Homosexuality as a Choice

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I received an email from a fellow named Ben, asking me to look over an essay he claimed he was working on for the New York Times Magazine. The essay was a paean to the effects of an "anti-effeminate" drug named Hetracil and an indignant attack on the efforts of an ACLU attorney named Rachael Sondheim to introduce a federal law named "Proposition 313" which would prevent minors from being prescribed the drug.

Nothing about this rang right to me, particularly the idea of a drug stamping out feminine characteristics in men which had already been prescribed, per the essay, to millions of Americans without any publicity. I went onto Google and found a scant eight references to Hetracil, of which four or five had Ben's name on them. Another was a Hetracil web site, supposedly maintained by the inventor, a physician with a long Indian name; but the site itself had a thin, unconvincing feel, with only four or five pages of information and no address or phone for the company allegedly making the drug. The site itself however was clear about something at which Ben only hinted in the essay: Hetracil was intended to cure the medical complaint of homosexuality.

Google also revealed no references whatever to an ACLU lawyer named Sondheim, and the only Proposition 313 I found was a municipal French measure of unrelated subject matter. Add to this the fact that the ACLU does not usually push legislation, and that proposed federal laws are not called "propositions", and the whole thing seemed quite clearly a hoax. If it was one, I thought I saw the motive too. Ben's blog, where the essay resided, seemed to have evangelical Christian associations. I thought Ben was shrewdly trying to provoke gay people into admitting that homosexuality was a choice, not physical destiny. He was waiting for people to deluge him with email which said that they didn't want to be "cured", that they chose to remain homosexual.

I had received Ben's email as one of a group of writers (fiction writers, which should have been a tip right there). I sent an email to the others pointing out the discrepancies in Ben's posting and stating my belief it was a hoax. Within minutes, I received an email from Ben, acknowledging that the story was fiction, positing however that it was a "thought provoking work of art" to which he had wanted to expose us, and apologizing for angering me. Ben wanted to know exactly what I was disturbed by, the story itself or the way he had presented it to us.

I referred Ben to the essay I wrote some years ago on lying, in which I argued that lying is theft, that you make a false claim of my time, money and attention by representing a falsehood to be true. That was exactly what Ben had done, with his sympathetic appeal for help in completing an essay for the Times with which he claimed to be struggling. He had treated the whole group to which he sent the email with disrespect, as if he were a different species from us: we were owed no obligation of honesty by Ben, while without doubt Ben himself wanted to be told the truth by the whole world. (Liars never want to be lied to, because then they would lose their own way.)

I had some follow-up discussions with Ben, continuing after this article was originally posted. Ben was angered by my assumption that he wanted to bait gay people and get them to make illogical or contradictory statements about choice and destiny. He said that his intention was to draw out the far right and make them confront some of their own prejudices; the fundamentalist links from the blog, in fact, the blog itself, were all part of the "story".

Ethically, Ben could have advanced his own views, whatever they are, with a hypothetical or a satire not represented as truth. I have written quite a few of these myself, and they have an honorable history going back to Aristophanes, with Swift's "Modest Proposal" as a grand example. Ben's essay would still have provoked a lot of debate, and probably a few of the responses that Ben is looking for. Ben undoubtedly felt that was insufficient, and resorted to a hoax, because he needed to go a step further and elicit knee-jerk, unconsidered reactions to his story.

Sadly, Ben's hoax muddies the debate over a very interesting ethical issue: whether homosexuality is a choice or a necessity, and the whole question behind that of what we mean and how truthful we are when we say "I had no choice."

In the history of human excuse-making, "I had no choice" stands at the summit. If one was forced to do something, if it happened outside of one's volition, then there are no excuses to make. "I had no choice" is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

However, if you examine most of the circumstances under which humans say that they had no choice, you will find that this simply is not true. This language gets used a lot when people select a choice that is convenient, or avoid one which is uncomfortable or down-right disturbing. As such, "I had no choice" seems more often than not to be a deliberate conversation-stopper, a statement with no real content other than "I declare this discussion over."

There is an ongoing debate as to whether homosexuality is more psychological or biological in nature; whether particular people are predisposed towards it by their genes. While I find this a rich and fruitful area of science, I also think that it tends to be over-leveraged in political and social discourse. Certainly it is an area of which we have so far illuminated only a small space; there is a much larger country to discover. What we know so far about genes is that they create or contribute to a wide variety of predispositions but rarely seem to program us for particular behaviors all by themselves. Experiences in the world traumatic or otherwise, training, and social interactions usually take us the rest of the way to meet our predilections.

Here are two sections of a FAQ on sexual orientation from the web site of the American Psychological Association:

What Causes a Person To Have a Particular Sexual Orientation?
There are numerous theories about the origins of a person's sexual orientation; most scientists today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In most people, sexual orientation is shaped at an early age. There is also considerable recent evidence to suggest that biology, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors, play a significant role in a person's sexuality. In summary, it is important to recognize that there are probably many reasons for a person's sexual orientation and the reasons may be different for different people.

Is Sexual Orientation a Choice?
No, human beings can not choose to be either gay or straight. Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. Although we can choose whether to act on our feelings, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.

As a backdrop to this discussion, consider the pronounced trend, the last twenty years or so, to renounce Freudian psychology and to find chemical triggers for everything. This too seems to have a context, that we are responsibility-free, that we are nothing more than our genes and the chemical receptors our nerves react to, that there is nothing to analyze in the mind. Since Freudian analysis, whatever mistakes or myths it may partly be beholden to, is a process of taking responsibility for yourself, the anti-Freud movement seems clearly to me to be an anti-responsibility movement.

Homosexuality, like numerous other behaviors, seems to me to very likely be part biological, part psychological (like heterosexuality). Certain men may be more feminine than others, based on physical characteristics, or may desire men for genetic or chemical reasons, but in this world-view, there would still be a large component of choice involved. This brings us to the next line of discussion, whether anyone has a responsibility to live unfulfilled and unhappy, to force themselves to be heterosexual or to live without sex. Let's just note that this is a vastly different discourse than the one about having no choice whatever. Once you go down this road, it no longer is "necessary" for a particular individual to be gay, just vastly preferable to the alternative.

In an interesting essay on www.lesbian.org, Amy Goodloe argues that:

the position of those mainstream lesbian and gay rights activists who claim that homosexuality is a biological trait... does nothing to further the cause of sexual liberty, or the freedom of all people to express and explore the range of sexual identities. For lesbians and gays to be truly free in this society, so the argument goes, all people must be free from the bonds of compulsory heterosexuality, so that all sexuality becomes an individual choice rather than a cultural mandate. The impulse to claim biology as the source for homosexuality may, in fact, stem from the psychological need to justify one's choice to a world that is hostile to those who dare to differ from its norms.

Gay people who argue that sexual orientation has nothing to do with choice are responding defensively, therefore giving credence, to critics who accuse them of sin or societal harm. A stronger argument would be that, unthinking Biblical biases aside, homosexuality doesn't harm anyone, and therefore is a behavior that should be well-tolerated by society. All the energy we pour into debating "choice" could be better utilized debating "harm".

Most fundamentalist criticism of gays mixes the status of being gay with behaviors such as promiscuity, drug use, and the like. But fundamentalists want all gay people to exhibit such behavior, so they can keep them tightly defined; they are very unsettled when gay people endorse some of their own ideals, such as monogamy and marriage. The current "defense of marriage" charade across the country is exactly that: an attempt to keep gay people in the zone where they can be derided and criticized.

If we rid homosexuality of any social stigma, as societies like ancient Greece have done, then it is becomes simply a valid choice among others. There is then no need to argue that people are compelled to it by their own biology.