even then a homosexual could decide to be heterosexual or asexual relationship for a while, but the underlying energy would still be primarily hetero, homo or asexual.

5/8/2010 12:51:56 PM
I agree completely with Shanice. I understand that some individuals choose this lifestyle, but you shouldn't just lump all homosexuals into a large pile and try to describe them holistically. You can't do that with heterosexuals, and you can't do that with homosexuals. Attempting to take away from my or any one else's struggle with their homosexual identity is not empowering to any cause, and in fact is inherently regressive. I don't judge your personal journey as a homosexual, just don't try to compare yours to mine.

Shanice _1
5/5/2010 4:26:41 PM
Okay, this article amazes me and to tell you the truth where I stand it's both wrong and right. People do sometimes choose to be gay, which baffles me greatly, but for someone like me, it wasn't a choice, I really would be straight if I could, it's easier on me and it's an easier life. I'm not going to be Devil's Advocate for my entire life just to prove something, doesn't make sense. I am gay and I'm not ashamed of that, but it wasn't a choice, because honestly if I could choose I'd just be straight and go through life easy and with all the rights I get, as opposed to being gay where my rights are limited and easy is no where near what my life is.

5/4/2010 9:23:22 PM
Nina, the author does not "admit herself that her homosexuality is as much a choice as having arms and legs." Instead, she says she can't choose it any more than she can choose her personality. But we do have some choice about our personalities, at least enough of a choice that it would sound silly to respond to a criticism of one's personality by saying, "I can't help it, I was born that way."

5/3/2010 7:26:58 AM
Regret over saying that you would welcome a cure , in order to illicit sympathy from your mother, seems an odd way to come to the belief that homosexuality is a choice. We are sexual beings regardless of whether or not we choose to act on our desires. I am heterosexual even though I have not had a partner for several years. If I forced myself to have a sexual relationship it would not make me gay. Using the term "choice" in this way would muddle the discussion and continue the denial of natural gay identity.

5/1/2010 4:48:22 PM
I have to say, I struggled with this. What is the message here? That same-sex love is a choice? That heterosexual love is a choice? The author admits herself that her homosexuality is as much a choice as having arms and legs. What is so terrible about conceding that sexual orientation has some biological basis, when a great deal of actually not-so-shoddy science and the personal testimony of most of the people I know attests to it being so? Why does this necessarily need to mean that homosexuality is a defect? Why can't it be considered a variation of the norm, like other non-genetic traits such as personality, intelligence, etc. an inborn parameter of an individual's being that is static and unchangeable. By honoring the truth- that sexual orientation is predestined and not a choice, and is a valid difference among people, we are more likely to reach a state of mutual respect than by claiming false choices. If it were a choice, fine, but since it is so clearly is not, let's be honest about that.

4/23/2010 11:19:38 PM
Am I really the first comment? Okay, well I wholehearidly agree with this article. People may want to argue further that homosexuality is not a choice by some mix of biological and social determinism. But this doesn't matter, because all she is saying is that in the end, our actions are a choice, and worthy of other's respect.

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