Monday, April 15, 2013

Why I Hate The "No Choice" Narrative

My friend Thorin recently wrote a post called "I Was NOT Born This Way" that makes a lot of compelling arguments about being openly queer without sticking to a shoddy "born this way" narrative that only serves to disenfranchise people who are fluid or questioning their sexuality.  It's an excellent post and you should what they've written before you read what I've written.  What I'm writing is something different but very closely connected to one of the major points.  What really happened is that just the mention of "born this way" in the title reminded me of stuff and things.

First, isn't Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" a fucking shitty song?  I admit when it first came out I was all giddy excited because somebody used the "T word" in a pop song that was on the radio, but after the initial haze died down all I could think was "This song refers to Asian people as 'Orient.' Not even 'Oriental.' 'Orient.'"  Among other severely problematic elements.  And yet I not once have heard anybody mention this outside of activist communities.  Very select activist communities.

Anyway, more importantly, it brings to mind the whole "no choice" narrative.  This is a narrative that's really been just pounded like fuck into LGBT mythology, especially in reference to gays, lesbians, and transsexuals (although there's a big discrepancy here which I'll go into later).  It goes something like "I was always different, and it was so painful. I tried so hard to like women... I really did.  I even dated them and felt so awful doing it, it was so gross.  When I learned I liked men instead, I finally understood.  There's no way this is a choice.  I would never choose this hell.  Give me rights."  Tied in with this argument is the assumption that being gay is a biologically fixated trait that absolutely cannot be changed by outside forces.

I don't doubt that there are people who really feel this way.  I, personally, do not believe that everybody has the option to choose their sexuality.  But using this as the singular narrative we use to beg for rights is absolute bullshit, and I hate its predominance in the discourse for many reasons.  But the main reason?  The fact that it isn't a "choice" doesn't make one goddamn bit of difference.

People have been trying to "cure" homosexuality and transgenderism (which I'm going to refer to as "sexual identity" when referring to both; it's shitty and not my normal convention, but it is what it is) for as long as these things have bothered people.  This has been the case regardless of whether people believed it was a choice or not.  In fact, some of the most diabolical "cure" attempts have rested on the unwavering belief that sexual identity is biological.  Dr. Carl Vaernet, for instance, was a Nazi researcher who implanted artificial glands in homosexual prisoners, pumping them full of hormones in an attempt to change their sexual orientations.  At multiple times in history--including today--people have tried using shock therapy as a cure for non-cisgender, non-heterosexual identities.  Early documentaries on homosexuality involved gay men lamenting with agony that they didn't choose their sexual orientations; those documentaries portrayed gay men as "sick" rather than willfully immoral.

These "treatments" and perceptions have very little if anything to do with the idea that sexual identity is a choice.  If anything they reinforce that people didn't believe it to be a choice.  Instead they believed it to be a mental illness that could be cured.

Which brings me to the next point.  The "no choice" narrative isn't necessarily meant to describe sexual identity as inborn so much as "prove" that trying to change sexual orientation is harmful.  On the surface this looks like the proper banner to fly, because it's true that forcing somebody to try changing their sexual identity usually fails with harmful side-effects.  What people forget when this narrative is central to the whole of lesbian, gay, and transgender arguments is that it isn't a universal experience, nor is it a "superior" experience.

There are people who feel that they did have some sort of say in their sexual orientation.  I, for example, had very little attraction to women for the first 22 or so years of my life.  When I came out as a trans man at 18, I identified as gay.  A few years later I was in a more radical community and I asked myself if maybe my lack of attraction to women (in addition to certain races, body types, and gender expressions) was due to other factors than inborn sexual orientation.  I realized that in many cases it was prejudice and stereotyping, and through that I learned to be attracted to people of an expansive variety of genders.  And I'm certainly not alone in this.  There are women who believe themselves to have chosen to be lesbians for political purposes.  There are people who deliberately choose their gender expressions for what they feel are subversive reasons.  There are trans people who absolutely did not feel suicidally depressed in their assigned gender, as well as people who flat out don't care what their gender is or what it's perceived as.  And then there are bisexuals, pansexuals, and other nonmonosexuals who in theory have the ability to choose only to acknowledge their attractions to the opposite sex, but who often don't.

So yes, there are people who at least superficially choose to be queer, meaning there's gotta be some benefit to it, whether that benefit is social, political, self-esteem, or in some of our cases (me) a wider dating pool.  It's not inherently harmful at all.  And it's really disturbing that it's still portrayed as something so awful that no reasonable person would choose that life... that's the sort of thing that keeps people closeted just because they haven't hit rock-bottom yet.

Neither of these are "superior" experiences.  Feeling that you didn't choose your sexual identity and feeling that you did choose it are equally valid.

Also, the fact that this narrative is still shoved in peoples' faces despite the fact that there are those who are queer by choice in any way poses a problem both to people who fit the narrative and to those who don't.  The fact that it's rather obvious that we don't all fit this narrative means that antiqueer bigots can point to people like me and say "See? You can change!"  But rather than dismiss the fuck out of people who think that way, knowing that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality or transgenderism to begin with, the trend has been to make sure people like us are portrayed as a teeny tiny minority or--even worse--as liars.  This is one of the mindsets (among others) leading to the pervasive biphobia in the gay community as well as the resentment many transsexuals feel toward genderqueer and other gender variant people.  They constructed a false universal narrative and, when it's realized that narrative isn't universal, decided to blame the people who don't fit the narrative instead of themselves for relying on it.

Again, it's important to remember that it doesn't matter if it's a choice or not... bigotry over sexual identity has nothing to do with it.

There's another thing that pisses me off about the "no choice" narrative, though, and that's that it's very inconsistently and self-servingly applied.  When I came out as a gay trans man on campus, there was no shortage of people who made it clear they believed my gender identity was a choice but my sexual orientation was not.  I reunited with a gay man I went to high school with who said being a gay trans man (he didn't use those words because he is an insensitive and unintelligent man) "didn't make sense" because it meant that I "chose a life of discrimination."  By that same logic he should have transitioned to female long ago to gain access to a discrimination-free heterosexual life, but I digress.  He went on to say--and this one I am direct quoting--that being transgender "is more of a choice."

This sentiment was echoed a few weeks later when I was being interviewed for a campus newspaper article on transgender people and the reporter began a question with "Because obviously you chose this..."  Eventually we got it straightened out a bit through email, but this is something I doubt she'd have ever said to a gay man or a lesbian.  Transition is so often implied to be a way to flee gayness that it doesn't occur to people that neither sexual orientation nor gender identity are necessarily either inborn or conscious choices.

In the same way, bisexuality as well as non-traditional orientation labels get the slam of "choice" by people who would rather not have to accommodate them.

Finally, there's the issue of proof and what to do with that proof.  There is some strong evidence that certain aspects of this narrative are true for some people.  There is evidence that transsexualism might have a large neurological component.  There is evidence that homosexuality might have a prenatal hormonal component.  What we don't know is if these discoveries actually apply to everyone, or if everyone who experiences these neurological or hormonal events will necessarily wind up LGBT.  In most cases we don't even know if it's actually causation.  Am I transgender because I have masculine brain structures, or do I have masculine brain structures because I am transgender?  Fuck, do I even have masculine brain structures?  Do butch lesbians have them, too?

If we found such a connection--for real--what would we do about it?  Would people be genetically tested so they can prevent gay babies?  Will children be put on hormone therapy who never expressed a need for it because a brain scan revealed they have similar brain structures to transsexuals?  Although I seriously doubt these things will ever happen, I consider it an important philosophical question.  Why do we need a "gay gene" or other biological cause, knowing that bigots give zero flying fucks whether we were born this way or not?