Thursday, 23 February 2012

Choosing to be Gay?

"So why did you choose to be gay?"

 How many times have you groaned in frustration at questions like this? After years (even decades) of telling the rest of society that We Didn't Choose To Be This Way, lots of people still haven't gotten the message. No matter how many times we try to explain - by asking them why they decided to be straight, or comparing a homosexual orientation to left-handedness - it seems we still need to explain it again.
I'm beginning to wonder if it's really worth the effort. How important is it to convince others that we didn't choose our orientation?

For one thing, there are many people in our community who question whether it's really that cut and dried. As yet there's no real proof that orientation is genetic, as many of us believe. The much-publicized brain studies of the past couple years are interesting, but they're certainly not conclusive.

Also, there are lots of women who will say that they chose to be lesbians. This pokes a hole in the we-didn't-choose-this argument, so their comments are usually swept under the rug or explained away. "What she means is that she chose to live a lesbian lifestyle," someone quickly amends. People who say this are just confused, some argue, or maybe they're bisexual. 
Oops. There's that thorny question of bisexuality. If a person is attracted to both men and women, that suggests that they, at least, can choose to be "gay" or "straight". I have one bisexual friend who for various reasons lives a "straight", married life. Another bisexual friend calls himself "gay" and hasn't had hetero-sex in quite some time. Another has recently dated both men and women. Each of them has made a... (dare I say it?) choice about their sexuality.

For that matter, so has each of us. I could have dated women, gotten married, and had kids. Another friend of mine (as gay as the day is long) did just that. He later chose to get a divorce and begin a relationship with a man.

One of the reasons we rely so heavily on the born-this-way explanation is to legitimize our call for civil rights. If we can convince people that orientation is something we don't have any control over - like race, ethnicity, handicap, or gender - maybe they'll finally stop discriminating against us for it. After all, the assertion that we choose to be gay is one that's brought against us in every gay civil rights debate. We don't protect people for their lifestyle choices, we're told.

Says who? The first non-discrimination policy in the United States was about a personal lifestyle choice. It's in Article V of the U.S. Constitution, forbidding religious discrimination in government employment. The First Amendment built on that, further protecting religious freedom, and our modern laws all include religion in the list of protected characteristics. Isn't that a choice? Don't we choose to be Catholic or Methodist, to be Jewish or not, to be Moslem or atheist? Sure, lots of us are "born into" our religions, but we still choose whether to follow them or not.
There are also other characteristics that are often protected... and are choices. Marital status is certainly a choice. Political affiliation, veteran status, and even weight are things that an individual has chosen or can choose to change. Yet these characteristics are commonly protected, as they should be.

The reason we make rules protecting these characteristics is that they're not a fair basis for discrimination. It's not fair to pay a man more because he has a wife and kids, or to pay a woman less because she has a husband. It's not fair to pass someone over for a job because they weigh a lot. It's not fair to steer a Jewish couple away from buying a house in a predominantly Christian neighborhood. It's not fair to make black passengers sit in the back of a bus. If society can accept those truths, they must also be able to learn that it's not fair to discriminate against a person based on their orientation.

The I-can't-help-it argument also implies that if we could "help it", we would... or at least that we should. Black people can't help it they aren't white. Women can't help it they aren't men. 60-year-olds can't help it they aren't 30. All of this suggests that we should all want to be a 30-year-old white male. I don't buy that (despite the fact that it pretty nearly describes me). Instead, we should focus on the principle that it simply doesn't matter.

So what if I did choose to be gay? Don't I still have a right to be gay, and to be open about it? And would I have any less right to a job, employment, and decent treatment in public places because of it?

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