I Can’t Change, Can I?

This last month has been an exciting one for the LGBT community. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (signed into law by President Clinton) was ruled unconstitutional and the appeal to overturn the overturning of the Prop 8 ban—just as confusing now as it was when Californians voted on it—was rejected. Additionally, the long-standing Christian organization Exodus International, which sought to make gays “ex-gays” through prayer and a stronger relationship with God, has shut down, or at least decided to do a major reboot.

Screen Shot 2013-07-03 at 9.50.59 PMAs I was reading through the responses to these events, though, I was reminded of an argument that has bothered me as a defense of non-heterosexual orientation. Lately, it has been popularized in the Macklemore song, “Same Love.” As the refrain goes: “I can’t change, even if I try, even if I wanted to.” It echoes the argument that sexual orientation or gender identity are not choices  but…something else. What this something else is varies from an explicit genetic predisposition to just “who I am.”

I think that I understand the motivation behind this approach. Choice seems casual, something that can be changed on a whim, while a biological root, core identity trait, or divine origin seems to be a more substantial and immovable foundation. Surely society cannot and should not blame gays for being the way they are if they did not choose their sexual orientation? Given that the most consistent voices against non-“normative” sexuality are Christians, I’m not convinced that the “I can’t help it” strategy is the most effective response .

The nature/nurture dichotomy fights the battle for equality on religion’s terms. If one is in the position of being both Christian and gay, I can see some merit to this argument. After all, conservative Christians will argue against LGBT rights using a whole host of hypothetical outcomes ranging from disease to decline of values to destruction of traditional families, but the root motivation is a conviction that according to God, homosexuality or any non-traditional sexual orientation is wrong. (To be charitable, we’ll set aside for the moment instances of polygamy, rape, and incest in the Bible). The conflict between LGBT identity and the normative sexuality of the Christian tradition obviously creates existential dissonance for gay Christians, many of whom would rather conclude, considering that their sexual orientation is “who they are,” that God made them that way. Whoever gets God on their side wins the battle.

Yet the rest of us outside religious communities are caught in the same dichotomous thinking. Made that way (legitimate) or choice (illegitimate)? Many substitute science for religion and make the same argument. All sides seem to agree that if root sexual orientation is rooted in something completely or partly out of our conscious control, we should accept it. This does have the effect of neatly circumscribing the argument, but I think it unfairly denigrates the effect and importance of choice. (It also cannot account for those whose sexual identity changes in different stages of life without marginalizing one of their choices.)

It’s difficult to argue that campaigns such as that of Exodus International never work. Against the backdrop of a historically hetero-normative culture, organizations like it have obviously succeeded in “curing” many people. Proponents of the “way I am” argument must contend that these people are acting against their true selves, and were thus unhappy. This is likely often correct. But the church and culture has helped keep thousands of couples in unhappy monogamous relationships as well, and popular culture helps much of society feel unhappy with their bodies. The happiness of each individual is not the primary goal in social organization. (I’d argue that a consistent feeling of happiness as life-goal misses the mark anyway, but we operate as if that is what we want.)

Existentialism explains some of why I’d rather have the element of choice play a stronger role in the argument. We are ultimately responsible for our choices, no matter how limited they are; in fact, we cannot not be responsible for our choices. However, the “way I am” approach cedes the discourse of choice to the conservative side. For the Christian, choice is often a euphemism for sin, since it boils down to God’s way or the wrong way, particularly with sexual orientation. But for those not beholden to a religious tradition, why not embrace the element of choice? Limiting our own choices is a way to palliate our anxiety over the innumerable decisions we have about out existence. The more I can attribute or cede to someone else, the less I have to actively evaluate myself. “It’s the law” or “the Bible says so” become causes themselves, and I don’t have to evaluate their effects on others or the innumerable possibilities for change.

I’m not suggesting that we have sole control over all aspects of our lives. From the perspective of social enculturation, I am certainly born with my choices very limited. As a Christian, I grew up homophobic, not in the macho kind of way, but in the way that you fear what you don’t understand and attribute to sin what might actually be a legitimate way of living. Despite all the changes in my beliefs, I still feel “gut” hetero-normative reactions to situations and people that I’d like to think all my education has overcome. My choices are in that way limited by my past, but I don’t expect anyone to take that as an excuse for homophobic behavior.

Neither am I saying there is no biological aspect to sexual orientation; I’m certain that there is, but that doesn’t negate the element of choice either. Ignoring this element is a way to ignore the relative arbitrariness of our moral values. Yet recognizing that nearly all the elements of our society are “chosen” and not “given” would change the nature of this debate.

Two things would have to take place for this to work. First, choice would need to stop being equated with happiness. Choices are often painful, and needing to make choices in the first place is painful. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t or shouldn’t take part in them. I’m wagering that consciousness and acceptance of as many of our choices as possible is better than shifting responsibility elsewhere. The lines aren’t easy to draw, but we should continue to try. If that can happen, then choice/responsibility can be turned against other institutional norms, such as the Christian element that bears much of the burden of stigmatizing sexuality in the first place. The intolerance and violence that has often accompanied “God’s plan” throughout history must be wrestled with more seriously if it is seen as intolerance and violence based on the choices of humanity and not God. If all we have are choices, then no one has a moral high ground and we have to work together to resolve our issues.

For what it’s worth (and it’s worth very little), I voted against Prop 8 and I believe that non-traditional partners should have the same legal and civil rights as heterosexual couples. Will it open the door to other legal challenges and further dilution of traditional marriage? Maybe, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly not a reason in and of itself to hinder steps toward legal equality.

I’d love to hear other perspectives on this issue.

4 thoughts on “I Can’t Change, Can I?

  1. Matt, I too grew up in your context. Raised a Christian in the next town over, attended the same church, and experienced many similar events. Our enculturation was interesting. After high school I moved to Los Angeles, and it was a struggle for me, everything was so different; it was as if the movies were coming to life. I had an interesting revelation after a few months – I was subconsciously racist. I had no background or negative experience that said I should look at African Americans differently, but I just didn’t know any growing up, and movies and history shaped a perception.

    Obviously, race isn’t a choice, it just is. I however, was faced with a choice, how do I value others as equal to myself? I, too, still struggle in this area, and must choose to step beyond initial reactions. I agree with you that non-hetero sexual lifestyles are a choice, and should be stated as such. However, I am saddened by statement regarding the “church” and “Christianity,” not because what you said is not true, but because it isn’t God’s intention that the church respond as it has. The point of Christianity is to live as Christ did, love as Christ did, recognize that we don’t have what it takes to live a flawless life, and accept that we need something bigger than ourselves.

    Sometimes, I am torn on what God’s perspective truly is. “Gays in the church” is so controversial…but there are also liars in the church, adulterers in the church, thieves in the church, blasphemers in the church, and many more “sinner” categories. So, why are not all welcome in? As an active Christian (claims Christ as Lord and Savior, regularly attends church, works for a Christian non-profit), I too see the inequality in this space, and am not sure what to do about it. But I will say this, we do make our choices, and some are hard. Whether LGBT, a thief, an alcoholic, a person of violence, whatever it may be, we have to CHOOSE each day where we will walk. I won’t continue to steal, flaunt it as my choice, and then blame God for his intolerance of who I am, I have to choose to walk another way, to be supported by others striving for something more, and recognize that, while my choices are often not pleasing to God, there is still grace for me, and His love for cannot be quenched.

    For LGBT community, I say yes, you have made a choice. And, I say yes, you are welcome in church. But, don’t try to argue that it is part of the intended design for human interaction, it is other than God’s intention, and therefore gets the classification of “sin.” But know this, as I stand beside you in church, my envy, lust, racism, and other short comings are also other than God’s intention for humanity, and equally classified as sin and we stand together in need of grace and love.

    I’m not intolerant, and I ask that those who do not share my views to also not be intolerant. Thanks, Matt, for your thoughts.

    • Jared,

      Thanks for your honest response. I think that moment of realization we both had upon stepping outside of our fairly comfortable surroundings is common to many people. It is certainly much easier to hold dogmatic opinions about something when you are not face-to-face with someone you know being in that category. For example, it’s easy to say all criminals should be locked away if we don’t know any, but if a friend or family member is accused of a crime, it gives us pause. We want to know more and think, at least at first, that their case is different. This is also true with homosexuality, and as the case with Senator Rob Portman and his son has shown, knowing someone who is gay can often be enough to shift one’s position significantly.

      I appreciate the distinction you are making between the way that the Church is and the way that it should be. Many people have made this distinction in the face of Christianity’s poor track record on issues of violence, tolerance, etc. As I’ve mentioned before, I began to realize that maintaining this kind of discrepancy (between history and ideal) could also be damaging in itself, because we tend to ignore or discount the things that go against the ideal even if they might be motivated by the same tradition. For me, the benefits of holding on to a Christian ideal for the world were eventually outweighed by the damage I think the tradition contributes to, directly and indirectly.

      I don’t know of any arguments that suggest that homosexuality is the intended design for human interaction. I know of arguments for monogamous heterosexual relationships as God’s intended design, but they don’t take into account the many other means of societal sexual organization throughout history, both in the Bible and outside of it. For the many nonreligious, though, the question of design is by no means a necessary one. That was precisely the point of my article, that in the absence of a universal standard, which we have no way of verifying, homosexuality is a choice among a myriad of choices, affected of course by biology and social enculturation, but no better or worse than any others.

      While saying that we are all sinners saved by grace is a an egalitarian argument, it is clearly not the case in the space of public debate. Issues of sexuality receive more than their fair share of treatment if all sins are equal. I think this is in part because sexual interaction is one of the most fundamental activities of the species, and to control that is to control a large portion of human life. I’d agree that insofar as I understand the ethic of Jesus, sexual regulation was a small and comparatively insignificant part of his “platform.” I wish that more Christians would begin to think seriously, as you have done, about why sexual interaction occupies such a large part of American Christian discourse.

      Thanks again for your response. I value your thoughts.

  2. Matt,

    I think choice is central to the way one lives his or her sexual life. Kinsey felt that sexual orientation was a continuum rather than a black and white and that only a very small minority of folk were at the poles of completely homosexual or completely heterosexual. The rest of us exist along that line and make choices that are shaped by a variety of factors, not the least of which are religion and culture. They are not the only factors though… one may fall in love rather unexpectedly, desires for children may push in a certain direction, etc…

    In the religious community, choice vs. made that way has been used as an argument to legitimize some folks’ sexuality. Personally, I do not think that is necessary. I think God is much more concerned that we love than who we love or what their plumbing happens to be.

    And of course, choice is never only about “happiness” as every choice for something is also a choice against a universe of other possibilities.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Roy. I read an article recently about the experience of a bisexual who was not fully accepted by her LGBTQ group at school because they thought she was just indecisive or flaky. I’ll admit that my immediate reaction was similar, but it seems as much that this person is just trying to find her identity and feeling pressures to clearly categorize herself. In many ways, our self-identification helps others identify us as well, and when we refuse traditional categories for any number of reasons, we experience resistance and resentment. Where exactly the line is between a necessary amount of categorization for institutional organization and labeling for convenience and control is hard to define.

      I was struck by your statement that it is more important that we love than who we love. On one hand I would like to agree in that specifying the “who” also specifies the “who-not” and most of us probably spend more time on who we don’t love than who we do. Yet I’ve been swayed as well by Freud’s suggestion that the very notion of love is exclusionary and should not be any other way. “Agape” love, for him, is so diluted as to be unimportant. I have sympathies with that argument and wonder whether we should distinguish between the kind of ideal love we envision, as beautiful as it may be, and the love we currently enact. It’s a very interesting question, and one I’ll continue to think about.

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