The Problem With “It’s Not A Choice” Rhetoric

Yesterday afternoon, I was reading the story of a University of Texas swimmer who came out to his teammates as gay via email. It was presented as a warm tale of risk and acceptance, but I found myself cringing (as I usually do in these stories) at this line from the email. He writes, “It is not something that I choose. It just is.”

This line, “it is not something I choose” seems to be the inevitable follow up to coming out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. It has rubbed me the wrong way for years, but I have mostly kept my mouth shut because it is such a loaded issue within the LGB movement. It has historically, I think, been the strongest argument in favor of equality and acceptance of those who do not identify as straight and it is—at least in my own observation—where there has been the most evident shift in perspective among those who have traditionally opposed homosexuality. When someone comes to believe that being gay is not a lifestyle choice, but rather an inherent identity trait, they often find it easier to accept someone who identifies that way.

I get it. I am all about acceptance and equality. And I don’t particularly believe that I or anyone else chooses their sexual identity. But I do think that an argument that hinges on the “it’s not a choice” rhetoric is inherently flawed and dangerous.

I can feel the weight of a thousand angry glares from straight and queer friends alike for even suggesting this, so maybe the movement is not ready for this conversation yet. But I wish it would hurry and get there because I am tired of pretending that my lack of free will is all that is standing between me and eternal damnation.

The relationship between choice and my sexuality has been a challenging issue since I was a child. At fourteen, I tremulously admitted to my diary that I may not be straight, but only with the hastily added caveat that, if I ever knew for sure that I was gay, I would absolutely never choose to act on those impulses. These days, I am an out bisexual woman, and I am often confronted by gay and straight people alike with the question: “Why would you ever choose this, when you could just be with men and live a straight life?”

The tempting (and, I think, true) answer is that I don’t choose my attraction to both men and women anymore than a gay or straight person chooses who they are attracted to. But I am tired of that answer because I think it is beside the point.

Here is how I would rather respond, “Why is it okay if it’s not a choice, but not okay if it is a choice?”

I think this is a question we avoid answering because it points to something deeply problematic about how we, as queer people, are participating in a destructive cultural understanding of our own identity. It suggests that our sexual identity is some sort of unintentional defect that must be accepted and dealt with because it is unavoidable. The implicit assumption is that if it were a choice we would all have to concede that we’re doing something wrong. I daresay, it even allows that if it were a choice, others would have the right to mistreat us, undermine our humanity, and label us as disgusting, defective, and unworthy of respect.

Is that what we believe about ourselves? Is that what we’re working so hard for others to believe about us?

Here’s what I believe. I am attracted to women and men and as far as I know, that was not a choice that I made at any point. But I also make important choices all the time—about how I participate in relationships, about the way that I love others.

I understand the role that the “it’s not a choice” argument has played historically, and I am grateful for the progress it has won us.

But I am wondering when the time will come to move away from the claim that “being gay or bi is okay because it’s not a choice” and toward the claim that “being gay or bi is okay because there is just nothing wrong with it.

Maybe it’s just me, but in terms of my sexual identity, I am far less interested in acceptance and equality that founds itself on assumptions about what I am NOT in control of, and what I did NOT choose, than I am in a world that embraces and celebrates me for what I AM, and what I DO choose:

– I choose to be honest and vulnerable with myself about who I am.

– I choose to risk openness with others around me about my sexual identity. (Given that I am privileged to exist in a community where my being out is not overly dangerous to myself or others).

– I choose to embrace and celebrate the capacity within me to love beautiful, amazing women and beautiful, amazing men.

– I choose to engage in mutually respectful, vulnerable, loving relationships.

– I choose to work for a world that embraces myself and my LGB peers without condition or caveat, and where everyone can experience the same freedom to be out and open that I do.

– I choose love, day after day after day.

I am bisexual. It’s the way that I am. I am also happy about it. And that is a very important choice.

5 thoughts on “The Problem With “It’s Not A Choice” Rhetoric

  1. I always wince when I hear or see people defaulting to this “It’s Not a Choice” line of defense, but it’s so hard to put my negative feelings about it into words most of the time. Thank you for writing about this problem and wording it so well.

    • I just found your blog via a friend. Thank you for putting words to something I have felt for a long time but wasn’t sure how to voice.

  2. I’ve never understood why the law would care whether it’s a choice or not. Political affiliation is a choice. Religion is a choice. Both are fully protected under the law. Why shouldn’t affectional orientation be?

    Haters, as the saying goes, gonna hate, whether one’s affectional orientation is a choice or not, but the law shouldn’t care.

    (middle-aged white het cis male)

  3. I really love this because one of the parallels that can be made (but could be) is that humans are typically biologically polyamorous, but we are bibically compelled to choose monogamy instead. Our choices and our biology shouldn’t be a case of either/or but both/and, using love as our determining factor.

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