01/25/2012 12:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Is It a Choice to Be Gay? It Depends on the Meaning of 'It'

When Cynthia Nixon, who became famous for her role on Sex and the City, recently told The New York Times that being a lesbian was, for her, "a choice," her words lit up the LGBT listservs, angering many who believe that Nixon is giving comfort to the enemy. Those who believe sexual orientation is a choice are far more likely to oppose our equality, while folks who think we are "born that way" are more likely to support us. If we can't help it, goes the thinking, we shouldn't be punished for it; and the corollary to that: if you can't choose to be gay, there's no need to stigmatize it as a way to discourage people from making the wrong choice.

Those angered with Nixon's comments felt they were both unhelpful and incorrect. They say that research, along with so many of our own experiences, make clear that being gay or lesbian is not a choice. And what Nixon was really describing, although she refused to apply the term, was the fact of being bisexual, since she had previously been partnered with a man (Nixon later said, "I don't pull out the 'bisexual' word because nobody likes the bisexuals").

But many have also defended her words, particularly lesbian and bisexual women. They say she was only speaking of her own experiences and that if she feels it was a choice for her, it's not for anyone else to say otherwise.

The problem is that this is not just about what Cynthia Nixon "feels." It requires more rigorous thinking about what identity and choice really entail. Nixon's comments further muddy a matter that sometimes seems to stem from a vast but rather simple confusion in American thinking. To paraphrase President Clinton, the question depends on what the meaning of "it" is. When I hear "it's a choice" (or "it's not a choice"), I can only make sense of the statement if I know if we're discussing same-sex attraction or same-sex action. I can't say it better than the blogger John Aravosis: "It's only a choice among flavors I already like." That is, I don't choose to like chocolate ice cream, but I choose whether, when, and how much to eat it. The idea that one can choose to be attracted to one type of person over another is nonsensical, just as no one is accused of choosing to prefer chocolate over strawberry. The question is what someone will choose to do with those feelings (eat chocolate or strawberry, partner with this person or that), and whether any particular choice is morally good, bad, or neutral.

Many in the LGBT community, as with progressives more broadly, would rather not contemplate the moral consequences of personal choice, lest we commit the same acts of judgment that have hurt so many of us in the past. Instead, they "bracket" questions of morality and opt for privacy, saying what we do in the bedroom is no one else's business. If we choose to engage in same-sex sexual behavior, no one but us is equipped to judge our choice. If Nixon feels this was her choice, so be it.

But at a minimum, it is imperative to clear up the confusion between sexual attraction and sexual action -- not because a same-sex sexual attraction has anything wrong with it (indeed, the problem with bracketing the moral question of choice is that it wastes an opportunity to argue that, in the words of the late Frank Kameny, "gay is good"), but because the suggestion that we chose our sexual attractions does not make sense (it's not just wrong; it's literally meaningless). Then we can move onto questions of choice about our actions.

And here it is equally imperative that we insist that those actions are dignified choices, not because they're done behind closed doors or because no one has the right to judge others' actions -- they do, just as progressives rightly judge those who oppose paying taxes or recycling or treating their children nonviolently -- but because there's nothing wrong with same-sex activity, and because choosing to act in a way that's consistent with your sexual orientation -- gay, bi, or straight -- is a positive moral good. (Likewise, for those who have maturely searched their souls and found that their best and truest identity is a different sex than the one they were assigned at birth, it's a positive moral good to choose to transition genders or identify with a different one.)

The best analogy for the question of choice and sexuality is not race or gender (in which people argue that we don't choose our race, sex, or sexual orientation, so we therefore deserve equality regardless of what identity we were born with) but religion. Among defenders of Nixon's "choice" remarks are those who say that, just as Americans choose their religion, why can't we choose our sexual orientation? But genuinely religious people do not experience their faith as a choice in the same way that we choose a Gucci or Armani sweater; rather, the choice is whether and how to practice a faith to which we feel called, whether and how to express a belief of which we are persuaded. They live a life of integrity by choosing to act in ways that are consistent with their best selves. Viewing attraction and action in this way -- distinguishing between core parts of our identities and the choices we make as to how to express aspects of those identities -- could go far toward putting to rest the idea that we can choose to be gay, or the equally false idea that if we do choose a same-sex partner, there's anything wrong with that choice.