I recently wrote in an essay for The New Republic that gayness is, at least for me, a choice. My critics’ response was immediate and unanimous: That's impossible, they replied, because science has proven that gays are born that way. I was also accused of conflating identity and desire, and I even read that my position could get LGBT people killed. I'll take these arguments one at a time.
Writing at Slate, Mark Joseph Stern insists that sexual “orientation can never be altered,” citing "a number of scientists” he interviewed for an earlier article on the subject. Stern's certainty is all the more surprising, given his admission science has “never settled on an answer” for the origins of gayness and that the scientific studies he links to are couched with all kinds of qualifications. The National Center for Biotechnical Information study he cites, for instance, reads (italics mine): “Available evidence suggests that male homosexuality is … somewhat heritable … However, most studies have recruited subjects in a relatively unsystematic manner … and hence suffer from the potential methodological flaw of ascertainment bias …."
The science on orientation remains murky. On this subject, the American Psychological Association says, “Many [scientists] think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.” You might overlook the word “sense” in that quote, but that would be a serious distortion of the psychological consensus. Having no sense of choice refers to an unawareness of choosing, not the inability to choose. Further, while the APA affirms the possibility of homosexuality’s innateness (nature), it leaves open the possibility that, for at least some of us, gay orientation could be the result of “complex” environmental processes (nurture).
On the matter of identity versus desire. Gabriel Arana writes in The New Republic, "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." Noah Michelson offers a similar sentiment in a Huffington Post article: “ … very few people would claim that they chose their attractions or that they could or can simply change them at will. However, what we do with our attractions and how we perform them is a choice.”
Michelson's qualification “very few people” is very different than “no one.” Even if it’s true that only a small number of gay people choose their orientations, why isn’t Michelson willing to believe that I could be one of them? Obviously, a person can be sexually attracted to someone and not act on that attraction, and I agree that it’s possible that a man might go his entire life without ever acting on his same-sex desires. But to spell out a clear dichotomy between the two, as my critics are doing, is misguided for two reasons: the first is theological, the second theoretical.
To argue for such a chasm between the concepts of desire and behavior is, quite frankly, to argue toward the rudimentary Sunday School theology that one can be tempted to sin, but not act on it. Thus, my critics’ claim that one may choose to act on his orientation but not choose his orientation inches startlingly close to the philosophy informing “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” Many have pointed out the danger in conflating gay identity and desire, but what about the danger of bifurcating them? How many religious people have experienced psychological trauma from being told not to act on their gay desires? How many of them, unable to keep desire and identity separate, have ended up taking their own lives? It seems rather odd that, in their passion to invalidate my arguments, gay activists would take up the same line of reasoning as the Southern Baptist Convention.
The other reason I think the identity/desire dichotomy is misguided has to do with the constructedness of sexual orientation. In the words of gay sociologist Jeffrey Weeks: "Social processes construct subjectivities not just as categories but at the level of individual desires." There are several noted queer thinkers who have argued in this way, most famously Foucault, who argues that sexual desire is a social construction. David Halperin defends this idea in 100 Years of Homosexuality, and cheekily gets at it in How to Be Gay. Perhaps in response to the claim that homosexual desire is a construct, we could argue that history is replete with gay men. But one need only invoke the term “historical revisionism” to topple that house of projections.
I am not guilty of conflating identity and desire because, quite simply, I don’t think there is a glaring distinction between the two. Both “identity” and “desire” are arbitrary categories we’ve constructed in our post-enlightenment zeal to neatly label every aspect of the human condition. One is not static, and the other fluid. Both adapt, as both are performed. What I want informs what I do, and what I do informs what I want. All sexuality is conditioned in this way, and to say otherwise is to ignore a good deal of sociology.
A few critics upped the stakes with their third criticism of me. Not only, they argue, is it philosophically “naïve”—as Arana called me—to argue that being gay can be a choice, but it puts all gays in danger. Arana argues that this "is precisely the grounds on which conservatives seek to deny gays and lesbians civil rights.” Michelson takes it one step further, writing that my “dangerous” essay could have "unthinkably terrifying consequences," fueling "the barbaric practice of 'conversion therapy'" and anti-gay legislation in countries like Uganda and Russia.
But as I’ve already pointed out, aspects of Michelson and Arana’s arguments—specifically their point about bifurcating identity and desire—could also be taken as fuel for LGBT discrimination. Whether hateful people use my words or my critics’ words against our LGBT community, the fact is they will always find some way to justify their hatred. That someone might distort our arguments doesn’t mean that we stop arguing difficult positions. It means that we keep arguing them with precision and exactitude.
The accusation that I’m endangering someone’s life by writing about my personal experiences is absurd, but not nearly as insulting as the suggestion that I have ulterior, intellectually dishonest motives for making my case. Michelson writes,
In just under a year, Brandon Ambrosino has made an impressive career for himself by writing pieces for major media outlets in which he plays the contrarian — an old, worn-out trick that many before him have also used to great success. His essays are titillating — and drive traffic to the sites that feature him — because he's a gay man who excuses homophobia and argues against what many queer thinkers and activists, including me, believe.
Stern, similarly, refers to my “swift ascent as chief homophobia apologist of the gay blogosphere.” It's worth noting that both instances appear in their lead paragraphs—they start not by attacking my argument, but me personally.
Hard as it may be for my critics to believe, I don't write in the hopes of gaining notoriety, or driving clicks, or making a quick buck. There are easier ways to accomplish that, without wide swaths of the LGBT blogosphere railing against me. And maybe that's why my recent article elicited such a furious reaction: the creeping fear that I might actually believe what I’m writing. Better to shout me down before anyone else admits to making the same choice that I made to be gay.
Brandon Ambrosino is a writer and professional dancer based in Baltimore. He has written for The Atlantic, TIME, McSweeney's, The Huffington Post, Narratively, Gawker, Buzzfeed, the Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @Brandonambro.