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I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.
It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality. Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities. Wow!
Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people. As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?” And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?” Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.
No One Wins The Oppression Olympics
Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons. First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.” Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile. With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time? It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.
Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people. Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed. In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.
Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit. Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights. All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on. Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.
And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s. While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists. When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens). Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.
But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.
…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:
- 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).
- 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.”
- 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).
- 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.