August 2007

First published at 365gay.com on August 20, 2007

It seemed like a softball question at first. During LOGO’s August 10 gay-rights forum for the Democratic presidential candidates, panelist (and rock star) Melissa Etheridge asked New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?”

Richardson, who has a strong gay-rights record, responded, “It’s a choice. It’s…”

Several audience members gasped. Wrong answer! Etheridge interrupted, “I don’t think you understand the question,” prompting nervous laughter throughout the studio. She tried again:

“Do you think I—a homosexual is born that way, or do you think that around seventh grade we go, ‘Ooh, I want to be gay’?”

“Seventh grade” is right: at that moment Etheridge seemed like an indulgent schoolteacher, trying to feed a quiz answer to a hapless student. Multiple-choice: A or B (hint: it’s obviously not B).

Richardson missed the hint. Instead, he rambled:

“Well, I—I’m not a scientist. It’s—you know, I don’t see this as an issue of science or definition. I see gays and lesbians as people as a matter of human decency. I see it as a matter of love and companionship and people loving each other. I don’t like to, like, answer definitions like that, you know, perhaps are grounded in science or something else that I don’t understand.”

Audience reaction, and the subsequent commentary, all suggested that Richardson’s response was a disaster. One editorial referred to it as his “macaca moment” (recalling Virginia Senator’s George Allen’s fatal use of that slur during his last campaign).

Richardson should have been prepared for this: Bob Schieffer asked the same question during the 2004 presidential debates, prompting Bush to respond “I don’t know” and Kerry to give his infamous “Mary Cheney is a lesbian” answer. Why do smart people stumble over what seems to be a simple question?

Let me hazard a guess: because it’s not a simple question. In fact, it’s a confused question.

Take Etheridge’s first formulation: “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” The question actually jumbles together two distinct issues:

(1) How do people become gay? (By genetics? Early environment? Some combination of the above?)

and

(2) Can they change it (i.e. choose to be otherwise)?

The answers to these two questions vary independently. My hair color is biologically determined, but I can change it. The fact that my native language is English is environmentally determined, but I can’t change it. (Of course I could learn a new language, but given my age it would never totally subsume my native language.) The point is that a trait’s being acquired doesn’t mean it isn’t deep.

Etheridge’s revised version makes the false dilemma even starker: either we’re born this way, or else it’s an arbitrary whim— “Ooh, I want to be gay.” Since it’s obviously not a whim, we’re supposed to conclude that we’re born this way.

“Born this way” is a virtual article of faith among gays. Call me a heretic, but I neither know nor care whether I was born this way. I don’t remember the way the world was when I was born (neither do you), and I can’t discern my genetic makeup by simple introspection (ditto).

What I do know is that I’ve had these feelings a long time, and they’re a significant part of who I am. Whether I have them because of genetics, or early childhood influences, or some complex medley of factors is a question for scientists—not columnists, rock stars or politicians. In that respect, Richardson’s profession of scientific ignorance was both modest and reasonable.

The question “Is it a choice or biological?” involves gross oversimplification. Homosexuality is both, and neither, depending on what one means.

Although we don’t choose our romantic feelings, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) certainly involves choices—about whether and how and with whom to express those feelings. When Richardson said “it’s a choice,” he probably meant that we have the right to make such choices. Good for him.

At the same time, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) surely has biological underpinnings. We’re flesh-and-blood creatures. At some level, everything about us is biological, regardless of what causal story about sexual orientation one accepts.

But don’t we need to prove we’re “born this way” to show that homosexuality is “natural”? Not at all. I wasn’t born speaking English, or practicing religion, or writing columns—yet none of these is “unnatural” in any morally relevant sense.

I don’t blame gays for being disappointed with Richardson’s forum performance: he seemed unprepared and lethargic. But let’s not insist that he embrace dogmas that should have no bearing on our rights. Whether or not we’re “born this way,” there’s nothing wrong with our being this way. Thankfully, Richardson seems to get that.

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First published in 365gay.com on August 6, 2007

When I was in junior high I used to sit at the “black” lunch table in the cafeteria, much to the shock (and occasional ridicule) of my white schoolmates. The seating was not officially segregated, but with rare exceptions African-Americans sat together, and I sat with them.

It wasn’t a grand political statement or a conscious act of solidarity or anything high-minded. On the contrary, it was a reluctant acknowledgment of my outsider status. While members of the white, mostly affluent student majority called me a “fag,” the black students were nice to me, and I felt more comfortable around them.

Some years later I started going to the gay beaches on Fire Island, where I noticed a number of interracial straight couples. Interestingly, the “straight” part stuck out more than the “interracial” part—which, I later learned, was their main reason for choosing the gay beach. “We get a lot of flak at the straight beaches,” they told me. “But gays are cool about it.” Fellow outsiders, once again.

I thought about both of these events recently as I watched the movie Hairspray, the 2007 incarnation of the 1988 John Waters film (later a Broadway musical). One of the film’s most poignant moments occurs when Penny, a working-class white girl, and Seaweed, a black male, reveal their relationship to Seaweed’s mom, Motormouth Mabelle (played by Queen Latifah).

“Well, love is a gift,” Mabelle responds. “A lot of people don’t remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.”

Many have speculated about whether and how Hairspray counts as a “gay” movie. Of course, there’s the John Waters provenance, the drag lead character (originated by Divine and played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein), and the inherent campiness of movie musicals. But the most profound connection lies in its message of acceptance: Hairspray celebrates forbidden love in the face of “a never-ending parade of stupid.” It’s a theme gays know well.

Gay-rights opponents often object to comparisons between the civil-rights movement and the gay-rights movement. Race, they say, is an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic, whereas homosexuality involves chosen behaviors; thus it’s wrong (even insulting) to compare the two.

Even putting aside the fact that “civil rights” are something we’re all fighting for—equal treatment under the law—this objection founders. It misunderstands the nature of racism, the nature of homophobia, and the point of the analogy between the two.

Although race is in some sense “an immutable, non-behavioral characteristic,” racism is all about chosen behaviors. The racist doesn’t simply object to people’s skin color: he objects to their moving into “our” neighborhoods, marrying “our” daughters, attacking “our” values and so on. In other words, he objects to behaviors, both real and imagined. What’s more, discriminating on the basis of race is most certainly chosen behavior. Calling race “non-behavioral” misses that important fact.

At the same time, calling homosexuality “behavioral” misses quite a bit as well. Yes, homosexuality (like heterosexuality) is expressed in behaviors, and some of those behaviors offend people. But one need not be sexually active to be kicked out of the house, fired from a job, or verbally or physically abused for being gay. Merely being perceived as gay (without any homosexual “behavior”) is enough to trigger the abuse.

Even where chosen behaviors trigger the abuse, it doesn’t follow that they warrant the abuse—any more than blacks’ choosing to marry whites (and vice versa) warrants abuse. So the insistence that race is immutable whereas homosexuality is behavioral, even if it were accurate, misses the point. Gays, like blacks, face unjust discrimination, often in the name of religion, that interferes with some of the most intimate aspects of their lives. Hence the analogy.

I’m not denying that there are important differences between race and sexual orientation (or between racism and heterosexism). Gays and lesbians do not face the cumulative generational effects of discrimination the way ethnic minorities do, and we have nothing in American history comparable to slavery or Jim Crow. On the other hand, no one is kicked out of the house because his biological parents figured out that he’s black. There are plusses and minuses to the lack of generational continuity (as well as the other differences)—and little point in arguing over who’s worse off.

Early in Hairspray the young lead character announces, “People who are different—their time is coming.” We “different” people have much to learn from one another, as the never-ending parade of stupid marches on.

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