I'm one of fourteen Americans who has never watched an entire episode of "Sex and the City." The high heels and extreme grooming, the squealing girl talk, the pursuit of men—booooring. Give me a rerun of The Wire any day.
So I had to be brought up to cultural speed when Cynthia Nixon, who played the show's sexy lawyer Miranda, made a little splash in The New York Times Magazine this past weekend by saying that, for her, being gay is a choice. Of course, the preferred LGBT movement line is that we were all "born this way"—and so her comments sent the Maoist portions of the LGBT thought police into an angry buzzing fury. Here's the relevant article, which is long because it is extremely thoughtful:
I gave a speech recently, an empowerment speech to a gay audience, and it included the line ‘I’ve been straight and I’ve been gay, and gay is better.’ And they tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, 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.” Her face was red and her arms were waving. “As you can tell,” she said, “I am very annoyed about this issue. Why can’t it be a choice? Why is that any less legitimate? It seems we’re just ceding this point to bigots who are demanding it, and I don’t think that they should define the terms of the debate. I also feel like people think I was walking around in a cloud and didn’t realize I was gay, which I find really offensive. I find it offensive to me, but I also find it offensive to all the men I’ve been out with.
I cannot tell you how much I adore Nixon for fully and wholeheartedly identifying as having chosen to be gay. (I love my bisexual friends for standing up for that despised identity, too, but Nixon is our topic today.) Personally, I rate about a 5 on the Kinsey scale; my only choice, for what it's worth, was whether to identify as a lesbian openly or whether to fight it. (Guess which I picked.) But I have known many women whose sexuality has been far more fluid, and whose loves and identities have shifted over their lifetimes. I have known women who left longtime female partners so they could start dating men, after concluding that that tug was much stronger than they'd realized; I have known others who decided that they preferred the intimacy of "like" rather than the intimacy of "different," and left men at the altar so they could seek women. Some women I've known decided they hated being outsiders, and left women to find men. Others decided that looking "straight" to the wider world was just too weird, erasing too much of themselves, and chose to be with women so their "real" selves were more visible. Others have simply fallen in love in different directions at different times of their lives, for whatever reason—and since that's the world they live in, they accept and embrace that public identity. Still other women I know have always been aware that they were equally able to fall in love with women or men, but at some point fell in love and married one person; they still identify as bisexual, even though they are in a lifetime commitment with one person of one fixed sex. And that's not even counting the Anne Heche or Julie Cyphers of the world, or the four-year lesbians at women's colleges, ladies who were always just visiting and were never going to stay very long. Not, as we say, that there's anything wrong with that.
According to the researchers, male sexuality appears to be less fluid. It's hard to know whether that's because of nature or culture. I do know men who've shifted in one direction over time, and who thereafter identify as either "gay" or "straight." I've known very few who were publicly comfortable identifying as bisexual. Is that because the homosexual stigma is so much stronger for men than it is for women, because of the masculinity patrol? As I've discussed here before, any deviation from the prescriptions of American masculinity can be deadly: boys and men can be mocked mercilessly, beaten, and sometimes driven to suicide for being anything other than non-ironically butch.
All the gay "leaders" who I've heard objecting to Nixon's self-definition are men. On listserves and in Facebook threads, gay men are (virtually) shouting at the ladies to stop talking openly about their lives because it's bad, bad, bad for the movement. Is that because men are punished for queerness so much more than women are?
Here's the thing: all these identities are historically invented, culturally defined and temporary. One hundred years ago, nobody was homosexual or heterosexual. At the end of the 19th century, historian George Chauncey tells us, the identity dividing line was which sex you appeared to be, rather than which sex was the object of your desire. Girly boys were queer; butch boys were not, even if they took some sailor down to the docks. All these things get categorized differently based on your culture and era. Recently, the traditional hijra in India, Nepal, and Pakistan (born male, identify as female, attracted to men) have won legal fights to have their own third-sex box to check on identity forms (M, F, H). Would they call themselves gay or straight? No.
Human sexuality—and human identity in general—is highly complicated, far more so than any taxonomy can take into account. Language is such a limited medium for lived experience. We all choose our identities out of our culture's current list of options, but that doesn't make the identity real. We're all born with certain inclinations—left-handed or right, artsy or mechanical, atheist or deeply spiritual—that vary from those around us. We're not ants or bees; we're human.
"Born that way" has always been a flawed model, one that has troubled many lesbians. As one commenter on a listserv put it, women are born this way, but that hasn't ended misogyny. The demographic experts, in fact, have pointed out that Asia is missing about 163 million girls that would have been born—but families abort females, preferring males.
I've long thought it was a mistake to model LGBT rights too strongly on the African-American civil rights experience, leaning entirely on the idea of being blameless only if one had no say in one's identity. That's just too simplistic for anything as complicated, in nature/nurture/culture terms, as sexuality. As Barney Frank has said, very few black kids ever had to worry about telling their parents they were black. Some people were born Jewish and others choose to be Jewish, but religious civil rights are respected either way.
Here's the larger and more important point: there's nothing wrong with being gay, or as gay trailblazer Frank Kameny so memorably put it, Gay is Good. I adore my wife, almost helplessly at times. (And, um, we never fight.) I married her so I could take care of her in sickness and in health, and so our boy would have a more secure home. How does this threaten anyone?
Having a choice in your life shouldn't delete your civil rights. I may never have had any particular attraction to men, but I could have ignored my attraction to women. I did not. I still choose to identify publicly as lesbian—holding my wife's hand in public, letting our son's school community know that he has two moms. In other words, I do choose a gay "lifestyle." (It just happens to be nearly indistinguishable from the straight "lifestyle" of my neighbors.) Cynthia Nixon apparently has had even more choices, and has nevertheless chosen to embody that old slogan: Say it loud, gay and proud! And that's a good thing.
For the loud part, see here: