the politics of (another kind of) choice

As a follow up to my letter to the Hope College Board of Trustees last week, I thought I would share a great article on queer politics found via the Bookforum (h/t to Hanna). Stephanie Fairyington @ Utne Reader offers a passionate, personal plea for queer activists to re-discover the language of choosing non-straight relationships and identities, in her essay The Gay Option.

Until homosexuality is cast and understood as a valid choice, rather than a biological affliction, we will never rise above our current status. We will remain Mother Nature’s mistake, tolerable (to some) because our condition is her fault, not ours.

By choice, I don’t mean that one can choose one’s sexual propensities any more than one can choose one’s personality. What I mean is that it’s a choice to act on every desire we have, and that acting on our same-sex attractions is just as valid as pursuing a passion for the Christian faith or Judaism or any other spiritual, intellectual, emotional, or physical craving that does not infringe on the rights of others. And it should be respected as such.

Fairyington acknowledges the enormous political advantages of framing non-straight sexuality as natural, rather than nurtured, proclivity -- and she doesn't reject the possibility (confirmed by her own personal experience) that one's sexual orientation is something one is born with, and is immutable.

At the same time, she challenges us to recognize that this political strategy -- which has made real gains for the human rights and legal protections of non-straight, non-gender conforming folks -- is a claim to rights that relies upon queer sexuality being a biological trait does not require those with anti-gay sentiments to re-examine their understanding of homosexuality as a physical or emotional deformity: rather, it is a framework perfectly adaptable to their claims to success in ex-gay therapies or a quest for "the gay gene" which could somehow be manipulated to alter someone's sexual desires.

The typical conservative assault on homosexuality casts it as a sinful choice that can be unchosen through a commitment to God and reparative therapy. And the left usually slams into this simplistic polemic by taking up the opposite stance: Homosexuality is not a choice, and because we can’t help it, it’s not sinful.

By affirming that homosexual practice and identity are a choice, we can attach an addendum—it’s a good choice—and open the possibility of a more nuanced argument, one that dismantles the logic of the very premise that whom we choose to love marks us as sinful and immoral and interrogates the assumption that heterosexuality is somehow better for the individual and society as a whole.

I grew up in a very conservative community (although my family and immediate circle of friends were by-and-large liberals), and I'm aware of how powerful the biology-based identity argument is when it comes to challenging folks' assumptions about homosexuality = sin. Because arguing that someone is "born that way" draws parallels to skin color and biological sex -- it seems like an easy hook. But likewise, I've also seen how the biological argument so often misses the point that the anti-homosexuality crowd is making. In short, the point that Fairyington makes above: that we selectively choose to act on our desires, and that those choices have moral and ethical implications. We may have thoughts of violent revenge, but choose to practice nonviolence. We may have thoughts of panicked self-defense, but choose to practice compassion.

If queer activists rely solely on the "it's biology" argument, we miss the opportunity to make a moral and ethical case for same-sex relationships, and the capacity of those relationships to add to the sum total of joy and well-being in the world. This is a message much more radical, when you stop to think about it, than scientific debates over the origins of human sexual orientation. Those scientific explorations are stimulating from an intellectual perspective, but will not satisfy our desire as human beings to discern right from wrong. A scientific answer to the question of where same-sex desire originates may inform, but cannot dictate, what we do with those desires.

I think we would do well, as Fairyington proposes, to speak more often and with great passion about the ethical, life-giving nature of our relationship choices. We would do well to speak about following our passions for the sexual relationships that best nourish us and our loved ones. To speak about the way in which feeling at home in our skins when we move through the world grows our capacity for compassion for others (because we no longer have to work so hard to protect ourselves). To speak about the glorious, chaotic uniqueness of every human life, and how all of those lives (ours included) can honor [chosen diety or spiritual path here] through all manner of consensual sexual activities and relationships.

This in no way contradicts the notion that sexual orientation (be it hetero, homo, bi, or otherwise inclined) is biological in nature -- but it does not rely on it either. Using both together, mixing and matching as reflects our own personal experiences, will hopefully broaden our options for political debate and give us a much stronger, multi-faceted place at the table.


  1. Very interesting. It's just so hard to step outside the traditional arguments to try to have a more nuanced opinion, often it's easier to say "I was born this way", instead of "I choose to express how I feel and who I love and there's nothing wrong with that".

  2. @lesbrary thanks for stopping by! I'm totally adding your blog to my Google Reader :).

    I agree that it's not always worth it to go for nuance...if someone's not going to listen anyway, being all nature vs. nurture about it can just shut down the argument. But it's interesting to think about the strengths of the nurture side of things, since it's been co-opted in recent years by those who fear exposure to queer adults will "make" their children somehow gay.

  3. This is a really important point, I think. Arguing that something is inherent edges close to the implication that it's only OK because "we must tolerate the poor benighted [whatever], because they can't help themselves."

    Which is probably a necessary first step sometimes, and if we can get people to move from "Die sinner!" to this sort of grudging/pitying tolerance that's progress, but ideally we want to get further.

    We want to come to the realization: what difference does it make if someone can 'help it' or not? If what they're doing doesn't hurt anyone, what business is it of anyone's whether they do it because they considered several options and picked this one, or because they can't imagine doing anything else?

    I read a book a while back called "Love the Sin" that talked about this as well, and it gave me considerable food for thought.

  4. As a bisexual, I have this argument very, very often. Because I could very well date only men, and society would be happy...it's similar to how straight people can choose to be celibate or not. However, I made the decision that I was going to follow my biological instincts and date whomever I damn well felt attracted to. I think this is why bisexuality gets so much flack from both sides of the movement.

  5. @konkonsn Thanks for the comment :). After writing this, I wondered how much my perspective is colored by the fact I'm bi -- so I'm very obviously making a choice to act on my desire for my partner (who is a woman). I wouldn't be acting against my "natural," biological proclivities to partner with a man (assuming I was attracted to/in love with the particular man in question). So I think that bisexuality throws into relief how nature AND nurture come together: we have a wide range of desires (nature) as human beings, some of which we choose to act on, according to our values (nurture).

    I absolutely belief that the relationship I have with my girlfriend is in accordance with my values, and I think it would behoove all of us in the queer community to talk more openly about why and how we think that to be so.

  6. I first saw a snippet of this post over in Tumblr. My initial reaction, wtf, was calmed to discover your bisexuality. While I won't go as far as to say "how dare you?", I would suggest you approach your writing from the perspective of a bisexual. I don't know a single lesbian that would strike up the "choice" argument. Not for personal, private or political gain.

  7. @Terri,

    First of all thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, even though your first impulse was to as "how dare you??"

    I share your belief that my own personal perspective, as someone who is bi, colors how I hear and speak about not relying solely on biology-based arguments for tolerance of queer sexualities. However, I would like to point out to you that the author of the original article I am reflecting on in this post, Stephanie Fairyington, identifies as a lesbian (which I assume, although perhaps I should not, means that she is predominantly or exclusively attracted to women). So there is at least one self-identified lesbian who would like to reclaim the language of "choice" . . . although perhaps not "choice" in the way you are assuming she (and therefore I) are thinking about it.

    Fairyington writes, in the passage I quote above, "by choice, I don’t mean that one can choose one’s sexual propensities any more than one can choose one’s personality. What I mean is that it’s a choice to act on every desire we have." This is not an argument to discard the concept that our sexual orientations are not based in our bodies, innate and with us from birth, on some level unchangeable in their fundamental structures. Rather, I think it is important to recognize that advocacy of queer sexualities as legitimate shouldn't stop at the argument "it's natural, therefore..." for the simple reason that not everything "natural" is considered desirable or moral in our society and culture(s), and not everything moral or desirable has its roots in the "natural." As Fairyington points out, we have desires and urges we don't necessarily act on (such as the impulse to strangle a screaming infant on the subway).

    Those who view homosexuality as a sinful behavior, and hold a "hate the sin but love the sinner" attitude would most likely accept the argument that homosexual desires have basis in biology -- they would just argue that those desires should not be acted upon, since they believe that homosexual acts (like strangling the screaming infant in the subway) have negative consequences for humanity.

    The "choice," then, is not a choice to experience certain desires -- but to act on them. And I think it is extremely important to talk about how acting on same-sex desires with enthusiastically consenting partners contributes to the common good. I am a sexual being (of whatever orientation) regardless of whether I am sexually active with another person. Choosing to be sexually active with my partner because I love her and it enriches our lives and enhances our well-being is an act (I believe) that contributes to the well-being of humanity. I am not forced to choose her by some defect in my biological makeup, and building a life with her is not a lesser option than building a life with a partner of another sex.

    I realize most queer folks believe this already, but I don't think it's such an easy thing to talk about (any more than it's an easy thing for straight folks to talk about the pleasures they experience in sexual relationships and their reasons for making the choices they have. To say "I was born this way" isn't untrue (we are all born with our sexual preferences to some extent), but it is a line of argument that downplays the power of positive agency. It drowns out the joy of being in the relationships we are in, and our reasons for choosing our partners -- not out of a lack of "better" (read: straight) options, but because we love or lusted after them (not to mention both!).