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. www.dissentmagazine.org