Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Of course being gay is (not) a choice

At 12:01 AM, at a quiet downtown pub, three friends meet up again, as they do this time each night, for a bit of quiet, and space, and rest.
Piotr: Hey.
Marie: Howdy.
Pablo: Hola.
Piotr: So…have you come out yet?
Marie: Heck no.
Piotr: I’m telling you, you should.
Marie: And I'm telling you to mind your own business
Piotr: Trust me, I’m your friend.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So, “it gets better.”
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Meaning what?
Marie: Meaning, you have never walked a mile in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: Or even stood in my shoes.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And you are not me.
Piotr: Yeah, but I’m your friend.
Marie: Yeah, but not my only one.
Pablo: I’m one too, just quiet.
Marie: Thanks, Pablo. It’s not you I’m worried about.
Piotr: But I’m your friend who knows stuff. That’s why I’m not quiet.
Marie: If you know stuff, then you know what my other friends would think.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my parents.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my other family.
Piotr: So?
Marie: And my religious community.
Piotr: So?
Marie: Well, those folks are my people too.
Piotr: And?
Marie: And I care about them.
Piotr: And they care about you, right?
Marie: Sure.
Piotr: Then they’ll understand.
Marie: That just shows how much you know.
Piotr: They will. Just you see.
Marie: And if they don’t?
Piotr: Then they don’t.
Marie: Easy for you to say.
Piotr: Look, you can do this.
Marie: No, I can’t.
Piotr: Yes, you can.
Marie: It’s not that simple.
Piotr: Yes, it is. It’s up to you. It takes courage. But you have that. I know you do. I’ve seen it. Now just let others see it too.
Marie: I’m still saying it’s not that simple.
Piotr: Why not?
Marie: Because I still have myself to deal with.
Piotr: Yourself?
Marie: Yeah, myself. My self. It’s not just my religion, or my family, or whoever, or whatever. It’s me.
Piotr: How so?
Marie: If you know so much, then you know I’m still of two minds on this whole thing myself.
Piotr: Fine. Start with you. Look in the mirror. Listen to your thoughts.
Marie: And then what?
Piotr: You know how you feel right now? The way you feel when you take a long hard look inside?
Marie: Yes?
Piotr: That right there is who you are.
Marie: Just what makes you so sure of that?
Piotr: Like I said, I know stuff.
Marie: Ah.
Piotr: I know stuff when I hear it. I listen. I learn.
Marie: Yeah, yeah.
Piotr: What have you done with how you feel right now?
Marie: Like what?
Piotr: Have you acted on it?
Marie: We’re having this talk, aren’t we?
Piotr: Um, that’s not what I mean.
Marie: Oh.
Piotr: And I think you know what I mean.
Marie: Oh. Right. Well, in that case, no.
Piotr: Ah, I see.
Marie: What?
Piotr: Nothing.
Marie: Not nothing. “Ah, I see” is not nothing.
Piotr: No, there’s nothing to see. You haven’t acted on it.
Marie: So what? Have you acted on something?
Piotr: Well, no. I’m just like you on that.
Marie: Ah, I see.
Piotr: So it sounds like we are just the same on not having acted. But, you know, you could act on how you feel.
Marie: Sure I could.
Piotr: And maybe you should.
Marie: I do not see why.
Piotr: Look. I know that how I feel, that is just who I am.
Marie: So?
Piotr: So it’s just the same for you. How you feel is who you are. We just do not feel the same.
Marie: I thought who I am is the difference I make in the world. “Be the change you hope to see,” and all that. But I can’t change how I feel.
Piotr: Nor can I. That’s why I have to own it. That’s why you have to own it.
Marie: “Own” it? The folks I know won’t buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s true.
Marie: I don’t know I buy that line.
Piotr: But it’s right. Look. You do not have a choice in this. It’s not a choice at all
Pablo: Hmm…
Piotr: What are you humming about?
Piotr: Are you going to stay silent all night?
Pablo: That silence is the sound of me thinking. I listen. I learn.
Piotr: Ah. And what did you learn?
Pablo: That what you just said is not so.
Piotr: Oh? Which part?
Pablo: You just said Marie has no choice in this. But up till then you said she did.
Piotr: How so?
Pablo: You said she could come out. You said she could show courage. You said she could act on this. You said she could own this. If those are not choices, what are?
Piotr: So you think she should not own this, or act on this, or show courage, or come out?
Pablo: I did not say that. I just said they sound like choices. You may think them good ones. But they are choices either way.
Marie: Do you think the same about being straight?
Pablo: And about being shy. And smart. And single. And celibate. And much else. Parts of them are out of our control, and parts of them are not.
Marie: If I use “X” to pick out just those parts of some thing that are out of my control, then of course being X is not a choice.
Pablo: And if I use “X” to pick out just those parts that are not, then of course being X is.
Piotr: I got this.

At 12:51 AM, as light rain falls, three friends scatter again, as they do this time each morning, for a bit more life apart until they meet again.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Hi Russell, Good to see you clarifying an aspect of what I think is an important issue.

    Contrary to Russell's subtle approach, I'm going to wade right in there (as respectfully as I can).

    Russel, you seem to me to be highlighting the question of whether being gay is more about being or doing; gay is as gay does versus gay is as gay is.

    Anyway, I think the distinction between 'deciding to tend to have feelings of sexual attraction toward members of the same sex, rather than the opposite sex' and 'deciding to engage in sexual acts with members of the same sex' is an important one, and one that is probably frequently overlooked.

    Here is a link to a short video of people being asked if they think people choose to be gay (and a few follow up questions).


    Many of the people in the video seem not to have thought about this distinction. You might also think that their reactions tells us something about how regular folk understand the idea of choosing to be gay after reflecting on it (for a few seconds).

    1. Thanks, Dan. The two types of 'deciding' you mention may map onto the trialogue above to some degree, where the first one ('deciding to tend…') would be one gloss on 'choosing to be gay' and the second one ('deciding to engage…') would be another gloss on 'choosing to be gay.' So construed, it is harder to see the first one as a choice, at least if we listen to people's testimony (where they say things like "I never decided to tend to feel this way; I just found myself feeling this way" etc.).

      To my mind there are intermediate cases, suggested by the trialogue, in which a person decides something (like when a person decides to 'own' a feeling to themselves, or 'come out' about the ownership of a feeling to others, and yet has not yet 'acted on' this feeling, or this ownership of a feeling, in the sense of becoming sexually active.

      NIce youtube link, as well. I had not ever heard of that approach to surveying people.

  2. Russell, thanks for this, it seems like a very real conversation. I would like to suggest a different ending.

    At 12:51 AM, as light rain falls, the two men wave as Maria boards the number 9 bus for home. As the bus pulls away from the curb Pablo slaps Piotr hard upside the head. What the hell is wrong with you anyway? he yells. That's her life, not yours. You want to be a friend? Just listen! Quit giving peope life changing advice about shit you know nothing about! Then Pablo kicks Piotr in the privates for good measure. As Pablo walks away, Piotr lies moaning curled up in a ball behind the bus stop. Try changing how that feels! Pablo yells back. The rain starts falling harder and a homeless person covers Pablo with a piece of plastic. Fade to black.

    1. Ouch! I wonder if that's what Aristotle's notes to Plato were after reading a draft of Phaedrus...

  3. Russell, thoughtful reflection on the relation of sexual identity to choice. Also, Dan, very nice video on the same question.

    The video Dan posted is nicely illuminating here, and your dialogue highlights it nicely, too. Rarely do straight individuals think of themselves as having chosen their straight sexual-identity – it felt natural to them. It is deviation from this norm which seems to raise for an individual questions about her own sexual identity (your Marie) as well as questions from friends about the implications (your Piotr and Pablo).

    The privilege of being straight in a heteronormative society is that you never really have to think about the possible non-naturalness, choicy-ness, of your own sexuality, assuming you believe sexuality to be a choice. Sort of like how white privilege allows whites never to have to think about where they cannot shop or travel or live in a racist society; or the privilege men have in a sexist society not to question whether they deserve their promotion or raise or whether it’s safe to walk through the park.

    I like that you raise the various dimensions of choice, here, Russell. But I wonder to what extent you’re suggesting that all of one’s sexual identity – as with other dimensions of identity – might be a matter of choice or not. You’re not being clear, I think.

    I’m suggesting, and I wonder if you’re also suggesting, that there are conditioning factors of sexuality, insofar as one is gay or straight or bi or anywhere in between (I’m a believer in a spectrum on this rather than a binary oppositional, either-straight-or-gay model), which an individual cannot completely overcome or transform through shear choice or act of will.

    But maybe you mean something else – that one isn’t gay if one doesn’t act on one’s sexual inclinations. So, if I don’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck or have sex like a duck, not only will no one mistake me for a duck, but I will in every relevant way not be a duck.

    At any rate, I’m still not clear on what you’re trying to say.

    1. Thanks Chris. I did not mean to suggest that (as you say) 'one isn't gay if one doesn't act on one's sexual inclinations'. That's a more ambitious thesis than the one I meant to suggest.

      I did, however, mean to suggest that (as you say) there are aspects of one's sexuality that 'an individual cannot completely overcome or transform through [sheer] choice or act of will'. Now, whether those aspects rise to the level of what nowadays gets called a sexual orientation is, it seems to me, a distinct question.

      Assume for the sake of discussion a very technical, reductive, naturalized approach to sexual orientation: a person's sexual orientation at a time is their particular set of sexual predispositions to everything else at that time.

      So defined, two people might have all the same sexual predispositions minus one, and they would have two different orientations.

      And the same person might have all the same sexual predispositions minus one from one time to a second time, and this change would amount to a new orientation replacing an old one.

      Hence there are likely as many sexual orientations as there are people, and indeed people-moments.

      Of course, such a technical definition does not fit our ordinary usage of 'sexual orientation.' We commonly think of two (or even two billion) people having 'the same' sexual orientation, and of the same person having 'the same' orientation from one time to another (or even at all times of their life).

    2. (Sorry, I hit post too soon.) I guess what I'm trying to say in the trialogue is found in the last lines of Pablo and Marie, as well as in the title.

      If 'being gay' is defined in terms of a set of feelings, or more generally in terms of a set of things that a person does not choose, then of course being gay is not a choice.

      But if 'being gay' is defined in terms of a set of decisions, like 'owning' a feeling, 'coming out' to others about it, exercising courage in so coming out, and becoming sexually active, then of course being gay is a choice.

      The tension I'm exploring in this piece is the way 'being gay' is sometimes used in both ways, sometimes inadvertently. And, what's more, 'being gay' is sometimes used in a way that covers both the 'choicey-' and the 'not-so-choicey' elements.