In just under a year, Brandon Ambrosino has made an impressive career for himself by writing pieces for major media outlets in which he plays the contrarian -- an old, worn-out trick that many before him have also used to great success. His essays are titillating -- and drive traffic to the sites that feature him -- because he's a gay man who excuses homophobia and argues against what many queer thinkers and activists, including me, believe.
In a new essay for The New Republic, Ambrosino uses rapper Macklemore's controversial Grammys performance as a jumping-off point to claim that queer people choose to be queer.
In it he writes, "It's time for the LGBT community to stop fearing the word 'choice,' and to reclaim the dignity of sexual autonomy."
He then proceeds to write an essay full of puzzling assertions and cringeworthy inaccuracies like this line that anyone who has spent even a few hours working in or with the queer community knows shouldn't have made it past an editor: "[I]sn't trans activism fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices?" No. Being transgender has nothing to do with "sexual choices." Sexuality and gender identity are two totally separate things, which is why you can be trans and straight or trans and gay or trans and asexual.
He also claims that "here in America, we are edging ever closer to post-equality," which, considering how much work we have left to do in this country when it comes to securing equal rights for queer people, would be hilarious if it weren't so foolish and offensive.
But his biggest mistake, and the one that I want to spend some time unpacking to prove just how inaccurate -- and therefore dangerous -- it is, is his inability to distinguish between sexual orientation (or attraction) and sexual identity when it comes to the word "choose."
Of Macklemore's hit song "Same Love," which has been referred to as a "gay anthem," Ambrosino writes:
[The] seven-minute plea for tolerance ... rightly condemn[s] "right wing conservatives [who] think it's a decision, and you can be cured with some treatment and religion." But the chorus bugs me. By its logic, none of us has any control over our sexual identities.
Further into the piece he states:
The aversion to [the word choice] in our community stems from belief that if we can't prove that our gayness is biologically determined, then we won't have grounds to demand equality. I think this fear needs to be addressed and given up. In America, we have the freedom to be as well as to choose to be. I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which one has no control.
Finally, he ends his piece by proclaiming, "I can't help wondering whether Macklemore would have thought I deserved a song even if I told him that I could, in fact, change this if I tried, if I wanted to. I chose this."
Scientists and sociologists have argued about why we are the way we are (the best anyone seems to be able to ascertain at this point is that it's some combination of genetics, chemicals and magic unicorn dust), but very few people would claim that they chose their attractions or that they could or can simply change them at will.
However, what we do with our attractions and how we perform them is a choice. I chose to come out of the closet. I choose to have sex with men. I choose to rarely go to gay bars. And so on and so forth. But I didn't choose to be gay.
In fact, I tried my damnedest to not be gay. There is really no way for me to explain how badly it sucked to grow up queer in small-town Wisconsin in the '80s. If I could have chosen to be straight, I would have. And I did try. I spent my study hall periods in ninth grade writing letters to God asking him to make me straight. I spent my nights lying awake, trying with every ounce of my being to convince Jesus to materialize at the foot of my twin bed and take my sick queer desires into his sacred pink heart, where they'd be vanquished and I could finally date a cheerleader and be just like every other guy in my school. When, after I'd been trying for months, it didn't happen, I spent the rest of my freshmen year considering the different ways I could kill myself.
And my experience with trying to change (or choose) my orientation is nothing compared with the experiences of the thousands of men and women who have put themselves or have been put through "conversion therapy" in hopes of become straight -- therapy that has included, at its most benign (and I'm using that term lightly), prayer, and at its worst, gruesome tactics like electroconvulsive therapy, exorcisms and "corrective rape" of queer women. Guess what? There's not a shred of evidence that any of it works. Even Robert Spitzer, the man responsible for writing the landmark study that claimed "highly motivated" queer people could change their orientation, apologized in 2012.
Why does this matter? Well, aside from the fact that claiming that we can choose to be queer (and, by extension, straight) fuels the barbaric practice of "conversion therapy" I just spoke of, it can also have unthinkably terrifying consequences in other ways.
Just weeks ago Yoweri Museveni, Uganda's president, stated that he would consider signing a devastating anti-gay bill into law if he gets scientific proof that queer people are made and not born. While, thankfully, Ambrosino's essay isn't "proof" of anything, that doesn't mean it isn't dangerous. Essays and studies full of misinformation have been used against us in the past. In one particularly troubling instance, an almost universally refuted study by Mark Regnerus that claimed queer parents are a threat to children was used by a Russian lawmaker to introduce a bill that would strip queer parents of custody of their children.
Though I agree that it should not matter how we are oriented, whether from birth or from choice, and that our access to equal rights and our freedom from punishment should not be contingent on us being "born this way," I do believe we are innately oriented.
And I suspect that in actuality, Ambrosino believes this too. He's just confused (purposefully or not) "orientation" with "identity."
In an effort to make the distinction between the two clear, a friend of mine posed this question to Ambrosino on his Facebook page: At what time and on what date did you choose to be gay (or straight or bisexual or pansexual or asexual)? Not when you realized you were the orientation you are, and not when ou chose to act on your orientation, but when you chose to be that way.
Unsurprisingly, Ambrosino never answered -- and when I asked the same question, no one on my page had an answer for me either (and I'd love to hear from anyone reading this -- leave your answer in the comments section, or tweet it to me). Several people said, "I felt this way when I was...," which instantly invalidated the idea that they'd chosen their orientation because it implied an attraction (or "feelings") that innately existed and therefore ruled out some kind of blank-slate condition or existence that precipitated a necessary choice. Of course attractions can be denied or even lie dormant (someone might not realize they are queer until much later in life, or until they are in a particular situation or meet a particular person), but once the attraction or feeling is addressed or discovered, that doesn't mean they chose that attraction or feeling.
Once again, I want to make it clear that I do believe we should be able to choose whatever we want when it comes to how we experience, manifest and perform our sexuality. And if you were to say to me that you did in fact choose to be gay (or straight or pansexual or whatever other orientation) last Tuesday night at 6:08 p.m., I would fight for your right to choose that, because ultimately, it shouldn't matter. We should be able to love or fuck or not love or not fuck whomever we please and whoever pleases us. And I think that's probably what Ambrosino means. But that's not as shocking or click-baiting as saying queer people choose to be queer. Or maybe he simply wasn't precise enough in his language. But when you are given a platform like the one Ambrosino has been granted (and like the platform that I have) and you have the opportunity to reach and influence thousands of people, you also have a great responsibility to not lead people astray, and to not do harm -- especially not for the sake of being provocative. Because words are important. Words matter. Words have consequences.
I have said before that I am thankful for Ambrosino because he makes me think long and hard about my beliefs, and despite how dangerous his work is, I still feel this way in some respects. But I have the privilege of being an educated, upper-middle-class, white, cisgender man living (relatively) freely in New York City. For so many of my queer brothers and sisters around the world, there is no time to contemplate queer theory or wonder about how or why they are the way they are. They don't have time to read Ambrosino's essay about choosing to be queer -- or my response. They're too busy trying to stay out of their government's crosshairs or looking for a place to sleep after being kicked out of their parents' home. They're too busy choosing to stay alive.