Is being gay a choice? Countless times people have asked and researched that question. Discovering the ins and outs of attraction has been on researchers’ minds for centuries. The biological “legitimacy” of homosexual attraction in a is often at its center. Legitimized or not, the results of these experiments often become political tools to serve one group or another’s beliefs on queerness.
Often from the conservative side, a lack of genetic backup for queerness means that people are choosing sin, or not fighting hard enough to be heterosexual. Alternatively, many gay people, specifically gay men, push the “Born this Way” concept. Being “Born this way,” implies that queer people are unable to choose. Instead, being queer has been physically sealed from the start.
Professor Jane Ward
In an episode of James Mckeever’s podcast, Sociologists Talking Real Sh*t, his guest, Professor Jane Ward, talks about her new book, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality. In the book, Ward flips around the typical narrative and discusses the essential flaws of heterosexuality.
The title, The Tragedy of Heterosexuality, plays with the tragic lens that media portrays homosexual relationships. The “tragedy” that Ward is referring to is not hard to find. In most media, specific movies about gay relationships, the queerness portrayed is painful and seeped with repression. In these stories, gay love must remain hidden because there is a constant threat that if revealed, destruction would ensue. This destruction takes many forms; the destruction of one’s relationship to one’s family, the destruction of one’s friendships or social status, etc.
The book investigates the sexist, and white supremacist roots that take hold in heterosexual relationships and the history of heterosexuality.
In one particular segment, Ward discusses the ideas behind whether or not gayness is innate or chosen. Mckeever asks Ward why it is more prevalent for gay men to be a part of the narrative that queerness is set from birth. Ward replies that “gay men actually have something to lose, or certainly they have more to lose as the result of being gay”.
Ward says that “gay men are keenly aware that if they were straight, they would have more power”. Because of this, gay men are often behind the idea that they couldn’t have chosen to be straight. However, this implies that if given the choice, gay men wouldn’t have wanted to be gay.
Queerness as the giving up of power
Gay women, on the other hand, are already in a subordinate position. Ward argues that women are giving up less power by being gay because they didn’t have as much power to lose. This is because in heterosexual relationships women are already in a subordinate position, in addition to their subordinate position within society.
However, since gay men have more power in society than gay women, they have control over the narrative surrounding queerness. Because it is more common for gay men to believe that queerness is innate, that narrative has taken center stage. The concept that queerness could be a choice has not received any attention, and it has instead been associated with conservatism, and therefore homophobia.
And surely there is a lot to the idea that one can’t choose who they are attracted to. Attraction often rises from an unknown place. It is an uncontrollable draw towards another person that does not consciously move from mind to body. For most people that is undeniable, but does it have to be the only way we understand attraction?
Lesbian culture offers a different path. In the 1970s, gay feminists who were tired of being left out of both the feminist movement (because of their queerness) and the liberation movement (because of their femaleness), created a new movement. The movement, called “lesbian feminism”, outlined a type of feminism where women directed all their attention and love towards other women.
In doing this, lesbian feminists wanted to cut men out from all parts of life, including sex. For lesbian feminists, the only true way to be a feminist was also to be a lesbian. Lesbian feminists saw giving in to men in any way as allowing oneself to be subordinated by male societal power.
One prominent text of the lesbian feminist movement is a manifesto written in 1970 called “The Woman-Identified Woman”. The manifesto states: “Lesbian is a label invented by the Man to thrown at any woman who dares to be his equal”. It continues, “in this sexist society, for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman – she must be a dyke.”
Because of this mentality, lesbianism was not seen as a born trait, but a feminist choice. In fact, the choice to be gay was seen as the only true way for women to love themselves. In addition, separating from men by only being with women, was the only way for women to reclaim a sense of selfhood.
The manifesto is radical, and many parts of it are now exclusionary from a modern point of view. But it shows that from the beginning, the lesbian mentality about whether or not gayness is a choice was not aligned with gay men.
The Lesbian Masterdoc
The concept of choice is also shown in a more modern essay, and famous lesbian resource, the Am I a Lesbian? Masterdoc, or the Lesbian Masterdoc, for short. The Lesbian Masterdoc was originally posted as a public, 31-page google document. It aimed to help women dismantle their compulsory heterosexuality, and discover their queer identity. It was written by Angeli Luz when she was just a teenager. The Lesbian Masterdoc has since helped countless women figure out if they are gay. It was a hit instantly after being published and eventually moved from Tumblr to Twitter, and now to TikTok.
Compulsory heterosexuality, as defined by the Lesbian Masterdoc, “is what forces lesbians to struggle through learning the difference between what you’ve been taught you want (being with men) and what you do want (being with women)”.
The document goes on to say, “[i]n a million tiny ways we’re taught that only relationships with the other binary gender are valid. (And if you’re not one of the binary genders, this can be even more confusing.) Compulsory heterosexuality is built into you from the moment you’re born into this time and place, and it takes a long time to dismantle it.”
A voluntary choice
From there, the document seeks to help women dismantle that very compulsion. It outlines common signs or patterns of behavior and feelings that many gay women experience. The Lesbian Masterdoc also offers up the choice to identify as a lesbian. It describes how even if one has the capability to be attracted to men, they can still choose to only have relationships with women.
The document reads, “If you have had terrible experiences with men and now would like to no longer date them because you don’t see yourself being truly happy with a man and would only like to date women, you can be a lesbian too”. It also offers another scenario, “If you think you feel attraction towards men but don’t want to date or be with them and instead want to date and be with women, then you CAN be a lesbian.”
Freedom in choice
In these quotes, the definition of being a lesbian isn’t tied directly to a “natural” and fixed attraction to women. Instead, choosing to only date women, makes one just as valid of a lesbian.
For some people, believing they were born a certain way makes them feel more comfortable and set in their identity. It also may make it easier for them to communicate their queer identity to family and friends. For other people, knowing that it can be a choice and something they have control over, can be freeing. I think the connotations of choosing to be gay is really hopeful. It allows queer identity to be desirable, and something that one would pick, even given other options. But, in something as difficult to understand as attraction, there will never be one correct way to identify as gay.
Queerness As Historical Impermanence