Choice in Sexual Orientation: The Sword That Cuts Both Ways

“Choice” — and how both gay and religious leaders perceive it — is a key word in today’s noisy national debate about gay rights. The issue focuses on the American Psychological Association’s quandary on how it can offer “reparative” therapy to gay people without seeming to pressure us unduly, or lapsing back into old attitudes that “homosexuals are sick” — or even violating our civil rights.

Today some radical-right church leaders wish to bend APA policy to their belief that homosexuality is a crime, no different than murder and theft — as per some passages of the Old and New Testament. In their view, gay people SHOULD choose therapy, because they OUGHT to stop being gay. In their view, all therapy should reflect penal law, and all penal law should reflect the Bible. Indeed, Donald Wildmon has dubbed the upcoming October as National Coming Out of Homosexuality Day, in hopes that hordes of homos will step out of the Life just like (snap!) that.

Unfortunately, in their struggle to evade control by this kind of religious thinking, some in the gay community throw the baby out with the bathwater. They reject the idea of “choice.” They insist that no choice is involved in sexual orientation… that are driven by genes or environmental conditioning or both. “Homosexuals are born, not made,” they say.

The fact is, we humans do choose. We make choices about thousands of things, big and small, every day. Choice is what sets us apart from plants and animals. Choice gives us dignity, and allows us to shape our lives, our characters, our destinies.

Even within the gay community, there are landmark choices about how we live and what we do. Choice is involved in the initial decision to overcome fear. “Do I or don’t I come out?” No matter what the root cause of homosexuality is, this coming-out decision still confronts us. So does the choice of different scenes — leather, drag. There is the momentous choice to have a sex-change operation. Having unsafe sex with many partners is a dangerous choice. So is the choice to avoid drugs and alcohol as an occasion of unsafe sex. Likewise, a gay or lesbian or bisexual couple who decide to have a loving, monogamous relationship are not operating blindly off natural dynamics. They CHOOSE to live together that way.

Straight and gay people have a RIGHT to make choices about their sexual orientation. This includes the right of some individual gay men or lesbians to leave the Life and seek a “cure” — if that’s how they feel. If an individual person decides for whatever reason that they don’t feel good living as a homosexual any more — that they want to live as a heterosexual, and have all the heterosexual bells and whistles — then they have a right to try to change. After all, their destiny belongs to them. Their lives are not the property of the gay community or leaders who create our activist rhetoric. Community leaders should not tell people that they HAVE to be gay once they’re out. Such pressure turns the gay community into the same kind of prison that the straight world is.

The APA has a duty to the American public to maintain a neutral position on religious beliefs. It should not say to seekers of change that “being gay is bad,” or “sick”, because this pushes a religious view on all of us. Nor should the APA guarantee the success of “reparative” therapy… after all, they can’t legally guarantee success of ANY therapy. Today people seek therapy to redirect their lives in many ways — to be more assertive, to be less assertive, to get rid of anger, to find more anger, to take control, to give up control, to be more spiritually sensitive, to come down out of the ether and get more grounded. Therapy operates in all kinds of areas that are not traditionally regarded as “bad” or “sick.” Why shouldn’t it be the same for sexual orientation?

Private religious organizations that offer private “cures” for gayness — Exodus, Desert Stream Ministries — also have the right to believe as they do about orientation. So until the cows come home, they can go on telling the APA that being gay is bad, and they can offer their own kind of unlicensed help that operates off that belief. But the APA doesn’t have to listen to them. Protestant evangelicals have no more right to pressure the APA about the evils of homosexuality than Catholics have to pressure the APA about teachings on Mary. No religion has a right to pressure the APA into a less-than-neutral position on anything.

As to whether choice — therapy or personal will-power — CAN “change” sexual orientation, well — let’s get real. We still don’t know how orientation is formed, let alone how to change it or defend it from change effectively. Science doesn’t yet have a clear fix on this. There is the nature vs. nurture dispute. There is evidence for genetic influence on orientation …but there is also evidence of profound social and environmental influence. Yet some activists in the gay community have already built a hard-and fast position on genetics, believing that it’s the only workable basis for our rights as a minority group, alongside other minorities who inherit characteristics like gender and skin color.

This seems like a risky choice of tactics to me. Genetics is a slippery slope for such a life-and-death political position — if only because there are variable genes that can kick in at different times of life and change us radically. Genes are volatile things, not cast in bronze, as Nobel prizewinner Barbara McClintock discovered. Some minority groups are not based on unchanging lifetime characteristics. Rather, they are built on changeable characteristics — like age. Civil rights protect minors and elders, yet we don’t stay in these groups forever. People who are “physically challenged” may not stay that way for a lifetime either, but their rights are protected meantime. Even gender is not immutable, as some transgender people can tell us.

Based on my own experience and the current state of knowledge, I suspect that orientation may be something innate, but even some innate things are changeable.

Much community rhetoric is based on a concept of immutable bronze-like homosexualness. Many in the community exalt lesbians who have never wanted anyone but women, and men who have never wanted anyone but men. Bisexuals and transgender people are often made to feel embarrassed and unwelcome because they are viewed as changeable and therefore untrustworthy. Yet in the 20-something years I’ve been out, I have seen some individual people in the gay community go all kinds of ways in their relationships — from “strictly gay” to “bi,” and from “bi” to “hard-core lesbian” and back. Transgender people are big examples of how people can change. Many gay teens have a very elastic vision of who they are. In real life, the labels don’t stick all that well. So community rhetoric and community reality do not always jibe. If some of the community’s citizens are that mutable, then a few gay men and lesbians can choose to go straight. And the sky doesn’t have to fall because they do it.

The true extent of any “change” — and whether it’s real change, or just good camouflage — is a question that goes beyond our ability to observe natural phenomena, into hidden mysteries of the human spirit. The ultimate effects of this kind of “choice” is hidden away in that lonely zone between the conscience of the individual and the Powers of the Universe. Only God and Goddess know if a person really changes… or if he or she is just trying to conform to social pressure or religious belief.

My own experience taught me much about “choice” in sexual orientation. I knew I was “different” at age 13, despite growing up in the relentlessly heterosexual America of the 1940s. But at age 18, I chose to get married…and stayed married for 16 years in an effort to deny my inner reality. In my writing, I chose to ignore the subject of same-sex conflict — or dealt with it in veiled metaphor. My one stab at therapy showed me the harsh judgmental attitudes of therapists in the 1970s (i.e. the therapist believed I was “sick”).

After two decades of trying and failing to fit into heterosexuality, I finally chose a different way — that of coming out at age 37. Nobody actually held a gun to my head at any given moment. I had freely chosen to submit to the prevailing heterosexual pressures in our country. And I finally chose to end that submission.

Thirty-seven years of heterosexual indoctrination, and 16 years of experiencing heterosexual sex, did not fundamentally “change” me, in spite of my desperate efforts as both a Protestant and a Catholic to submit my will. Was there something innate in me — natural, genetic — that made me different, and helped me resist change? Whatever it was, it survived. When the prevailing winds bend a young tree long enough, it stays bent… but it doesn’t change its species. I was still that “different” being who became self-aware at age 13. But two decades of living as an adult heterosexual did powerfully “bend” me and give me the sensibilities of a bisexual. I am not the same kind of person as a young dyke of today, age 13, who discovers her love of females and boldly comes out in junior high and states that she likes only women.

When we talk about “choice” in sexual orientation, we have to distinguish between a person’s freely chosen, deeply abiding, existential sense of “who I am,” and a person’s choosing to submit to social pressure in order to survive. Over the centuries, many gay men and lesbians and bisexuals were coerced into functioning as heterosexuals, and they fooled everybody — church, family, friends, children, perhaps even themselves. If homosexuality has a genetic basis, then it would seem that these people passed so well because they discovered the power of changing a leopard’s spots.

People can be coerced in the opposite direction as well. Extremes of sexual re-conditioning can be seen in American men who go to prison young and spend 10 or 20 years there. When they get out, many are what the activist organization Stop Prison Rape calls “functioning bisexuals.” For years, they have conformed to the sex system in men’s jails and prisons, which includes “married” cellmates, gang rape of new young inmates, and systematic brutalization of gay inmates. These men were straight when they were first sentenced, but in prison many reach the point where they like sex with men. The film “American Me” gives us a graphic portrait of this type of man.

These grim facts of prison life create a nasty irony for the conservatives and church people who demand that young male criminals be put in adult prisons and punished by longer sentences. On the one hand, prison life shows that some homosexuals and bisexuals can be made, not born. On the other hand, in recent years, our prisons are responsible for massive coercive change in sexual orientation. Today the U.S.A. has the highest rate of incarceration for young males of any nation in the world. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see growing numbers of bisexuals — men who were the victims or perpetrators of savage sexual violence behind bars. When they get out, these men may never “identify” as active members of the gay community. But they may choose to go on seeking sexual and emotional satisfaction with other men, and they may do this in covert, even violent ways.

A similar thing is happening to women, as we send more and more females to prison. Women prisoners are commonly brutalized by male guards. Lesbian relationships are common in prison. In a word, women, too are sexually impacted by the prison experience.

In my opinion, church people should stop screaming so much about “liberal permissiveness” in America today, and take a hard honest look at how their much-loved prisons are re-shaping the sexual destinies of our citizens.

Choices relating to sexual orientation must be seen in context with other controversies about choice. Those who interpret the Bible in a highly authoritarian way hold that we do not own our lives… that God owns them, and society owns them at God’s representative on Earth. Therefore, according to this view, our right to make certain life-choices ought to be restricted. Some church people argue for greater Biblical control over our society, yet Old Testament law already has a lot of subtle influence on laws that restrict the American “right to choose.” When I studied the first five books of the Bible, and saw their powerful influence today on laws regulating everything from youth conduct to cross-dressing, I was illuminated to the Old Testament’s role in shaping Western culture.

Juvenile law, for instance. Americans under 18 are commonly denied most rights of adult choice — to make contracts, to refuse medical treatment, to engage in consensual sex, to have free speech. Parents may have children committed to mental institutions at will, or put them in protective custody for the most frivolous reasons, or legally prevent them from running away even when children hate them for their cruelty. These laws have their roots in the Old Testament, where the Law of Moses required a father to kill his children if they disrespected him, disobeyed him or departed from the worship of Jehovah. A girl’s virginity was maintained under penalty of death, with her father participating in the execution if she stepped out of line. Even the more recent U.S. child-abuse laws have not prevented some families from cruel expressions of “child ownership.” Yet today, the authoritarians are pushing the Family Rights Act, a proposed piece of federal legislation that would shield family life from much police and social-worker scrutiny, and restore an Old Testament rigor, complete with parents’ right to punish children by beating them.

Women’s freedom of life choices has certainly been restricted. When I read the Law of Moses passage on a man’s duty to kill his wife if she turned away from worship of Jehovah, I understood why we have profound problems with domestic violence today. I also understood why my ex-husband was so obsessed with controlling my thinking, so convinced that he had the right to dispose of my life. Likewise, women are victims of forced therapy in mental institutions, and suffer greater prison penalties for certain crimes, because of culturally ingrained religious belief that their choices should be more restricted.

Last but not least, the authoritarians would deny a woman’s right to choose her own life over that of her unborn child — even her right to regulate births. I am fascinated at noticing how the Protestant radical right is joining with Catholicism in militating more and more against simple birth control.

Another big choice involves suicide. The hot discussion about our elders’ “right to die” is a reflection of a larger religious belief that suicide is “a crime against God.” Of course, some suicides do “evade the law” by succeeding. But in many states, if you fail at suicide, you are punished by incarceration in a mental institution or prison. Why? Because there are powerful people in our society who believe that only God may decide when a human life ends…the human has no say in the matter.

Authoritarians face some challenges in their aim to impose the Bible on the choices of all other Americans. Some of us regard the Bible not as the “revealed word of God,” but as a collection of sacred and historical writings created by various human writers. It is a document that we all ought to respect, just as the Koran, the Torah, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Book of Mormon, and the Popol Vuh ought to be respected… but it’s not a document that I or some other Americans would choose to live by the letter of, or want to go to prison because of. Yet some Americans are working to restore the Ten Commandments as a foundation for U.S. penal law and therapeutic practice. If they succeed, then the APA will become a puppet of church politics, and “reparative” therapy will become the law, not a matter of personal choice.

If the United States is to remain a nation where church and state are separated, then we must acknowledge our citizens’ right of choice in how each of them perceive their sexual orientation.

In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether orientation is caused by genes or conditioning! What matters is how people choose to declare themselves! Declarations of one’s sexual orientation should be respected and protected as fervently as declarations of one’s beliefs or politics. And guess what… people get to change from Mormon to Catholic, or Protestant to Jew, without losing their human rights. Offering people this choice on orientation doesn’t mean (as some church people insist) that we would be opening the door to legalizing bestiality, rape, exploitation of minors, etc. It simply means that, in the area of nonviolent adult consensual relations — if a person decides that he or she wants to “be gay,” or wants to “stop being gay,” they can make that choice without being unduly pressured by anybody.

Choice is a profoundly human thing that both the straight and gay communities need to acknowledge and dignity in a more realistic way. Gay people shouldn’t throw “choice” away just because the radical right have made it one of their buzzwords.

Come to think of it, choice is a sword that cuts both ways. If gay people have the right to choose being straight, then straight people have the right to choose being gay. And maybe some straight people will do just that.

Copyright Patricia Nell Warren. This column may be crossposted on the internet, without change and in its entirety for noncommercial purposes, without prior permission from the author. To reprint in print or other media, express permission must be asked.