In her new book “Straight Expectations,” radical feminist writer and campaigner Julie Bindel has recently and very publicly claimed that she’s not convinced by the scientific argument that sexual orientation is innate and she feels she chose to be lesbian.
She received a vitriolic response from the gay community on social media, with comments calling her “stupid,” “confused,” and “an awful human being.” One reader comment on Pink News stated that “Julie Bindell’s [sic] suggestion that being gay is a choice is downright offensive to me!”
This fury at claims we choose our sexuality is nothing new. Aside from the controversy that Bindel has courted for years, back in 2012, “Sex and the City” star Cynthia Nixon received a similar response from LGBT activists when, in an interview with the New York Times, she explained that being gay was a choice for her.
Nixon and Bindel are by no means the first to claim that lesbianism, in particular, can be a choice, though they are perhaps the highest-profile women in recent times to have drawn such intense ire by voicing this view.
The notion of political lesbianism based on a feminist rejection of heteropatriarchy has been around since the 1970s, and there is also research suggesting that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s. But what exactly is so offensive about this suggestion, and why does the gay community react to it with such scorn?
Born what way?
In the book, Bindel quotes her discussions with fellow journalist Patrick Strudwick on why he reacted so scathingly to Nixon’s claim that, for her, being gay was a choice. His answer was simple; anti-gay religious rhetoric is based on the assertion that we can “choose not to be gay,” and such claims can be used as a justification for those seeking to “cure” homosexuality.
It would appear then that biological determinist theories of sexual orientation are fervently supported by many in the gay community not because they are backed up by empirical evidence or because they chime with many people’s experiences, but because they are supposedly a very effective means of challenging homophobia.
That much is apparent in slogans such as “homosexuality is not a choice, but homophobia is.” And accordingly, those who claim to have any element of choice in their sexual orientation are often attacked by much of the mainstream gay community for not toeing the party line, and for playing right into the enemy’s hands.
This, of course, assumes that biological determinist arguments are actually effective weapons against prejudice — and that no other arguments work.
Not so fast
Over the years, many studies have found that heterosexuals who score lower on homophobia scales tend to consider sexual orientation to be biologically determined, rather than learned or freely chosen. But this doesn’t mean there is a causal link between believing biological determinist theories and having liberal attitudes towards lesbians and gay men.
There are other perfectly plausible explanations; it may simply reflect the way that these two theories of sexual orientation are dominantly used in public debate to justify particular pro- or anti-LGBT equality positions.
Although studies have shown that participation in university-level sexuality courses that teach biological determinism can reduce heterosexual students’ prejudice towards lesbians and gay men, social psychologist Peter Hegarty found that prejudice also declined among students taking a course that addressed anti-gay prejudice directly, but which did not discuss biological theories of sexual orientation. His findings suggests that “born this way” arguments are hardly the only way to tackle anti-gay prejudice.
Much of the livid reaction to Bindel’s comments focused overwhelmingly on her contentious assertions that homosexuality can be a choice, but her book also offers a persuasive political critique of the “born this way” argument as a basis for LGBT activism.
For example, she points out that nobody questions the biological basis of sex and race and yet sexism and racism continue to exist. She also questions whether the notion of choice necessarily lends itself more to the idea of a “cure” than the notion of a “gay gene” or fetal hormone theories. After all, the Nazis were interested in research on the biological basis of homosexuality in order to eradicate it.
Science and morality
We don’t need proof that we were “born this way” to challenge religiously motivated attempts to “cure” homosexuality. Homosexuality is no longer classified as a mental illness, and “treatment” is therefore inappropriate — irrespective of whether we are born gay or not.
But I would also question the idea that the thorny issue of choice is settled once and for all by proving that sexual orientation is biologically immutable. Even if the biological basis of sexual orientation were proved beyond all doubt, those who subscribe to heterosexist religious ideologies which view non-heterosexuality as morally inferior could argue that while we cannot choose who we are sexually attracted to, we can choose whether to act upon those sexual desires.
The “born this way” argument cannot dodge the question of morality; science can never replace the need for thorough and tight moral argument. Either same-sex relationships are of equal moral value to heterosexual relationships or they are not.
We should be proudly proclaiming that they are — not attacking those in our own community who experience or make sense of their sexuality differently than we as individuals might choose (yes, choose) to do.
This article originally ran in The Conversation.