Born this way, or gay by choice?

Last week, in an interview with the New York Times, former “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon sad this about her current relationship: 

“I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it 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.”  

Many people celebrated Nixon for making such an honest and courageous statement about her sexuality. However, not everyone was pleased with Nixon’s statements. For example, celebrity chef Cat Cora of CBS’s The Talk said this: “I’m gay, and I was born this way. So, I really feel like it was dangerous and irresponsible of Cynthia, especially in this environment today when so many young people are taking their lives.” Another response to Nixon’s comments was this: “So apparently Cynthia has never heard of bisexuality? As a gay man, I don’t have the ability to choose who I’m attracted to — like flipping on a light switch… one day I’m straight and the next day I’m gay; and I’m pretty sure straight people don’t have this ability either. So, yeah, just because Cynthia is bisexual doesn’t mean that every gay person is capable of making a choice.”

Clearly, Nixon’s statements touched a raw nerve. The “born this way” theory of homosexuality has gained considerable traction in scientific circles as well as throughout our culture. And with good reason – the “born this way” theory has been an incredibly powerful tool in securing LGBTQ civil rights. But the dirty little secret in the LGBTQ community is that it doesn’t adequately explain everyone’s experience. And that controversy is why sparks have been flying all week throughout the Internet and televised media.

But I want to focus briefly on two New York Times comments that caught my attention. Let’s start with this one:

“Congratulations to Ms Nixon for defying the politics of being gay. Choosing is much more courageous, and genuine, than being forced by genetics.”

Being forced by genetics. That statement got me thinking. The United States is a highly individualistic society. Free will, individual responsibility, and personal choice are deeply-held values in our culture. And, compared to people who live in more collectivistic, group-oriented cultures, we tend to be very strong-willed. We don’t like to submit to an authority figure. We don’t like being told what to do – and we certainly don’t want to be forced to do anything. Given our cultural landscape, you’d think that we’d gravitate more towards a choice-based theory of sexual orientation. Choosing our desire seems much more appealing than being forced by something out of our control – like our genes. We like to feel like we have control over our lives.  

However, we’re talking about a group of people that has been historically subjected to prejudice, discrimination, violence, and oppression. And that, to me, is a game-changer. I can’t imagine a gay man who has been the target of severe homophobia saying, “I chose to be gay, and the homophobia I experience is a consequence of my choice.” As Nixon herself said, “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.” And why wouldn’t we want to opt out of being victimized by sexual oppression? We wouldn’t opt out only if we couldn’t opt out – if we were born that way. And this is probably why the “born this way” theory has been, in my opinion, the single most powerful tool in the quest to eliminate sexual oppression.

The other New York Times comment that got me thinking was this:  “The whole point of freedom is freedom to choose.”  While we live in the land of freedom and opportunity, the reality is that the privileged have more freedoms and opportunities than the oppressed. If Cynthia Nixon wasn’t a white, successful, privileged woman, probably buffered to a large extent from the more severe forms of homophobia, would she be saying that her sexuality is a choice? I’m not sure. Although I’m well aware that the lion’s share of psychological research on the causes of sexual orientation supports a biological explanation, those studies were overwhelmingly conducted with gay male participants – men who, according to hate crime research, are twice as likely as lesbian women to be victimized because of their sexual orientation. Interestingly, gay men are much more likely than lesbian women to consistently adopt a “born this way” perspective on their sexuality. Even given the preponderance of biological evidence, I would argue that how we’re positioned in society likely influences our personal understanding of our sexual identities.

So that brings us back to – you guessed it – homophobia. If our highly-individualistic culture wasn’t so powerfully infused with homophobia, what would we say caused our sexual orientation? I bet that lifting the specter of homophobia from our culture would switch up these explanations considerably.

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Filed under biphobia, bisexuality, homophobia, LGBTQ, psychological research, Uncategorized

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