What if, despite all the testimonials to the contrary, people in fact choose to be gay? Would it matter? Brandon Ambrosino entertained precisely this hypothetical earlier this week in The New Republic. Writing a few days after the Grammy Awards, during which Queen Latifah officiated a mass same-sex and heterosexual wedding to the tune of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Same Love," Ambrosino argued that while it may be politically expedient to say homosexuality is inborn, doing so glosses over how “fluid” sexuality really is and denies us the freedom of choosing our own identity. The chorus in "Same Love"—"I can't change even if I tried, even if I wanted to"—is wrong, he wrote, and in hewing to Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" line, gays and lesbians are failing to embrace the "sexual autonomy" and fluidity of our bisexual and transgender brethren.
This line of reasoning has a hip, "post-gay" appeal, but it is eye-rollingly naïve, a starry-eyed view you might expect from a college student who's just taken their first queer-theory class. From a political standpoint, it matters a great deal whether sexual orientation is inborn or a choice. Rightly or wrongly, social conservatives object to homosexuality on the grounds that it is a lifestyle choice. Ambrosino is right to question this premise—whether homosexuality is inborn or chosen should have no bearing on whether it is immoral. But the public makes this leap. By arguing that homosexuality is inborn, those in the gay-rights movement are able to pre-empt this line of attack.
But what if we went at it another way? Ambrosino suggests this response to social conservatives who say being gay is a choice:
"Maybe I wasn’t born this way. Now tell me why you think that matters." I imagine many religious people haven’t really thought through the implications of their own rhetoric. (What, for instance, does a socially-constructed word like “natural” even mean?)
From time to time, some celebrity or another will make this argument, giving rise to outraged headlines across the gay blogosphere. Most recently, it was Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon, who ran afoul of LGBT activists by saying she chose to be a lesbian. "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," Nixon said. "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."
Social conservatives dismiss outright the idea that homosexuality is inborn. They insist it is a choice. From their point of view, biology is destiny. Because gay sex does not produce offspring, it is not part of God's procreative design—it's abnormal, an aberration. John Stuart Mill's idea that "no one should be forcibly prevented from acting in any way he chooses provided his acts are not invasive of the free acts of others" simply won't fly with religious conservatives.
Those of us who support LGBT rights are committed to the "born this way" narrative not as a civil-rights strategy, but for the simple reason that it's true. The main problem with Ambrosino's argument is that he is conflating concepts like sexual orientation, identity, behavior, and expression. It is true that I have chosen to identify as gay, that I express myself in a way that makes it clear I am gay, and that I have gay sex. All of these are a matter of choice. But my sexual orientation—my underlying attraction for men—is beyond my control.
I do not mean to suggest that my experience is universal. Bisexual people feel attraction to both sexes and can choose to develop a relationship with a member of either sex. Their biology gives them flexibility, but their underlying attraction to both sexes persists. Most people fall along the tail ends of the Kinsey spectrum, but even those who do experience some "fluidity" in their attractions do not experience radical shifts in whom they’re attracted to. Nixon went to a party, saw her future lover, and bam! But she didn't choose, before going to that party, that she will find breasts attractive. Science is still unclear on what causes homosexuality, but we should not expect to find a single gay gene; sexual orientation involves a complex interplay of genetic factors. While it is widely thought to be rooted in biology, scientists suspect environmental factors may also be at play. But even then, one’s environment is not the subject of a conscious choice.
In his piece, Ambrosino suggests that the "G" and "L" parts of the LGBT movement take a cue from bi and trans people, who are more hip to the idea that sexuality is fluid. For one thing, being transgender is a matter of identity—not sexual orientation; there are trans women who are attracted to men, and trans women who are attracted to women. And bisexuals, while able to engage in sex with or pair off with a member of either sex, would not identify their sexual orientation as subject to whims—it's simply not experienced that way. He also argues that the LGBT movement's insistence on making sexual orientation innate stems from a desire to treat it like race, which would entitle gays and lesbians to government protection from discrimination. Some civil-rights leaders bristle at comparisons between the civil-rights and gay-rights movements. But the parallels drawn between the gay and civil-rights movements aren't just convenient; at heart, the discrimination faced by racial and sexual minorities is drive by the same irrational prejudice.
Ambrosino may be overstating his case for effect, but the idea that being gay is a choice is precisely the grounds on which conservatives seek to deny gays and lesbians civil rights. "Whenever someone accepts me merely because she feels obligated to do so by my genetic code," he writes, "I feel degraded rather than empowered.” The idea that it's empowering to choose one’s sexual orientation may have some allure, but in practice it's the very basis for much of the discrimination gays and lesbians face.
Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter at @gabrielarana.