Gay Babies

The below poster of a baby, with the word “homosexual” written on its armband, is part of a proposed campaign by the left-wing administration of Tuscany (a regional government within Italy) to combat homophobia. It represents an attempt to teach people that, because homosexuality is not a choice, gays and lesbians should not have to face discrimination. This kind of “no-choice” approach is nothing new. Gay conservatives wholeheartedly adopted it (throughout the 1990s) and it effectively became the centerpiece of mainstream GLBT organizing in the United States. The “genetics-inspired” notion that one is homosexual or heterosexual at birth does not play a significant role in the theorizing of major conservatives, such as Bruce Bawer and Andrew Sullivan. However, they both expend considerable amounts of ink claiming that homosexuality is “essentially unchosen,” “innate and intrinsic,” and fixed by “at least the age of three”. Their purpose is the same as that embodied in the Tuscany administration’s poster above.
Is this essentialist vision of sexuality valid? Although sexuality is certainly not a simple choice (if we think of choice as switching a light-bulb on or off), the “no-choice” portrayal of it is definitely lacking. It ignores people whose sexualities change over time, bisexuals, and gender-queer sexualities that defy categorization within the homosexual-heterosexual binary. What, for example, would essentialists make of someone who is in a relationship with a transgender man who has a vagina? Is that “homosexual” or “heterosexual”? Furthermore, although people do not simply get up in the morning and decide to turn homo or heterosexual, what is wrong with choosing to be open-minded and experimental with one’s sexuality? Is this not a value that GLBT and queer organizations have a right, and even perhaps a responsibility, to promote? The “no-choice” version of sexuality essentially delegitimates sexual exploration and open-mindedness and works to reinforce the rigidity of homosexual and heterosexual identities, which – if you accept the Butlerian perspectives portrayed in my previous post – may actually increase tensions between straight people and the GLBT community.

The “no-choice” strategy represents an attempt by various elements within the GLBT community (and “well-meaning” left-liberal politicians) to afford homosexuality the same privileged discursive status as heterosexuality: as an unquestioned, bio-psychological given. As such, it is an easy example of how knowledge-power (as portrayed by Foucault) works. The dissemination of the “knowledge” that homosexuality is not a choice attempts to empower gays and lesbians by placing it on the same semantic level as heterosexuality. Unfortunately, under such a framework, the attainment of rights and fair treatment become dependent on the fixity of one’s sexual aim: all those who do not demonstrate such a “stable” sexuality are then implicitly excluded from the nexus of rights and privileges.

Despite all of the flaws mentioned above, can the “no-choice” strategy” be justified as politically expedient? Could it work as short-term tactic that will make the attainment of marriage rights and non-discrimination laws considerably easier? Indeed, U.S. public opinion agencies have documented a link between public support for gay rights proposals and the notion that homosexuality is not a choice. Belief that homosexuality is innate seems to be pivotal in inspiring most people’s support for anti-discrimination laws, such as ENDA. Although the passing of important legal measures may well be speeded by the promotion of such a discourse on homosexuality, it represents no guarantee that prejudice and discrimination will abate. Take the example of the physically and mentally disabled, who despite not having chosen their non-normativity, and having gained considerable legal battles, still face incredible levels of discrimination. Promoting the idea that sexuality is not a choice may facilitate the passing of certain laws – however, these laws in themselves are not going to end homophobia or sexism.

Basing an entire GLBT rights campaign or movement around the “no choice” strategy is, thus, a mistake. What would some alternative approaches to fighting homophobia look like? What other kinds of frameworks could be used to attack prejudice against non-heterosexual people? Homophobia could be portrayed simply as gender discrimination or sexism – indeed, the notion that a particular sexual aim is intrinsic to men and women is just the same as any other requirement in the sexist “life plan” that is drawn out at birth for each sex/gender. Another way of going about it would be to emphasize the inherent value of sexual autonomy in itself. The notion that human sexuality should be as free as possible (within adult-consensual constraints) may very well have its own appeal and is more inclusive of all sexual and gender identities. By promoting sexual autonomy in general (and not the rights of a particular identity-community), there is more of a chance that non-binary and unfixed sexualities will be adequately represented and subsequently legitimated. It is time to go beyond the “no choice” strategy, and the “gender discrimination” and “sexual autonomy” frameworks provide interesting road-maps for a new direction in GLBT activism.

***For More Information***
To find out more about the poster campaign in Tuscany, look here. I have taken a bit of a break from theory in this post – nevertheless, there are still some interesting works to check out. For further elaborations of the “no-choice” perspective, see Bruce Bawer’s A Place at the Table and Beyond Queer (edited by Bawer). Also, have a look at Andrew Sullivan’s various writings – the book Virtually Normal sums him up quite well. For a deeper look at the knowledge-power nexus and discourse theory, see Foucault’s Knowledge/Power: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. A strong case for sexual autonomy can be found in Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal.

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