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In 2008, the argument that race has declined in importance became the crystallized “post-racial” thesis upon the election of President Barack Obama. By his re-election in 2012, some had offered clarification that race still exists, but it is racism that has disappeared – the “post-racism” thesis. There it sits, almost as a sense of relief — “whew, now we can stop tip-toeing around people of color, and supporting these race-related causes like Affirmative Action.”
On day 2 of George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the supposed reality of post-racism contrasts with that of the hyperrelevance of race and racism. A young Black man was killed because his race made him a suspect.
Today, Blackness is still a crime, and whites are charged with the task of policing Black people. The harshness of law enforcement and the criminal justice system is magnified for Blacks, from the use of excessive force to longer sentences to denial of justice all together. Even those who are not police officers, judges, and lawyers serve to police Blacks; the days of lynching Black women and men has merely evolved into a calmer form of extralegal vigilance.
My blood boiled as I watched this video. I posted it in various places on Facebook, expecting similar outrage. The video was widely shared, but often introduced with concerned, but surprisingly calm notes: “watch this”; “wow”; “this is messed up.” Those were comments mostly comments from white people.
But, even some Black folks articulated concern, but little surprise. In fact, a few people seemed to think that it was problematic that I was surprised, and that they are superior in some way for being unmoved. The unsympathetic response of “why are you surprised?” stung, playing on my fear that I am “not Black enough” or “too white” to fully comprehend the severity of contemporary racism. I suppose the anonymity of the internet is a dual-edged sword, where hostility is widely expressed and, absent of an in-person connection, there is little expression of empathy and solidarity.
Racism Is Worse Than We Realize
As I further processed my reactions to this video, I realized that my surprise and anger are warranted. Yes, in the self-confident sense where I do not need to justify my feelings, or shape or suppress them according to others’ opinions. But, also because the sheer pervasiveness and severity of racism cannot be fully comprehended by one person. Even as a researcher, I am unable to see every instance, manifestation, and consequence of racism in every corner of the world.
Like this video, racism that hides behind seemingly race-neutral interactions, laws, and practices is harder to see, and near impossible to prove exists. Today, we are dealing with consciously suppressed and unconscious racial prejudice — both which shape behaviors. Few racists openly, proudly identify themselves as racists, and most racists do not even know that they are racist.
Racial discrimination, too, is harder to identify, particularly absent of outwardly expressed racial bias. It is no longer limited to exclusion at the entry point or first contact. The “whites only” sign has to be implied since it cannot be hung from the front door. We may be hired, but then harassed on the job or denied opportunities to advance. We may receive a loan, but are offered one that is economically risky.
On the ground, we cannot see other interactions to “accurately” assess whether we have been discriminated against. (This speaks to the importance of research to look at the broader patterns!) Like the racial profiling video above, Black people may suspect unfair or differential treatment driven by racial prejudice, but rarely can we compare the same situation experienced by a white person. Even in some of the recent audit studies that demonstrate racial discrimination in the labor force, some of the participants were unaware of the discriminatory treatment they faced until they compared notes with others and the researchers.
In reality, racism and the pervasiveness of racial discrimination are likely far worse than we can imagine. So, I stand by my surprise because it is a reasonable reaction to such harsh reminders of the everyday consequences of racism. But, also because I much prefer to hope for something better than resign myself to accept the world as it is.
…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.