The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

I’m more than tired of all the uproar over whether sexuality is biologically determined or chosen. Actually, that’s not true. It’s ultimately more complicated than that dichotomy would indicate, and the answer has no place in a discussion of rights for gays.

It’s bad enough to hear the fundamentalists harp on the “gay lifestyle,” but LBGT groups also seem inclined to use the question of choice v. biology as a new potential litmus test for politicians. For example, In the HRC/Logo LBGT Presidential Forum, Melissa Etheridge asks Bill Richardson if he thinks sexual orientation is a choice or is biological. He’s been criticized for his answer but it’s actually not so far from mine: It really doesn’t matter. People should have rights whether they choose aspects of their identity or whether they are born with certain characteristics. (NB: There may be plenty of good reasons to be critical of Bill Richardson, but his answer to that question, which was essentially, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s really complicated and so honestly I don’t really know, and besides it doesn’t really matter because people deserve rights either way.”)

You can see Bill Richardson’s segments of the forum here, and all the others here.

Intellectually, or scientifically, what factors shape a person’s sexuality is an interesting question. But in terms of the law it ought to be irrelevent. Discrimination against people based on the kinds of sex they have, or the genders of their partners ought to be illegal. Period. End of sentence.

It feels like another instance of where those in favor of sexual and reproductive freedom have ceded the framing of the debate to those who would like to lock sexuality down. Only this time the word “choice” has been adopted by the other side.

Conservatives focus a lot on their claim that sexual orientation is not an orientation at all but is rather a “chosen lifestyle” because they are fond of punishing people for what they see as “bad” or “immoral” choices. By that logic, they feel justified denying marriage to same sex couples because they should have ‘chosen’ differently.

That’s ridiculous. Even if sexuality is to some degree chosen — and I would argue that all kinds of sexual expression is chosen, and much is shaped by culture, even though some is likely influenced by biology — I should still be allowed to marry who I want, as long as that person is legally able to consent to the marriage. I should not be discriminated against at work or in housing matters or health care because of the partners I choose.

Why should sexual choices (between people capable of consent) be seen as somehow different from other choices we are freely able to make? Sexuality is complex and there are lots of desires that we choose to act on and explore and others we choose never to explore. And sexuality should not be reduced to sexual orientation, either. Go beyond the gender of your partner and think about explorations in bondage or flogging or sex at play parties. Do we need to argue that those desires or explorations are driven biological predispositions in order to assert that we should be free to act on them and that our rights should not be limited if we choose to do so? Should it be legal to deny housing to people who are polyamorous? Should it be legal to fire a person who is into leather and whips? Of course not. So why, when we talk about LGBT rights, which are extremely important, do we end up arguing based on biological determinism?

I think we do so because it’s easier to argue that people shouldn’t be denied rights because of something over which they have no control. The comparisons to race, ethnicity, disability should not be missed. But there are other “protected categories” that are seen as sacred in terms of rights and freedom and are certainly a matter of choice. Religion comes to mind first. Religious faith is a matter of conscience and culture and not at all something you are born with. (I know, some religions are “passed on” through families but there is generally a moment when the individual has to choose to become a full member of the religious community by way of some consciously engaged-in ritual.)

And even regarding race, which is not chosen but is a characteristic others ascribe to us based on physical appearances, there is precedent for adopting “choice” as a basis for rights, especially where sexual relationships are concerned.

In 1967 the Loving v. Virginia case made it clear that it is unconstitutional for states to prevent interracial couples from marrying. Does anybody argue about whether the partners in interracial couples are “born that way” (i.e., somehow biologically inclined to sexual attraction and love of people from other racial groups) or whether they’ve “chosen” to partner with people outside their own races? No. In fact the biology of sexual attraction never entered the picture in the Loving decision. The question was one of whether or not it was legal for the state to regulate marriage by taking race into account.

We should not allow a “biology v. choice” framing of the rights debate to continue. If we do, we will likely find ourselves backed into a very unpleasant corner. We will be forced to argue that we are helpless over our sexuality, and then will be faced with the very frightening prospect of arguing in favor of a medical definition of sexual orientation — which can then be used against us when people decide to start looking for “cures.” For make no mistake about it: if they think they can “cure” us by counseling us into making different choices, they will be no less likely to try to “cure” us of a sexual orientation that they can frame as a disease. If there is a “gay gene” we should be very wary of what happens if it’s found. It will then be possible for genetic testing to “discover” the sexual orientation of a child and gene therapy may be used to “fix” that child. We’ve been there before in less technologically sophisticated ways. Sexual orientation was only declassified as a disease in the 1970s!

Choice v. Biology is no way to have a debate about rights. When we fought for civil rights we didn’t ask what causes race (though we certainly have debated what defines race). We shouldn’t be arguing about what causes sexual orientation. Its an interesting scientific question, and probably has a very complex answer that combines biological and social factors, and I’d be very curious to know more about it. But it has no place in the politics of anti-discrimination policy.

Ultimately sexuality is a blend of biological, cultural, and individual factors. Rights, on the other hand, are determined through the political process, and sexual freedom and civil rights should not depend on whether we are born with a sexual orientation or choose how to express our sexual selves. Sexual freedom and civil rights should be granted to all. Period.

(Note: This post is also published on SexInThePublicSquare.Org, our community-building site. Come on over!)

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Filed under civil rights, culture, discrimination, inequality, Loving v. Virginia, marriage, News and politics, polyamory, public discourse, Relationships, Same-Sex Marriage, sex, sex and the law, sexual orientation, sexuality

6 responses to “The “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights

  1. Ryan

    Thank you for expressing this point so clearly and thoughfully. I’ve been very distressed lately that the conservative framing of this debate seems to have been largely accepted in public discourse. What is more distressing (but unfortunately not all that surprising), is that some of the “choice”-oppressed are already showing themselves willing to use this dichotomy to oppress and devalue others. I recently had a gay man trying to tell me that my bdsm sex life was the immoral and depraved result of lifestlye choices, as opposed to his semi-Platonic ideals of vanilla, monogamous gay love, which are natural, genetic and immutable!! Oh sweet irony. Gay bigotry is already upon us… the bastard lovechild of historical narrowmindedness and the sense of entitlement that comes from using this type of shoddy thinking to privilege and naturalize one’s own sexuality.

    “Queer” has never been more dead.

  2. Ryan, thanks for your comment! I hope you’ll join us over at where a bigger group of us is working on breaking down those dichotomies and exploring the issues surrounding sexual diversity in as many ways as we can.

  3. Ah! Right after the debate I had this same conversation with some friends in which it was expounded upon that just how little whether or not “it” is a choice doesn’t matter. You, of course, say it much more eloquently.

  4. Judy Catch22

    Dear Elizabeth:
    I thought your column onThe “Biology v. Choice debate” has no place in a discussion of sexual freedom and civil rights” was one of the most impressive and comprehensive pieces I’ve ever read on the issue. Thanks for cutting through all the rhetoric and false arguments and presenting a clear statement I can believe in.

  5. sydneyelephant

    Heh. Very good. I would go even further: Biology cannot be opposed to Choice without first addressing if Choice itself exists! What determines our choices? Is there any kind of ‘free will’ that is not determined biologically, culturally or whatever? I would say the answer to this question would only depend on the depth we would like to go to find an answer. Which wouldn’t change the basic fact that people would still choose, irrespective of how we would classify those choices!!!
    Biological or not, one can’t prevent people from choosing how they want to live their sexuality. We use the prison to stop people from engaging in not consented activities. That is irrespective of their choices having been determined by biological, cultural, due to childhood, education, income issues or not. Similarly, sexual practices which are *consented* have no reason to be outlawed, and that is irrespective of what determined them.

  6. jos76

    Thanks for this. The Logo interviews are very helpful. I particularly like Obama’s idea of a strong form of civil unions, which means federal recognition for rights granted by a state. The other candidates just leave it at the stare level.