25 May 2010

Why do we care if sexuality is chosen?

The question of the relationship of choice to sexual orientation has been a topic in GLBT philosophy since its beginning. Claudia Card, as she so often does, set the agenda by arguing that the language of "fated/determined" on the one hand and "chosen" on the other is simply inadequate to capture the reality of sexuality. The discussion since then has focused mostly on determining if and when choice comes into play, and further how extensive our ability to choose sexual orientation is. There are three options: (1) one chooses one's sexual orientation, (2) one does not choose one's sexual orientation, or (3) one "partially" chooses one's sexual orientation. (3) Of course represents a fairly unstable compromise (what does "partially choose" mean?) but I am one of several people, like Card herself, who have tried to make that position work, in both my book and in essays.

The question I'd now like to ask now is a different one: why do we care? What in us wants an answer to this question of how much choice goes into sexual identity and orientation? I don't have an answer to that question yet, but I have some new thoughts about it. Certainly, there has been a political motivation for answering this question all along. Research I did into contemporary Christian homophobia showed me that it is based in part on a fear of a polluted will. Construed on the model of addiction, this polluted will amounts to a systematic inability to make the right choice with regard to sex (a problem that is seen to be connected to the Fall). This partly explains why the Christian right fears homosexuality: it will spread the sins of the flesh through a weakening of the will, through an inability to make the right choices. It is hardly surprising then, that this particular brand of homophobia would describe homosexuality as a perverted choice made by degenerates. And it is no less surprising that this would then provoke a response on the part of the gay and lesbian community to claim homosexuals do not choose their orientation.

The claim that homosexuals do not choose their orientation has other political origins as well: it goes all the way back to the earliest "modern" gay and lesbian activists in the 1950s, who had the idea of construing sexual identities and their struggles on the model of other minority and civil rights struggles. The thought was that regarding sexuality as a given feature of an individual's natural make up would allow us to argue for the injustice of homophobia, because it is morally unjust to discriminate on the basis of features of persons' lives that they don't choose. This, after all, is what makes racism unjust according to a liberal framework. The mainstream gay and lesbian movement still continues to proclaim "we didn't choose to be this way."

There is also a more personal dimension to this question of choice. Some might be unable to accept homosexuality as a good in itself, and see sexual orientation as something they did not choose in order to distance themselves from its "stain." For others, it is important to their sense of worth to either feel that they did chose their sexuality. Some might wish to see themselves as choosing sexuality out of a desire to contest normative heterosexuality, or patriarchy (the probably over-used example of political lesbians), or possibly out of a desire to see oneself as in charge of one's sexuality.

I have always voiced objections to the line of thought that argues that we don't choose homosexuality. I think it is simply false for reasons I have stated elsewhere (we do partly choose our sexuality), but I have also always had political/moral objections to it: I have thought that it concedes too much to homophobia. To say, "I'm gay, but don't judge me because I didn’t choose to be this way," seemed to tacitly admit that one would not choose homosexuality; that it is a less desirable choice for one's life. It thereby agrees that there could be something wrong or undesirable about homosexuality, and simply says we didn't choose homosexuality. I always stood with a more radical, less assimilationist wing of the GLBT movement that thinks we should be working a world that would be more accepting and more open to possibilities of life then simply being compelled to accept what is "natural" in us under a liberal conception of justice.

I now find myself a bit puzzled about these various personal and political motivations for taking one view or the other. My uncertainty stems from the fact that I am no longer certain that affirming sexuality as a choice automatically represents a more positive view of homosexuality. It is at least possible to accept the idea that something is "wrong" with homosexuality and believe it to be either chosen or fated. Simply put, the puzzle is this: assume that one can either believe that one's sexual orientation is natural and fated or one can believe that it is at least partly chosen. In the first case, one might want to deny the role of choice in order to deny responsibility for being an abnormal pervert. So the belief that sexual orientation is natural and given, rather than chosen, is used to distance oneself from a perverted sexuality. Effectively, the claim is, "My choices define me, and this is not one of my choices. " This then issues in the political claim that one should not face discrimination because one cannot be judged for what one is, only for what one does. The political claim then parallels claims about the injustice of racism: person should not be judged on the basis of their skin color or racial membership, but by the famous "content of their character," which no doubt results from choices they made. Both personally and politically, homosexuality is denied positive value by denying that it is something one would or could choose.

In the second case, although the desire to see oneself as choosing sexuality might appear to be a positive desire to embrace abnormalcy, the desire to claim that one chooses sexual orientation can also express a desire to place oneself at a distance from abnormal sexuality. The claim here simply reverses the priority of the first case and says: "Perverse sexuality, were it my nature, would mean I am a freak. I am not a freak of nature, because I chose this way of being." The claim here is equally "My choices define me," but now, in order to refuse having the nature of an abnormal pervert, the person claims, "and this is one of my choices." In short; I wouldn't want to be that; it is merely something I do. This could then be another reason for the political claim, typically advanced by the more radical wing of the GLBT movement, that sexuality is not a "natural" or a given, and in fact it could explain general suspicion on that side for all claims about sexual natures. Both personally and politically, sexuality is denied positive value because it is not seen as something that somebody would want to be.

Both cases require a certain amount of "Nietzschean" suspicion to succeed: that is, they require one to believe that one's stated reasons for one's personal views and political strategies may not be the whole story about their function and origin. I'm comfortable with this kind of suspicion, but I guess the next step would be to look at some genuine GLBT activist literature and see if I can't find confirmation of these suspicions.

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting post, Bill. I had never thought to wonder what hinges on sexuality being chosen or fated. From the side of why heterosexuals care, it strikes me as plausible that some, having been taught to tolerate diversity, find that their conscience is okay with negatively judging homosexuals if sexual orientation (that deviates from the norm) is chosen, because otherwise they would be condemning something over which people have no control and that's just frowned upon. So, for example, it's not okay to express racist attitudes, because people don't choose their race; if the general principle here is that it's not okay to express negative attitudes toward that which people do not choose, then people who want to condemn homosexuality are going to feel some pressure to maintain that sexual orientation, unlike race, must be a choice. If they admit it is not a choice, then they're just being jerks in expressing their disdain. But if it is chosen, it is okay to condemn for the same reason that it is okay to condemn, say, drug addicts (if, in fact, addiction is something over which people have control, which seems to be the verdict of common sense at the moment). This might connect with the idea of denying homosexuality value ; but the more direct connection, to me, is with the desire not to feel guilty about one's attitudes, or the desire to dress an "ick" reaction up as something that's rational and permissible instead of just a personality quirk.