If the debate about human sexuality is going to get anywhere, we need to stop talking about “orientation.”
It’s a debate we’ve been through again and again: are people born gay or do they have control over their sexuality? There are two reasons we have to keep fighting about this: as I’ve written before, human sexuality is much more complicated than this reductive question allows for; but more importantly, liberals have dictated the terms of the debate such that anyone disagreeing with their “born this way” ideology will be systematically trashed.
To recap: Every time a queer says that they were not “born this way” (remember Cynthia Nixon?), the liberal media throws a fit about the irrefutable science of biologically determined orientation. But scientific studies never claim the same certainty as the thinkpiece writers who quote them. The science says only that a million things contribute to a person’s sexuality, from socialization to epigenetics. Even when thinkpiece writers admit that science can’t prove them right, they only say that science can’t prove them right yet: “We might not yet understand the exact biological mechanisms underlying sexual orientation, but we will one day soon,” says Mark Joseph Stern at Slate. How does one reach such a conclusion? How do we know we’re not just asking an impossible question of science? Science hasn’t proven whether eggs are bad for you yet, but someday it will!
The latest round of this debate was kicked off with Brandon Ambrosino’s relatively mild explanation of how he perceives his sexuality to have been a choice. He was labeled a “self-loathing, Jerry-Falwell-educated” “professional contrarian” who wanted to help “anti-gay conservatives.” He “excuses homophobia”and is engaged in “gay-bashing.” How wonderfully tolerant we have become of gay people!
These extreme attacks are justified on the grounds that Ambrosino is endangering the lives of gays. He is supposedly in cahoots with religious conservatives who say that, since sexuality is a choice, it can be cured. But saying that you chose your sexuality is not the same as allowing other people to chose your sexuality. Further, Ambrosino is not the first person to say that he was not “born this way.” So why can’t we let him hold whatever views he wants about his own sexuality without declaring him a danger to gay people everywhere?
The word that Ambrosino’s attackers go back to over and over again is “orientation”—a word conspicuously absent from the original article and appearing only once in E. J. Graff’s defense of volitional sexuality in the Nation. Over at the New Republic, Gabriel Arana calls orientation “an underlying attraction,” Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern says that it “can never be altered,” and on Huffington Post, Noah Michelson spends several paragraphs delineating just how permanent and unchanging it is: people can speak of when they came to realize they were gay, but not, he asserts, when they chose to be gay.
Homosexuality is starting to sound a lot like Jesus Christ, you guys. It is a permanent, everlasting fact whose truth predates our awareness of it. We can come to know it, we can choose to accept it, but we can never touch or change it. Ambrosino is getting skewered for a supposed allegiance to anti-gay religious ideology, but it is actually his critics who are dangerously beholden to a faith-based conception of sexuality.
“Orientation” is an inherently mysterious concept. You can’t prove it either way: asylum seekers can’t always prove that they are gay, and God knows there are lots of 14-year-olds who can’t prove they aren’t. But it is not just self-declarations that are insufficient proof: actions are too. Young men who date both women and men are casually assumed to “really” be gay, as are older women who aren’t married.
Indeed, this mystery is the great appeal of “orientation.” By claiming to be living with an uncontrollable predisposition, gays can fend off conservatives telling them that they should change their sexuality. But by continuing to center all discussion of human sexuality on “orientation,” we shut the conversation down before it can get anywhere. Our endless debates about whether people are born gay or not suggest that we will never satisfactorily answer the question about orientation—that’s because any totalizing theory will inevitably fail to represent every individual’s experience. And because any one person’s orientation also can’t be proven, people are free to speculate about other people’s “real” identity—“I know he slept with her, but he’s gay, trust me.”
Thus, anyone who does not accept “orientation”—either the larger concept or their own internal “identity”—can be summarily dismissed, like Ambrosino was, as ignorant and “self-loathing.” You know, like those people at your front door who tell you that you’re not a Christian only because you can’t accept Jesus’ message of love.
When gayness was still being diagnosed as a disorder, doctors would often look for visible signs of “inversion” in their patients—a “feminine” demeanor in men, for example. To resist the pathologizing of homosexuality, early activists sought to turn gayness into an internal condition. This way, only they could speak of it and doctors could no longer “diagnose” something that wasn’t even an illness. Talking about “orientation” made gayness “natural” to the individual.
But what was meant as a tool of liberation has turned into yet another tool of persecution. Far from allowing everyone sexual autonomy, the term “orientation” now inspires extremism in its believers: everyone who doesn’t agree with the concept is wrong, dangerous, and bad. We have created a determinist conception of human sexuality that we all accept on faith. Ambrosino is a modern heretic, and decades of “gay rights” advocacy have not taught us to treat him any better.