Frank Bruni, in Sunday’s NYT, uses the Cynthia Nixon “I chose to be gay” kerfuffle as a starting point for questioning why it matters, on a civil rights level, whether or not we were born gay.
And it’s a good question. Though it has little to do with what Nixon said.
Cynthia Nixon didn’t question whether we were born gay. She questioned whether we “choose” to be gay. That’s a different question, and it’s absurd. No one chooses whether they tend to find men, or women, or both, sexually pleasing to the eye and to the touch. We choose whether we act on those urges, to be sure. But I challenge any of Nixon’s defenders to give me the name of one person – not whose orientation appeared to fluctuate throughout their life, that isn’t what Nixon said – but rather, who willfully made their own orientation fluctuate, who was able to decide on a given day whether they would find men or women attractive, simply through the power of their own mind.
With that in mind, I have a problem when the NYT describes the controversy as:
[Nixon’s critics] complained that she represented a minority of those in same-sex relationships and that she had furthermore handed a cudgel to our opponents, who might now cite her professed malleability as they make their case that incentives to change, not equal rights, are what we need. [emphasis added]
Wrong. No one said she represented a minority of gay people (though Nixon herself claimed to). We said that she represents absolutely no one – not even herself – because she’s flat our wrong, no one chooses their sexual orientation, and likely using incredibly imprecise language to describe her own experience.
No one’s sexual orientation is the result of a conscious choice as to who we will find attractive. And it’s time for Nixon’s defenders to explain to us all how this little bit of magic actually works. We know electroshock and lobotomies don’t work. And while the religious right claims otherwise, prayer hasn’t been too successful either (ask Mrs. John Paulk, whose “ex-gay” poster-boy husband was caught by Wayne Besen hitting on young men in a seedy gay bar a few years back). Nixon is likely using imprecise language to describe either bisexuality, whether it’s 50-50 or not (Bruni himself concludes that she’s bisexual), or some kind of fluid sexuality (or postponed self-realization) whereby someone honestly does think they’re straight, only to find later in life they’re much happier dating their same gender. Such a change may be rooted in genetics, maybe in hormones, who knows, but it’s not rooted in a conscious decision to will yourself to find a gender physically attractive that you previous did not.
As I’ve written before, you don’t choose what flavor of ice cream you like – your only choice is whether to partake in that particular flavor. And it’s even possible that over time, for a small minority of ice cream lovers, one’s taste in ice cream changes (some even hate ice cream all together). But your favorite flavor never changes simply because you say to yourself, “I’ve always hated chocolate ice cream, but today I’ve decided that I will love chocolate ice cream.”
Does Cynthia Nixon have the right to disagree? Sure, no one is going to throw her in jail. Well, that’s not entirely true. The only other people who believe you can change your sexual orientation through willpower want to throw us in jail simply for being gay, and they use the “choice” argument to justify it. It is interesting, however, that you never hear Nixon’s defenders defending the right of religious right “ex-gays” to define their sexuality the way they wish. I was accused of being a typical man trying to tell a woman what to think. Am I also a misogynist for showing disdain for the pray-away-the-gays?
All of this isn’t entirely relevant to the discussion of whether we deserve our civil rights regardless of whether being gay is a choice, except that it’s a false choice. Why should we cede any ground at all to the religious right, and their GOP enablers, and accept, even arguendo, that maybe it is a choice? To use an extreme example, should we also argue that maybe some of us are pedophiles (to use another popular religious right lie), but even pedophiles deserve rights? Why cede a lie? One that is intended to harm us.
Now, you can cede the “born gay” argument, if you like, and still perhaps convince people that we deserve our civil rights nonetheless – though poll after poll shows that people are far more supportive of our civil rights when they do not think being gay is a choice. But there is no need to cede whether it’s a “choice.” Interestingly, many of Nixon’s defenders wrongly conflate the “born gay” issue with the “it’s a choice” issue; If you don’t think it’s a choice then you naturally must think you were born gay (and thus, if we can cast doubt on homosexuality being 100% genetic, then Nixon has won her case). I think that’s a non sequitur. Even were your sexual orientation a result of environmental factors, rather than birth (or more specifically, genetics), that doesn’t make your orientation your choice. This isn’t about whether or not we’re born gay, it’s about modern science saying a lot of things about how people end up gay, and being able to choose who, or even what gender, you find hot isn’t high up on the list.
As Bruni concedes, even Nixon herself admits, finally, that she’s basically bisexual: “In a Daily Beast interview after the Times article appeared, she clarified that she has experienced an unforced, undeniable attraction to individuals of both sexes. In other words, she’s bisexual, not whimsical. She just happens not to like that term, she said.” But much more important than whether she’s bi is the fact that by her own admission she had these urges for both sexes, urges that she never really says came about because she chose to have those urges. And that is what this entire discussion is about. Not whether you find men women, or both attractive. Not even whether that attraction, for some people, has changed over the course of their lives. But rather, whether someone can turn on and off that attraction at will. If it were that simple to stop being attracted to someone, breaks up would be a hell of a lot easier.
In the end, I think Nixon means she chose “a gay lifestyle” over her previously straight one. There’s really no other word to use that adequately explains her choice of words. And in that, she’s correct – she ceased her life with a man and chose to settle down instead, have a life, with a woman. In her mind, that may constitute “choosing to be gay” – i.e., choosing a gay relationship when she could just as well choose a straight one. But that’s not choosing to be gay, and it’s certainly not the way the loaded phrase is used in America today. And Nixon knows it. She chose to act on her unchosen urges and live her life in a lesbian relationship. And that’s great. But it’s not choosing to be gay.
Cynthia Nixon didn’t weigh in on whether we’re born gay or whether some of our orientations fluctuate. She said that some people make a conscious decision to choose their own sexual orientation, that in essence they can will themselves to suddenly find women attractive when they never did before. I’m arguing that even if your orientation is fluid, even if it’s changed since high school, or throughout your life, it didn’t change because you wrote on your to-do list, “Tuesday at 10:00am, become a lesbian.”