Texas Governor Rick Perry has again made headlines for the wrong reasons when, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California last week, he likened homosexuality to alcoholism. "Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that," he said. "I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way."
Gay-rights groups reacted per usual. "Although he may not have the 'genetic coding' to think before he speaks, Rick Perry, M.D. should have a real conversation with actual doctors before voicing his expertise on these issues,” said Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign.
But here's a thought: What if Rick Perry was right?
I'm not saying that Perry is right. I'm saying that it's time for the LGBT community to start moving beyond genetic predisposition as a tool for gaining mainstream acceptance of gay rights.
For decades now, it's been the most powerful argument in the LGBT arsenal: that we were “born this way.” Certainly there's evidence that the argument has played an important role in the shifting of attitudes towards the LGBT community. And the evidence for genetic predisposition is overwhelming. If scientists choose to be skeptical about one argument in favor of predisposition, they have several other arguments to fall back on: Studies of congenital adrenal hyperplasia and other conditions suggesting increased levels of testosterone in the pre-birth hormones of lesbian and bisexual women. The fact that gay men are far more likely than straight men to be left handed, have older brothers, and have female relatives that are more fertile. The index to middle finger ratios of lesbians are more aligned with the ratios of men than those of women, and, like men, lesbians have weaker otoacoustic emissions. Taken together, these arguments have led scientists to believe that for most gays and lesbians, orientation is predisposed at birth.
Still, as compelling as these arguments are, they may have outgrown their usefulness. With most Americans now in favor of gay marriage, it's time for the argument to shift to one where genetics don't matter. The genetic argument has boxed us into a corner, allowing people like Perry to suggest that we shouldn't act upon our impulses. By insisting with the “we can't help ourselves” argument, isn't the gay community indirectly agreeing with people like Perry that these impulses are somehow wrong?
When AIDS first devastated the LGBT community, the genetic predisposition argument made a lot of sense: faced with hysteria and virulent homophobia, gays and lesbians needed to win the sympathies of a straight population ready to condemn them for their “lifestyle choices.” Now that AIDS has become a manageable disease, and attitudes have shifted, it's entirely possible that the argument can and should shift to one that is more sex-positive and libertarian: maybe some of us do choose to be gay.
It's entirely possible that in a world where homophobia isn't rampant, more people would in fact make that choice. By which I mean: Given the opportunity to change their sexual orientation to heterosexual, would most gays and lesbians actually choose to do so nowadays? Some might. But I, and most other gay people I know, would not—i.e., we would "choose" to remain gay. We are quite comfortable with our sexuality, and have grown tired of others viewing us as an afflicted class. If there's truly nothing wrong with being gay, then there should be nothing wrong with “choosing” to be gay.
People like Rick Perry seem to want to encourage homophobia as a way of preventing people from making that choice, as if homophobia is the real reason why more men and women don't "choose" homosexuality. This ignores the likelihood that most people, if presented with their sexuality as a choice in a world free of judgment and discrimination, would probably stick to whatever it is they are—which means the roughly 95 percent of people who self-identify as straight would still “choose” to remain so. The fact that so many gays and lesbians have decided to assert their sexuality despite the rampant homophobia they've faced probably only reinforces the genetic argument. But in 2014, we no longer need to have the “desire not to do that.” In fact, we might want to consider embracing the choice argument as one that is far more sex-positive. The heterosexuals of the world don't feel compelled to defend themselves on genetic grounds, and neither should we. It behooves us in the LGBT community to accept ourselves as nothing less than equal, our sexuality just one of many markers of our individualism—not shameful, not lesser.
This is not to say the genetic predisposition argument should be dropped altogether. The world is still rife with homophobia—look no further than to what's going on in Russia and in many African nations—and the argument remains a valid and compelling one. And shifting entirely to a "I choose to be gay" argument would threaten to validate voluntary psychological "cure" therapies like the one the Texas Republican Party just included in its party platform. But gays and lesbians should stop defending their sexuality and start enjoying it, openly and without qualification. We'll "choose" to be gay much the same way that Perry “chooses” to be straight.