The Power in 'Choosing to Be Gay'

It is a big leap from thinking that homosexuality is a deep part of one's sense of self to asserting that particular sexual formations and desires are biologically predetermined.
Daniel Aguilar/Reuters

In politics, the notion of being gay by one's own volition is like Voldemort—dangerous even to be uttered. Biological determinism is the new normal, yoked to tolerance claims much as magic hews to Harry Potter. It was not always this way, but a determinist ethos began to insinuate itself into gay politics in the late 1980s or so. As sociologist Vera Whisman noted as early as 1996, "the claim of 'no choice' is to a pro-gay stance as the claim of 'choice' is to an anti-gay one: a foundational argument. Anti-gay rhetoric uses the term 'sexual preference' to imply choice, while pro-gay rhetoric uses 'sexual orientation' to deny it."

Television shows are full of characters invoking their biology when confronting their queerness, and Hollywood films depict immutability as unassailable truth in movies that present a "tolerance" thesis. In conversations with friends and family, we certainly hear a lot of "but I always knew something was different," or "I always felt gay," or something to that effect. These are, unquestionably, very real feelings for many (although assuredly not all) gay people, and I don't want to deny the experience of that "inevitability."

Believing that one is born gay can also become a handy weapon against the harsh treatment by family and society, and an explanatory tool to combat internal self-loathing and doubt. There is clearly some real comfort for gays—particularly those who have navigated the waters of hatred—to come to land on the supposedly solid shores of biology.

However, part of the problem in this whole gay-gene discussion is that "choice" is referenced in a narrow way. It is a big leap from thinking that homosexuality is a deep part of one's sense of self to asserting that particular sexual formations and desires are biologically predetermined.

Most of us do not think of our sexual desires or identities as akin to that almost consumerist notion of choice—a deliberate and straightforward act, like choosing to eat lobster or buy a pair of Nikes. Yet even radical gay activists find themselves forced to rely on "nature" when facing off against those who deem gays both unnatural and immoral.

Particularly in the sound-bite world of public discourse, it is almost impossible to articulate a notion of queer choice or even just queer "being." Choice is considered to be fickle (and obviously "lower" somehow than its opposite—the inevitability of biological determination)—and the assumption is that if in fact it is a choice, then it can be "corrected." Gay inevitability is posited as the narrative of our lives; one does not "become" gay but either represses or accepts what is always already there.

Both laypeople and scientists fervently believe that "scientific research can help dispel some of the myths about homosexuality that in the past have clouded the image of lesbians and gay men," thus perhaps opening the door to more "tolerant" attitudes. But I do wonder what myths they think immutability arguments dispel.

Certainly, one myth they may dispel is the simplistic mother-blaming of psychology or the equally simplistic conservative fantasies of a decadent culture that "produces" gayness, along with associated evils such as feminism, rap music, and thongs. Logically, the only other myth that could be dispelled in this scenario is the "myth" of choice, as immutability is configured as its opposite. As critical biologist Garland Allen remarks sarcastically, "'It's not my fault,' is supposed to be a liberating conception."

* * *

Determining the "cause" of homosexuality raises the question of how to determine if one is a homosexual. This gets to the heart of a real problem: In searching for a biological basis for homosexuality, most scientists cannot help but re-inscribe the most constrained definitions of sexual identity, definitions that have been vigorously challenged by theorists and historians for decades.

LGBTQ theorists have long disputed the easy assumptions that link behaviors with identities. The assumption of "gay" as a category clearly delineated and easily knowable is challenged theoretically, historically, and cross-culturally.

In many Latin and Central American contexts, for example, more emphasis is placed on an individual's relationship to particular sexual acts than to some totalizing identity, so who penetrates and who gets penetrated may—in some contexts—be more determinative of identity than "sodomy" itself.

Or in many South Asian cultures, such as Thailand, sexual identities are formed much more around specific kinds of gender comportment, which does not translate easily into the simple moniker "gay." And U.S. Native American concepts of "two-spirit" or "berdache" don't fit easily with the normative concept of homosexuality as a unique minority identity either, as it indicates an understanding of gender identity at odds with the mainstream American model of mapping gender onto sexed bodies.

So when this nuanced and complicated historical and cross-cultural work confronts the recent obsession with immutability and biological origins, we have a serious set of problems, if not real contradictions. How we experience our sexual identity is produced in and through a multitude of factors, including our political commitments, our geographical locations, and our racial/ethnic identifications.

And, to add to the complexity, desire itself shifts and changes over the course of a lifetime. Seemingly contradictory sexual practices coexist, even as we insist on their absolute separability. One is no longer someone who likes a little this or a little that, but one is a gay person, part of a class or even species of person.

Presented by

Suzanna Danuta Walters is a professor of sociology and the director for Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University. She is the author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America and Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory.

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