“What About My Choice?”: Reparative Therapy, Weight Loss, and Privilege Denial
Trigger-warning: for anti-trans, anti-fat, and anti-gay bullshit.
The blurb Feministing gave for the second article– “What if gay is a choice? A fascinating look at the politics behind the science of sexual orientation” — crawled under my skin, in part, because it could so easily describe a progressive challenge to “born this way” gay rights activism. (Say, this one from Zero at the Bone or this one that I wrote at Willendork in 2008.) Using that question to link an article on reparative therapy struck me — at first — as a sort of bait-and-switch. But it’s also a rather telling indicator of the uncomfortable overlap between essentialist queer activism and anti-gay activism. The blurb applies to both, because (as much as we hate to admit this) “born this way” defenses of homosexuality — by seeking a cause for queerness — effectively facilitate the “treatment” of that cause.
This is reason #4012 why I do not support gay-by-birth or gay-by-god notions of sexuality. Not only do they work to “justify” identities that don’t need justifying, not only do they fail to account for history and for culture, but they also actively facilitate harmful practices. Reparative therapy included.
Allow me a moment to under-state the blatantly obvious: reparative “therapies” are wrong. Fundamentally, dangerously wrong.
They are not wrong for the reasons their defenders tend to counter-argue. They’re not wrong, for example, because they suggest sexual identity is fluid, or because they suggest sexual identity is not inherent. They’re wrong because they suggest a person’s sexual orientation requires repairing. Which — particularly in a discipline that’s based in ethical standards like “unconditional positive regard” and “do no harm” — is markedly unethical.
But who am I to say that? asked Rich Wyler, the ex-gay man profiled on NPR. In an argument reminisscent of choice feminism, he asked why doctors can — with APA approval — support trans people in getting sex reassignment surgery (SRS), but cannot support gay people seeking a “reassignment” of orientation. Wyler suggests that medical professionals who will “help a man who comes in and says ‘I want to be a woman,'” cannot ethically refuse help one who comes to them and says, “I want to be attracted to women.” In his view, this standard “makes no sense whatsoever.”
In fact, it’s the comparison that makes no sense: A transgender woman who seeks SRS does not seek SRS because she no longer wishes to be male. She seeks SRS because she is not male — because there is massive cognitive dissonance between her body and her sense of self. SRS is sought and used, when it is sought and used, to treat the dysphoria that can result from that contradiction. It is not used to treat the femaleness itself.
Still, these kinds of arguments remain popular. They’re tempting — particularly to those who value justice and equality — because they’re cloaked in those value systems. But they’re incredibly dangerous. They’re dangerous because they operate solely on the level of individuals, without taking sociocultural factors into account. When Wyler compares wanting to “become” straight with wanting to “become” a woman, he equates a decision that removes privilege with a decision that acquires it. (He also employs some serious transmisogyny to help make his point). In doing so, he denies heterosexual privilege.
Implying that unequal choices are equal is, at best, a privilege-denying trope. It’s a trope that extends well beyond the realm of gender and sexuality. We hear a lot of claims, for instance, that fat activists are hypocritical for not supporting weight loss the same way they’d presumably support an emaciated person’s weight gain. If you’d support an underweight anorexic gaining weight, says the argument, how can you decry a fat woman losing it? Putting aside temporarily the misunderstanding of eating disorders and recovery inherent in these kinds of questions, the fact remains that losing and gaining weight read differently in our cultural context. How many magazines do you see offer tips on weight gain? How often does your coworker discuss their weight gain plan over the company watercooler? How many TV shows can you watch, on any given evening, about people striving to gain weight?
Likewise, when do we ever hear about someone “treating” heterosexuality? Where are the clinics, support groups, and treatment plans for those who just can’t stand being straight?
(This is yet another sign, by the way, that Wyler’s transsexuality comparison doesn’t hold: sex reassignment surgery takes place in both directions. Transwomen and transmen have surgery. But find me a reparative therapy clinic that treats straightness as often as it treats homosexuality. Find me a Weight Watchers program that helps people gain weight as often as it helps them lose. Find me a culture in which “if you support them, you have to support me” is not code for “my choice that reifies privilege should not be treated differently than her choice that challenges it.”)
My concern with choice feminism (or “choice” defenses of any kind) is not about certain options being more “ok” than others. It’s not about supporting one choice over another, equally weighted, choice. It’s about dismantling a system in which certain options (and certain identities) already have clear advantage over others. It’s about the way arguments like “how can you support them and not me?” obscure the systems of privilege in which these identities exist.
In other words, I do not care whether you — as the person in charge of your life — choose identity A or identity B, door #1 or door #2. I care how you frame those choices and whether your choices and framing contribute to the oppression of our fellow human beings. It’s true that I support certain choices more than others: I support choices that work against an oppressive status quo and challenge choices that facilitate it. I support choices that expose unearned privilege and challenge choices that obscure it.
I don’t do this to deny your right to climb the social ladder. I do this because there are people on the rungs below you. And — when you claim that ladder is a set of monkey bars — you trap them there.