Ever since it was reported the other day that actress Cynthia Nixon, a bit indignantly, said that for her, being gay is a “choice,” I’ve been trying to get my thoughts together on exactly how I feel about what she said, and why it bothers me. Here’s the exact quote, and then I’ll tell you what I think about it:
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.
Writer Alex Witchel reports that “her face was red and her arms were waving” as she continued, “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,” Nixon said. “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.”
Cynthia Nixon’s experience is Cynthia Nixon’s experience, of course, so to be clear, we are not debating that. I think that the biggest problem with her quote is that it’s irresponsible, because it introduces a concept and a reality that is really hard to capture in a sound bite. The trouble with that is that the very same bigots she refers to are simply not going to go beyond the sound bite, and choose instead to point at her and say, “see? She said it’s a choice! Now change.”
The truth of the matter, as science has been discovering for a while now, is that sexuality is far, far more complex than we’ve understood in the past, and that indeed, one of the major “x factors” involved in how people experience sexuality has more to do with how many x chromosomes they have, and less to do with whether they’re homo-, hetero- or bisexual. Tracy Clark-Flory examines this at Salon:
Activists have long combated extremist attacks on LGBT identities by highlighting the science showing that homosexuality is genetic — or, in the words of Lady Gaga, that gay people are “born that way.” It may be that simple for some, but research increasingly suggests that it isn’t for all — especially for gay women.
Lisa Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, spent over a decade tracking sexual identity changes in a group of 100 women for her book “Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire.” She wrote, “Women’s sexuality is fundamentally more fluid than men’s, permitting greater variability in its development and expression over the life course.” Based on her research, she describes three main ways that sexual fluidity is expressed: “nonexclusivity in attractions” (i.e., the capacity to find all genders sexually attractive), “changes in attractions” (i.e., suddenly becoming romantically involved with a woman after a lifetime dating men) and the capacity to become attracted to ‘the person and not the gender’” (i.e., a partner’s sex is irrelevant).
Copious research has revealed striking differences in male and female sexual orientation and arousal. In immensely awkward studies measuring men’s hard-ons while viewing various sexual stimuli, most guys have a strong response to either males or females; and their sexual orientation generally predicts their physical reaction. On the other hand, Bailey explains, “Women’s genital sexual arousal pattern is much less predictive of their sexual identity and their stated preferences,” he says. “Lesbians have a relatively weaker arousal preference for female sexual stimuli, on average, and straight women have no preference at all, on average.”
Okay. so, if you’re an honest person and you pay attention to this stuff, you already knew all of this. If you’re a decent person, it doesn’t change your support for things like marriage equality and nondiscrimination acts. Because it doesn’t matter! On that point, Cynthia Nixon and I agree. However, where it gets difficult, in this sound bite world, is in explaining that, even acknowledging the fact that men’s sexuality tends to be pretty much what it is, from the first time we get boners associated with sexual thoughts, whereas women often experience sexuality in a much more complex way, that still doesn’t do a damn thing for the Religious Right’s argument that people should want to change from gay to straight. And because we’re dealing with the Religious Right, we are in a situation where we are not arguing with people who are willing or even capable of rational, detailed discourse. For them, it’s all about their ideology and about preserving white male conservative Christian heterosexuality as the only truly “okay” state of being. Also, it’s about control.
But they will, as I said above, use sound bites like that against us, which is why I think it’s irresponsible. Cynthia has lent her voice to our cause in very powerful ways over the years, so this is in no way an attack on her. I feel that, perhaps, maybe she could have said a bit more on the subject, perhaps not casually throwing the word “choice” around and instead talking about how her sexuality evolved in the way it did. Readers on this side of the spectrum pretty much get what she’s saying, I think, but the Religious Right hears “choice,” and they think “well that proves it. Cynthia Nixon woke up one morning and decided to embrace the homosexual lifestyle.” Cynthia is free to correct me if I am wrong, but I doubt that her story is that simple, or that the story for any other women who have experienced a more fluid sexuality is that simple.
Moreover, what of bisexuals? One of the silliest Religious Right lies out there, one that truly makes me shake my head in the direction of whatever rock they live under, is that bisexuals naturally will want/need to marry one person of each gender. Indeed, when bisexuals decide to settle down into relationships, they tend to choose a partner they’re compatible with, regardless of gender. Sometimes they end up with same-sex partners, sometimes they end up with opposite-sex partners. Because they’re bisexual! I don’t think Cynthia is necessarily bisexual — she surely disavowed the concept in her statement — but there are many bisexuals out there who, when settling down with partners, make a choice to settle down with either a man or a woman. This, of course, still shouldn’t give the Religious Right any reason to feel stronger in their argument that, due to unreasoned bigotry hiding behind a third-grade reading of an ancient holy book, those people should opt for opposite-sex partners.
Here’s what we know. Men, due to our biology, tend to have a fixed, lifelong sexual orientation that we experience regardless of any “choices” we make. Alan Chambers “chooses” to live in what I would assume is a fairly sexless marriage with a woman, while admitting that he still is very much into guys. Many women experience a sexual orientation that is fixed in just the same way, but others experience it in a more fluid way that can change over the course of their lives.
Here’s what else we know. All major, grown-up mental health and medical associations have stated that reparative therapy, religious attempts to change a person’s sexual orientation through outside force, are somewhere between ineffective and harmful. Moreover, all major, grown-up mental health and medical associations have very politely stated that there is nothing inherently unhealthy or disordered about being gay, bisexual or straight.
Here’s another what else we know. Religious wingnut arguments against homosexuality have absolutely no place in rational discourse, as they do not involve rational thought, but rather stupid bigotry dressed up in religious language. We also know that the Religious Right has a pattern of using the same “biblical” arguments against whatever the hell it is that they hate these days. For them, it is all about control and their petty unwillingness to play well with others in a secular society that doesn’t automatically give them blow jobs, ponies and first prize ribbons simply for existing.
We on the side of fairness, equality and reality should be comfortable with dealing with science and reality, as they are. Reality doesn’t threaten us. But we do, until this battle for equality is fully won, have to be careful with our rhetoric and our casual comments, because our enemy is not upstanding and is not honest. As I said above, perhaps with this issue, it’s better to explain more of the reality, not less. We are only beginning to truly understand human sexuality from a scientific perspective, and what we’re learning is fascinating. But it’s nothing as simple as “a choice,” and certainly not in the way the Religious Right uses that word.
Of course, I also agree with Cynthia that, however sexual orientation works, it shouldn’t matter when it comes to things like equal rights. I mean hell, we’ve given the Religious Right carte blanche for decades for their beliefs, and those beliefs are clearly chosen. No, this is about dignity, fairness and equal opportunity.
So maybe this is a teachable moment, for those willing to learn. Sexuality is far, far, far more complex than people often understand, and is fascinating to study. People deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual orientation. Those two ideas shouldn’t have a hard time coexisting, as they haven’t a damn thing to do with one another.