Once again the rainbow folks are skirmishing again over that tedious question: Was I born this way, or did I choose to be gay? You know the party line: we homos were born this way and can’t change even if we wanted to, even if we tried. Our celebrity allies, from Lady Gaga to Macklemore, hew to this line, as do many gay advocates and activists. It’s often gay men who are more insistent on the innateness of sexuality, whereas many lesbian and bisexual women have pushed back at this argument, since we’ve often (not always) had different experiences with sexuality. But here’s a happy turn: the latest challenge to that orthodoxy comes from a gay man. At The New Republic, Brandon Ambrosino is thinking this orthodoxy through for himself, and concluding that “I can’t help myself” is an insulting narrative:
I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which one has no control…. It’s like saying, “You can’t help it, sugar. You were born this way. Me? I was born with astigmatism and a wonky knee. We can’t change our limitations even if we wanted to.” (As if homosexuality was taken out of the DSM only to be written into the ADA.)
No wonder he’s getting corrected by the LGBT thought police. Gabriel Arana, a writer whom I respect enormously, takes issue with Ambrosino by saying, “the idea that being gay is a choice is precisely the grounds on which conservatives seek to deny gays and lesbians civil rights.” Sure, that’s true. But that’s no reason to agree to their terms. As Ambrosino notes, we’ve come a long way, baby, in a very few years—and it might be time to let our conversation get a little more sophisticated.
Ambrosino gets some things very wrong—he’s clueless on trans identities, for one thing, and has trouble distinguishing desire from identity. No one this side of the rainbow flag is arguing that people choose the direction of their romantic and sexual desires in the way that someone might, say, choose between different brands of toothpaste. Desire happens unbidden. Exactly what you’re supposed to do with a deviant flicker has varied over time and space: become a nun or priest; get slotted into a third gender between male and female, called “hijra” or “fa’afafine” or “two-spirit”; marry heterosexually and rear a family, while having “special friends” on the side. But if you get that flicker, you’re faced with a choice, whether or not you choose consciously. Do you suppress the flicker, or follow its lead? If you follow, do you do so openly or secretly?
According to Kinsey, up to 37 percent of men had some sexual experience with another man. “Lesbian until graduation” is by now a well-known phenomenon, and plenty of lesbians and gay men have tangled with those who come to visit for a few nights but head back to heterosexuality once vacation is over. And of course, many gays and lesbians who now identify as 100 percent homosexual have had opposite-sex relations when they were younger. Many adults, in other words, have a little internal leeway to choose which of their desires they will pursue.
Which means that in times and communities where the pressure against being gay is harsh—during the 1950s, say, or in certain religious communities—the few who “come out” and embrace being gay are often the ones with no leeway whatsoever, for whom denying or ignoring that overwhelming internal direction would be emotional suicide. That’s especially true for men. In our culture, masculinity is fiercely patrolled. Being a faggot, until now, has been a gender deviation that got bullied, beaten and badly humiliated. Many of the men fighting for LGBT rights spent years dealing with people who wanted to scour away the gay: dads who taunted them to “man up,” high school athletes who beat them up between classes, church group prayer circles that hounded them to be cleansed by “reparative therapy.” Those are the ones hating on Ambrosino’s argument—because they had no choice, except the choice of whether to kill themselves or come out.