provocative choice

I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.

Cynthia Nixon, of Sex and the City fame, said this in an empowerment speech to a gay audience who, unsurprisingly, reacted negatively to it. While the statement itself doesn’t necessarily imply that she thinks being gay can be a choice, she explained in a recent NYT interview that being gay was, for her, in fact, a choice.

The negative reaction from people who are pro gay rights is unsurprising because Nixon’s assertion that she chooses to be gay at best implies that sexual orientation can be a choice and at worst is evidence that sexual orientation is a choice. Nixon’s response to calls for her to reword her statement is that no one else can define her gayness for her. Which is fair enough… or is it?

I support individual license to identify and define their own sexuality and sexual orientation… to others. Whether one is able to shape one’s own orientation – not the appearance of it, but the substance – is another question, and it’s the big question, the answer to which is often what draws the line separating the pro gay rights from the anti gay rights camps. Often. Not always. I think there’s at least one liberal hipster out there who thinks that believing orientation is a choice combined with being pro gay is sooo progressive and 21st century. No matter where you stand on the choice/not a choice issue, you’d probably have to admit that Nixon’s statement implies huge privilege of position. How many people do you know have said, “I chose to be gay”? I don’t know a single one. I don’t know of a single one. It’s hard enough defending one’s gayness; it must be harder still defending one’s choice to be gay.

The reason I didn’t frame the dichotomy as choice/born this way (and that does it for my monthly quota of pop cultural references) is because  I think our sexual orientations can change. We can’t change them, but they can change over the course of a lifetime. Whether and when change takes place is purely random, and there’s nothing we can do to help it along or stop it or affect it in any way.  That perhaps puts me in the minority (what else is new?!) of believing that Nixon could’ve been straight once and is gay now, while the majority sarcastically asks whether she’s heard of ‘bisexuality’. Well, she could be bisexual, but that’s definitely not for me or anyone else to say. All I’m saying is, it’s possible that she used to be straight and now she’s not. But I don’t believe it’s because of a choice she made. It just happened.

It’s a complex thing, sexual orientation, and identity, and choice. All we’ve got to go on is really just our own experiences. If you’re lucky you’ve also got honest conversations with other people to add secondhand experience to your own. I can’t be the only one having difficulty wrapping my head around the possibility of sexual orientation being a choice, simply because for me it wasn’t.

Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate.

Legitimacy is in question because it smells like a metapreference more than a preference. Her “gay is better” comment makes it sound like she prefers to prefer women, rather than preferring women. In the spirit of Butler’s Gender Trouble, though, I’ll concede it’s possible. It just seems highly improbable. Oh, and Nixon’s point about problems with our discourse and letting bigots shape the debate is well made and well taken.