One of the biggest areas of debate in the discussion of gay rights is the issue of why people are gay: is it a choice, or is it genetic? Or is it somehow socialized into people?
Some opponents of gay rights insist that being gay is a choice, while most gay people take the opposite stand. There’s an interesting video (bel0w) in which people are asked whether they think being gay is a choice, and then — after answering “yes” — are asked when they chose to be straight. This follow-up question tends to soften them to the idea that people don’t choose to be gay or straight.
I think, though, that this focus is misplaced. When debating gay rights and whether homosexuality is something society should accept, I don’t believe that it matters whether being gay is a choice.
And that’s for a couple of reasons. First, leaving aside sex in particular, our preferences and orientation on any number of things is a bit of a mystery. Why do some people prefer basketball over football, and vice versa? The performing arts over sports? Chocolate over vanilla? Chicken over fish? Real Housewives of New York City over Real Housewives of Beverly Hills? Is it genetic, socialized, a deliberate choice, some combination of the three, or something else altogether? I have no idea.
And that’s not even half the mystery, because our desires don’t determine our behavior. We’re often attracted or drawn to things yet resist the urge to indulge in them. We want the ice cream, but we don’t buy it. We want to say something snide to a rude person, but we hold our tongue. We want to stay in bed, but we get up and go to work. So, not only is it unclear why we want what we want, it’s also unclear why we sometimes act on a certain desire and other times don’t.
Which brings me to the second reason why the “Is being gay a choice?” question isn’t central to the issue of gay rights. There are lots of behaviors that we judge to be acceptable or unacceptable even though we don’t know their origin. I can’t explain why people like basketball over football, but it’s legal and it should be. Likewise, I can’t explain why people like Ariel Castro kidnap (and apparently rape or even murder) people. I don’t know if it’s genetic or what, but I do know that it’s illegal, as it ought to be.
I don’t need to know the origin of behaviors like rape and serial murder in order to figure out whether they’re right or wrong. All I need to know is whether they’re harmful, and they clearly are. It might help to know their origin in order to figure out how to nip them in the bud, but no amount of information about the genesis of these behaviors is going to change my mind about whether they are morally acceptable.
When it comes to homosexuality, the real issue isn’t where it comes from, but whether it’s harmful. John Stuart Mill nicely sums things up: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Opponents of homosexuality gain nothing by claiming that being gay is a choice; the burden of their position is to show that it’s somehow harmful to others, which it isn’t. If they want to demonstrate that homosexuality is wrong, they have to show the actual harm that results from it, not with metaphors about “tearing the moral fabric of society,” but with concrete examples of individuals suffering from same-sex relationships. And I just don’t see those examples. (At least, not any more than the suffering that results from straight relationships!)
The gay rights movement is on shaky ground if it hinges on what the origins of homosexuality are. And so is the “straight rights” movement, since the origins of sexual orientation and behavior — just like the origin of most kinds of orientation and behavior — is a mystery.
But gay rights doesn’t hinge on that. If being gay is a choice, that only means sexual orientation can be changed, it doesn’t mean it should be changed. And it only should be changed if it hurts others, which it doesn’t.