The Gay Option

Same-sex love is a choice—and it’s time LGBT activists start saying so

| May-June 2010

  • Gay Option

    image by Scott Bakal /

  • Gay Option

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. 

3/4/2019 7:17:17 PM

I agree with this article because dolphins have this sort of behaviour and both behaviours are learnt behaviours also they dont hold back on learnt behaviours in terms of sex as in the dolphin world there are many. they have hetero and homo relations without holding back in either case throughout their lifetimes. i think the point is sexuality vs choice of sexual partner because you can make the choice for a more hetero relationship or homo relationship with a sexual partner and your sexuality remains what it is regardless of your choice. thats the point you are what you are no more or less based on the external world even though it is a choice it is a choice of partner not a choice of sexuality because you will be forced to see that regardless of how fluid your sexuality it will always remain what it is regardless of the external world this seems like a contradiction because i am arguing it is a choice. it is a choice but sexuality is what it is. for example those heteros who dont see their sexuality as a choice are missing the salient point that by their arguement neither can the homosexuality be a choice either because they are arguing that that it is a choice to opt out of the the pseudo-homosexuals original sexuality which doesn't make sense because they are arguing that their sexuality is a heterosexuals no matter how you look at it. how is the choice possible for the pseudo-homosexual who has not in fact changed his sexuality in their eyes just their choice of partner. heteros would be saying one thing whilst always believing another, that it is a "mess" what homos are because they are still hetero by design, how then is the choice to be a homo possible. This means that they have not really taken seriously who these people are. you cant say its a choice and then say that your sexuality is not a choice because the person in question has not really in their eyes opted out of being hetero in the first place. this is shameful because they have chosen to ignore their own idea that sexuality is not a choice in favour of saying that heterosexuality is not a choice but homosexuality is which doesn't really make sense because you can't label something thats supposedly not ingrained in that person something in the same category as something that is ingrained. they are saying its a choice without realising that they are saying their own sexuality is not a choice which makes no sense because you are telling that other group of people that they dont really exist as the label states they exist in some purgatory between choosing to opt out of nature that is actually impossible. we think that all we have created is somehow different from this vast universe but it is not the same thing with sexuality, we think that it can be different from nature but it is nature.

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."

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