Choose Your Own Adventure: A/Sexuality and Choice
Through some unidentifiable grace, I lucked into one of the best possible people to help me sort out the “questioning” phase that predated my identifacation as “lesbian.” He was a therapist, (and later a dear friend), who offered some particularly keen insight during that time, much of which continues to strike chords with me today.
At that time, one of the main concerns that made it difficult for me to come to terms with my orientation was the notion that my past was somehow responsible for my lesbianism. (And not just “my past,” but parts of my past which I preferred to think I’d moved on from…) I didn’t want to think that negative experiences of various sorts somehow bore the responsibility for my budding queer identity, in part, because I wished to view that identity as something postive. But still… I had my doubts.
More importantly, I considered an orientation created by life experiences less “valid” than one that was innate, and I longed for the opportunity to view my orientation as valid. “Choice” and “social construct” struck me as significantly less authentic alternatives to the “born this way” narrative.
(It’s almost funny now, to realize that. These days, I’m one of the last people on the planet likely to claim that I was born “this way.”)
In part, that’s because of the conversations I had with J, the person mentioned above. When I asked J if he thought certain experiences might be the root of my for-lack-of-a-better-term-gayness, I was hoping for a very specific answer. Iwas hoping for the answer that most pro-gay people probably would have given: an immediate and off-the-cuff, “Of course not.” Because LGBT advocates most often align with the “born that way” philosophy, leaving choice and “nurture” explanations to the anti-gay movement, I probably held some expectation that he would reassure me of my orientation’s (blameless) genetic basis.
But… J surprised me. He refused to claim clarity on the origin of my orientation or anyone else’s, (including his own, which I learned — much later — was also queer) — arguing instead that desire and sexuality are complex topics, and that their origin remains largely unknown.
Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed that my concerns about orientation as an outcome of Past Crap had not been unequivocally dismissed. Yet, over the years, I have come to view myself as extremely lucky to have posed this question to someone who so committedly refused to be flippant or to simplify, even when that simplicity might (temporarily) have offered more comfort. In part, that’s because J’s response went further. Instead of reiterating the “born that way” rhetoric, J reminded me that the origin of desire is unkown — if not unknowable. He then shifted my focus to the underlying questions of rightness and validity.
His argument, which has gradually become mine, reads something like this: Causality, — while perhaps interesting, — is fundamentally irrelevant. The only reason we question what “causes” homosexuality is because we view it as an inferior outcome. But it’s not inferior. In a society that recognizes homosexuality (or bisexuality or asexuality) as a positive choice, the question “Is it a choice?” ceases to matter. In a society that views “queer” and “hetero” sexualities as equally acceptable outcomes, the question “Biology, choice, or social construct?” fails to matter. All that matters is reality: “This is, and this is good.” “I am a lesbian and that is good.” At the point when I can articulate that statement, my stake in the origin battle is removed. No biological cause must validate me. No social experience must validate me. No choice can condemn me. I am already valid, already protected from condemnation, and from that point on, the questions are solely academic.
Even if choice can’t condemn me, there remains the question, can it liberate? The Queer By Choice (QBC) community and the radical lesbian feminist movement, (which by some accounts fostered the QBC community), appears to be articulating an adamant “yes.” Queerbychoice.com has a page dedicated to “the cultural implications of choosing to be queer” and the quotes presented there have a fiercely positive ring. Take Cory Kerens’ line, “What I am saying is that gay is good because it is, not because we can’t help it. Love is good because it’s love, not because we can’t choose to love in any other fashion.” Or Sheila Garden’s “CHOICE is Crucial to the fabric of being fully HUMAN and FREE. Choosing to be bi-sexual, homosexual, transvestite, –whatever — is a form of ‘revolutionary’ evolution in this patriarchal society.”
I can hear both these lines echoing off a megaphone, delivered to the rainbow-clad crowds that too rarely pack our streets, and — although I don’t feel compelled at this point to identify personally as QBC, — I recognize the liberation and empowerment in such statements. I found similar freedom in my own choice-based position, the knowledge that if orientation were a choice, indisputably, queer would be mine. There’s pride and strength in knowing I would not change given the opportunity, that I would go back and opt for this identity, if opting were the way in. But the QBC-ers are claiming more than that. They’re claiming they did opt for this identity, a position I sometimes envy, if only because it implies a power, an active role in sexuality that I admire.
About a year ago, I wrote a post at my previous blog, which challenged the notion that temporary identification is somehow wrong or less legitimate. Specifically, I was looking at how temporarily identifying as asexual could — given the nature of the ace community as I’d experienced it — serve a positive purpose for an individual trying to sort out her/his orientation.
That notion — of temporary identification and sexual fluidity — pretty organically raises a question of what role an “asexual by choice” might play in the ace community/ movement. I’d argue that an Ace-By-Choice could make some serious contributions to that community, just as I’d argue that the QBC folks could inform the larger LGBTQQIA movement (if we would work a little harder not to “disappear” them.) But the concept of an Ace-By-Choice has arguably been made a bit more of a contradiction in terms, currently, than QBC has. (I say “arguably” because the LGBT movement is a long way from divesting in the born-that-way explanation.) Yet, the ABC (and how lovely is that coincidence?) is made especially difficult, in my opinion, because the established definition of asexuality, circulated via the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN), almost immediately contrasts asexuality — a “valid” orientation — with celibacy, a choice. (It’s important to note that several asexual writers — most notably Pretzelboy — have complicated the “clean-cut” distinction offered at AVEN.) But inherent in the choice/ orientation dichotomy is the assumption that orientations of choice are less legitimate. Thus, the AVEN definition relies upon the (problematic) foundation that biology provides the most (or only) valid cause for identity. While it challenges the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm, (by suggesting the normal manifestation of something else), it fails to challenge the assumption that heterosexuality is superior, by claiming that “something else” is an unchosen inevitability. As Lindsey Van Gelder wrote in Ms. nearly twenty years ago, “Inherent in [the “we can’t help it” response to homophobia] is the implication that if we could help it, we would. Even when that isn’t what we mean, it’s what a fair number of straight people hear, including some of our allies. […] Not challenging them might gain us some votes, but in the long run it means that we’re subtly putting the word out that it’s O.K. to regard us as sexually defective.”
Likewise, by arguing that asexuality is not a choice, rather than arguing that it would not — if chosen (or if non-biologically caused) — be the “wrong” choice, we in the queer community continue to allow core tenets of heterosexism to remain unchallenged. We also perpetuate a wrongdoing common in the LGBT community (particularly the lesbian faction): the division of “real” gays and lesbians from “fake” or “temporary” ones.
Vera Whisman goes into this issue extensively in the second chapter of her book, Queer by Choice: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Politics of Identity. Whisman writes that for many lesbians who view their orientation as innate, “lesbians by choice are not real because they have the wrong underlying sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or bisexual, which they will eventually revert back to.” (See the LUG, BUG, and GUG monikers, all of which are widely construed as negative.) Also, according to Whisman, born-that-way lesbians often consider the motivation behind chosen lesbianism “wrong”; lesbians-by-choice are said to choose the orientation out of a hatred for men rather than a love for women, and this again is judged as less valid.
But what gives the “innate” lesbian, or the innate asexual, the right to determine whose sexuality is valid? Does my distate for the antisexuals privilege me with the power to deny their asexuality as “true”? Does my disdain for the lesbian as manhater stereotype grant me the right to claim manhaters cannot be lesbians?
Discussions of asexuality (as opposed to homosexuality, bisexuality, etc) have particular snares in reference to choice, because the idea of not desiring sex remains so alien to most people. For that reason, distinguishing asexuality from celibacy may remain a requirement for explaining the concept, but I increasingly disagree with the articulation that the two differ based on a non-choice/ choice distinction. (One might note, after all, that celibacy — too — is not always choiceful.) I’d argue that the more compelling difference between asexuality and celibacy is that asexuality is an orientation, a complex system of desires and tendencies, while celibacy is purely behavioral.
Asexuality is valid, but that validity does not necessarily have to rest in its status as a non-choice. In fact, divorcing it from that powerless position could ultimately be liberating for those who identify as ace, regardless of their sense of that identity’s origin. It could also be a step toward bridging the schism that divides at least one queer identity from its counterpoint of queer-by-choice.
Keep in mind that I’m not arguing that sexual identity is a choice for all people, queer or otherwise. There are plenty of people who would choose not to have the sexuality or gender identity they do, if they felt the choice was theirs… There are plenty of people who believe, firmly, that they have always been this way, and always been this way because of their genes.
Yet, in the queer community, (and I include asexuality in that, although it’s worth noting/ respecting that not all asexuals include themselves), we’re committed to dismantling expectations, when they do not reflect reality. We’re committed to pointing out that the existing assumptions about (for starters) our genders, desires, behaviors, and bodies are not always accurate. Yet, we continue to support this notion that we are all the Same Kind of Gay (or Lesbian or Bi or Trans), and that we all “got there” the same way. (Generally speaking, of course, that way is our genes.) In doing so, we further marginalize members of our community who do not view themselves as victims (or beneficiaries) of their chromosomes. We refuse them the same right we’re demanding from the mainstream: the right to define their own identities, to attach their own meanings to who they are, to determine for themselves how “who they are” works and what that means.