“When Did You Choose To Be Straight?” About Two Years Ago.

tomatoesYou may be one of the 3 million people who have seen this video by now. As Minnesota becomes the twelfth state to legalize marriage equality (the sixth state in six months), it seems like our cultural consciousness is finally starting to shift with respect to how we think about sexuality. Given the resurgent popularity of the “When Did You Choose to Be Straight?” video over the last week, if you’re a straight person who isn’t on board with this cultural shift yet, don’t fret. The central question in this video will apparently enlighten and revolutionize the understanding you thought you had about your sexual self and others. As the creators of the video note, “asking the right question can be more important than anything you can tell someone.”

I love the idea that a simple question could wipe out homophobia. However, despite the great praise that the video has received for asking one of the seemingly most revolutionary questions, I don’t think that this is a good question, at least not in the way that it is asked. If anything, in the video this question assumes an answer, a simple answer that we should not be so quick to celebrate. In fact, I think it’s the wrong answer and it’s bizarre that no one seems to be calling the video’s message into question. That’s to be expected, though, because when we ask poorly formed questions we set ourselves up to get poorly thought out responses. And then we accept them with open arms, even if they are politically detrimental to our own cause.

“When did you choose to be straight?”

“Hmmm….I guess I didn’t.”

“Do you think it’s the same for gay people?”

“I suppose so. You’ve got a good point there.”

So simple! So compelling! The predictable answer, “I didn’t choose to be straight” is obviously intended to imply that gay people don’t choose to be gay either and that, as such, we shouldn’t condemn or discriminate against gays in light of their sexual orientation. But the idea that straight people didn’t ever choose to be straight and that gay people didn’t choose to be gay hinges on a very narrow and very misleading conception of ‘choice’ that’s about as disempowering as it is wrong.

The way that people typically talk about choice involves the notion that to choose necessarily entails a clear, conscious, deliberate weighing of options. For instance, today, I chose to eat oatmeal for breakfast rather than scrambled eggs. I could have done neither. Eight years ago, I chose to stop eating meat. A few years ago, I chose to no longer be a vegetarian. I could have stopped eating all together. When this is how we think about choice, it should come as no surprise that most people say they didn’t choose their sexuality. People assume that we are naturally sexual beings and that our drive to be sexual is instinctual, basic, and, in many ways, out of our control. We just are sexual. (“Well, you couldn’t actually choose to not eat, Cori, because then you would starve!” This line of thinking has it’s own set of problems that I don’t have the space or time to address. I’ll leave it up to the voluntarily celibate monks, religiously-motivated people who have “successfully repressed” their desires, and anyone in a sexless marriage to fight that fight for now.) Anyway, given how people tend to talk about choice, I’ll grant this: very few people go through a conscious, deliberate process of choosing to whom they are going to be sexually attracted, with whom they will fall in love, or what kind of sexual acts they are going to enjoy. Those sort of things, we think, tend to just happen.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t, at least on some level, still an element of choice involved. Nor does it necessarily mean that acknowledging the possibility for choice is politically undesirable or somehow anti-progressive. In fact, insofar as we are a nation that genuinely values freedom, setting up a question so that people answer, “No one has a choice in the matter” is one of the most un-free, “un-American” ways of tackling a political issue. (Or, perhaps what this whole debate about marriage equality reveals is that “freedom” has often been a pretty thin concept in America for lots of people.)  In this respect, the rhetoric of choice could be the most empowering way to go about the politics of sexuality. Choice should be something that we want. We just need to be careful and thoughtful with how we proceed.

The day before the “When Did You Choose To Be Straight” video went viral I recorded a Think for a Change video entitled “Anal Loves Tomatoes.” It would be unfortunate if all of my talk about anal sex and tomatoes overshadowed the larger message because it’s an important one that follows up on some things that I have previously written. My point was that we can, in fact, cultivate feelings, emotions, and even sexual pleasures. We can choose to open ourselves up to new experiences. If we don’t like them at first, that doesn’t mean that we can’t eventually grow to like these new things. A simple cross-cultural analysis, historical survey, or even honest bout of self-reflection will reveal that people and their preferences for nearly anything – food, sex acts, demonstrations of affection, even ideals of beauty – are not universally uniform or stagnant. If anything, we are the sort of beings who value our capacity for change, growth, and transformation. And we often celebrate our capacity for rich, diverse experiences. Indeed, we tend to seek them out.

When we take seriously the notion that we can choose to cultivate and develop our pleasures, the things that we like, the things that we experience, and the things to which we allow ourselves to be open, we should also start to realize that we have always already been doing this. We make small, subtle choice all the time about who we hang out with, who we connect with, what we learn about, etc. Unfortunately, for most people this means that they have inadvertently been choosing to close themselves off from diverse pleasures, new experiences, and more possibilities for how they are going to be, live, and even have sex. Of course, that point can apply to anyone regardless of whether they are gay, straight, asexual, perfectly content with their experiences so far, or use sex to make a living.

But let’s pause for a second and be honest. We’ve got a hetero-centric culture on our hands that saturates our experiences with images of boys and girls falling in love and men and women getting married and having families from very early on. From the moment we are born we are set up to be heterosexual. In that sense, because we are led to believe  that there are no other ways of being (normally, at least), many straight people didn’t really choose to be straight in that conscious, deliberate way. Because the notion of choice entails options from which to choose, many straight people probably didn’t choose to be straight because they weren’t ever given option to be otherwise. They’ve been raised, educated, and enveloped by heterosexual aspirations (i.e., taught through example, encouraged to find certain people attractive, literally and figuratively beaten if they show the smallest sign of “abnormality”) since before they knew that gay people really do exist or that lesbians really can and do have sex. (I love Adrienne Rich’s essay on Compulsory Heterosexuality and recommend it to anyone.) Nevertheless, insofar as it is true that most people were never really presented with the possibility to choose to be straight (or gay), even in subtle ways, we, as freedom-loving American’s who valorize rights, liberties, and the pursuit of happiness, should be super pissed.

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9 thoughts on ““When Did You Choose To Be Straight?” About Two Years Ago.

  1. I think it is important though, in the light of what you acknowledge about society’s hetero-centrism and what I would add to that: its male-centrism (or, if you’re old-school, its patriarchal bullshit) that valid though this argument is, it’s only useful when we’re using it to make the point that we should exercise our choice and supposed love of freedom (even if we’re not American, like I’m not), to *offset* the existing and significant coercive pressures to be straight (in the broadest sense of that term, including being submissive as a woman and dominant as a man, objectifying women whatever your gender, being monogamous, etc). Anyone reading this blog probably already has their eye on the damage this argument does when deployed by out-and-out straight-supremacists, but I think it’s worth pointing out that plenty of radikewl queer manarchists use it too, generally against lesbians. Let’s all remember that no-one needs to coax themselves towards the hetero-norm – everyone is thrown down that slope from birth as it is.

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  3. Hey there. I wanted to say that I agree and appreciate all you have offered here…. And…. I still feel the questions in the video and the way it was done contribute positively. You clearly seem like someone who questions,’thinks’ and looks below the surface. But that is not always the way of the general public whether we like it or not. In asking the questions the way they did…. they we able to put a fissure or even a shift in perspective into something
    that most people can be quite opinionated about to the degree that they will not even entertain other possibilities. So even though the questions/approach has its own issues( many that you wrote about) I think it is able to offer people the possibility of questioning (even if in another limited forum) that they arrive at without force or debate. They find it simply because of how the questions connect. And because they arrive there on their own (so to speak) I believe they are less defensive. Sure, I can see all the ways that it can frustrate me in the limitations…. but those small fissures of questions become the rumble of walls falling away. And perhaps we find ourselves closer to a perspective not unlike what you have reflected.

    • I agree with you that the extent to which the question, “When did you choose to be straight?” helped many people take pause is very commendable. My larger point, as you are sensitive to address, is that we should not be so content with a more desirable answer just because it suits our current goals when it is arrived at by less desirable means. I guess I’m just too eager to hear the rumble of the walls.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comment.

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