16 August 2007

Born to Choose

While I was away, I lost some hours of my life by watching CNN, something I don't normally do, because I don't have a TV (not because I'm a TV-hater, though I do think TV news gets more awful every time I watch it, but because I would never get anything done if I had a TV -- I find it completely addictive, regardless of quality). There was a story in rotation about the HRC/Logo forum where the various Democrats in the presidential primary were invited to talk about same-sex marriage and occasional other topics. The CNN report made it seem that candidate Bill Richardson was a troglodyte for his response to a question posed by Melissa Etheridge: "Do you think homosexuality is a choice or is it biological?" Richardson responded, "It's a choice, it's, it's..." and then there was back and forth and eventually Richardson's campaign issued a statement and Barney Frank testified to Richardson's record.

I found the whole thing cringe-inducing, mostly because Etheridge asked, with complete moral certainty, an absurd question and then Richardson got beat up for it. Marriage has become, as the pundits at The Nation pointed out, the litmus-test, but the word "choice" has, strangely, come to be The Word That Shall Not Be Uttered.

What is going on here? Certainly, the HRC and Logo do not stand for all that is queer in America, but they do represent a certain visible and politically active segment of the queer community, and it looks like that segment is growing ever more narrowly defined, intolerant, and boring.

I could get all semantic on the question "Is it a choice?" and ask, "What is this it of which you speak?" because I hate the tendency some people have of defining the vast range of human pleasures and intimacies by a couple of labels. Or I could point out that the nature/nurture dichotomy is at best naive. But I'd rather just say, "What's so bad about choice?"

In The Nation's discussion of the forum, Lisa Duggan said what happened to Richardson next: "Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed." Why is equality about how you're born? It's never stopped biologically-minded traditionalists from saying that anything deviating from some narrowly-defined norm ought to be cured.

If there's an "it", choice is what's it's all about. It doesn't matter whether I'm choosing at the moment to live my life with a man or a woman or no-one; the freedom to choose any of those options and not be harrassed, marginalized, or attacked for it is the freedom I want. It's why I don't have much interest in the search for "gay genes" -- sure, there are genetic components, but so what? Let's be very speculative for a moment and say a definition of non-heterosexuality can be dreamed up, and a gene or two can be attributed to it, and a test can be created to see whether a person possesses such a gene -- if they don't, and still behave in a non-hetero way, should their citizenship in the queer nation be revoked so they are forced to live in the doldrums of the choiceless land where the "I'm-entirely-heterosexual" creatures trod through their dreary days?

"It's not a choice" sounds to my ears like the proclamation of somebody drowning in heterosexism and self-hatred. "I can't help myself! I was born this way! Waaaaaa!!!" Why are these gays so afraid of choice? I suspect it's because we're terrified of the idea of being "unnatural", but the terror has nothing to do with nature (all sorts of things happen in nature!) so much as an idea of normality. The norm-obsessed gays want to be "just like everybody else" and everybody else is, apparently, inherently hetero. It's like they really want to proclaim, "We're not 100% hetero only because we were born this way -- we didn't choose to be like this, honest!"

I'm all for people who choose to get married and have kids doing so, regardless of their gender or whatever, but I doubt it's anything I'll ever choose, and so I don't have a lot of patience for the idea that that is the ultimate sort of life to live, the sine qua non, the one true path to happiness, the normal thing, the thing we were all born to do. It's a position that replaces a compulsory heterosexuality with a compulsory homosexuality for those born to it, a Procrustean bed made up by people who think everybody should live and feel only the way they themselves do. I don't like their idea of normality, I don't like their fear of choice, and that bed looks damned uncomfortable to me.


  1. I have a little quibble on your understanding of the use of the word 'choice' by Melissa Etheridge. I see this question as a response to religious conservatives who claim that homosexuality is a 'choice' the same way that shooting someone is a 'choice' for the shooter.
    It is just an exuse to deny any sort of civil recognition to queer individuals as they could just as easily 'choose' to be straight but do not as they are hedonistic sinners.
    Etheridge's question, in my reading, is simply trying to feel out Richardson's stance on this point of view. Does he feel that the question of sexual orintation is a more complex and integral part of a person's identity, or something they could easily shuck off, like a dirty t-shirt? I do think that Richardson is in the conservative position on this issue, he just misunderstood the real meaning behind the question. Which may be the whole problem with the question in the first place.

  2. You nicely summarize my feelings (and those around a few people I know studying family law). Rationally, I can't understand why he didn't just say, "I don't know whether it's a choice or not, but regardless, it should not be a grounds for discrimination, hate, or prejudice." That's why we have all those laws that "Prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, or disability," right? Plenty of choices in some of those bases.

    Sociologically speaking, as you say, the whole thing seems to represent some sort of cultural internalizing of homosexuality as "deviancy," and of course, people prefer deviancy you're helpless to control to deviancy you can control. Sigh.

  3. I agree that the question probably is one of response to that kind of idea of "choice" -- and I'll admit to latching onto a somewhat different meaning of the word so as to try to show why I think it leads down an unfortunate road. Clearly, the word "choice" has come to be distorted or overwhelmed with connotations, and Richardson obviously didn't understand them all.

    I wish the political conversation was more about questioning the fundamentalists' and conservatives' assumptions about sexuality and government's policing of it than about just offering a contradiction of their views.

  4. I've been thinking about this in another context, and you're absolutely right.

    I think the emphasis on homosexuality as a biological fact is a response to the argument, often put forward by opponents of gay rights, that it is somehow transmittable - which is why gay people shouldn't be teachers or be allowed to adopt or serve in any position of authority. When arguing against this attitude, the implicit claim that there is something wrong with gayness tends to be ignored in favor of the explicit claim about the nature of homosexuality, for reasons that, I suspect, are entirely pragmatic. There may not be any scientific evidence that being gay is congenital, but there's certainly a boatload of anecdotal evidence to that effect. Whether being gay is a good or bad thing is a matter of belief, and it's a lot harder to argue someone out of one of those than it is to present them with facts. You're right, though, that in the process we seem to have bought into the other side's perception of homosexuality as something that needs to be excused.

  5. Though this discussion took place as part of the American presidential campaign, I think the question of choice/biology should be viewed in a wider global context. In some areas of the world 'choice' might not be the best argument to further gay acceptance and rights - in other words, like Abigail explains with regard to 'transmittability', a pragmatic view.

    An appropriate post, too, in light of your mention of Thomson's The Divided Kingdom.

  6. Excellent point, Lee -- I don't want to make any claims that what I've said would be a useful political strategy in cultures with very different understandings of sexuality, nature, etc. The entire conversation would be nonsensical in many contexts.

  7. I don't think either of us ever expected me to say this re: one of your posts (*g*), but I agree just about 100%.