This month, The Salt Lake Tribune released figures from its latest poll about homosexuality in Utah that were just as surprising as past polls that revealed widespread support for gay rights.
Although a majority of Utahns surveyed by the paper in 2009 and 2010 showed support for such gay rights initiatives as hospital visitation rights for same-sex couples and employment nondiscrimination laws based on sexual orientation, the Tribune’s recent poll, conducted in late October, showed that a large percentage also believe that homosexuality is a choice. In a random survey of 625 registered voters, 44 percent said that gays and lesbians can change their sexual orientation and 25 percent said they were unsure.
Anti-gay groups like Focus on the Family have long embraced the idea that homosexuality is not inborn and can be changed and have used this argument as a reason for opposing not just gay marriage, but any number of protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (even though many of the latter identify as straight). This idea is also the cornerstone of so-called ex-gay programs and ministries like Utah’s Evergreen International, which council members experiencing unwanted same-sex attractions. However, nearly all professional medical groups in the United States disagree. For example, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Social Workers all condemn “reparative therapy” as harmful to those who seek it.
Although national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups have, in the past as well as now, continued to stress that people cannot choose or change their sexual orientation and gender identity, members of Utah’s community nonetheless told QSaltLake that they have mixed feelings about the debate over chosen versus inborn sexuality.
“I don’t find the question relevant at all,” said local activist Eric Ethington. “While it’s a scientific fact that sexual orientation is not chosen, what does that matter? If two adults are in love and committed to each other, or if an individual chooses to live their life in a different manner than others, how is that any business of the government?”
Ethington, who co-founded the social justice group Justice Vanguard and who runs the blog PRIDE in Utah, added that the “bottom line” is that U.S. citizens should all have the same guarantees of freedom and equality. “What type of equality is it if we refuse to protect those who are different from us?” he said.
Troy Williams, producer of KUER’s RadioActive and a QSaltLake columnist, agreed with Ethington.
“Homosexuality is a great choice! I’d recommend it to anyone,” he joked.
“But the “born that way” debate is really a male-centered argument,” he continued. “Many women actually do choose lesbian relationships. It’s us guys who typically argue that our attractions are essential. But why should women’s choices be disparaged as less valuable just because some of them don’t feel “born” gay? We are all gay for cultural, social, biological and temporal reasons. All of these factors intersect in myriad ways to create desire within humans. Nature vs. nurture arguments are just lazy. They ignore the complexity of sexuality and gender.”
Some lesbians have, in fact, argued that their sexuality was a political choice. However, this was largely an argument made by second-wave lesbian feminists, who viewed heterosexuality as damaging to women, during the 1970s and ’80s. Also, some gay and bisexual people have argued that their sexuality was not inborn, but something they happily chose. For example, WNBA star Sheryl Swoops caused controversy in 2005 when she came out by saying exactly that.
“I can’t help who I fall in love with. No one can,” she told ESPN Magazine. “I didn’t always know I was gay. I honestly didn’t. Do I think I was born this way? No. And that’s probably confusing to some, because I know a lot of people believe that you are … Discovering I’m gay just sort of happened much later in life … I’m content with who I am and who I’m with.”
However, several Utahns told QSaltLake that the argument was still relevant — if only because gay opponents make it so.
“Most people believe and most research shows that homosexuality is biologically based and not a choice,” said Aimee Selfridge. “It is relevant because the scientific backing gives those fighting for our equal rights a firm foundation to argue from. It’s all politics and double-talk most of the time, so having solid facts to offer up moves us closer to equal rights.”
“As long as people use it as a way to justify discrimination against people, it will remain an issue,” added Cody VanderStappen. “It is by virtue of believing it is a choice that people are able to deflect responsibility for their bigotry. Once a person is forced to acknowledge it is not a choice, they are left with only religious arguments, which is when they know they lose. Why do you suppose they keep re-branding creationism?”
Others, like Jeff Lensman said that proving that homosexuality is not a choice will do much to dispel fear and ignorance about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people — which will also prevent recent instances of queer youth suicides from happening.
“The question about choice must be answered scientifically and behaviorally so that much of the fear and misinformation can be replaced with understanding and compassion,” he said.
Ultimately, however, many who spoke to QSaltLake agreed that the question should not matter, regardless of where they fell on the choice versus not a choice argument.
“It is specious reasoning that people shouldn’t have full civil rights because of their skin color, sexual preference, or gender identity,” said Maureen Duffy-Boose. “Civil rights should be based on being an American citizen and nothing else. Science will tell us whether it is a choice. Law must tell us that doesn’t matter.”
And, ultimately, the argument may not matter to Utahns at large, either. In 2009, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that 56 percent of those surveyed supported “hospital visitation rights and employment protections” for gays and lesbians, though 54 percent and 70 percent did not support, respectively, homosexual couples adopting children or same-sex marriage. One year later, 67 percent of Utahns favored basic protections. So far, no explanations have been floated in any media outlet as to why a majority of Utahns both favor protections based on sexual orientation and believe that homosexuality is a choice.