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Topics In the News
Born This Way?
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 01/29/12
Last updated on: 01/30/12
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Cynthia Nixon.

In an interview with the New York Times on January 19, 2012, actress and activist Cynthia Nixon asserted that, for her at least, homosexuality "is a choice." The assertion led to a sometimes heated and occasionally uncivil discussion in the gay blogosphere focused on the question of whether sexual orientation is genetic and whether sexual orientation is fluid.

Nixon claimed to be speaking only for herself. "I understand that for many people [homosexuality is not a choice], but for me it's a choice, and you don't get to define my gayness for me. A certain section of our community is very concerned that it not be seen as a choice, because if it's a choice, then we could opt out. I say it doesn't matter if we flew here or we swam here, it matters that we are here and we are one group and let us stop trying to make a litmus test for who is considered gay and who is not."

Nevertheless, her assertion led to a great deal of pushback in the gay blogosphere, some bloggers pointing out the dangers of her position and some commenters, especially at AmericablogGay, even attacking her personally in very ugly ways. From the blogosphere, the controversy has spread into the mainstream media.

One of the most thoughtful and moderate reactions came from Wayne Besen at Truth Wins Out, who pointed out that Nixon's bald statement "introduces a concept and a reality that is really hard to capture in a sound bite." While acknowledging the complexity of sexuality and the reality of sexual fluidity, he characterized Nixon's statement as "irresponsible" because it will be used against us in the struggle for equal rights. "I feel that, perhaps, maybe she could have said a bit more on the subject, perhaps not casually throwing the word 'choice' around and instead talking about how her sexuality evolved in the way it did. Readers on this side of the spectrum pretty much get what she's saying, I think, but the Religious Right hears 'choice,' and they think 'well that proves it. Cynthia Nixon woke up one morning and decided to embrace the homosexual lifestyle.'"

John Aravosis at AmericablogGay somewhat less moderately attacked Nixon for fuzzy thinking and imprecise language. He worried about the consequences of comments like Nixon's in judicial arguments about whether sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic that should be protected by "heightened scrutiny," a concern also expressed in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times.

Also at the Los Angeles Times, science reporter Karen Kaplan, in response to Nixon's statement, surveyed recent studies focusing on whether sexual orientation is a biologically determined trait. She concluded, "The scientific consensus seems to be that there is indeed a biological basis for homosexuality--though it's not necessarily 100% determined by either genes or by environmental factors."

At ThinkProgress, Zack Ford entered the fray to make some important clarifications. "Undoubtedly, as the gay community argues in courts across the country that homosexuality is immutable and ex-gay therapy is harmful and ineffective, having a prominent celebrity and activist say she 'chose' to be gay is a little off-message," he observed, "But I think it's pretty clear that's not what she meant, and so the real problem is that even within the gay community, we still have a very shallow understanding of sexual identity."

Ford went on to locate the problem in a failure to distinguish between sexual orientation and sexual identity. "In other words, the language a person uses to describe how they identify does not have to perfectly align with what their natural attractions actually are. The Williams Institute estimates that about 3.5 percent of the population identify as LGBT, but as many as 11 percent of Americans report having same-sex attractions. I think Nixon's comments make it pretty clear that she did not choose her attractions to women--nor her attractions to men--she merely chose to identify primarily as a lesbian."

At the New York Times on January 28, 2012, columnist Frank Bruni approached the question from a different perspective, contending that "there are problems with some gay advocates' insistence that homosexuality be discussed and regarded as something ingrained at the first breath."

Not only are the dynamics of the etiology of homosexuality unclear, but, Bruni asserted, "the born-this-way approach carries an unintended implication that the behavior of gays and lesbians needs biological grounding to evade condemnation."

He concluded his column by saying, "I honestly have no idea if I was born this way. My memory doesn't stretch to the crib."

"But I know that from the moment I felt romantic stirrings, it was Timmy, not Tammy, who could have me walking on air or wallowing in torch songs and tubs of ice cream. These feelings gelled early, and my considerable fear of society's censure was no match for them."

"I know that being in a same-sex relationship feels as central and natural to me as my loyalty to my father, my pride in my siblings' accomplishments and my protectiveness of their children--all emotions that I didn't exit the womb with but will not soon shake."

"And I know that I'm a saner, kinder person this way than trapped in a contrivance or a lie. Surely that's not just to my advantage but to society's, too."

Nixon herself retreated from her original position. In an interview with Kevin Sessums at The Daily Beast on January 24, 2012, she seemed to acknowledge that she is bisexual, a word she is reluctant to use: "I don't pull out the 'bisexual' word because nobody likes the bisexuals. Everybody likes to dump on the bisexuals."

Finally, on January 30, 2012, she issued a statement to the Advocate explaining more fully that she did not choose her bisexual orientation, but that she has chosen to be in a lesbian relationship.

"My recent comments in The New York Times were about me and my personal story of being gay. I believe we all have different ways we came to the gay community and we can't and shouldn't be pigeon-holed into one cultural narrative which can be uninclusive and disempowering. However, to the extent that anyone wishes to interpret my words in a strictly legal context I would like to clarify:

"While I don't often use the word, the technically precise term for my orientation is bisexual. I believe bisexuality is not a choice, it is a fact. What I have 'chosen' is to be in a gay relationship.

"As I said in the Times and will say again here, I do, however, believe that most members of our community--as well as the majority of heterosexuals--cannot and do not choose the gender of the persons with whom they seek to have intimate relationships because, unlike me, they are only attracted to one sex.

"Our community is not a monolith, thank goodness, any more than America itself is. I look forward to and will continue to work toward the day when America recognizes all of us as full and equal citizens."

The brouhaha over Nixon's comments may be a teachable moment. Sexual orientation clearly is not a matter of choice. People may choose to act on their sexual feelings. They may choose to come out. They may choose to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or heterosexual. But they do not consciously choose to whom they are sexually attracted.

However, to say that sexual orientation is not a choice is not to say that it is a matter of being "born this way." The development of sexual orientation is simply not fully known at this time.

Moreover, there may be unintended consequences of uncritically embracing a genetic explanation of homosexuality. As Matthew D. Johnson concludes in our entry on Etiology, "Genetic models of causation have reawakened the specter of eugenics in the possibility of genetic engineering, inspiring the not-unjustified fear that homosexuality may one day be systematically eliminated from human populations. . . . genetics has offered gay and lesbian people as much a threat to their existence as it has a vindication of it. If and when the definitive answer is known, it is equally likely to produce as much unease as relief."

We do know that some people--and more women than men--experience sexual fluidity and that there is wide variation in sexual response over a lifetime.

The great sexologist Alfred Kinsey was so struck by the extraordinary extent of individual variation in sexual behavior that he argued that any attempt to establish uniform standards of sexual behavior was both impracticable and unjust. He believed that the widespread deviation from accepted sexual standards showed that any attempt to regulate sexual behavior was doomed to failure and that the only proper sexual policy was no policy at all.

His 1951 volume on male sexuality concluded that 37 percent of the male population of the United States had had at least one homosexual experience to orgasm between adolescence and old age. The data also seemed to suggest that many adults were neither permanently nor exclusively homosexual or heterosexual but displayed a continuum of sexual behavior.

Kinsey measured this fluidity along "the Kinsey scale," which classified sexual behavior and fantasy--from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) through 6 (exclusively homosexual). While Kinsey's findings clearly encouraged him to reject homosexuality as a pathological syndrome or mental illness, the range and fluidity of sexual behavior also led him to reject the idea of a permanent sexual identity; he believed that there were no homosexual or heterosexual persons, only heterosexual or homosexual acts.

Kinsey found that on his scale at least 10 percent of men were either exclusively (number 6) or predominantly homosexual (number 5) for at least three years between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five. (Popularizers and activists later adopted 10 percent as an estimate of the homosexual population, despite the fact that the female volume reported a much lower incidence of homosexuality among women, closer to 4 percent, and despite the fact that the ten percent number applied only to a three-year period rather than a lifetime and had nothing to do with identity.)

Even if we do not choose to be gay, Lady Gaga, to the contrary, we may also not be born this way.

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