Do people choose their sexuality, like they choose a car or a sweater?

I read a troubling commentary piece in Singapore’s Straits Times today on a topic that has become quite hot recently, with the government’s announcement that it was scrapping its long-standing ban on hiring gays.

The commentator reflects:

Choosing whom to like and love, whom to feel close to – surely something emotional and psychological – seems less likely to arise from the biological traits of one’s object of affections, and more likely her emotional and psychological characteristics.

In short, gays choose to be gays given their individual life histories within their cultures because they prefer it to heterosexuality.

I think there is a fundamental error in this equation, if not a gross misunderstanding. I believe that that there is no conscious choice. There is no discussion along the lines of, “Do I want to be heterosexual or homosexual? Hmmmm.”

If, at the time most gays realized their sexuality, they were free to make a choice, I believe most would opt for heterosexuality. But it isn’t like that. Most gays at some point resist their fate, even take drastic steps to fight it, to “overcome” what they see as a terrible problem. (And in many ways, it is; in terms of shame, in living in a society that you know does not accept you, in knowing you will disappoint your parents, etc., etc., etc.) But it’s not something you can choose, like a Rolex over a Patek Phillipe.

Reading this sort of article makes me infinitely frustrated and saddened. Even though the writer tries to show sympathy and understanding, his conclusions are entirely wrong. There is no choice. There is no deciding. There is no comparing, no writing up checklists of pluses and minuses. Did any of you one day decide to be heterosexual? Was there any choosing involved? “That which we are, we are,” as Tennyson tells us.

I remember reading an interview in which the Grande Dame of intolerance herself, Phyllis Schlafly, said matter-of-factly that gays always need to swell their ranks so they go out and recruit. Recruit. Can you imagine someone approaching you and trying to convince you to adopt for the rest of your life this sexuality or that sexuality, as if they were trying to convince you to join the navy? And yet people still believe nonsense like this.

I reflected the other day on my decision in January to discuss this topic in my blog. All in all, I am glad I did. To my true sorrow, I must admit that at least two of my friends in America have stopped communicating with me since that day. But then again, maybe this is just the sort of thing you need to do to discover who your true friends really are….

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 5 Comments

I appreciate you talking about this in the manner which you are. Most posts on such a topic are usually very aggressive, regardless of on what side they fall. I usually hate talking/reading about the gay/straight thing because it’s just another point of tension where no one listens to the other. Thanks for doing so diplomatically, and i found the “gays in china” post fascinating.

July 30, 2003 @ 3:10 pm | Comment

I think that this is rather time-appropriate. While it doesn’t affect the disgusting and odious idea that gays and heterosexuals choose with whom to fall in love, with whom to marry, it does present the ‘opposition’ to fairness and, essentially, freedom.

July 31, 2003 @ 3:36 am | Comment

Thanks Petes; it is a super-charged issue, and being strident about it doesn’t help to promote greater understanding.

Kit, I’ll post about that NYT article soon.

July 31, 2003 @ 4:02 am | Comment

Welcome to Singapore. Mention anything that isn’t the norm and get some fucking rubbish debate.

As they say, get the fuck out of here. Even gum is barred here, what da hey ya expect?

Thou shall not question the government, thou shall just bend down to get ye screwed…

July 31, 2003 @ 10:04 am | Comment

Hey – on your 2 friends who left you after writing the topic. You’re better off without them.

Remember, when shit comes, the true friends are the ones that stay, rather than the friends that run.

Toodles
Edwin
Slowly learning English

July 31, 2003 @ 11:43 am | Comment

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