Thursday, 2 February 2012

Born choosing this way

A week or so ago, actor Cynthia Nixon said, in relation to an earlier speech she’d given saying she’d been straight and gay, and being gay was better:

“They tried to get me to change it, because they said it implies that homosexuality can be a choice. And for me, it is a choice. I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.”

Cue big fuss: if it’s a choice, some people might choose not to be queer. If it’s a choice, won’t the homophobes try and hurt us, or not accept us, or take away our rights?

So Cynthia came back, and said she’s bisexual, not through choice, but that she’s choosing to be in a relationship with a woman at the moment.

While I’m pleased to see someone claiming the B word, it saddens me she’s allowed herself to be pushed into claiming a genetic essentialism for her sexuality, regardless of identity.

As Cynthia notes, there are people who believe they were born same, both or opposite attracted, who live their lives acting on attractions which feel enduring and intrinsic to their sense of self, which are consistent over time.

And there are people who explore attraction differently at different points of their lives. Because their social environment changes or because they meet someone who they find themselves drawn to in ways they did not expect.

I feel like every aspect of my sexual life has been a choice, as soon as I knew that heterosexuality is not compulsory. And I think that’s true for lots of people, and one of the main drivers of right wing fundamentalist terrors around queer visibility. After all, if heterosexuality wasn’t so damn fragile, would it really be so threatening when queer people “flaunt” who and how we love?

When I was sixteen, a woman I’d played cricket with at school came out as lesbian. I thought she was wonderful, athletic, funny and smart. Her coming out made me wonder if I was lesbian too, because she was the player to whom I was closest in the team. I spent an agonised night, going over and over how much I liked her, deciding in the wee hours that since I knew I was attracted to boys, I couldn’t be lesbian.

[Queer reading: if I'd known being bi was possible, that night would have been less agonising. And if I'd recognised the huge raving crush I'd had on Ruth could have been sexual, cricket might have been even more fun.]

I’ve written before about coming out as bi. It was in my head first – the possibility of attraction to women – and then I realised one day I was fantasising about a beautiful feminist friend, about running my fingers through her hair while I looked into her eyes. Not all that platonic, then.

Since being sexual with women, I’ve chosen to continue identifying as bisexual. Even though I’ve never fallen in love with a man. I’ve loved men, and I’ve really enjoyed sex with men, but I’ve not yet felt spiritually connected to a male lover in the way I have to several women lovers.

People make choices around being sexual all the time, and some of those choices are to act on or deny same and both sex attractions. Insisting on an essentialist view of this is limiting and, I believe, heterosexist, since the safer it is to explore same sex attraction, in my experience, the more people do it. No disrespect for people who know they were born this way, but let’s not remove our agency through fear – let’s celebrate it, hell, let’s insist on it.


E.Volving said...

Thanks for your post, I love seeing queer represented as a genuine sexuality. I have been thinking a lot about the word bisexual recently, and wondering with our understanding of gender having moved past a binary understanding, is BI-sexual a term that is out of date now? Would love to hear your thoughts, not trying to be provocative would genuinely like to discuss :-)

LudditeJourno said...

Hey E.Volving, yep I think people younger than I am who acknowledge attractions across the gender spectrum describe themselves as "pansexual". I have thought about this a lot - I know "bi"sexual obscures some gender identities, which is clearly problematic. But I also feel a strong political sense that I'm not ready to give up that identity when it is still so stigmatised within both queer and straight communities.
So I try to talk about gender flexibly, use bisexual for myself, and completely support others using pansexual.
It's a great, provocative question, thank you :-)

Anonymous said...

As lesbian author and activist Dr Camille Paglia once stated:

"Homosexuality is not normal. On the contradictory it is a challenge to the norm. Nature exists whether academics like it or not. And in nature, procreation is the single relentless rule. That is the norm. Our sexual bodies were designed for reproduction ... no one is born gay. The idea is ridiculous... homosexuality is an adaption, not an inborn trait"

These sort of candid admissions are very important in that they help shed light on the very nature of such behavior and make it clear that such practices are not built-in, and that they're not innocent. Rather, they are the manifestation of an emotional disturbance in childhood such as sexual or emotional abuse, and with premature sexual experimentation that often imprints inappropriate erotic images and emotions in the minds of some young men and women.

Urban Redneck

Tasha said...

I've seen a few discussions around the idea of sexuality as a choice, a few years ago I would have defended my sexuality as something I didn't choose.
However I've moved into the other camp after discussions and readings - how the mantra of it not being a choice in some ways admits to it being "wrong" to choose it.
Surely "I wouldn't choose it if I could help it" isn't the best message.

As a lesbian it starts to become a big part of the mantra that homosexually is okay. Somehwere along the line of accepting who I am my viewpoint has changed.

Also as you've mentioned, removing the choice does further marginalize other sexuality, where your attractions may not be chosen but your relationships perhaps are.

I can see why people get fussy about Cynthia Nixon's comments but I really hope more people are willing to talk about queer relationships as a choice because it's a valid choice rather than something unavoidable.

Anyway, as someone who does identify as a 'born this way' lesbian - I also strongly agree with sexuality as a choice - because sexuality is pretty complex and we should have agency to navigate all of it, including what genders we may want to shag.

LudditeJourno said...

Whoa Urban Redneck, that's completely offensive and frankly, absolutely ridiculous.
There is historical documentation of same and both sex attracted behaviour in the vast majority of societies we know about. So "normal"? In the sense that some people have always done this? Tick.
Secondly, if same and both sex attraction was solely about "sexual and emotional abuse in childhood" then many many queer people are doing it wrong, and many many straight people "should" be queer.
What I find fascinating about this argument is that sexual abuse of girls by men is supposed to make us queer, and sexual abuse of boys by men is supposed to....make them queer....Something isn't quite right here, don't you think?
Please keep the tone of your comments here respectful of queer sexualities.
PS: no sexual or emotional abuse as a child for me luckily, and happily adjusted as bisexual for 23 years so far. Go figure.

LudditeJourno said...

Nice one, Tasha, thank you :-)

A Nonny Moose said...

Heh, LJ you were a lot nicer than I would have been to Troll Bigot.

So, Troll. Paglia is a homophobe. Greer is a transphobe. Wolf is a rape apologist. Any other feminist you'd like to use against us. Because really, we had NO idea that there were raging bigots in the ranks (eyeroll).

As for the issue at hand, I'm glad that Nixon clarified herself, because her original words were invisibilizing of bi/pan sexuality. I'm definitely all for more open discussion about sexual fluidity (that's a description I'd most identify with) and pan sexuality.

I would like to explore sexuality as a social construct (for example, like in same-gender communities), but there's always the problem that bigots will twist words.

anthea said...

Love this post, LJ. I think the insistence that everyone was 'born this way' is the simplistic view of what sexual orientation/identity is - 'do you like men, women or both?' when for many people it's so much more: who you are attracted to, who you have sex with, who you build long term sexual relationships, the community you feel at home in, some aspects of your gender identity, whether, if you are exclusively attracted to one gender, you see this as one option in a binary or one end of a spectrum or other complex shape, and so on.

I didn't choose to be attracted to women, at least not in any meaningful way, but I'm reasonably comfortable saying I chose to be queer. Not in a "woke up this morning, decided to wear jeans, eat breakfast and be queer" way, which I think is another problematic assumption in this discussion, but in that it's the best fit for a number of aspects of me, some of which are innate or as good as, some of which are conscious conclusions I've reached, others aspects of my personality that have formed from a variety of not-easily-definable experiences.

LudditeJourno said...

A Nonny Moose,
yes, when I read Cynthia Nixon's first quote I had the typical (to me) reaction of wondering why "bisexual" was not part of her language, before remembering of course everyone has the right to self-definition. Tricky.
Anthea - yes I agree with you entirely about how complex this is, and the components involved. And like your distinction, for you, of being attracted to women vs being queer :-)

E.Volving said...

Thanks for that explanation it makes a lot of sense, I hadnt really considered the difference between queer and pan or bi sexual. I really tautoko what you say about the stigma, I often feel that pansexuality (or bi sexuality) is considered homo or hetro lite rather than anything that stands in it's own right!

Anonymous said...

Great post LJ, totally agree with you. I'm bisexual, but happened to fall in love with a great man when I was 18, and ended up marrying him and have never been with a woman. In one sense, I'm choosing to live as a straight woman, but in another sense, falling in love wasn't a choice, that just happened! I feel like I could just as easily have fallen in love with a woman.

Oh, and Urban Redneck... If you define "natural" as "intended to result in procreation" then there are a whole lot of things that you might consider "not innocent", like celibacy or post-menopausal heterosexual sex. This sort of attitude seems to see sex and sexual acts as slightly sordid and wrong, and needing to be made acceptable by saying "we're doing it for babies!". But sex is a) fun, and b) for many people an important part of intimate relationships and an expression of closeness and love towards one's partner. Neither of these are the exclusive purview of hetrosexuality.

- Elley

- Elley

Hugh said...

I've always thought of bisexuality and pansexuality as two different things. To me, bisexuality involves being attracted to people who present as men and people who present as women, while pansexuality implies also being attracted to people who don't fit in the gender-binary system. There's no conflict between the two identities, neither obscures the other, because they describe different things.

LudditeJourno said...

Hugh - mmm, interesting, I don't think I agree though I'm sure what you are saying would be how some people define themselves. Some bisexual people say gender isn't important for them - and in that situation gender variant people would be included as potential partners/sexual attractions. Certainly that's true of some of my bi friends. I think this is primarily a generational issue, I don't remember "pansexual" being an identity choice when I was coming out.

Hugh said...

Probably not, LJ, but there was a time when "bisexual" wasn't a concept either.

But if we accept your use of bisexuality, how would you describe somebody who is attracted to typically presenting men and women, but not to androgynous/genderqueer people?

LudditeJourno said...

Hugh, that's part of my point - I believe in self definition for sexuality, so I'd accept what they described themselves as. I've not yet met your straw queer person.

Hugh said...

LJ, this formulation of sexuality is based on conversations with a of bisexual-identified friend of mine. Please don't describe zher as a "straw queer person".

LudditeJourno said...

Hugh - no indication from you until this point that this was about a real person, who you are now saying defines themself as bi (after asking me how I'd define them).
End of story, they define themself as bi.
It seems odd to me that you were trawling for something else?
But I'm not interested in more discussion unless it's actually about the post, thanks.

Hugh said...

To be honest LJ my initial comment wasn't targetted as you so much as it was at E.Volving who stated that bisexuality and pansexuality were interchangeable. Obviously for some people they are, but at least for a few people they aren't.

And for future reference you can presume that any theories/arguments/ideas I have about anything other than heterosexuality are based off interactions with real people.

I never actually asked you how I would define my friend. You were the one who took the initiative in stating you "didn't agree" with the way I was formulating it.

Craig Ranapia said...

The weird thing is if she'd just say "I'm bisexual, currently in a relationship with a woman" nobody would have blinked.

This seems to be a pretty standard case of a rather unfortunate turn of phrase, compounded by an understandably hostile and defensive reaction to equally understandable pushback from GLBT folks who are very sensitive about non-cis heterosexuality being described as a "choice".