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Sexual Orientation: Nature? Nurture? Choice?

Recently, Sex in the City actress Cynthia Nixon remarked in an interview to New York Times magazine that she is “gay by choice”:

…for me, [homosexuality] is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it’s a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not… As you can tell, I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.

In the midst of a long struggle for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), and queer people, the looping of this story in the media led many LGBT individuals to groan, “why would she say that?”  Their fear is that her declaration — her autonomous choice to be gay — can be used in efforts to oppose the advancement of sexual equality.  Putting the comment that she is “gay by choice” into context, looking at her full quote, she makes clear that the question of whether sexual identity — namely those non-heterosexual identities — is irrelevant.  However, through the wave of sensationalism and abbreviated quotes, the media has promoted the simple fact that Nixon has declared her sexual identity a choice.  Despite Nixon’s intentions and the content of the entire interview, the words “gay by choice” rouse up the continued debate over the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.

Nature? Nurture? Choice? We’re Missing The Point!

More and more research out of biology, genetics, and other life sciences builds a case for the innate — possibly due to genes, hormones, or other biological factors — origins of sexual orientation.  And, many major academic organizations have made explicit the acceptance and appreciation of sexual orientation as a natural aspect of every human that should not be changed nor suppressed.  Yet, the overall question regarding the “true” origins of sexual orientation, and the oft-cited answer of choice, pervade rhetoric regarding equal rights for LGBT and queer people.  This is largely the result of the legal standard used to determine a minority’s group worthiness of being protected from discrimination: the status must be immutable.  And, legal standing aside, research suggests that heterosexuals are more likely to support LGBT rights when they believe sexual orientation to be fixed, innate, and/or genetic.

But, Cynthia Nixon has raised an important question.  The push to determine the origins of sexual orientation warrants the question, “why does it matter?”  As I just noted, civil rights legal tradition rests heavily on the immutability of a minority status to define a minority group as worthy of protection; and, it matters for changing attitudes about homosexuality and bisexuality.  But, why must one’s sexual orientation be determined at birth, fixed, or unchangeable to warrant respect, equality, and acceptance?  Why don’t we value individual freedom and choice with regard to consensual sexual and romantic relationships?

Complicating The Argument

Beyond asking why we are so fixated in determining the origins of sexual orientation, there are a number of other points that are missed in these debates:

  1. The one-sidedness of the question — “is it a choice — highlights the heteronormativity that shapes these debates.  We ask why people are or become lesbian, gay, or bisexual; we do not, however, ask why people are or become heterosexual.  That is, in treating heterosexuality as the norm, we take it for granted rather than question its origins.  We presume heterosexuality until proven otherwise (i.e., heterocentrism).
  2. The media stir about Nixon’s comments illuminate how fragile the understanding of sexual orientation as innate is.  It took only one celebrity to dissent from the “gay by birth” position to reopen the debates about the origins of sexual orientation.  Nixon does not serve as a spokesperson for LGBT and queer communities.  Interestingly, other celebrities who echo the popular position that sexual orientation is innate have not garnered the same media attention.  Certainly, the press did not hound Lady GaGa for further explanation for her song, “Born This Way.”
  3. The debate over the origins of sexual orientation simplifies human development into an either/or construction.  That is, either sexual orientation is determined at birth, or it is chosen later in life, or it is the product of one’s upbringing.  Simplifying these options makes it easier to place blame: distant fathers, overbearing mothers, single mothers, bad parenting, sexual violence, poor gender socialization, bad decisions, and so on.  (As such, the devaluing of homosexuality and bisexuality is obvious, in that we are searching for someone or something to blame.)  Although, as a sociologist, my work focuses on uncovering the social factors that shape and constrain our lives, I acknowledge that much of human life is likely a complex combination of human agency, social experiences, and biology/physiology.  Sexual orientation is no exception.  Though hormones may be the vehicle for sexual desire, our social experiences shape who and what we find desirable; in fact, much of what we find desirable are social constructs (e.g., masculinity, femininity).
  4. These debates also simplify human sexuality.  When we ask whether sexuality is a choice, are we referring to one’s choice to engage in sexual and romantic relationships with an individual of a particular gender?  Or, does one choose who one finds sexually attractive?  Or, is the choice really in the particular sexual identity one takes on?  Sexuality is complex and multidimensional.  Though we may choose to identify as bisexual, we may be exclusively attracted to women.  We may be mostly attracted to men but choose to equally pursue relationships with women, as well.  Also, we attend exclusively to gender in our conceptualization of sexual orientation.  In doing so, we are asking about the origins of being attracted to particular genders, but we typically do not think to ask about what causes us to be attracted to particular races and ethnicities, individuals of certain social classes, body shapes and sizes, and so on.  If we were to consider these dimensions of sexual desire, how strange it would seem to find evidence for a gene to be attracted to Asian-Americans or choosing to be attracted to tall women.

More research, both in the natural and social sciences, is needed to develop a more comprehensive understanding of sexuality, including its origins.  But, in the mean time, we should ask ourselves why it is so important to find the answer to “is it a choice?”  If, one day, we were to discover that sexual orientation is 100 percent one’s choice, do we no longer afford sexual minorities the same rights and protections as heterosexuals?  Or, if we isolate the “gay gene,” will we put the debate to rest, ensuring full sexual equality?  My pessimism says the debates would still continue, and there would be new eugenics-style initiatives to eliminate that gene.  Disdain for LGBT people is the root of the problem, not the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality.

Resilience: It Gets Better Because We Make It Better

Hope

Sociologist Tey Meadow‘s recent op-ed at Huffington Post makes an important point.  It is critically important that we acknowledge and address the bullying, harassment, and discrimination faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and gender non-conforming youth that, in turn, results in their elevated risk for suicidality, mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, among other threats to their health and well-being.  However, it is also of critical importance to acknowledge and celebrate the many ways in which LGBTQ youth are surviving and thriving, embracing their individual and community resiliency.

In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?

This call for broadening our focus on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ youth comes after yet another tragic suicide of a queer teenager.  Eric James Borges took his own life last week.  What makes this tragedy more unsettling is that he interned for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicides, and created his own “It Gets Bettervideo.  As Meadows makes clear, we must continue to change the current social and political climate that demonizes LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities — this means society at large, as well as in schools, the military, families, places of worship, the medical system, etc.  But, we must not allow bullying, harassment, suicides, isolation, and the other negative aspects of LGBTQ youths’ experiences in a homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic society; we must not allow LGBTQ youth to be equated with suicide and victimization.

LGBTQ Resilience

Advocates and researchers have made great strides in highlighting the hostility LGBTQ youth and adults face in the United States and world wide.  This includes theoretical and empirical developments that help us to understand how prejudice and discrimination create and maintain health disparities, for example, the minority stress paradigm.

One area that needs much more work is resilience among LGBTQ individuals and communities.  Each individual has the capacity for resilience, as defined by Psychology Today:

Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.

Indeed, as health researcher Ron Stall points out in his calls for better understanding resiliency among LGBTQ people, those who live today in our homo/bi/transphobic country maintain some level of resilience.  In his words, given the effect of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment on LGBTQ individuals health and well-being, we could envision a world with the majority of LGBTQ people suffering, abusing drugs, harming themselves and their bodies, and engaging in unsafe behaviors.  Yet, despite elevated risks for mental, physical, and sexual health problems among LGBTQ people compared to heterosexuals and cisgendered people, most LGBTQ people are in good health.  As he explains, there must be, at both the individual and community levels, a great deal of resilience that prevents these homo/bi/transphobic forces from becoming every LGBTQ person’s inevitable reality.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

In addition to identifying factors that promote resilience among LGBTQ individuals and for LGBTQ communities, it is necessary to continue to understand and address the social forces that impede on the lives of LGBTQ people.  I, like many others, have supported giving young LGBTQ people a message of hope, for, in the words of Harvey Milk, hope is necessary to carry on through the day when all seems difficult or impossible.  But, we must continue to fight against transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia — we cannot simply hope for the day when it gets better.  We already know that it has gotten better because we have fought to make it better.  Fighting for our rights and our lives is, arguably, one of the strongest forms of resilience because we take an active role in challenging inequality.

Thinking More Critically, Thinking Globally

Another point that I like about Meadow’s op-ed is the emphasis on recognizing the institutional and societal manifestations of oppression faced by LGBTQ people.  Like good sociologists, we must push attention to the bullying and harassment faced by LGBTQ youth to who is doing the bullying and harassment and how society and various institutions condone or promote such behavior.  This includes highlighting the failure of schools to promote acceptance, inclusion, and safety of all of its students, yet also, attending to the actions and attitudes that disparage and demonize LGBTQ people at home, in the government, in religion, and so forth.

A second shift in our attention is to better understand how homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia intersect with other systems of oppression.  Too often, the priorities of LGBTQ communities misses the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ people who are multiply disadvantaged: women, transpeople, people of color, people experiencing poverty and/or homelessness, people with disabilities, religious minorities, immigrants.  Arguably, the well-being of LGBTQ people is only as strong as its worst-off members — those who are often invisible in society and even in LGBTQ communities.

Third, and finally, I echo calls to reconceptualize LGBTQ rights as human rights.  Such a move forces us to think globally about the lives and experiences of LGBTQ people.  While some places, especially Western nations, are relatively tolerant of LGBTQ people (I use the term “relatively” strongly, here), other countries keep homosexuality on the books as a crime punishable by death and, even if not, such punishments are carried out daily by everyday citizens.  We cannot become complacent with mere “tolerance” in places like the US, Canada, and some counties in Europe while LGBTQ people face severe violence and repression elsewhere.

It gets better… and already has… because we’ve made it better, and will continue to do so.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

I am not certain why the mainstream media have shown interest in the recent tragic losses of five queer youths, but this national attention is long overdue.  One suicide is too many suicides.  These that have occurred in just three weeks have been instrumental in reminding the country of the hostility young people face for being different.  While the focus on making changes in state-level and national marriage, family, non-discrimination, employment, and hate crimes laws has been important, we need not forget that we have, still, so far to go in improving the lives of everyday queer people.  Fortunately, that insight has been shared by others, including Dan Savage with his “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen DeGeneres, and many celebrities via MTV.

I appreciate the many messages from everyday people and celebrities alike that it gets better, and I have added my own message “we have to make it better”:

We can see that change occurs year by year, even day by day.  But, it is in our efforts and the efforts of our allies that change comes about.  It does not magically happen; we cannot expect change while bigots work just as hard to resist change.  For most of us, as I have noted before, just living our lives out and proud is a form of activism.  We do the work of bigots when we inflict harm on ourselves, or deny who we are, or restrict our actions to avoid discrimination and prejudice.  For laws, hearts, and minds to change, we have to live our lives, stand up to injustice, and continue to fight on.  It does get better!

A Night I Will Never Forget: Seven Years Out Of The Closet

No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity.  Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.

A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction.  Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me.  It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance.  My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me.  I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.

We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire.  The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from.  But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions.  I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be.  Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen?  who is at fault?  what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance.  The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.

What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events.  For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.)  She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death.  This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way.  Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves.  For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.

In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around.  My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news.  Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys).  There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics.  Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).

From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members.  I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close.  And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone.  I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people.  We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families.  Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes.  In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.

There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!

Being Gay Doesn’t Make You Anti-Racist And Anti-Sexist

By the time the supposed Black vs. gay war had been (re)launched following California’s passage of 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marrage in the state, I was well aware of oppression within oppressed groups (I ranted back in February about the problematic expression, “gay is the new black.”)  In this post, I want to challenge the notion that being a minority automatically makes one empathetic toward other minority groups, and, further, that being a minority makes one immune to oppressing others.

Wow, Was I Naive Or What?

As a young biracial gay feminist aspiring-vegetarian activist, I understood the experience of a minority to include empathy for other minorities and explicit efforts to challenge all forms of oppression.  In my case, being of color and gay meant being a feminist and actively challenging sexist oppression, as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination.  This mindset continued into college, particularly when I shifted toward a queer identity.  I suppose it only took moving to Indiana and beginning my graduate studies to burst my naive bubble.  It only took a few sexist and racist comments at the local gay bar and a growing awareness of the heteronormativity in Black communities (like any community) for me to begin to realize experience with one form of oppression doesn’t translate into advocacy against another.  I began to recognize that being a queer man (now genderqueer-identified) did not make my objectification of women any less sexist.

“It’s Okay, I’m Gay”

My intention is to critique this misguided assumption in general, but I use queer folks as my example case here.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen gay men fondle women’s bodies at a bar or party, sometimes with the woman’s explicit consent or assumed consent through her laughter or silence.  I’ve even heard such behavior justified by comments like, “it’s okay, I’m gay.”  This logic implies that sexism and the objectification of women is merely something of heterosexual men (and I guess bisexual men, too).  It has also been extended to justify racist prejudice.  (I can’t tell you how furious I was when I met a white gay man who saw himself as a Black heterosexual woman because of his “ghetto”, sassy attitude.)  Certainly, this logic may carry over to justify other forms of prejudice: ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and so forth.

Gay Can Mean Anti-Racist and Anti-Sexist

Today, a gay identity is not merely about sexual behavior – it’s a sociopolitical sexual identity.  That means that lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities incorporate an explicit challenge to heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classist oppression, etc.  LGBT and queer people, like any other minority, can begin to build coalitions (again) with other minority groups to challenge the status quo.  Such coalitions have existed in the past, and I’m certain that a number exist today.  But, like the Prop 8 fiasco, it seems that the “divide and conquer” strategy of pitting Blacks against gays against feminists against immigrants is still alive, well, and successful.  Not only is coalition-building across minority groups possible, it is necessary now as it was in the 1960s and 70s.  Although our President is of color for a change, white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men still rule the country, yet they’re a numerical minority!  But, one could say that people of color, feminists, queers, working-class people, immigrants, and other minorities banded together to vote President Barack Obama into office.  Real and effective alliances are possible!