The religious right has traditionally argued that homosexuality is a choice and that gays and lesbians can, and should, "change" (i.e., become heterosexual through reparative therapy or religious conversion).
In response, liberal advocates for gay and lesbian civil rights argue that homosexuality, or sexual orientation in general, is not a choice and that gays and lesbians should have civil rights protections because they are born gay or lesbian and cannot change their sexual orientation. Both of these arguments are misleading and oversimplify scientific facts and research on sexual orientation.
The argument that human sexuality is biologically determined is contrary to social scientific research, which suggests that sexuality is largely socially constructed. It ignores not only the sociological evidence against an innate, unchangeable sexuality but also the radical insight of Freud that humans are not born "heterosexual" or "homosexual" and that the development of an exclusive "heterosexuality" requires the repression of homosexual desire.
Even Kinsey, the much misunderstood and misquoted sex researcher, rejected the concept of an innate sexual orientation, preferring to categorize people based on their sexual behaviors.
Kinsey never argued that heterosexuals and homosexuals were two separate innate sexual orientations. Like Freud, he believed that all human beings were potentially bisexual.
Why do many in the mainstream gay movement argue that it is impossible to choose to be gay or lesbian? Many radical feminists argue that women can choose to be lesbian -- that identifying as a lesbian is a social and political choice available to women to liberate themselves from patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality.
The early radical gay liberationists argued that gay liberation requires the sexual liberation of everyone from the socially constructed hetero/homo dichotomy. They believed that everyone could be "gay." They rejected the scientific claim that homosexuality was a biological or psychological pathology or that same-sex desire was even "abnormal." The gay rights movement created a modern "gay" identity.
There have not always been "gay" people, so it is erroneous to claim that people are "born" gay. Bisexuals are also left out of the "sexual orientation is not a choice" paradigm, since they can choose their sexual identity. If we base gay/lesbian rights on the argument that it is not a choice, then we exclude bisexuals and deny their right to choose.
Why all the focus on the question of can gays change? Why not ask, "Can straight people change"? Both questions focus on the same issue: If we could change our sexual orientation/identity, do we have a right to make that choice? This is the important issue.
The purpose of the "ex-gay" ad campaign (and the public focus on whether gays can change) is to undermine the central claim of the gay/lesbian rights movement that people are born gay or lesbian and that it is not a choice since no one can change their sexual orientation. The religious right is exploiting an opportunity handed to them by the misguided strategy of the liberal/mainstream gay movement.
We should focus the political debate on the freedom of people to be gay, lesbian or bisexual regardless of how or why they arrive at their sexual identity, not wasting time on the futile "nature vs. nurture" debate.
The argument for "gay rights" should not be based on questionable scientific claims of the biological immutability of "sexual orientation" but rather on the right of gays and lesbians to CHOOSE their sexual identity! This argument sets aside the biological argument and bases gay rights upon the constitutional right to speak and the freedom of conscience guaranteed to religious groups.
Our right to be gay or lesbian or bisexual is the right to be free from religious and government interference in our private lives, to make our choices about who we have sex with and who we want to have intimate relationships with (as long as they are consenting adults). Let's not let those opposed to sexual equality take away our right to choose.
To be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight involves making a series of choices. Those choices should be a right like any other basic human right and not dependent upon scientific opinion about how and why a person arrives at their sexual identity. Let's defend the freedom to choose our sexual identity and quit hiding behind questionable scientific dogma.
Jim Maynard is a local gay activist. This piece is a modified and abbreviated version of a longer essay.