Genetics vs. choice, revisited

Argh!  I’d been planning to put up a “top 25” list of lovely women on Monday to coincide with AfterEllen’s top 100, but wordpress just will not cooperate with me when it comes to a photo post.  So instead, we move to a more thinky thought topic.  No hot girls.  Boo.

As I’ve mentioned on here, I’ve had a change of perspective recently on the whole debate over whether sexuality is genetically determined or a choice.  For a long time, like many LGBT people, I was very adamant that we’re “born this way.”  Obviously, there’s a political advantage to this position, because it’s harder to take away rights from people who fit into a certain class through no fault of their own.  Immutability is a big thing in the legal field too, but the interesting thing is that with immutability, specifically in asylum claims, the trait is either something that you were born with or can’t change or something so fundamental to your identity that you can’t be expected to change it.  I think that’s a great way of looking at sexuality, frankly.

Though I do think there are genetic factors involved, and also that upbringing can play a role in how someone’s sexual identity develops, I think it’s a little more amorphous than someone being born “a lesbian.”  Sexuality, like race and many other things, is socially constructed.  We happen to see the word in terms of gay, straight, bisexual, and many people have pointed out the flaws in that organisational system.  I’m not going to tackle those problems today, but I am going to suggest that while who you’re attracted to may include some genetic factors, there’s also a choice element.

When I was first starting to think that I might be gay, and not bisexual as originally assumed, I sat there trying to come up with “the answer.”  I tried to get all zen and think “what am I?  What am I?”  But I don’t think it really works that way.  In the end, I think though I obviously had the potential to be with men, and was with one for quite a while, I chose to be a lesbian.  But that doesn’t mean that I should be expected to change it.  That doesn’t mean that when asking for rights someone should say to me, “well, you were with a man before, so if you want rights, go straight!”  Since I came of age, attraction to women and desire to be with women has been an important part of my sexuality and my identity.  Even if I hadn’t noticed this attraction until I was thirty, fifty, seventy… I would have no less right to be treated as a human being than if I had known at five.  The fact is, if choosing (or recognising) your sexual identity were like picking out vegetables in the supermarket, few people would choose to be gay.  Being gay is difficult.  You run risks of harassment and violence.  Romantically, you simply have a much smaller pool of people to choose from, and your relationship will only be legally recognised in a handful of jurisdictions.  So I think it’s okay to admit that there is an element of choice involved in sexuality, but also to recognise that it is a fundamental choice, and that whatever someone chooses, we should respect that choice.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on June 4, 2008, in lesbian, queer and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. spinning jenny

    I think this is a really articulate, precise way of putting it. If someone asks I’m still going to say I was born this way – that all gay people are born gay – just because it’s so much easier for them to understand and not judge. Also, I do think some people really don’t have any sort of choice in the matter – as a (male) friend of mine once said, “I was really sad when I realized I just couldn’t get it up for a girl.” However, for me, as for you, there was some sort of choice involved. I could be with men. They’re attractive and I get along with some of them. It doesn’t so much feel wrong to be with a man as it just feels…more right…to be with a woman.

  2. lucienlachance

    Really, I think one of the main problems is definitely a social one. We are all very aware of what sex someone is. Honestly I don’t think it is clean-cut as people make it out to be.

    We learn through culture (I’m speaking of Western culture in particular) to treat people according to their physical sex. When we’re young we’re encouraged to behave certain ways (parents will deny it, but for many it’s the truth) in accordance to stereotypes. People are taught to fear/loathe anyone that isn’t straight because it destroys the stereotype of what is male and what is female.

    You go and look at other cultures and you find different levels of acceptance everywhere. Some tolerate homosexuality, some are accepting, and others hate it.

    Basically people here are taught here NOT to be homosexual. I think that in many cases that alone causes people to make the decision to not make their sexual orientation public for fear of being persecuted. And who knows, maybe if we were taught to do whatever we wanted there would be more people who would be willing to try a same-sex relationship. It would be interesting to find out.

  3. Excellent thoughts here… who would “choose” all the heartache and discrimination that comes with how some people treat homosexuals. In some ways, life might have been easier if I had been able to “choose” to feel something for my husband and “stay”… but my orientation was bigger than me “choosing.”

  4. I think the behavior (act) is a choice, but the feelings you have cannot be a choice. I never chose to be gay, I do choose to live my life in accordance with how I feel.
    http://www.queersunited.blogspot.com

  5. Thanks for this really articulated post. I have always thought that there was a combination of choice and biology at work, and it’s good to hear someone else’s thoughts on the matter.

    http://www.simplyqueer.com

  6. alesbianandascholar

    spinningjenny- Excellent way of putting it. I do think that in a way the genetics argument is the most “convenient” one, but I’m just not as enthusiastic about it as I used to be.

    lucien- So true. Sometimes I want to take society and hit it with a shoe. Can we really fix all these problems? I’m not optimistic. There is so much gender stereotyping built in, and even the triumphant recent discoveries about neurobiology make me sceptical. As far as I can tell, they’ve found that queer people are more similar to straight people of the opposite sex… so lesbians are all like guys? Way to continue the stereotypes. All so frustrating.

    Wendy- I know those choices are incredibly hard to make… at one point I considered marrying and having children for my boyfriend, something I in no way wanted to do for myself. I’m glad you were able to make the right decision for you (it seems).

    QU- That does make a certain amount of sense. I do think the capacity for attraction/feeling has a genetic component, just that some have capacity either way and choose the one that works better for them.

    Alexandra- Thank you! I’m glad you stopped by.

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