A Different Angle: a random collection of essays and observations, mostly about lesbian/gay/bi issues.
© Todd VerBeek, Radio Zero(tm)
This essay originally appeared in the November 1992 issues of Network News, the newsletter of the Lesbian & Gay Community Network of Western Michigan

Choosing to be Gay

"So why did you choose to be gay?" How many times have you groaned in frustration at questions like this? After years (even decades) of telling the rest of society that We Didn't Choose To Be This Way, lots of people still haven't gotten the message. No matter how many times we try to explain - by asking them why they decided to be straight, or comparing a homosexual orientation to left-handedness - it seems we still need to explain it again.

I'm beginning to wonder if it's really worth the effort. How important is it to convince others that we didn't choose our orientation?

For one thing, there are many people in our community who question whether it's really that cut and dried. As yet there's no real proof that orientation is genetic, as many of us believe. The much-publicized brain studies of the past couple years are interesting, but they're certainly not conclusive.

Also, there are lots of women who will say that they chose to be lesbians. This pokes a hole in the we-didn't-choose-this argument, so their comments are usually swept under the rug or explained away. "What she means is that she chose to live a lesbian lifestyle," someone quickly amends. People who say this are just confused, some argue, or maybe they're bisexual.

Oops. There's that thorny question of bisexuality. If a person is attracted to both men and women, that suggests that they, at least, can choose to be "gay" or "straight". I have one bisexual friend who for various reasons lives a "straight", married life. Another bisexual friend calls himself "gay" and hasn't had hetero-sex in quite some time. Another has recently dated both men and women. Each of them has made a... (dare I say it?) choice about their sexuality.

For that matter, so has each of us. I could have dated women, gotten married, and had kids. Another friend of mine (as gay as the day is long) did just that. He later chose to get a divorce and begin a relationship with a man.

One of the reasons we rely so heavily on the born-this-way explanation is to legitimize our call for civil rights. If we can convince people that orientation is something we don't have any control over - like race, ethnicity, handicap, or gender - maybe they'll finally stop discriminating against us for it. After all, the assertion that we choose to be gay is one that's brought against us in every gay civil rights debate. We don't protect people for their lifestyle choices, we're told.

Says who? The first non-discrimination policy in the United States was about a personal lifestyle choice. It's in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, forbidding religious discrimination in government employment. The First Amendment built on that, further protecting religious freedom, and our modern laws all include religion in the list of protected characteristics. Isn't that a choice? Don't we choose to be Catholic or Methodist, to be Jewish or not, to be Moslem or atheist? Sure, lots of us are "born into" our religions, but we still choose whether to follow them or not.

There are also other characteristics that are often protected... and are choices. Marital status is certainly a choice. Political affiliation, veteran status, and even weight are things that an individual has chosen or can choose to change. Yet these characteristics are commonly protected, as they should be.

The reason we make rules protecting these characteristics is that they're not a fair basis for discrimination. It's not fair to pay a man more because he has a wife and kids, or to pay a woman less because she has a husband. It's not fair to pass someone over for a job because they weigh a lot. It's not fair to steer a Jewish couple away from buying a house in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. It's not fair to make black passengers sit in the back of a bus. If society can accept those truths, they must also be able to learn that it's not fair to discriminate against a person based on their orientation.

The I-can't-help-it argument also implies that if we could "help it", we would... or at least that we should. Black people can't help it they aren't white. Women can't help it they aren't men. 60-year-olds can't help it they aren't 30. All of this suggests that we should all want to be a 30-year-old white male. I don't buy that (despite the fact that it pretty nearly describes me). Instead, we should focus on the principle that it simply doesn't matter.

So what if I did choose to be gay? Don't I still have a right to be gay, and to be open about it? And would I have any less right to a job, employment, and decent treatment in public places because of it?

In response, we received the following letter from Phil Duran, which appeared in the December 1992 issue.

It was with dismay that I read Todd VerBeek's November article, "Choosing to be Gay", and I hope I am not alone.

The argument of that piece was that it should not matter whether one chooses to be gay or lesbian, that even if it were a choice, that is still no justification for the discrimination and violence that gay and lesbian people encounter. Todd seems weary of trying to explain to the non-gay world that one's sexual orientation is not a matter of choice. The primary question Todd asks in his essay is, "How important is it to convince others that we didn't choose our orientation?"

I believe that it is extremely important to continue this effort, even if it seems to be an uphill battle, because it seems to be the truth. Additionally, I strongly disagree with Todd's conclusion that, "we should focus on the principle that it simply doesn't matter."

First, it is imperative to make the distinction between the behavior choices we can make and the orientation choices we cannot. While we make choices daily about our sexual behavior - partners, frequency, acts, even at times the gender of our partners - does this constitute a choice about the fundamental choice itself? I hold that it does not: I could choose tomorrow to have sex with a woman and not change the fact that I have a homosexual orientation. Similarly, if a person were married for years and then comes out, it is arguable that that person's orientation was homosexual all along, but that they made their sexual behavior choices in accordance with societal, familial, and/or self expectations. Finally, if a bisexual person starts out with a male partner, then switches to a female partner (or vice versa), has the bisexual orientation itself changed, or is the person merely making a choice of another form of behavior which is still consistent with their core orientation.

I would contend that most gay and lesbian people feel that whether they were born with their orientation, or if it developed later in life, it was something they had little, if any, control over. I strongly disagree with Todd that this necessarily is what he calls an "I-can't-help-it argument", suggesting that we would try to change if we could. While some may take the opportunity to play the role of helpless victim, a significant and - happily - growing number of people are developing a "this-is-me-take-it-or-leave-it" attitude (a.k.a. "We're here, we're Queer, get over it!"), embracing their sexuality as a healthy part of their character, not as a cross to bear.

Todd is correct in noting that many of our opponents still maintain that we "choose to be that way" and are thus undeserving of protection from their bigoted attitudes and actions. He goes on to demonstrate that there are several other choices that are protected, such as religious affiliation. Unfortunately, he concludes by suggesting we could undermine the entire choice question by simply replying, "who cares?"

I believe this would be an unwise maneuver. Giving the slightest credence to the heterosexuals' myth that we choose our orientation (again, as opposed to our behavior) would threaten decades of hard-won progress. Implying that our core orientation is not somehow predetermined would let the bigots run amok with their other pet theories: that we are incapable of judgment, that we can get others to make the same choice (the old "recruitment" line), that we are actively rejecting our parents' models and values, and on and on, essentially giving in to their illogic. I say instead, make them prove one's orientation is a choice, as they are so find of claiming, in the face of ubiquitous testimony and growing scientific evidence to the contrary. Otherwise, we risk returning to Square One in the fight for protection of our civil rights.

It is also important to point out that our justice system primarily rules against discrimination when the condition used as the basis for the unfair action is an "immutable", i.e. central, fixed characteristic of the victim. This would include such fixed things as race or gender, and even a central quality of a person such as their religion. One's orientation is not considered either. We must work to educate our judiciary that a person's sexual orientation is not a choice but is "immutable", or we will continue to see gay and lesbian parents denied custody of their own children, bashings justified on the basis of the victim's sexuality, and other affronts to our rights and expectations as Americans.

Coming out as gay or lesbian in this society is a statement of our dedication to personal integrity and honesty, of our willingness to encounter obstacles or to suffer pain or loss in order to live as the people we truly are. If we have the personal strength to behave in a manner that is consistent with our core orientation, and to be open about it, certainly we should be able to muster the courage to not back down from what I see as a fundamental and necessary position: that the orientation itself is no matter of choice. We should never abandon the determination to convince others of the truth just because the truth seems too daunting. For in the end, the truth just may set us free.

I replied:

Phil has apparently mistaken what I intended to a minor theme of my article for the central idea. I did not intend to say that we should drop this line of argument just because it's a difficult task. On the contrary, I believe that (in addition to it being difficult) it will lead to a hollow victory... and isn't even necessary after all.

I'll give an example of what I mean: Suppose we were successful in convincing the Powers That Be that we (as gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals) were born this way. Based on the judicial reasoning Phil outlines, they would then ban discrimination based on the immutable trait of sexual orientation. OK, but what is there to stop them from still discriminating against homosexual behavior? As Phil rightly pointed out, that is a choice, so it would not be protected. Bigots keep bringing up the "immutable trait" standard because it gives them the freedom to discriminate based on ideas and choices.

I also think it's unnecessary to rely on that argument. Non-discrimination laws are not based just on "immutable traits" (which didn't make an appearance in Constitutional law until the 15th Amendment), but on the idea of fairness and personal privacy (which appear in the Constitution itself). I believe that personal choices should be protected from discrimination, whether that means religion, consensual sexual behavior, political beliefs, reproductive choices, or anything else of that sort which we choose. Sure, winning this argument will require a little more work. But the pay-off will be a freedom that we all can rely on.

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