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Moving Beyond “It’s Not a Choice” as a Defense for LGBTQ+ Identities

Illustration of head, colorful, thoughtful.

by Keith Burns

March 23, 2023

Central to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church, Mormon Church) is a belief system that frames cisgender heterosexuality as divine, natural, and eternal in contrast to homosexuality and gender nonconformity, which are framed as inferior, deficient, and oppositional. To defend this framework, church leaders have utilized numerous theological, sociocultural, and psychological arguments that elevate male-female relationships and emphasize conformity to binary gender norms.

As victims of this denigrating system, many LGBTQ+ people thoroughly understand the harm and abuse that religious and political leaders have enacted in the name of converting homosexual desires and/or gender nonconformity into cisgender heterosexuality. As a result, I believe that queer individuals have often been compelled to conceptualize their identities as biologically fixed and unchosen with no plausible alternative explanations. You will often hear queer people (and allies) defend queer identities with phrases like, “It’s not a choice,” or “I was born this way,” or “If I could be straight, I would.” While I do not intend to invalidate biological and genetic factors that seem to contribute to one’s experience of sexual and gender identity(s), and the fact that many individuals feel that their sexual desires and gender experiences are beyond their control, I argue that the dignity and worth of one’s identity need not be maintained by the notion that the identity is unchosen. This premise implies that the identity is deficient or lesser in and of itself (if chosen), and only deserves compassion or respect once it is established that it has not been chosen. In the same way, justifying civil rights and equality for queer individuals on the grounds that their identities are not chosen reveals an underlying logic that gay, trans, and other non-heteronormative experiences are inherently less than cisgender heterosexual experiences.

It is important to provide historical context on the emergence and development of “It’s not a choice” as a defense of LGBTQ+ identities. In the decades following the gay and lesbian liberation movements of the mid-twentieth century, LDS elites, among other conservative religious figures, began appealing to sociopolitical arguments to shore up their heterosexual theology, often portraying homosexuality as a viral contagion that would first destroy familial and societal harmony and eventually extinguish humanity. Their next round of arguments began merging doctrinal models with popular psychological assumptions that framed homosexuality and gender nonconformity as a “mental illness” that could be treated and cured. This paved the way for the widespread practice of conversion therapy (also known as reparative therapy or sexual orientation change therapy), a practice that was for decades promoted and utilized by the Church.

LDS leaders and BYU administrators grounded these conversion therapy practices in theories of sexual malleability and fluidity, leveraging a host of “homosexuality causes” that often had to do with poor parenting, masturbation, pornography, and a confusion of gender roles. The underlying assumption was that sexuality and gender could be molded into cisgender heterosexual forms through a combination of clinical, spiritual, and legal efforts. More simply stated, one’s sexuality could be chosen and/or shaped through individual agency and environmental framing. Thus, defenses surrounding an “inborn” explanation of homosexuality emerged largely in response to these violent and persistent anti-gay efforts of the late twentieth century.

However, ex-gay religious and political movements were not the only groups promoting notions of sexual and gender fluidity. Queer theory, which gained momentum and visibility in the 1990s, posited similar arguments. Scholar Lynne Gerber has discussed the paradoxical overlaps of ex-gay religious discourse and queer theoretical frameworks, pointing out that “there is something a little queer about the ex-gay movement.” Well-known queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler have effectively laid out arguments that genders and sexualities are socially constructed and unstable categories rather than biologically essential and self-evident facts. In this way, the boundaries of gender and sexual categories are fluid, fragile, and culturally negotiable. In her book Gender Trouble, Butler convincingly demonstrates the iterative and behavioral roots of what we call “gender,” arguing that the production and maintenance of a gender category (e.g., male, female, transgender, nonbinary, etc.) are based on a socially agreed upon set of performances and roles that are always subject to scrutiny, evolution, and/or dissolution. Other aspects of queer theory consist of critiques of the sexual orientation binary (i.e., homo-hetero), building on arguments that emerged in gay, lesbian, and feminist liberation movements. A host of queer theorists have argued that such a historically recent sexual binary fails to capture the complex dimensions of human sexuality that have existed across culture and time.

Several high-ranking LDS leaders have even employed queer theory’s anti-essentialist and sexual fluidity views to support their arguments. For example, LDS scholar Dean Byrd cited on numerous occasions Lisa Diamond’s 2008 book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire. At the time, Byrd oversaw the ex-gay National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) and was the former director of LDS family services, which for decades administered reparative therapy programs. Diamond criticized Byrd’s interpretations as being “cherry-picked” and sternly denounced his “illegitimate and irresponsible” aims. Boyd Packer also routinely (and perhaps unwittingly) invoked aspects of queer theory to paradoxically delegitimize queer identities and experiences, once saying to an audience of young men: “No one is locked into that kind of life . . . .Boys are to become men—masculine, manly men—ultimately to become husbands and fathers. No one is predestined to a perverted use of these powers.” He often warned of the dangers of labels, discouraging church members from prematurely confining themselves into “fixed” categories. He emphatically asserted sexual and gender fluidity as a way of explaining the errant cause of falling into homosexuality and the healing path for embracing heterosexuality.

While there is considerable overlap between queer theory and twentieth-century conservative religious discourse on sexuality and gender, it is important to note the drastically different political and ethical aims of each movement. Religious organizations like the LDS Church have relied on notions of sexual and gender malleability to anxiously explain, pathologize, and ultimately “cure” homosexuality and/or gender nonconformity. Queer theorists, on the other hand, have put forward arguments of sexual and gender malleability to document, affirm, and dignify ever-expanding possibilities for constructing sexual and gender identities.

Considering that the LDS Church and broader society have fostered such hostile anti-queer conditions, it is perfectly understandable that LGBTQ+ individuals today often describe their identities as fixed and unchosen. In addition, US political and legal systems provide civil rights for “protected categories” beyond an individual’s control, a reality that creates political safety and expediency around “unchosen” sexual or gender identities. In fact, social science researchers have documented a link between “positive feelings toward gays, support for gay civil rights, civil unions, and same-sex marriage” and a perceived genetic attribution for homosexuality. In recent years sexual orientation has been added to the 14th amendment, a law that protects categories such as disability status, nationality, and race from discrimination. The Equality Act, which is currently being considered in the Senate, seeks to add gender identity to that list of protected categories. Within a society where queer individuals face remarkable levels of oppression, ostracization, and violence, it makes sense that deemphasizing and eliminating agency in the path to identity formation has become a semi-sustainable way for LGBTQ+ people to survive.

I certainly do not intend to undermine the authenticity of an individual who describes their gender and/or sexual identity as “not chosen.” I have spoken with countless LGBTQ+ individuals who have described their identities in exactly this way. Instead, I am arguing that “It’s not a choice” no longer has to be a defense of queerness and can instead be one of many ways of coming to and explaining a sexual and/or gender identity. This linguistic and conceptual shift is not only more inclusive and affirming of those who frame their queer identities in more agentic and experimental ways, but it also makes the question of whether a sexual or gender identity is “chosen” increasingly irrelevant.

Out of the dozens of LGBTQ+ current or former Mormons I interviewed as part of my graduate thesis, two individuals characterized their sexual and/or gender identities as chosen. One, in particular, explained that “they grew up straight,” and “began experimenting with their sexuality in college.” After having several romantic and sexual relationships with men, they “decided to change their sexual identity to gay.” They described the immense fear and anxiety they felt about others judging or harming them for this characterization of their identity, especially because revealing that homosexuality is chosen has often played into the hands of those who justify the abuse and rejection of queer individuals, including conversion therapy interventions.

Cynthia Nixon of Sex and The City is a public figure who has conceptualized her sexual identity as “a choice.” In a 2012 interview with New York Times Magazine, she explained her sexuality in these terms: “I understand that for many people it’s not, but for me, it’s a choice, and you don’t get to define my gayness for me.” Brandon Ambrosino, an openly gay journalist, also rejects a “born that way” explanation of his sexuality. He movingly explained:

I don’t think I was born gay. I don’t think I was born straight. I was born the way all of us are born: as a human being with a seemingly infinite capacity to announce myself, to re-announce myself, to try on new identities like spring raincoats, to play with limiting categories, to challenge them and topple them, to cultivate my tastes and preferences, and, most importantly, to love and to receive love.

Resistance to labels and categories is becoming more common among younger generations of queer individuals. Gen Z individuals especially tend to think of themselves in increasingly queer ways, challenging, expanding, and subverting sexual and gender categories that the dominant culture has long accepted uncritically. A 2016 poll from J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that only 48% of 13- to 20-year-olds in the US identified as “exclusively heterosexual,” with many describing their sexuality in increasingly fluid and experimental terms.

Western culture continues to be fixated on locating and defining the “origins” of homosexuality and transgender experiences. (Interestingly, there does not seem to be a parallel fixation on explaining the origins of cisgender heterosexuality.) In this incessant quest, questions of biological influence, the role of agency, and the effects of social environment continue to take center stage. Prominent sex researchers, however, have argued that this is not an issue that scientific inquiry can answer because the question is flawed by the ambiguous meanings of choice, to choose, and to decide. For example, there are many individuals and communities that have same-sex interactions regularly who do not identify as gay, such as Black men on the down low. There are also individuals who experience same-sex desire but either remain celibate or pursue mixed-orientation relationships, including LDS members. And yet, there are others who identify as gay or lesbian for political or social reasons and who do not experience sexual attraction for members of the same gender.

These complex permutations of sexual possibilities reveal the limits of categorical boundaries and the linguistic insufficiencies of identity labels. Determining whether a sexual or gender identity is a choice is not only a logically fraught and overly simplistic pursuit but also an impulse that has motivated society to implement interventions that aim to “convert” queer individuals to cisgender heterosexuality. Thus, it is crucial that validating “chosen” sexual and gender identities must come with a rigorous condemnation of compulsory heteronormativity and its associated conversion efforts. Ultimately, moving beyond “It’s not a choice” as a defense of LGBTQ+ identities will not only bring greater dignity and worth to queer individuals but will foster a more expansive and inclusive framework for affirming all paths to queer sexual and gender identities.

This article was submitted by an Affirmation community member. The opinions expressed are wholly those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Affirmation, our leadership, or our staff. Affirmation welcomes the submission of articles by community members in accordance with our mission, which includes promoting the understanding, acceptance, and self-determination of individuals of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, and our vision for Affirmation to be a refuge to land, heal, share, and be authentic.

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