Born This Way? Or, does it really matter if homosexuality is a choice?

Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon drew the ire of gay rights groups for a series of comments she made in an interview with the New York Times last week. Nixon, an out of the closet bisexual person, claimed that for her, being gay is a choice:

“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.”

Armed with swift scorn for Nixon’s comments, prominent bloggers like AMERICAblog’s John Aravosis responded:

“[Nixon] needs to learn how to choose her words better, because she just fell into a right-wing trap, willingly. When the religious right says it’s a choice, they mean you quite literally choose your sexual orientation, you can change it at will, and that’s bull. It’s not a “choice,” unless you consider my opting to date a guy with brown hair versus a guy with blonde hair a “choice.” It’s only a choice among flavors I already like.  And if you like both flavors, men and women, you’re bisexual, you’re not gay, so please don’t tell people that you are gay, and that gay people can “choose” their sexual orientation, i.e., will it out of nowhere.  Because they can’t.  And when you tell the NYT they can, you do tremendous damage to our civil rights effort.  Every religious right hatemonger is now going to quote this woman every single time they want to deny us our civil rights.  Thanks.”

Aravosis is right—Nixon’s comments can be used as ammunition in the anti-gay arsenal, but that’s due to the poverty of our national discourse on issues of sexual orientation and the LGBT community’s complicity in framing the debate on the terms of those who seek its delegitimization.

Extensive research has been conducted with the goal of determining the extent to which homosexuality is an immutable characteristic of one’s biology versus a product of postnatal environmental factors. “Born This Way” has become the reactionary LGBT rallying cry in the Epoch of Gaga. But the scientific question of nature versus nurture has nothing to do with our common understanding of choice, and dwelling on it serves only to obfuscate the actual role of choice in respect to one’s sexual preferences.

For instance, I don’t like chocolate ice cream. I don’t know why I don’t like it, I just don’t. Both of my parents and my sister like chocolate ice cream, so  my preference isn’t a genetic predisposition. Alternately, It may be a combination of past experiences that has led me to disqualify this treat which so many others enjoy. Ultimately though, the question of whether my dislike for it is due to genetics or environmental factors is quite irrelevant— because it is a preference, not a choice. I can choose to eat chocolate ice cream, but I can’t choose to like it.

Seen in this light, Nixon’s comments are understandably frustrating. Aravosis writes, “What the haters, and Cynthia Nixon, are leaving out is that for most men it’s an easy choice since they’re not into other men at all, they’re only into women.  But for gay guys, they’re into other guys, and not into women.  So for us, it’s the only choice; and for straight guys, it’s no choice at all.”

If our preferences are our preferences regardless of biological or environmental factors, “Born this Way” seems to be a logical framing of the issue. But does claiming homosexuality to be an inborn trait represent an effective Kung Fu chop to the haters? Hardly. Whether a rapist is “born this way” or freely chooses to act as he does affects only whether society will send him to a mental institution or to prison. The fact remains that, regardless of the underlying cause of his actions, society regards him as a dangerous deviant.

By sounding the “Born this Way” horn, the LGBT community falls into a similar trap. To those who are repulsed by homosexuality, who seek to deny gays protection under the law, and who just wish they would “crawl back into the sewer,” arguing that homosexuality is an inborn characteristic does nothing to expunge the deviance and sin associated with it. Born this way or chose it—the only difference it makes to the haters is whether to “pray the gay away” or seek a medical intervention.

Nixon raises this point in the latter part of her New York Times interview:

“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. I say it doesn’t matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not…Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? 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.”

There is an unintended yet real undercurrent of self loathing hidden in the “Born this Way” defense, and by using it, the LGBT community is unwittingly allowing the opposition to frame the debate to their disadvantage.

“I can’t help the way I am! I was just born this way!”

In order for the message of sexual orientation equality to gain traction, the LGBT community needs to shift its focus from the argument that gayness is a regrettable but unavoidable inborn trait to the argument that the debate itself doesn’t matter. If there’s nothing wrong with being gay, whether it’s a biological trait, a choice, or merely a preference, the nature versus nurture issue is irrelevant.

Let’s return to my dislike of chocolate ice cream. You probably didn’t think that paragraph was the most enthralling. Why? Because frankly, nobody cares whether or not I like chocolate ice cream. The factors informing our choices and the reasons behind our preferences are important only if our preferences and choices have moral consequence. Since no one thinks the choice between Chunky Monkey versus Cherry Garcia raises any great moral quandary, no one cares to debate why one would choose one over the other.

It is precisely on these grounds that the LGBT community should stake their claim. To the haters, homosexuality has moral consequences regardless of its cause. The claim that some people are “Born this Way” will neither convince religious right-wingers of their own bigotry nor deal a death blow to gay rights opposition within our national discourse. But attitudes are changing towards homosexuality, not because it’s becoming seen as less and less of a choice, but because the heterosexual majority is becoming increasingly familiar with LGBT people carrying out loving, supportive relationships, raising children, and being productive members of society—in short, it sees these alternative lifestyle preferences as carrying little or no moral relevance.

The LGBT community would be better served to abandon as fruitless ground the framing of the debate on the terms of nature versus nurture. Perhaps then, Lady Gaga shouldn’t have written a song called “Born this Way,” but rather “Who the Hell Cares?”