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.
As 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.