Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Freedom of the Will

I reread Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge's joint essay, "War Machine, Time Machine," in Queer Universes, and found this reminiscence by Griffith. Her first novel, Ammonite, took place on a planet without men, so all the women there were lesbian. Her second novel, Slow River, takes place on a gritty, urban future Earth, and the protagonist is lesbian.
Not long after I sent the Slow River outline to Fran, my agent, she called:

"This is not a selling outline."

"Why not?"

"Well," she said, "in Ammonite Marghe had a girlfriend because she had no choice, poor thing. But why does Lore like girls?"

"Because she's a dyke, Fran," I said, and I fired her [44].
I never read that passage without a mental cheer for Griffith. It occurred to me that what you might call the mainstream glbt answer to the same question nowadays would be, "Because her genes make her do it, Fran!" followed by tears and grovelling. (And firing your agent for being a clueless bigot, well, that's so hateful, and it gives us a bad name. Unless she's against gay marriage, that is.)

This exchange encapsulates for me the "choice" question as it applies to sexual orientation. Marghe had a girlfriend "because she had no choice," because there weren't any men around. (Not that she was interested when men landed on her planet, a point Fran seems to have overlooked.) But Lore, well, she has a choice: she lives on a planet with what some (including me on my bleaker days) would consider an oversupply of men, but of her own free will she goes with girls anyway, even though she could probably get herself a man if she'd just get in touch with her femininity, improve her attitude, lady herself up a bit, y'know? Would that be so hard to do?

Speaking of circular reasoning, Griffith's answer is just that: Lore likes girls because she's a dyke, she's a dyke because she likes girls. But it's still a perfectly good answer. I like men because men's beauty takes my breath away. Why men's beauty has this effect on me and women's beauty doesn't, I don't know and I don't care. You know the old joke that goes, "I'm glad I hate broccoli, because if I liked broccoli I'd eat it, and I hate broccoli!" I don't hate women, but I do think it's meaningless to talk about being attracted to what doesn't attract me, desiring what I don't desire -- and I have no wish, see no reason, to be attracted to women.

"Choice" is a slippery, difficult word, as I've pointed out before. But postulating genes as my copilot doesn't solve the problem either. If I am, in Richard Dawkin's phrase, a giant lumbering robot created by my genes, body and mind, who's controlling me? Not my genes -- as Dawkins insists, not very convincingly because inconsistently, genes don't have a psychology and terms like "the selfish gene" are terms of art, metaphors, not to be taken literally. "I" is an illusion that emerges from my physical body, but it's "I" that chooses, not my genes. My genes can't choose; they're not agents. Often "choice" is misapplied by both the born-that-way gays and their chosen-lifestyle opponents. I don't "choose" to be attracted to males, as though there is some part of me that is prior to my desires; I choose male partners from all the potential human possibilities. If someone wants to claim, nonsensically in my view, that I "choose" to choose males, then an infinite regress follows: do I choose to choose to choose males, or choose to choose to choose to choose males? The choice doesn't lie at any deeper level than the surface. I choose men because no one compels me to do so, and I'm not constrained by an environment with no women in it; even if my genes play some so-far undiscovered role in the choice, they are not external forces compelling me -- they're part of me. I choose men because I'm a fag, Fran.