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June 11, 2010 / missmarymax

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.

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9 Comments

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  1. Ily / Jun 12 2010 12:56 am

    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 something so moving about that statement. It took awhile, but I think I can say the same. I can’t really imagine being anything else, but still.

    I don’t think you can choose who you’re sexually attracted to, but orientation, at least in a social context, is about more than that. I think “political asexuals”, or ABCs, could exist:

    http://theonepercentclub.blogspot.com/2009/02/erasing-desire.html

    although at this point in time, I don’t think it would be very desirable to be one. While they might get a mixed reception from other asexuals, I think that family/friends would have an even harder time accepting an ABC. Maybe part of the reason why asexuality seems to keep a wide berth from celibacy is that “if we could help it, we would” quote you mentioned. I don’t think that, as a group, we’re happy about our orientation yet. Hopefully with time and more role models for the younger folks, that will change.

    Great post.

    • missmarymax / Jun 14 2010 3:22 pm

      Wow, great post. I tend to agree with you that the QBCs or ABCs could (and should) be allies in the movement toward … er… whatever-we’re-working-toward. I think that’s one reason that — although the idea that some asexuals could be asexuals by choice is understandably not a popular one at the moment — (at least, not among people who consider asexuality legitimiate) — it appeals to me to argue in favor of it at this point. I think the queer movement, more generally, has f***ed up in a lot of ways: by marginalizing certain identities, by promoting the notion that we’re just like hetero folks, and by espousing the born-that-way rhetoric (to name a few.) I still love the queer movement, but I take issue with all of that, and I would be thrilled — as I think I mentioned at least once at Willendork — to see the ase contingent make some different choices about how to seek equality/ acceptance/ etc as a population.

      It’s sad to me that so many asexuals would help it if they could… but that’s probably my privilege and love of y’all talking. 🙂 Here’s to better role models, greater awareness, and a steady movement toward pride.

      Oh and one more thing: your “right person” discussion in that post? SPOT ON. That argument is generally annoying, for many reasons, but the rhetoric is downright bizarre. It’s up there with “just friends” on my list of phrases that need replacin’.

  2. SlightlyMetaphysical / Jun 13 2010 9:45 pm

    It’s wonderful to have you writing again. Having said that, I disagree with you a little about asexuality and celibacy. While the ‘choice’ way might be the easiest way to explain to someone, there is a clear difference, in that asexuality is about lack of attraction and celibacy is nothing to do with attraction (which begs the question of whether an asexual can be celibate too).

    Also, I think I’m a little distrustful of QBC, as a movement. While there are certainly a lot of people who have some degree of choice over their sexual attractions, definately over their identities, I think the reality is that most people have some sort of sexual attraction pattern which they can’t violate. Certainly, the people on AVEN who occasionally appear saying they want to ‘become’ asexual, or choose to be asexual, tend to be those who just want to repress their sexual attraction.

    • missmarymax / Jun 14 2010 3:10 pm

      Thank you (for the comment and the compliment). It’s great to be back in the discussion.

      I’m not sure what you meant when you said the “choice way might be the easiest way to explain” — and I want to clarify that I’m not arguing that anyone who does not feel their orientation is a choice should start claiming it is — for the sake of ease or anything else. I think part of the reason that choice is such a difficult concept to address in the ase community (and in the queer community more generally) is that there are so many people for whom it’s not a choice, and claiming that it could be for some (which tends to be read as “well, then, it must be for everyone”) implicates people in a dangerous way. (Again, because an ace or queer identity — if it were a choice — would be “the wrong one” from a social standpoint.)

      You write that the reality is that most people have some sort of sexual attraction pattern which they can’t violate… and I think a lot of people — particularly hetero/ homo people — share your experience. But keep in mind that you’re still talking about “most people” here — which fundamentally implies that there’s another possibility, a small minority that has a different experience or frames their similar experience differently. I think it’s important to respect that minority, especially since — as Ily pointed out — defining sexuality in terms of which gender we’re attracted to, et cetera, is still a very recent phenomenon.

      I fully recognize that my position here is not traditional… and that it’s not entirely well-timed. The asexual community is still very new, and claiming that there is ever an element of choice involved is probably a very effective way of de-legitimizing the identity — something I would never strive to do. At the same time, I balk a bit at the notion that “those who just want to repress their sexual attraction” somehow have less right to identify as asexual (for instance) than anyone else. Perhaps because I believe we all appropriate and use these labels to construct an identity, more than to describe something that is innately present, I take issue with the notion that there’s a legitimate (and illegitimate) use of orientation. …Although to be fair, I still cringe a bit when I meet a self-identified lesbian who strikes me as “just a manhater.” Openness — for lack of a better term — can be a lot of effort.

      • SlightlyMetaphysical / Jun 14 2010 9:42 pm

        I wrote my original comment in a hurry, and, re-reading, it seems less like an actual opinion and more like me hitting something I don’t understand and getting confused.

        So, starting right from the beginning, as I should have done on reading your post, what do you mean by choosing you orientation? It’s so far from what I understand orientation to be (although I’m a social constructionist, and find ‘born this way’ problematic in similar ways to you). Choice is concious and attraction is not- can you choose to feel or not feel something? Or is this more about the construction of the identity and less about the desire?

        Sorry about all the questions. I’m just struggling to get to grips with the concept.

      • missmarymax / Jun 16 2010 2:39 am

        I’m really not an expert on QBC (by any stretch.) To better understand how the “choice” folk identify (and why), I really recommend the Whisman book I mentioned in this post, as well as further perusal of queerbychoice.com. Although — as with many labels — not everyone who identifies as QBC means the same thing by it, there does seem to be an understanding that it means more than claiming the identity; it’s often implied that the feelings/ desires that are the basis of that identity are themselves chosen. (http://www.queerbychoice.com/feeloract.html) I think your question about whether one can choose to feel something is seriously intriguing, and probably the kind of thing individuals and philosophical movements have spent and will spend great energy attempting to unpack. For what it’s worth, my own experience aligns me more with your understanding of things. (I’m strongly social-constructionist… and see my choice as more in the realm of aligning with the contemporary historical understanding of orientation, rather than in having the feelings I have.) However, I’m also intrigued by QBC and less clear than you seem to be on attraction itself as not-choiceful. I’m reminded, in a sort of tangential way, in the critique of “choice feminism” that argues we can’t freely or “purely” choose, given the extent to which our behavior is molded by social institutions and controls. I’m not sure where I land in that debate (as in most debates, heh) — but I think there’s an interesting tension between choices we make and our choices as “made” … a tension that is not easily or cleanly resolved.

  3. Siggy / Jun 15 2010 7:29 pm

    I think that even if we don’t concede that alternative orientations are inferior, there are still some reasons to distrust QBCs.

    1. The visibility of QBCs tends to erase the experiences of people who change their identity because of self-discovery or because they experience non-chosen fluidity. Arguably, these last two groups are more common than QBCs, but everyone seems to jump to the possibility of choice.

    2. There is the fear that QBCs are blurring the line between behavior, identity, and orientation.

    3. I draw a line between accepting people’s experiences and accepting the things they infer from those experiences. I can believe that QBCs experienced it as a choice, and I think it’s somewhat likely that it was a choice, but I don’t know the cause for sure, and neither do they.

    But if we’re careful, none of these need to be issues. I think the effort is worthwhile, not just to end the marginalization of QBCs, but to open new paths for discussion and self-exploration.

    • missmarymax / Jun 16 2010 3:02 am

      Interesting points! I particularly like your comment that none of these NEED to be issues, although they are often framed as them.

      1) I think it’s important to recognize — as you mentioned — that QBC is actually largely INvisible, at least within the queer community. It seems possible that the power of the QBC movement to “erase” the experience of non-chosen queer identities might come from the fact that “choice” is employed — almost exclusively — by homophobic and anti-gay activists. Incorporating QBC perspectives into pro-LGBT actions might actually help disempower the “jumping to choice” you speak of… It has less power as our Achilles’ heel, I think, if we actively use it (although not to the exclusion of non-choice perspectives, obviously.)

      2) This is part of the appeal to me… but I’m annoyingly intrigued by postmodern theory in general, so maybe that’s just me.

      3) True, but they could just as easily say, “I draw a line between accepting people’s experiences and accepting the things they infer from those experiences. I can believe that LGBT people experience their identity as biologically innate, and I think it’s somewhat likely that it was innate, but I don’t know the cause for sure, and neither do they.” In my personal opinion, part of respecting someone’s identification is respecting the meaning they attribute to that identity, although — depending on the meaning — that can be easier said than done.

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