Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Right to Choose

Dan Savage's latest column (via) contains what I can only call a tantrum, a Rumplestiltskin-style stamping of his foot in a two-year-old's fury. Which is nothing new, of course, for Savage. But as I read his outburst, I began wondering just why he was so angry.

The occasion of his tantrum was another antigay bigot saying that homosexuality is a "conscious choice." Savage challenged the bigot to prove that homosexuality is a conscious choice by sucking his (that is, Savage's) dick. No doubt the homophobic force behind one man's telling another man to suck his dick made Savage feel ultra-manly, and will allow many of his readers to feel ultra-manly by proxy. (Just as Rush Limbaugh's fans participate vicariously in his obnoxiousness: Yeah, man, what he said! Ditto, ditto, megadittoes.) But aside from that, what's the point?

First, a thought experiment. Suppose, just for the sake of figuring this out, that the bigot accepted Savage's challenge, knelt down before him in front of a large audience and video cameras, and orally received Savage's manhood, even unto completion. Would the bigot thereby become gay? Does having carnal knowledge of a person of the other sex (as many homosexual people have done) turn one into a heterosexual? Of course not: it's a virtual cliche that one homosexual experience doesn't turn you gay, or mean that you're gay -- unless it does, because the fact that you were even willing to try it proves that deep down inside you are really, truly, essentially gay, and wanted it all along. One of the benefits of relying on folklore is that it lets you have things both ways.

Where do you draw the line, though? Think of an actor like Ewan MacGregor, who has often played gay characters, kissing other men and even simulating sexual acts with them very convincingly. Does that mean he's really gay? Secretly gay? He once said in an interview that he found it easier to do sex scenes with men than with women, because there was no sexual tension with men. Whether or not he was telling the truth, this made sense to me, because I could imagine myself in the reverse situation. (Again, folklore comes in here: many people, gay and straight, still assume that anyone who plays a gay character must be gay. But as Lily Tomlin said of playing heterosexuals on one of her comedy records, "You don't have to be one to play one.") What about heterosexual people who've done homosexual sex work -- not just men who allow queers to pay for the privilege of bringing them to orgasm, but men who allow themselves to be penetrated orally or anally for pay?

It seems that some people are able to perform sexual acts with partners who aren't their first choice (oops) without revulsion -- even sometimes with pleasure -- for various reasons. It might be something that most people are able to do, depending on the act, the partner, and the reason. But then consider someone like Andrew Tobias, who wrote a memoir, The Best Little Boy in the World, under a pseudonym in the 1970s. It has been a long time since I read it, but Tobias went on working the same themes, sometimes under his own name, into at least the 90s. As I remember it, Tobias's coming out as a gay man was problematic because of his phobic reaction to intimate contact with other males. "Cowboys don't kiss" was his rationale for not be able to bring himself to kiss another man, and I remember a scene in the book where he tried to make a boyfriend's penis more orally appealing by covering it with syrup. (It didn't work: the gag reflex won out.) This raises all kinds of intriguing questions about what sex is, how people decide what to do sexually and so on, but the point is that just because you find a particular sex act repugnant, it doesn't prove anything about your sexual orientation or its origin.

If Savage's bigot were to accept his challenge, then, what would it prove? The Born-gay theories have always left room for people who engaged in same-sex eroticism only because they were in single-sex environments (boarding schools, prison, ships at sea, the army), distinguishing from those who did so of their (our) own free will, because we were inverts, constitutional homosexuals, whatever the current jargon was. (What is the Homosexual Constitution? Is it the charter of the Gay Agenda?) And I can't help noting that antigay bigots have shown an entertaining tendency to be hiding gay desires and practices. If this bigot were to chow down on Savage's manhood, it could at least be interpreted as a triumph of the gay gene.

I'm not sure, because Savage's fury renders him so incoherent, but I think he meant something like this: If a bigot finds the idea of sucking a cock repugnant, it's because he's right. Sucking a cock is inherently so disgusting that only a mutant could find it (barely) tolerable. This is why gay homosexuals should be regarded with pity, not contempt: because our genes drive us to submit to the disgusting, degrading, emasculating penetration of our bodies by other males. Except, of course, that as Andrew Tobias's experience shows, a good many gay men are just as revolted by the idea of being penetrated as any straight homophobe; and many straight men aren't revolted by it and can do it, even enjoy it, if they have reason to.

Another problem with Savage's diatribe is that he seems to be agreeing that choices are trivial, even whimsical. A good many gay people react to the "choice" line by denying that they just woke up one morning and decided to be gay. No doubt they're telling the truth, but that's not how most choices are made. Choosing a college, choosing a career, getting married, changing one's religion -- people don't wake up one morning and whimsically decide such things out of the blue. If homosexuality were a choice, people would have some kind of reason for choosing it. A challenge from an advice columnist to fellate him isn't a good reason. "If being gay is a choice, choose it," Savage taunted his subject. "Show us how it’s done. Suck my dick." I wouldn't do it, and I'm gay. (Should I claim that my genes forbid me?) If the bigot chose to fellate Savage, it would prove that he's a pervert, but it wouldn't make him gay.

Which brings me to my other big question about Savage's column. Why does the claim that homosexuality is chosen make him, and so many other gay people, so angry? Savage ranted that those who make the claim "would appear to be just another group of deranged conspiracy theorists who can’t be dissuaded by science or evidence or facts." Let him who's without sin cast the first stone, Dan: the born-gay science doesn't hold up, and has been refuted (often by gay scientists) many times. (In fact the whole nurture/nature divide is invalid, but that's another big topic in itself.) "Choice" is not the opposite of "born this way," and science has nothing to say about choice: it can't prove that anything is or is not a choice.

Granted, people do get worked up over differences of opinion and matters of fact, but you can usually find reasons why they're doing it. Many people are offended by evolutionary theory because they think it means they were descended from monkeys, and while I consider them foolish, I understand some of the deep-rooted feelings that such a scenario invokes. Many other people are offended by those who reject evolutionary theory; they seem to take the rejection personally, and while I consider them foolish, I also understand their feelings. And so on.

I suppose Savage would say that he's so enraged because of the destructive consequences of antigay bigotry. But Savage doesn't feel that way about the destructive consequences of US foreign policy in the Middle East, for example: if our support for dictators made many Muslims "irrational" and commit acts of "terror," then the US has an obligation to invade, kill a few (or many) thousands more, and make things right in some vague fashion. Another invasion will make them rational and peaceably inclined towards America, just as 9/11 made Americans rational and peaceably inclined toward Muslims. Or if it doesn't make them peaceably inclined toward America, at least the violence and oppression we visit on them will convince them not to fuck with us, as it did before 9/11. No, rationality is not one of Dan Savage's strong points.

So what's going on in this case? As I've indicated, I suspect that many gay people still feel very bad about being gay, and can only make peace with their bad feelings by thinking of homosexuality as something that was forced on them by their genes, that they can't help, something that they'd reject if they could, and that they would never have chosen. For men especially I believe that this is connected to the stigma of being a faggot, with all its degrading associations.

Savage fastened onto his target's argument to "a radio interviewer that gay people shouldn’t be covered by the [British Columbia] Human Rights Act because being gay is 'a conscious choice.'" Why counter his falsehood with another falsehood (that is, that we didn't choose to be gay, our genes made us do it)? In the first place, no one ever doubted that women and "racial" minorities are born that way, but it didn't shield them from discrimination; the same lousy science that is used to claim that homosexuality is inborn was also used to claim that women and "racial" minorities were incapable of functioning as full citizens. In the second place, why not point out that the BC Human Rights Act also forbids discrimination based on religion, which is surely a conscious choice? To say nothing of marital status, political belief, lawful source of income, criminal or summary convictions, and other conditions that are either chosen or the result of choice. If the law protects someone who consciously chose to become a Christian, why shouldn't it protect someone who chose to become gay?

I think this is a stronger argument. I don't know how effective it would be in affecting people's opinions, since bigotry is not based (as some people seem to believe) on mistaken assumptions: the mistaken assumptions are based on the bigotry. But I think it should be tried, if only because it happens to be true.