Bil Browning

White House advisor: Gay is 'lifestyle choice'

Filed By Bil Browning | October 14, 2010 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: anti-gay bullying, gay teen suicides, Obama Administration, Valerie Jarrett, White House

Updated at the end of the post.

What the hell is wrong with the Obama administration? This takes their LGBT snafus well beyond the "this is not a fierce champion" meme and into the realm of incredibly offensive.

White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, the woman who spoke at the HRC dinner last weekend on behalf of the administration, recounted a conversation she had with the parents of gay teen Justin Aarberg before the event. In a video interview with openly gay Washington Post reporter Jonathan Capehart, Jarrett describes the parents of the teen who committed suicide after being bullied as supportive of "his lifestyle choice."

That is stunning for the lack of sensitivity to our community's language and history. As Teddy Partridge from the Seminal says:

If a presidential adviser had made such a boneheaded remark about any other American minority group -- let alone an incredibly loyal group that has provided the Democratic Party its margin of victory in any number of tight races across the nation -- would that presidential adviser still have a job?

The video is after the jump.

Update: Jarrett has apologized.

In a recent interview I was asked about the recent tragedies about gay youth who have committed suicide, and I misspoke when I referred to someone's sexual identity as a "lifestyle choice." I meant no disrespect to the LGBT community, and I apologize to any who have taken offense at my poor choice of words. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not a choice, and anyone who knows me and my work over the years knows that I am a firm believer and supporter in the rights of LGBT Americans. Most of all, I hope this does not distract from the issue I was asked about - the desperate, tragic decision by some young people who feel that their only recourse is to take their own lives because they are being bullied or harassed because they are gay, or because others believe they are gay. We must instill in young people respect for one another, and we must set an example of mutual regard and civility to create an environment that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Kathleen O'Neal | October 14, 2010 6:52 PM

Come on! You want this woman, who is obviously not a bigot or a fool, to be fired for the crime of not using politically correct language? Way to alienate potential allies in high places over a non-issue! Politically correct language changes so fast. A lot of LGBT people do experience their orientation as a choice; some do not. That's besides the point. This is exhibit one as to why I hate identity politics.

If she were filling my gas tank, that's one thing. She is high in position and a professional leader and hence "speaker"...someone who is supposed to inspire and have competence. This is more than PC word choice alone. The words imply meanings and can indicate a person's association with groups of people. If one isn't prepared to talk the talk, they can't get even close to walking the walk. While it's a's a very stupid one and needs attention. Apology can be taken...but still, this is a very troubling sign....after all that's gone on. That supporters, let alone every day not understand us in the least. I'm glad she can respect it in the hypothetical universe where we could have a choice...but we live in the here and now.

It's a 4:30.

She's an idiot. She rambles about "tolerance," too.

This is the quality of an individual you get in "politics." Is it any wonder ...

Capehart has posted a defense of Jarrett, including an e-mail from her "clarifying" her position. He said he didn't step in to correct her in the interview because he 'knew her heart'.

As stupid and insensitive it was for Jarrett to say what she did, my bigger beef is with Capehart. How can any professional journalist and educated person not step in and challenge that language and more importantly, the assumption that underlies it; much less A GAY MAN??

This is another example of someone who thinks that any kind of intervention against anti-gay bigotry proves you are a pro-gay activist rather than a neutral objective reporter. This thinking has cowed people into accepting equivalency arguments such as presenting "both sides" of teen suicide, as the WA. Post recently did.

So much for the so-called liberal media. And so-called liberal politicians. It really is true; liberals are (for the most part) are cowards. The Obama Administration's decision to ask for a stay to the injunction for DADT is just the most recent example.

Isn't it possible she was referring to the boy's choice to be out in high school? Wouldn't the choice to be out qualify as a lifestyle choice? I understand the sensitivity to the phrase. because of the way it is often used dismissively, but I've been seeing this clip and similar sentiments to the ones you posted all over and, personally, when I first heard the clip, I interpreted the phrase to refer to his choice to be out. I am a high school GSA sponsor and from my experience, it is not uncommon for parents who know about and are even accepting of their child's queerness to be uncomfortable with the idea of them being out in high school, precisely because parents worry about the repercussions like bullying and discrimination, though, while I can't blame them, that impulse is often misguided as it can lead to further feelings of shame and insecurity on the part of the child. But the people she was referring to were trying to do the right thing and be supportive of their son's choice to be open and honest about who he was and seem to have tried to help him cope with those repercussions to the best of their ability. This case in particular demonstrates that the problem truly lies in the rampant homophobia in our schools and that something needs to change or else children will keep on suffering and dying. While I agree that it may have been poor word choice and I understand the LGBT community-at-large's frustration with this administration because I am frustrated too, I just don't get the uproar about this one little phrase in one little interview when the rest of her comments were appropriate and supportive. (Though, more than ever, I hope those words lead to action and not just more meaningless platitudes, because as an educator and as a queer woman, I can no longer take watching our schools destroy our youth instead of fulfilling their duty to make school a place where all children can learn and grow.)

Paige Listerud | October 14, 2010 7:46 PM

Let me say this as clearly as I am able.

Being totally Kinsey 6 or Goldstar Gay is not a choice. But choosing to live one's life, feel what you feel, love who you love and not give a rat's ass how anyone else feels about it--that IS a choice. Certainly being open about being gay is a choice. If you didn't make a choice to run from yourself, hide in the closet, and spend all your hard-earned dollars on ex-gay therapy, then YOU MADE THOSE CHOICES.

And you should be proud you made those choices, because the people who chose otherwise are miserable, terrified fucks who are too easy for the religious right to manipulate. You stood on your own two feet and claimed who you are--that is a choice to be proud of.

As for all those who are not purely gay--you switchhitters, you AC/DCs, you queers, you bi/pansexuals--you've made choices, too. Everyone told you that you didn't exist. Everyone told you that you were "bi now, gay later." Everyone said you were just going through a phase. Everyone was wrong about you.

You could have called yourself straight. You could have called yourself gay. Who would have been able to tell the fucking difference? You could have hidden in one community or the other.

But you didn't. You came out bisexual or pansexual or queer. You stood against the tide of straight and gays that just didn't want to believe you existed. I'm proud of you.

You made my day coming out bisexual, pansexual or queer. You stood by your guns against the dismissers and the naysayers. You made a choice to identify in a way that subjected you to the antipathy of gay and straight alike and I salute your courage. Thank you, for CHOOSING to be out, fluid sexuality queers.

Paige, you make the same point I was about to make, and you do it brilliantly, so much better than I would have!

I'm not fighting for the right to crawl through life because I was metaphysically cursed to be gay -- I want the right to choose to be gay ... or straight ... or asexual ... or whatever.

This is yet another I-am-more-PC-than-thou tempest in a teapot. PC-obsessives, get over it.

She was referring to a teenager as having made a lifestyle choice. A teenager.

If you have have a choice, that is a privilege. Queers who couldn't pass if they wanted to do not have the privilege. And those are the ones blowing their brains out and hanging themselves...because they feel they DO NOT HAVE ANY OTHER CHOICE.

Do you really think that Jarret killed himself because he made a lifestyle choice? Is suicide now a lifestyle choice?

You do have a good point -- that some youngsters can't stay in the closet even if they wanted to, as well as that society is wrong for making them feel like they should. So perhaps, specifically because Jarrett (Valerie Jarrett is the White House aide, not one of the youngsters who commited suicide) was speaking about someone so young, her choice of words could have been better.

I myself was harrassed for being a "sissy" during my early grade school years -- and I know there was no behavior I could adopted that would have prevented it.

So I will concede your point regarding adolescents and pre-adolescents -- but I stand by what Paige and I said above in the general case for adults.

you wanna know what's a lifestyle choice?

saying stupid things that drive your base to wondering if you're a friend or an enemy--and this administration seems to have fully embraced such a lifestyle choice.

I agree with some of the commenters that this really isn't a big deal and that firing her is going to far, but to explain Bil a little further....

This has been one of his things over the years - basic LGBT cultural competency for pols. When they care about a constituency, they learn the PC language and they use it, not because it's of life and death importance, but because they know they have to be polite and this is part of politeness (you can't spell politically correct without "polit...e").

And when they don't use it it means that they either don't give a fuck or that their boss doesn't because they were never given that memo.

Not a big deal, she shouldn't be fired, great that she apologized, and her heart may have been in the right place, but, really, how does someone at her level of expertise and power not know? I disagree with the first commenter about how language is "changes so fast," this particular expression has been an issue for decades, she should know.

Plus, it's Capehart who I'm really worried about - who cares if he thinks her heart is in the right place as Rory relates? Since when have journalists become judges of people's hearts? I know, he has to kiss her ass to get another interview with an administration official, and this is just another sign of his hackishness. Whatever, he does work at one of the most hackish papers in the country.

I bet he also sent her a letter of apology - I'm sorry I published any words from you that got criticized! I won't let it happen again! I did keep those other stories secret, just like I promised!

Am I shocked at the lack of sensitivity of this comment? No. Certainly no more than I am shocked by the general lack of progress legislatively by the Obama Administration and Democratic Congress in the last two years on issues of interest to LGBT Americans. And they wonder why their "base" is not energized? Duh!

John Rutledge | October 15, 2010 6:41 AM

'Lifestyle choice' is a prejudical phrase, no matter the context or how it was used. This is not about being PC or not, or keeping up with the latest ok phrase, or choosing to be out. Apology was made, but that was a revealing slip.

Rick Sutton | October 15, 2010 8:22 AM

Alex is right. The real shocker here is that Capehart felt no compulsion to push Jarrett on her comment at the time.

This is what happens when journalists get too chummy with the folks they're covering. Jonathan is a great writer and we are proud of his accomplishments.

This interview wasn't one of them.

He'll do good work again. Probably before noon today. But if he doesn't look back and hang his head over this interview, he should exmaine his motives.

"Choice"? That kind of phrase is used by a "friendly" politician in 2010? Are we freaking SERIOUS?

Holding our public officials to a certain courtesy code, as Alex suggests that Bil tries, is a good idea. We wouldn't walk into a room of, say, female health care professionals, and make unkind broad statements about their lives. If we care about a constituency, we are sensitive to their preferred terms, culture and traditions. It's not like we're asking her to kiss a goat or something--it's just common courtesy.

Valerie has been wearing a little too much Gucci and not enough Levi's lately. The high-profile job she holds, on our dime, just got juicier with the departure of Rahm Emmanuel--she's the de facto Chief of Staff.

Her remark was shameful. Her apology is accepted. But her words are not forgotten. Because that would be stupid.

Still, through this and other tribulations, I remind us: it could've been President McCain and Vice President Palin.

You betcha.

Chuckle, Rick! ... Imagine how a GOP administration might have refudiated a misstep like that!

Oh my, her update strikes me as even worse. Can someone please explain to me what makes a person who actually chooses to be gay any less a person than someone who "was born this way"? That whole dichotomy seems to me to cater to the religious right and establish a dual class of citizenship with some more equal than others. Whatever happened to the country where the "pursuit of happiness". July 4, 1776 .... here is the second sentence for those who have forgotten.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."