December 12, 2008

choice schmoice

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks, about the whole gay marriage thing, "What if it is a lifestyle?" The argument (as often publicly made) for letting us queers do our thing rest on the idea that we didn't choose to be gay, and thus can't choose to be straight, so it's just mean to try to force us into a role that won't work. Ta-Nehisi says,

"Implicit in that logic is a kind of judgment, the notion that if I could choose, I obviously would choose to be white. But what if I just like being black? What if I could choose and would still choose black? Ditto for homosexuality. So what if you do choose to be gay? I understand that a lot of the science says you don't, but why do we accept this implicit idea that heterosexuality is, necessarily, what everyone would chose?"

This has bothered me for a long time - last night, I watched Jon Stewart going after Bill O'Reilly about gay marriage, and Jon Stewart's framing, as it was to Mike Huckabee, is that he didn't choose to be straight, people don't choose to be gay, and you shouldn't be harassed for something that's not your fault. There's a sense that if you could help it, you should - that being gay is bad, but you're forgiven because you can't help it.

I don't think my relationship is bad. I don't wish I were dating a man. And - here's the tricky part - I could help it.

The science, for whatever it's worth, is mostly done on men. And I think that many gay people do experience their sexuality as something fairly immutable that has been the case for a very long time. But I don't. Gender doesn't seem to be a particularly important constraint for me. Not that I'm not picky, just that I'm not at all picky about that. I'm particular about politics, and I like my gender presentation a little outside the mainstream, and I like people who have a critique of capitalism. No investment bankers, thanks. But the thing is, I've dated guys, and it's not like I'm never attracted to them. I could, in a different world, probably choose to be straight. But I chose to be in a specific relationship with a specific woman - I chose a same-sex relationship. And I'm really, really happy about that choice. But it does mean that the idea that queers are alright because we didn't choose it is a bad fit for me. I did choose it. Am I still alright with Jon Stewart?

It's also hard on young queer people, because it suggests that being gay is so awful that you'd never choose it if you had an alternative. I used to think that, actually. A gay friend thought, when she was in middle school, that if she were gay she would never ever tell anyone. (Fortunately for us all, she changed her mind.) Similarly, I was looking through a diversity curriculum for activities, and there was one in which the participants were asked to imagine a gay person's life and go through all the moments where that person is rejected, harassed, and hurt for being gay. The idea was to convince straight participants not to be mean to queer people, but put one queer kid in the mix, and that poor kid gets to spend the activity thinking of how bleak the future is, and struggling to choose not to be gay. And that's what's really crazy-making about the "it's ok because you can't help it" rhetoric: how do you know if you can help it or not unless you try? It suggests that every decision about being attracted to or involved with someone of the same sex ought to be run through a screen of "do I have to?" It almost needs the oppression there, because without the oppression, maybe people would just choose to be queer and you wouldn't know who can't help it.

It reminds me a little of the way women are encouraged to ask ourselves, "do I need that?" about food and, well, really about most of our desires that are for ourselves. It's kind of a crap way to approach your life, and I worry that the language of the current 'tolerance' fight for queer people perpetuates that kind of approach instead of accepting that queer relationships don't need more justification than straight ones.

(I know I promised some thoughts on education policy. I'm working on it!)

1 comment:

Narya said...

I like your points here, quite a bit. I've sometimes felt similarly, although from the other side, sort of. although I've dated a few women, the vast majority of my sexual interactions have been with men, so there's a certain familiarity there, on multiple levels. I am, in some sense, more attracted to men than to women, as sexual partners, too, so it's a self-reinforcing thing. Despite being attracted to women, as well, it always felt like more . . . work, somehow, in that I don't know the rules for dating women casually, and, more to the point, I didn't want to misrepresent myself unintentionally. (E.g., it's easy for me to hook up/play with men, because I know the rules around that, by and large, but have no clue how much of that differs with women.) I don't feel like I"m making my point very well here . . .

I think the larger point is that, on so very many levels, I do not care who people sleep with or date or whatever--unless I am contemplating or want to do one or more of those things with a given person, in which case the caring becomes much more personal. And that, in some ways, is at the heart of the whole thing. Why should I care whom someone else dates? Unless I want to date that person, of what possible interest could it be to me? And I thus do not care how someone came to choose a particular partner--whether the genital arrangement that s/he found attractive was a "choice," or immutable, or whatever.