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So What If Sexual Orientation Is A Choice After All?

The federal challenge to California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban has raised a number of questions about the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, same-sex couples and families, among other issues.  It seems the trial is not only addressing the constitutional nature of a law that discriminates against a minority group because of their sexual orientation.  In fact, it seems as though the entire claim that LGBT people are marginalized in our society is on trial — that, and tests for every stereotype about LGBT people (e.g., the supposed link between pedophilia and homosexuality).

Is Sexual Orientation A Choice?

One testimony seems to be the crux of the trial, but generally, in my opinion, irrelevant to whether discrimination is at play in banning same-sex marriage.  Prominent psychology researcher and professor, Professor Gregory Herek, was called to the stand to testify on the etiology of homosexuality and the experiences of LGBT people on Friday, January 22nd:

Plaintiffs lawyers are already done questioning their final witness, UC-Davis psychology Professor Gregory Herek, who earns the distinction of being one of the quicker witnesses thus far (although cross-examination is just beginning, and that has tended to go for hours with the plaintiffs experts). Herek testified that research shows gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual identities, as same-sex marriage opponents suggest. And he also said they are subject to social stigma.

What I find interesting is that this question must be answered.  Before the rest of the country can get on board with same-sex marriage, it needs to know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have run out of all of their options regarding sexual orientation.  If they have not given this heterosexuality thing a fair chance, we’re not just going to concede to their demands for support for this gay thing.  Research on attitudes toward homosexuality and LGB people has found greater acceptance when heterosexuals believe that homosexuality is not chosen and cannot be changed.  Thus, even if it may seem irrelevant to LGBT people whose rights are on trial, it matters to the majority (heterosexuals) that currently have the power to approve or disapprove of those rights.

So What If It’s A Choice?

I know, I know — if evidence ever emerged that sexual orientation was chosen, at least by those who have chosen something other than heterosexuality, we would see a lot of lost support for sexual equality.  But, therein lies two problems: 1) if it is chosen, why is choosing homosexuality or bisexuality wrong, and heterosexuality right?  2) why is choice bad?  The heteronormativity and homophobia remains; this homosexuality/bisexuality thing better be beyond your own control, or, if not, you’d best be choosing heterosexuality.  Yet, supposedly heterosexuals do not choose to be heterosexual.  That’s quite the double standard.  Secondly, why do we value and celebrate choice in other arenas of the social world, yet deny freedom to choose our romantic and sexual partners?  Why should rights only be afforded if it’s a condition you cannot help?  So long as one’s sexual and/or romantic relationship is consensual, who are we to determine whether it should be treated as equal to other types of relationships?  I am going to take the radical step here and suggest that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should extend to consensual sex and relationships as well.  If Katy Perry wants to kiss a girl and like it, whether because she’s naturally bisexual or just because she wants to see what all of the fuss is about, why should our support for her freedom to choose boys or girls be restricted?

Calling Heteronormativity Out

In some way, I suggest our next step is to ask “so what?”  If you choose to be with men, with women, both, transpeople, intersexed people, Black people, Latina/o people, Muslim people, tall people, vegans who like Britney Spears, and so forth, why are your choices and freedoms any less valuable than someone who is naturally attracted to other groups?  And, why is there so much focus on the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality, though not heterosexuality?  Further, why do we care so much about the gender of object choice but we are not out searching for the “cause of interracial desires”, or why some people are attracted to muscular people, or taller, or nerdy people.  I cannot imagine that every aspect of our “type” is naturally occurring, but frankly, so long as our actions are consensual, it shouldn’t matter.

The Science of Sexual Orientation And Identity

Quite an interesting article.

I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.

However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?

I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?

With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?

This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.

I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?

Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.

As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.