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Some People (May) Choose to be Gay, Get Over It

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The good lumberjackish folk of Maine, Washington, and Minnesota recently felled a few more trees in the great forest of ignorance that is the case against giving gays and lesbians equal civil rights - namely the right to marry. The people of Minnesota more trimmed than felled, voting down a resolution defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, but it's a good start. Voters in Washington State and Maine elected to allow gay marriage. Voters in Maryland did the same, but since there are less trees there my metaphor doesn't work, sorry Maryland.

And so went another of the fallacious arguments against civil rights down the river to be pulped (sorry, no more logging metaphors). Following the demise of the social harm argument, with the shocking discovery that gays and lesbians are, for the most part, really not that dangerous, the homophobes had to craft a more devious strategy. This time they opted for a version of an old racist classic, "some of my best friends are black/gay/left-handed, but...". What the 'but' meant was that mainstream America (or fill in name of country) just wasn't quite ready for real equality, oh, and also it would change the nature of marriage irrevocably and ruin everyone's life - the social harm argument never really went away! Gay marriage may be well and good for the pinkos in Massachusetts and New York, and for the weirdos in Quebec and... Belgium (ok no one ever mentions Belgium, but I had to plug it), but not for good, wholesome, real Americans, who actually care more about their families and communities than their soy macchiatos. Well, you don't get much more hearty Americana than Maine, Minnesota, and Washington (sorry Maryland). Turns out that these folks may have realized that caring for your family and community means ensuring that everyone in your family and community has the same rights. Glee probably helped too.

But the stupid tree is a hearty species, and like stinkweed it's tough to eradicate. Though they're running out of options the homophobes can still try to fall back to the 'it's not natural, it's a lifestyle choice' argument, and from there argue that while there are things you have no control over, like being black or a woman, and so should be protected by law from being discriminated against for, being gay is your own choice, hence it's not automatically evident that it would be in the same category vis-à-vis civil rights. Let's chainsaw this erroneous and harmful logic! The gay rights movement has responded by insisting that it's not a choice, gays and lesbians, are 'born this way'. I commend the work being done by these campaigners, but I'm also slightly wary. I worry that there is a bit of homophobic residue in the idea that one would have to be born that way to be gay, i.e. if one could choose to be not gay one would. This seems to leave open the idea that there might be something bad about non-hetero sexualities, but people have no control over them and so should not be persecuted for them.

What if we let go of the 'born this way' argument? There is no hard scientific evidence to support it, and people are often mistaken in their self-assessment of what is and is not in their control, but that's not the point. From the perspective of a liberal democratic society, what difference does it make if a form of behaviour (let's think of sexuality as a form of behaviour) is inborn or a choice? I think none. If a form of behaviour does not harm others, then there is no reason that an individual should be penalized by having rights revoked should they choose to engage in it. So by this account, being gay or straight or bi or whatever may be a 'lifestyle choice' of some sort. If that choice makes you happy and doesn't cause harm shouldn't a liberal society support it?

Many people respond by saying that being gay, especially when a teenager in a homophobic environment, made them very unhappy. How on earth could you say that this is a choice! First, I doubt it was the being gay itself, but rather the abusive and discriminatory behaviour of others that made them unhappy. The few moments they got to be gay without fear or shame horning in probably did make them happy. Second, choice is probably not the best way to think about these issues. I don't choose to be a straight man in the way that I chose between toast and cereal this morning. The relation between some kind of bodily orientation and my conscious and unconscious exercise of freedom is without doubt a complex one. The point is that if I did wake up this morning and choose to be gay or straight it should make no difference in relation to what rights I have. I should not be discriminated against for a choice that hurts no one and makes me happy. That's a good choice!

Cynthia Nixon has made similar claims (and been attacked for them), the queer by choice movement has long argued for this kind of position, but things are truer when famous people say them! Let's sweep the carpet out from under the homophobes by giving them some ground and letting them flounder all over it. Once we stop worrying about whether its inborn or not, we can see that it makes little difference where rights are concerned and that's an argument we should have and win. Sexual orientation is, I think, a complex thing and not reducible to the facile and outdated categories of nature or nurture. Likewise, rights can be complex. But the case here is simple, whether that way by chance or choice, gays and lesbians deserve the right to marry. Granting that right in the UK is a good choice, let's make it now.